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DNA Research Turns Complicated

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Websites like Ancestry.com and 23andme which help people determine their heritage are an incredibly amazing societal advancement.

It’s fantastic that we can now all find out where our families came from. But what impact are these sites having on family law?

The impacts are far-reaching, it turns out.

As an attorney in Massachusetts, it’s an intriguing issue. As you would expect, Massachusetts has laws that deal with children born out of wedlock, such as MGL 209, which allows people to file a complaint to establish paternity. Under the law, if a child is born out of wedlock, the court has the authority to enter a child support order retroactively apply to the date of the child’s birth.

Picture this: you had a one-night stand in 2004. A child came of that encounter that you never knew about. That child, now a teenager is doing a family tree project for school with Ancestry.com and they find a DNA match to you, which indicates that you are the child’s parent. Not only would this be a startling revelation for a student project, but you, as the biological parent, could be on the hook for tens of thousands in back child support, due to having failed to financially support your child, that you never knew about, since that child’s birth.

 Here’s another scenario: a woman gets pregnant and gives the child up for adoption. That child, now a teenager, engages one of these ancestry sites and finds out who their biological parents are, as well as their siblings. Adoptions sometimes are closed – meaning all information about biological family is sealed. There are often very good reasons for sealed adoptions, but in a situation like the one presented here these websites have lifted that seal. What type of repercussions could that have on the adoption agency? On the biological family? On the adoptive family?

There also could be estate issues. A child who didn’t know their parent or vice-versa, may have a claim to a family estate. As a biological child you’d have a claim by right to an interest in a parent’s estate, even if that parent didn’t know of your whereabouts during their life.  Without this technology, these familial connections would never have been known. Once they are, there are myriad issues to be considered.

Moreover, how do we handle these privacy breaches? We live in a different world where people have access to information like never before. People who once thought they would never connect with a biological relative are being connected, either unwittingly or through casual curiosity.

These DNA researching companies are connecting kids with parents and parents with kids that they didn’t know existed. They are connecting siblings with each other in a way never before imagined. It’s a brave new world. 

While these sudden connections are often welcome, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they have consequences. One thing is clear under the law: if it turns out that you have a child that you were unaware of, you may very well have custody and parenting rights, or child support obligations that you may need to address. If you find yourself in a position where you suddenly have new knowledge about a sibling or child, you should consult a family law attorney.

Making family connections through technology is incredible and can be highly rewarding. It can also be complicated and it’s essential that you have an expert to help you navigate the inevitable red tape once these familial relationships are confirmed.