On September 28, 2017, a unanimous five-judge panel of the N.Y. Appellate Division, First Department, held that New York County Family Court Judge Stewart H. Weinstein had properly granted a motion by Han Ming T., the husband of Marco D., to vacate a May 2016 order that had granted an adoption petition by Carlos A., Marco’s boyfriend, to adopt a child conceived through gestational surrogacy using Marco’s sperm at a time when Marco and Han Ming were subsequently deemed to be married. Ming, who had initiated a divorce proceeding in Florida in which he sought joint custody of the child, then unaware that the adoption petition had been filed in New York, showed that he was entitled to notice of the adoption petition and respect for his parental rights. Carlos and Marco had failed to inform the Family Court that the status of the child in question was implicated in an ongoing divorce proceeding, so that court had originally granted the adoption unaware that there was a legal impediment as the consent of Ming was lacking. In re Maria-Irene D., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6713, 2017 WL 4287334, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op 06716.
Marco and Ming, who are both British citizens, entered a formal civil partnership in the U.K. in 2008, which they converted into a legal marriage in 2015. Under British law, their marriage was treated as retroactive to the date of their civil partnership. Between those two dates they had relocated to the U.S., living in Florida. In 2013 they undertook to have a child through gestational surrogacy, a process by which an egg is extracted from a donor, fertilized in a petri dish, and then implanted in a surrogate. Both men contributed sperm for several in vitro fertilization attempts; the one that “took,” using Marco’s sperm, was implanted in the surrogate. This process was carried out in Missouri, where the child, who was named after the mothers of both men, was born in September 2014. A Missouri court then terminated any parental rights of the egg donor and the surrogate and designated Marco, the genetic father, as having “sole and exclusive custody” of the child. “Marco, Ming, and the child returned to Florida, where they lived as a family until October 2015, when Ming returned to the UK to seek employment,” wrote the court.
But evidently the relationship of the men was complicated during that time, because, the court reports, “At some point in or after 2013, Marco entered a relationship with petitioner Carlos A., and they moved to New York with the child after Ming went to the U.K.” Carlos petitioned the New York County Family Court to adopt the child in January 2016. The adoption papers “disclosed that Marco and Ming were married in 2008, but alleged that they had not lived together continuously since 2012 and that Carlos and Marco have been caring for the child since her birth. A home study report stated that Marco and Ming legally separated in 2014 and had no children together.” That Ming had participated in the surrogacy process and that Marco, Ming and the child lived together as a family thereafter were not disclosed to the Family Court in the adoption proceeding. Neither did Carlos and Marco disclose to that court prior to the adoption order being granted that Ming had filed a divorce action in Florida in March 2016, seeking joint custody of the child.
The Family Court granted the adoption in May 2016. When Ming learned of this, he filed a motion in the Family Court to vacate the adoption “on the ground that relevant facts had not been disclosed to the court and that he was entitled to notice of the adoption and an opportunity to be heard since he had parental rights.” Judge Weinstein granted Ming’s motion and vacated the adoption, finding that Carlos and Marco made “material misrepresentations” to the court and that Ming was entitled to notice of the proceeding. Weinstein did leave open the possibility that depending how the divorce proceedings were resolved in Florida, Carlos might later renew his petition to adopt the child. Carlos moved for re-argument, but the motion was denied, and Carlos and Marco appealed.
The Appellate Division found that the Family Court “providently exercised its discretion in vacating the adoption.” Since the Marco-Ming marriage was retroactive to 2008 under U.K. law, it would be recognized as such under New York law as a matter of comity. Which meant that the child, born in 2014, was a child of the marriage, “giving rise to the presumption that the child is the legitimate child of both Marco and Ming.” The court noted Ming’s allegation that they lived together as a family in Florida, and that “the couple took affirmative steps in the U.K. to establish Ming’s parental rights in accordance with U.K. law.” The court doesn’t explain this further. Perhaps it refers to their subsequent 2015 marriage, which had retroactive effect under U.K. law to 2008, thus establishing Ming’s parental status, regardless of the Missouri judgement awarding Marco sole and exclusive custody. (One has to factor into the mix that in 2014 same-sex couples could not marry in Missouri and their U.K. legal status as civil partners when the child was born would have no recognition under Missouri law, so naturally a Missouri court at that time would not recognize Ming as having any legal relationship to the child.)
“The prevailing law at the time the adoption petition was granted does not compel a different result,” said the court. As far as this court was concerned, as a matter of New York law according comity to the retroactive effect of their U.K. marriage, “Marco and Ming were deemed legally married when they embarked on the surrogacy process to have a child together. Accordingly, the child was born in wedlock, and Ming was entitled to notice of the adoption proceeding. Under the Court of Appeals’ most recent decision concerning parental standing (Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 28 N.Y.3d 1, 39 N.Y.S.3d 89, 61 N.E.3d 488 ), Ming’s claim to have standing as a parent is even stronger.”
The court also found the failure by Carlos and Marco to disclose the Florida divorce proceeding to the Family Court to be “another ground to vacate the adoption,” since an adoption petition requires the petitioner to disclose to the court whether the child is the subject of any other legal proceeding affecting his or her custody or status, and Ming had petitioned for joint custody of the child in the Florida proceeding. Carlos and Marco learned of that proceeding a few months after Carlos’s adoption petition was filed, while that petition was still pending before the Family Court, so they had a duty to bring it to the attention of that court. Instead, they filed a supplemental affidavit claimed that there had been no change in the child’s circumstances “whatsoever” since the filing of the adoption petition.
Ming is represented by Nina E. Rumbold of Rumbold & Seidelman, LLP (Bronxville). Carlos and Marco are represented by Frederick J. Magovern of Magovern & Sclafani, Mineola. There is no attorney appointed to represent the child’s interest, a point that Carlos and Marco raised in their appeal but as to which the Appellate Division declined to rule. The court’s opinion does not report on the current status of Ming’s Florida divorce proceeding. It is possible that Ming and Marco are still legally married, which perhaps explains why Carlos and Marco are not?