Use of the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act in Arizona Paternity Cases
Arizona law only allows parents the right to file for custody of a child. In cases of children born out of wedlock, a man has to prove paternity before being entitled to visitation with his child. However, for many years putative fathers had a hard time opening a paternity action. Current Arizona law allows putative fathers to file paternity actions, but this wasn’t always the case.
Prior law only allowed mothers to file paternity actions. Did this mean that, under prior law, a putative father could never prove paternity to seek custody absent action by the mother? The Court of Appeals addressed this issue in Thornsberry v. Superior Court, Mohave County, 707 P. 2d 315(1985).
Facts of the Case
Mrs. Thornsberry was the mother of a child, K. Thornsberry, born on June 30, 1982. Mr. Hunter said that he was K. Thornsberry’s father. He sought visitation rights under A.R.S. §§ 25-331, -337, Arizona’s child custody statutes. Mrs. Thornsberry argued that a proceeding under the child custody statutes can only be brought by a parent. The lower court agreed. The Court of Appeals accepted special action jurisdiction.
Jurisdiction to Assert Paternity under the Custody and Paternity Statutes
Arizona law was recently amended. These amendments apply only prospectively. However, since this case occurred before the amendments, the Court of Appeals reviewed the prior law. Under prior law, a court could only grant visitation rights in a “jurisdictionally sound” custody proceeding. The statute — A.R.S. § 25-331—required that the proceeding is brought by a parent. Mr. Thornsberry’s claim of paternity in the custody pleadings didn’t give him jurisdiction to file for custody. Mrs. Thornsberry also argued that Mr. Thornsberry lacked jurisdiction to file a paternity complaint.
Under prior law, only the county attorney or a mother could file a paternity complaint under A.R.S. § 12-846. The putative father had no right to do so. The Court agreed with Mrs. Thornsberry’s legal arguments.
Jurisdiction under the Uniform Act
Mrs. Thornsberry next argued that Mr. Thornsberry has no legal manner of getting a court determination of paternity. The Court of Appeals rejected this position. The Court noted that the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act is found at A.R.S. § 12-1831 through 12-1846. It permits courts to declare status and legal relations.
Mr. Thornsberry sought a determination of paternity to establish jurisdiction to claim his visitation rights. The Court said that it would be unconstitutional if he were not permitted a forum to seek visitation.
Arizona courts have never held that the paternity law is the only way a putative father can determine paternity. Other states allow a putative father to establish paternity by the declaratory judgment in these circumstances.
The Arizona legislature recently amended the paternity law to permit a putative father to bring a suit himself. And, under the new law, the father can adjudicate visitation rights in the paternity action.
The Court agreed that the amendments did not apply to Mr. Thornsberry since they only apply prospectively. However, the Court said, they indicate legislative intent. They found that allowing Mr. Thornsberry to adjudicate paternity through declaratory judgment is completely in line with legislative intent.
The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order and dismissed Mr. Thornsberry’s petition. However, the Court did so without prejudice. It suggested that Mr. Thornsberry file an amended complaint under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act.
Chris Hildebrand wrote this article to ensure everyone has access to information about family law in Arizona. Chris is a divorce and family law attorney at Hildebrand Law, PC. He has over 24 years of Arizona family law experience and has received multiple awards, including US News and World Report “Top Arizona Divorce Attorneys”, Phoenix Magazine “Top Divorce Law Firms”, and Arizona Foothills Magazine “Best of the Valley” award. He believes the policies and procedures he uses to get his clients through a divorce should all be guided by the principles of honesty, integrity, and, quite frankly, actually caring about what his clients are going through in a divorce or family law case. In short, his practice is defined by the success of his clients. He also manages all of the other attorneys at his firm to make sure the outcomes in their clients’ cases are successful as well.
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