Michael H. v. Gerald D.

491 U.S. 110 (1989)

Quick Summary

Michael H. (plaintiff) challenged the paternity presumption under California law against Gerald D. (defendant), asserting his parental rights over Victoria, a child born during Gerald’s marriage to Carole D. (defendant).

The dispute centered on whether this presumption infringed upon Michael’s due process rights. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the statute, reasoning that it protected family integrity and aligning with historical treatment of such familial relationships.

Facts of the Case

Carole D. (defendant) and Gerald D. (defendant) were married in 1976 and resided in California. Carole engaged in an affair with Michael H. (plaintiff), resulting in the birth of a child, Victoria, in 1981. Gerald was listed as the child’s father and treated her as such, but Michael believed he was the biological father.

After blood tests indicated a high probability of Michael’s paternity, he sought to establish his paternity and visitation rights. Carole and Michael signed an agreement recognizing Michael as Victoria’s natural father, but Carole later reconciled with Gerald, thwarting Michael’s attempts to establish a legal bond with Victoria.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Michael H. filed an action in California Superior Court to establish paternity and visitation rights but withdrew after Carole resumed their relationship.
  2. Carole later reconciled with Gerald, and Michael and Victoria’s guardian ad litem initiated another action for paternity and visitation.
  3. Gerald moved for summary judgment based on California law presuming a child born to a married woman living with her husband is a child of the marriage.
  4. The California Superior Court granted Gerald’s motion, and appellate courts upheld this decision.
  5. Michael appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether California’s presumption that a child born to a married woman living with her husband is conclusively presumed to be a child of the marriage infringes upon the due process rights of a man seeking to establish his paternity and a relationship with the child.

Rule of Law

Under California Evidence Code Section 621, a child born to a wife cohabiting with her husband is conclusively presumed to be a child of the marriage, and this presumption may only be rebutted under strict conditions within two years of the child’s birth.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court determined that California’s statute serves substantive social policy goals by protecting the integrity of the family unit and rejecting challenges to the legitimacy of children born into a marriage. The Court found no historical basis for a biological father in Michael’s situation to assert parental rights over a child born into an extant marital union that seeks to include the child as part of the family.

The Court evaluated whether an asserted liberty interest is ‘deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition’ and protected by the Due Process Clause. It concluded that Michael’s relationship with Victoria did not qualify as such an interest and that California’s law did not violate his due process rights.


The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of California’s statute, denying Michael’s claim and affirming the decision of the California courts.

Key Takeaways

  1. The marital presumption of paternity is strongly upheld under California law, limiting challenges to this presumption.
  2. The Supreme Court considers whether an asserted liberty interest is deeply rooted in history and tradition when determining if it is protected by the Due Process Clause.
  3. The Court did not recognize a biological father’s claim to parental rights over a child born into an existing marriage as a fundamental liberty interest.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What interests must a legal parent-child relationship protect to align with 'deeply rooted' historical traditions?

The legal parent-child relationship must aim to maintain the integrity of the family unit, ensure the welfare of the child, and uphold societal norms that value the marital family structure. These interests reflect historically rooted traditions that prioritize stability and the protection of family units over the biological connection alone.

  • For example: Even if a man is biologically related to a child, if that child has been raised within a stable, intact family by another man who has fulfilled all parental roles, the law may prioritize sustaining that family unit over recognizing the genetic link.

How does a presumption in family law work and what is its impact on legal determinations?

A presumption in family law operates as an initial assumption that is legally accepted unless effectively contested. It shifts the burden of proof to the party challenging the presumption, and it can substantially affect legal outcomes such as paternity, impacting inheritance, custody, and support obligations.

  • For example: If a child is born during a marriage, there’s a presumption that the husband is the father. To dispute this, another individual must provide compelling evidence within a specific timeframe to overturn this presumption. Failure to do so means the husband remains the legal father.

In what circumstances can a biological father establish legal parentage when there is a conflicting presumption of paternity?

A biological father may establish legal parentage if he can rebut the presumption within legal timeframes, demonstrate continued possession of or care for the child as if they were his own, or prove legal abandonment or disqualification of the presumed father.

  • For example: If a child’s presumed father has been totally absent and uninvolved in their life, providing evidence of this abandonment may allow a biological father to step in and assume legal paternity.


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