Crouse v. Crouse, 19168

CourtSupreme Court of South Dakota
Citation552 N.W.2d 413,1996 SD 95
Docket NumberNo. 19168,19168
PartiesStephanie R. CROUSE, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Matthew CROUSE, Defendant and Appellant. . Considered on Briefs
Decision Date14 February 1996

John A. Gors of DeVany & Gors, Vermillion, for plaintiff and appellee.

Robert C. Ulrich, Vermillion, for defendant and appellant.


¶1 In a divorce action involving the custody of three children, the trial court found the husband was not the father of the oldest boy and granted custody to the mother. The court also awarded her the parties' two biological children pursuant to the rule which restricts splitting half-siblings. The husband appeals asserting the court never considered the best interests of the children. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand.


¶2 Stephanie and Matthew Crouse were married in Carroll, Iowa on September 10, 1990. In January 1993, they separated and Stephanie filed for divorce. In her complaint she alleged Matthew was not the father of the oldest child, Tyler, born on March 2, 1990, six months before their marriage. Two other children were born during the marriage, but there is no dispute Matthew is their biological father. When the parties reconciled the divorce was not pursued. Stephanie brought a second divorce action on January 5, 1994 and within a month took the three children from their home in Iowa to Vermillion, South Dakota. In April, Stephanie informally relinquished custody of all three children to Matthew. They resided with him in Carroll, Iowa until March 31, 1995 when the trial court awarded their custody to Stephanie.

¶3 We need not discuss all the specifics of what one witness described as a "toxic" relationship between these parties. Both had a history of substance abuse and emotional problems. Their frequent arguments sometimes culminated in physical altercations. Stephanie received an assault conviction for striking Matthew. Matthew assaulted Stephanie a number of times, once breaking her nose. Also, he was convicted for physically abusing Tyler when he was six months old.

¶4 At trial, Matthew testified he believed he was Tyler's biological father and always treated him as his son. According to Matthew, the first time Stephanie told him he was not Tyler's father was in December 1992, a month before the first divorce filing. Stephanie testified, however, Matthew could not have reasonably believed he was the father, because she first met him at a New Year's Eve dance on January 1, 1990, when she was seven months pregnant. Although Tyler's birth certificate initially listed no one as the father, the parties later made arrangements under Iowa law to have it amended to show Matthew as the father. In view of this dispute, the court ordered paternity blood testing which conclusively established Matthew was not Tyler's biological father.

¶5 The trial court found: (1) Matthew, not being the father, had no custodial rights to Tyler; (2) Matthew always knew he was not Tyler's father; (3) Stephanie was not an unfit parent, nor were there extraordinary circumstances affecting the children's welfare; (4) no compelling reasons justified separating the siblings; and therefore (5) custody of all three children should be awarded to Stephanie. The court made no findings on the best interests of the children. On appeal Matthew contends the trial court erred in awarding Tyler's custody to his mother and in not considering the children's best interests.

Standard of Review

¶6 Trial courts exercise broad discretion in child custody disputes; their decisions will not be disturbed absent a clear showing of an abuse of discretion. In re Janke, 500 N.W.2d 207, 211 (S.D.1993); Anderson v. Anderson, 472 N.W.2d 519, 520 (S.D.1991). Findings of fact will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous and due regard will be given to the trial court's ability to judge the credibility of witnesses. In re Janke, 500 N.W.2d at 211; Anderson, 472 N.W.2d at 520. Mixed questions of law and fact, which require us to apply a legal standard are reviewable de novo. Phipps Bros., Inc. v. Nelson's Oil & Gas, Inc., 508 N.W.2d 885, 888 (S.D.1993); In re Hendrickson's Health Care Serv., 462 N.W.2d 655, 656 (S.D.1990).

¶7 Birth Certificate--Presumption of Paternity

¶8 After the parties signed a petition to amend the birth certificate to declare Matthew's paternity and no one challenged it within three years, Matthew believes Tyler's paternity became fixed under Iowa law. Stephanie does not dispute that Iowa law controls this question. The Iowa statute provides Upon request and receipt of a sworn acknowledgment of paternity of a child born out of wedlock, signed by both parents, the state registrar shall amend a certificate of birth to show paternity if paternity is not shown on the birth certificate. Upon written request of the parents, the surname of the child may be changed on the certificate to that of the father....

Iowa Code Ann § 144.40 (West 1981)(before 1993 and 1994 amendments)(emphasis added).

¶9 Was an irrebuttable presumption of paternity established upon the passage of three years from the date the birth certificate was amended, prohibiting any action in South Dakota to challenge it? In 1993, the pertinent law in effect stated:

7. a. Notwithstanding section 598.21 subsection 8, paragraph 'k', the establishment of paternity by court order, including a court order based on an administrative establishment of paternity, or by affidavit, may be overcome if all of the following conditions are met:

* * * * * *

(4) The action to overcome paternity is filed no later than three years after the establishment of paternity.

Iowa Code Ann § 600B.41 (West 1993)(before 1994 amendment)(emphasis added). The underlined language was added in 1993, but in 1994 the Iowa Legislature repealed all of section 7. Matthew apparently relies upon the "or by affidavit" language (which was only in the statute for one year) to support his position that paternity was irrevocably settled when three years elapsed from the time he alleges the birth certificate was amended. The record is unclear, however, when the birth certificate was amended.

¶10 Matthew states he arranged to have his name added as the father approximately five weeks after Tyler was born (April 1990), whereas Stephanie recalled it was nine months to a year after the parties were married (July-September 1991). No one offered a copy of the document the parties signed to amend the birth certificate; the certificate itself does not reflect the date of any amendment; and the trial court made no findings on the question. Nonetheless, the portion of the statute Matthew relies upon was not in effect at the time he claims the certificate was amended nor when this matter was tried. Thus, we conclude Matthew has failed to conclusively establish his paternity under Iowa law. Absent the presumption, can his acknowledgment of fatherhood carry any legal import?

¶11 The trial court found that Matthew and Stephanie first met on January 1, 1990, when Stephanie was seven months pregnant with Tyler. Matthew disputed this, but we must defer to the findings unless they are clearly erroneous. See In re Janke, 500 N.W.2d at 211; Anderson, 472 N.W.2d at 520. We can only reflect that the finding is supported by competent evidence; therefore, we uphold the court's inference Matthew knew he could not be Tyler's father at the time the birth certificate was amended.

¶12 Matthew's acknowledgment of paternity contravenes Iowa law in which a parent is defined as a "father or mother of a child, whether by birth or adoption." Iowa Code Ann § 600A.2 (West 1981 & Supp 1995). He is neither a parent by birth nor adoption and thus his acknowledgment is invalid. A false acknowledgment of fatherhood on a birth certificate will not establish paternity, even if the mother agreed to it--a mother "lacks legal authority to unilaterally make an unrelated man the father of her child. Adoption of a child may only be accomplished under the adoption statute." Petition of Bruce, 522 N.W.2d 67, 72 (Iowa 1994)(citing In re Marriage of Holcomb, 471 N.W.2d 76, 78 (Iowa App.1991)); In re Marriage of Halvorsen, 521 N.W.2d 725, 728 (Iowa 1994). But see In re Marriage of Gallagher, 539 N.W.2d 479 (Iowa 1995)(equitable parent doctrine recognized where child was born during marriage and husband reasonably believed he was the father). Under the circumstances of this case, Matthew's name on Tyler's birth certificate affords him no parental rights, as it was overcome by proof he was not the biological father.

¶13 Paternity by Equitable Estoppel

¶14 Can Stephanie be estopped from challenging paternity? Whether equitable estoppel will deny Stephanie the right to contest Matthew's paternity is fully reviewable as a mixed question of law and fact. Phipps Bros., Inc., 508 N.W.2d at 888; In re Hendrickson's, 462 N.W.2d at 656. Only one case in South Dakota examined the principles of equitable estoppel in a dispute between a parent and a stepparent. See E.H. v. M.H., 512 N.W.2d 148, 151 (S.D.1994)(stepparent had no duty to provide child support for minor stepchildren after divorce). The principle has been defined in other types of cases.

In order to constitute equitable estoppel, false representations or concealment of material facts must exist, the party to whom it was made must have been without knowledge of the real facts, the representations or concealment must have been made with the intention that it should be acted upon, and the party to whom it was made must have relied thereon to his prejudice or injury. There can be no estoppel if any of these essential elements are lacking, or if any of them have not been proved by clear and convincing evidence. Heupel v. Imprimis Technology, Inc., 473 N.W.2d 464, 466 (S.D.1991); L.R. Foy Const. v. SD State Cement Plant Comm'n., 399 N.W.2d 340, 344 (SD 1987); Taylor v. Tripp, 330 N.W.2d 542, 545 (S.D.1983).


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