On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 350 N.J. Super. 389 (2002).
In this appeal, the Court determines whether the trial court properly denied a movant's application to reopen a judgment of paternity and support years after that judgment was entered in a proceeding in which the putative father waived his right to a paternity test and acknowledged under oath that he was the child's father.
A.L.G. and F.B. met in early 1990, and the two began an intimate dating relationship by late February of that year. Six months later, F.B. gave birth to an apparently full-term boy, named A.G. after A.L.G. There was conflicting testimony regarding whether F.B. told A.L.G. that he was not the natural father of the child. Although the couple never resided together, even after the birth of the baby, they continued their relationship for several years.
In 1994, F.B. applied for public assistance from the Monmouth County Division of Social Services (MCDSS). As part of her duty to cooperate as a condition for assistance, in a sworn statement, F.B. identified A.L.G. as A.G.'s father. MCDSS then filed a paternity and support action against A.L.G. to secure a judgment of support. A.L.G. waived his right to a paternity test and acknowledged under oath that he was A.G.'s father. The court then entered a judgment of paternity and support.
In February 1996, F.B. gave birth to a second son. A.L.G. identified himself as the child's father at the hospital and the birth certificate listed him as such. Although MCDSS again filed a petition for paternity testing and support against A.L.G., a support order was never entered because F.B. did not seek public assistance on the younger child's behalf. At that time, A.L.G. was providing support for both children. Moreover, throughout his relationship with F.B., A.L.G. was very involved in the boys' lives, spending weekends, holidays, and birthdays with them, taking them to doctor appointments, and encouraging a close relationship between his family and the children.
In 1998, the couple's relationship ended. Thereafter, in 1999, A.L.G. filed a motion to vacate a 1995 judgment of paternity and support for the infant A.G. and to permit genetic testing. In a subsequent hearing, A.L.G. testified that he filed the motion because shortly after the relationship ended, he learned from his sister that F.B. had revealed to her that she had an affair with a married neighbor around the time that A.G. was conceived until about April 1990. After the hearing, the court denied A.L.G.'s application, finding "ludicrous" his testimony about being deceived into believing that A.G. was his natural child. Thus, the court determined that A.L.G. freely and willingly accepted the legal responsibility of support when he waived his right to a paternity test and swore that he was A.G.'s natural father. The trial court als o relied on the long-term relationship of the parties, finding numerous facts that supported the conclusion that A.L.G. acted as and had become a parent to the boys. The court further noted the emotional harm A.G. would suffer if he learned that A.L.G. had sought relief from the earlier order. Finally, the court concluded that because A.L.G. had acted as a father for eight years, he was equitably estopped from renouncing his support obligations. Genetic testing of the younger child was denied for equitable reasons as well.
The Appellate Division reversed, finding that there had been no showing of some "positive action" by A.L.G. that interfered with the natural parent's role or a "voluntary and knowing course of conduct" that constituted an "affirmative representation of parenthood." Thus, the Appellate Division held that A.L.G. was entitled to relief from the earlier judgment of support, including payment of arrearages. The panel also granted the request for genetic testing of the younger boy.
The Supreme Court granted MCDSS's petition for certification.
HELD: The trial court properly denied A.L.G.'s application to reopen a judgment of paternity and support entered years earlier in a proceeding in which A.L.G. participated and affirmatively acknowledged that he was assuming paternal responsibility for the child.
1. Relief is granted sparingly under Rule 4:50-1, which provides the mechanism by which a party may obtain relief from a final judgment or order. The decision of whether to vacate a judgment on one of the specified grounds is a determination left to the sound discretion of the trial court, guided by principles of equity. That judgment will not be disturbed unless it represents a clear abuse of discretion. (pp. 7-8)
2. Exceptional circumstances must be demonstrated to justify relief under the provisions available in this case under R. 4:50-1. (pp. 8-10)
3. The trial court appropriately determined that the long-time paternal relationship A.L.G. had with the boys, his encouragement of his family members in their extended-family relationship with the boys, the emotional harm that would occur to the child if A.L.G. prevailed, and the finding that A.L.G. had not been deceived into believing that he was A.G.'s natural father, all militated against granting the inherently equitable relief A.L.G. sought. Thus, the trial court's determination that there were no exceptional circumstances has ample support in the record and the court did not abuse its discretion when it denied A.L. G.'s application for genetic testing and refused to grant him relief from the prior paternity and support order. (pp. 10-13)
4. The principle of in loco parentis might have had applicability when A.L.G.'s support order initially was entered had A.L.G. contested an obligation for support, but the principle cannot provide a basis for relief from a support order more than four years after its entry. Thus, the trial court acted correctly when, in the absence of proof of fraud, it denied A.L.G. relief from the judicial order of support entered against him in a proceeding in which he participated and affirmatively acknowledged that he was assuming paternal responsibility for the child. (pp. 13-16)
5. The policy favoring the integrity of the family unit is especially compelling in cases in which there has been a prior adjudication or acknowledgment of paternity. A.L.G.'s acknowledgment of paternity should not be disturbed in the present setting and he is bound to that acknowledgment and to the trial court's judgment that conclusively established his paternity of A.G. and his support obligations to the child.
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for re-entry of its judgment concerning A.G.'s support.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, VERNIERO, and ZAZZALI join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. ...