Does this case render adoption for gay couples as unnecessary or is it simply an affirmation of another state’s more progressive parentage laws?
I reported this week about a case out of the Second Department Appellate Division in New York affirming a Suffolk County Family Court decision granting visitation to a non-biological lesbian mother. At first glance, this appears to create new law in New York, doing away with previous NY law holding that a non-biological mother does not have standing to seek custody or visitation. But on further inspection, its true message is that the only way to avoid costly and bitter court battles is adoption for gay couples.
Facts of the case – Kelly Steagall and Farah Martin met and entered into a relationship in 2000 and became registered domestic partners in California in 2004. They were legally married there in 2008. Ms. Martin conceived two children through artificial insemination who were born in March of 2007 and April of 2009. The couple used the same known donor for each child and, instead of using a doctor or fertility clinic to assist with the insemination, they privately inseminated at home. After moving to New York in 2012, the couple separated in 2013 and Kelly moved to Arizona. Kelly filed a visitation petition in Suffolk County New York in 2014.
Ms. Martin objected to Ms. Steagall’s status as a legal parent stating that New York law did not support her position and, in what the court saw a self-serving move, sued the known donor to establish that he was the other “true” parent.
What the court said – Appellate division Judge Roman, in her affirmation of the lower Family Court’s ruling, stated that because the couple was in a registered domestic partnership and subsequent marriage in California when the children were born, California law, which is far more progressive that New York family law, should govern and therefore, Ms. Steagall’s parentage could be recognized under California law.
New York Law – In New York County, Surrogate Judge Kristin Booth Glen, in a case entitled In the Matter of Sebastian, discusses the issue of establishing parental rights for a non-biological parent specifically. The case involves married lesbian couple who used an anonymous sperm donor to have a child. Glen concludes, when discussing the non-biological mother’s relationship with the child that, “the only remedy available here that would accord the parties full and unassailable protection is a second-parent adoption pursuant to New York Domestic Relations Law (“DRL”) § 111 et seq.” Glen further states, “that a judicial order of adoption in one state must be afforded full faith and credit in every state, and that there can be no “public Policy” exception to that mandatory recognition…”.
This case essentially relies on a marital presumption of parentage. In California, a registered domestic partnership at the time was viewed for all intents and purposes as a marriage. While it is true that many states have what is called a “martial presumption of parentage,” it is applied differently in different states. In New York State, there is specific case law that holds that the marital presumption of parentage does not apply to same-sex couples. That case is called “Matter of Paczkowski v. Paczkowski.” In that case, the appellate division of the Second Department of New York, the same court that decided the Matter of Kelly S. v. Farah M., held that the “presumption of legitimacy… is one of a biological relationship, not a legal status.”
In essence, the court says that a marriage does not create a legal right between a non-biological parent and a child. While it may be an indication of intent to be a parent, as would a non-biological parent’s name on a birth certificate, the only way to actually create the legal relationship that guarantees the security that all same-sex families need, is through an adoption order, and in some states, a parentage order. Unfortunately, New York currently does not have the capacity to issue a parentage order but there is legislation in committee in Albany that may change that.
How does this case affect New York couples? – The take away from this case may not be what many of us in the LGBT legal community want. While the language in the decision is expansive and is certainly heading in the right direction, it does not change the law in New York. Had Kelly Steagall and Farah Martin lived in New York, conceived and gave birth to their children in New York, the outcome of this case would have been vastly different and Kelly Steagall would almost certainly, under current New York law, have been denied visitation to the children she had helped to raise since their birth. If you are a New York resident, adoption for gay couples is the best and only way to ensure that the emotional and financial costs of litigation can be avoided.
Anthony M. Brown, head of Nontraditional Family and Estates division of Albert W. Chianese & Associations, has extensive experience in helping same-sex couples through the adoption process, having gone through the process himself. If you have yet to create a legal relationship with your child or children, call 212-953-6447 or 516-599-2020.