Legal observers have been predicting that the Supreme Court will rule this June in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have a right to marry under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and to have such marriages recognized by every state, but such a ruling will not necessarily settle all the issues of parental rights of same-sex couples that continue to divide the courts. Litigation in four jurisdictions demonstrates the continuing problem of sorting out such rights.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on May 7 in Adoption of a Minor, 2015 Mass. LEXIS 248, 2015 WL 2095242, that the traditional presumption that a child born to a married woman is the legal child of her spouse applies to a lesbian couple, so they need not provide formal notice to their sperm donor that they are seeking a joint adoption in order to avoid problems if they travel or relocate outside Massachusetts. But on May 20, the New York 2nd Department Appellate Division, in Brooklyn, ruled in Paczkowski v. Paczkowski, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 04325, 2015 WL 2386457, that the parental presumption does not apply to a lesbian couple, affirming a Nassau County family court ruling that the non-biological mother has no standing to seek a joint custody order for the child born to her same-sex partner. In Oregon, the Court of Appeals ruled on May 13 in In re Domestic Partnership of Madrone, 2015 Ore. App. LEXIS 577, 2015 WL 2248221, that the question whether the former registered domestic partner of a birth mother should be considered the legal parent of the child turned on whether the women would have married had that option been available when the child was born, and in Wisconsin, Lambda Legal filed suit in Torres v. Rhoades, No. 15-cv-288 (U.S. Dist. Ct., W.D. Wis.), also on May 13, on behalf of a married lesbian couple denied the benefit of the marital presumption by state officials who have thus far refused to list both women as parents on their child’s birth certificate.
The cases each present somewhat different facts, but all of them implicate the question whether some form of the parental presumption should apply when children are born to a lesbian couple as a result of donor insemination. The parental presumption, whether adopted as a judicial rule or through legislation, has differed in its strength from state to state, but has generally been applied by courts and government officials to ensure that a child born to a married woman not be deemed “illegitimate” and be entitled to the support of the biological mother’s spouse, and the presumption took on particular significance when married different-sex couples began to resort to donor insemination to deal with problems of male infertility, raising questions about the legal rights and responsibilities of the husbands.
In the Massachusetts case, petitioners J.S. and V.K., a married lesbian couple, filed a joint petition to adopt their son Nicholas who was born to J.S. in 2014, having been conceived through in vitro fertilization using a known sperm donor. The women were married when Nicholas was born, and both are listed as parents on his birth certificate. According to the opinion for the Supreme Judicial Court by Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly, the women “sought to adopt their son as a means of ensuring recognition of their parentage when they travel outside the Commonwealth or in the event of their relocation to a State where same-sex marriage is not recognized.” They sought to proceed with the adoption without given notice to the sperm donor, contending that since he was not a legal parent of Nicholas, no notice was required.
The family court judge denied their motion to dispense with the notice, certifying the question whether notice to a known biological father was required to the state appeals court. The Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case directly to its docket, and concluded that such notice was not required.
Justice Duffly made clear that the parental presumption applied in this case. “As to a child of a marriage who is conceived via artificial insemination or IVF, as here,” wrote Duffly, “[the statute] by its nature, contemplates that a third party must provide genetic material for the child’s conception. Nonetheless, as is consistent with our paternity statutes and long-standing presumption of the legitimacy of marital children, [the statute] confers legal parentage only upon the mother’s consenting spouse, not the sperm donor. It is thus presumed that marital children have only two lawful parents: the biological mother and her spouse.” While acknowledging that there are contexts in which a sperm donor might assert claims to parentage, they did not apply in this case, where the sperm donor was not seeking any parental standing. Thus, the court concluded, since the adoption statute “does not require the lawful parents of a child to give notice of the petition for adoption to a known sperm donor, we answer the reported question, ‘No.’ The order denying the petitioners’ motion to proceed with the adoption without further notice is reversed.”
The contrary ruling by the New York Appellate Division provides little rational explanation. The case of Jann P. v. Jamie P. produced a startling ruling from Nassau County Family Court Judge Edmund M. Dane on June 30, 2014, holding that the state’s 2011 Marriage Equality Law, which provides that same-sex and different-sex marriages should be treated the same for all purposes of New York law, did not apply to the parental presumption. The appellate division’s ruling abandoned the trial court’s decision to provide anonymity to the parties, identifying them as Jann and Jamie Paczkowski. They were married when their son was born, but the marriage was a shaky one, and no adoption was undertaken.
When the couple separated and Jann sought a court order allowing her continued contact with her son, Judge Dane insisted that the parental presumption did not apply because it was physically impossible for Jann to have been the child’s biological parent. On May 20, the Appellate Division echoed this conclusion. “Here, the petitioner, who is neither an adoptive parent nor a biological parent of the subject child, failed to allege the existence of extraordinary circumstances that would establish her standing to seek custody,” wrote the court. “Contrary to the petitioner’s contention,” the statutory provisions concerning the parental presumption “do not provide her with standing as a parent, since the presumption of legitimacy they create is one of a biological relationship, not of a legal status, and, as the nongestational spouse in a same-sex marriage, there is no possibility that she is the child’s biological parent.”
The court’s wording signals the archaic legal formalism of its approach to this issue. Referring to “the subject child” as if this case did not involve flesh-and-blood people with emotional and psychological attachments – in this case, the bonding of a mother-child relationship extending over many months until Jann’s continued contact with her child was cut off – suggests that the judges were more concerned with legal categories than human relationships, totally at odds with the underlying philosophy of family law, which is to strive to protect the best interest of children in disputes involving their parents. The case cries out for reversal by the Court of Appeals or the legislature.
Surely, when the New York State legislature adopted a Marriage Equality Law that expressly provides that same-sex and different-sex marriages were to be treated as equal in all legal respects, it could not have implicitly intended to create an exception to the parental presumption statute. And that statute is not written in gendered terms. Section 417 of the Family Court Act states, “A child born of parents who at any time prior or subsequent to the birth of said child shall have entered into a ceremonial marriage shall be deemed the legitimate child of both parents for all purposes of this article regardless of the validity of the marriage.” Clearly, the intent of the statute is to legitimize the birth of any child born to a married woman by recognizing both spouses as parents of the child. The practice commentary published in the statute book states that this presumption “should apply to same sex as well as heterosexual married couples.”
The commentary cites a Monroe County decision from 2014, Wendy G.M. v. Erin G.M., 45 Misc. 3d 574, supporting this conclusion, in which the court ruled that a common law (non-statutory) policy could be applied to recognize the parental status of the biological mother’s wife. Ironically, and inexplicably, the Appellate Division’s decision in the Paczkowski case cites the Wendy G.M. decision without acknowledging that it would support Jann’s standing to seek custody, making it seem as if the two decisions are consistent. One wonders whether the judges whose names are attached to the Paczkowski ruling – Randall T. Eng, L. Priscilla Hall, Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Betsy Barros – bothered to read the Wendy G.M. decision.
The Oregon case is a bit more complicated. Karah and Lorrena, same-sex partners, did not have a legally recognized relationship when Lorrena bore a child through donor insemination, although they entered into a registered domestic partnership after the child was born. They had a commitment ceremony a few years before the child was conceived through donor insemination. There was evidence, however, that Lorrena had expressed ideological opposition to marriage as an institution, and she testified that having the child was originally her idea and she never intended for Karah to be a legal parent of the child. Despite their entering into a domestic partnership after the child was born, it seems that their relationship had deteriorated during Lorrena’s pregnancy, and the circumstances under which the domestic partnership papers were signed is disputed by the parties. On the other hand, they had agreed to adopt a new surname, Madrone, and that name was used for the child’s birth certificate, both women being listed as parents. After the subsequent break-up, Karah sought to establish her parental status, relying on a prior Oregon court decision recognizing parental standing for same-sex partners. Today same-sex partners can marry in Oregon as a result of a court ruling last year, but that option was not available when the child was born.
The court of appeals determined that Karah’s parental standing should turn on whether the women would have married had that option been available to them at the time the child was born. Thus, the court implicitly endorsed the view that if this same-sex couple had been married when the child was born, Karah’s parental status would have been the same as that of a husband who had consented to his wife becoming pregnant through donor insemination, applying the statutory parental presumption.
The Lambda Legal lawsuit in Wisconsin seeks to vindicate the same principle. Marriage equality has been available in Wisconsin since the U.S. Supreme Court announced on October 6, 2014, that it would not review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit finding that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. This includes, of course, a requirement that Wisconsin recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states.
Chelsea and Jessamy became friends in 2001, have lived as partners in a committed relationship since 2010, and were married in 2012 in New York. They live in Dane County, Wisconsin, and initiated the process of having a child together in 2013, using the services of a fertility clinic for Chelsea to conceive through assisted reproductive technology. Their child was born in March 2015 in Madison, and they filled out forms to obtain a birth certificate listing both of them as parents. But when they received the “Notification of Birth Certificate Registration” from the state’s Department of Health Services, Chelsea was listed as the only parent. Their lawyer corresponded with the Department, but the response was that DHS was “evaluating” the situation, and as of the filing of their complaint in the U.S. District Court on May 13, they had not received a correct birth certificate listing both of them as parents.
Their complaint points out that a Wisconsin statute embodies the parental presumption and applies it to situations where a wife becomes pregnant through assisted reproductive technology. Although the statute uses gendered language (referring to the husband and the wife), courts in other states, such as California, have held that such statutes should be construed as gender neutral in the case of same-sex married couples to be consistent with constitutional equality requirements. Their complaint alleges that failure to apply the parental presumption and issue the birth certificate violates the couple’s equal protection and due process rights under the 14th Amendment.
It may be that once the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a marriage equality ruling these parental presumption issues will eventually be sorted out in a consistent manner, but the differing approaches of state officials and courts suggests that this is one issue that will require further work to pin down the practical implications of marriage equality once the basic principle has been established.