Child Support, Equitable Estoppel and Same-Sex Relationship

I have previously written about issues of equitable estoppel, which may result in non-biological parent being treated as a biological parent of the child. Recently, I came across a case, H.M. v. E.T., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 04240 (2nd Dept. 2009) that dealt with applicability of equitable estoppel to child support in a same-sex relationship situation.

In October of 2006, H.M., an Ontario resident, and the birth mother of a 12-year-old child, filed a “Support Application” with a Canadian agency, seeking to have E.T., a Rockland County resident, and H.M.’s former same-sex partner, adjudicated a parent of the child. H.M. also sought an award of child support retroactive to the date of the child’s birth.  In support of her application, H.M. alleged that in August 1989, the parties lived in New York, entered into a monogamous relationship, and started cohabitating. H.M. alleged that the parties then agreed that she would attempt to become impregnated via artificial insemination, and that after a child was born, they would parent that child together. H.M. alleged that pursuant to this agreement, and with E.T.’s assistance and encouragement, she became impregnated by sperm from an anonymous sperm donor. In September 1994, H.M. gave birth to the child. H.M. alleged that over the next few months, E.T. acted as a parent to the child by nurturing and caring for him. However, H.M. alleged that in January 1995, E.T. ended the parties’ relationship. H.M., who subsequently relocated with the child to Canada, alleged that after the relationship ended, she made numerous requests of E.T. for child support, all of which were refused.

After the child support proceeding was commenced in Canada, the case was transmitted to the Family Court, Rockland County pursuant to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (Family Ct Act art 5-B (hereinafter “UIFSA”).  Initially, the Support Magistrate found that under the present law of New York, there was no basis upon which the Family Court could adjudicate E.T. a parent of the subject child and require her to pay child support. In this regard, the Support Magistrate noted that E.T. was not the birth mother of the child or an adoptive parent of the child, never executed an official acknowledgment of parentage of the child, and was not in a legally recognized same-sex marriage or civil union with H.M. when she gave birth to the child. The Support Magistrate, pointing out that the Family Court is a court of law with limited subject matter jurisdiction, found no provision in Family Court Act Article 5, or in any other article of the Family Court Act, applicable to a controversy between a birth mother and another female concerning the other female’s parentage of a child. Finally, the Support Magistrate, deeming all of H.M.’s factual allegations to be true, and observing that equitable considerations might suggest that E.T. be adjudicated a parent of the child and required to pay child support, noted that the Family Court cannot grant equitable relief.

Subsequently, after the objections to the Support Magistrate’s Order were filed, the Family Court overturned the Support Magistrate’s Order citing cases where courts “held individuals responsible for the support of a child even though they were not related to the child by biology or adoption.” The Family Court observed that in those cases, the courts applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel which, the Family Court noted, will be applied in order to protect the best interests of a child born out-of-wedlock. Thus, the Family Court concluded that “a paternity proceeding [can] proceed against a same sex partner if circumstances are established justifying the [doctrine’s] application.” Then, the Family Court, noting that the subject child was born as a result of E.T.’s “promises,” concluded that H.M.’s allegations, if true, could support a finding that E.T. “should be estopped [from denying] her role as a person responsible to provide support for [that] child.” Accordingly, the Family Court directed a hearing to determine whether E.T. “should be equitably estopped [from denying] her responsibility to provide support to the subject child.”

E.T. appealed from the order of the Family Court. The Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed the Family Court’s order and reinstated the order of the Support Magistrate dismissing the petition. The Appellate Division stated that the basic premise of the petition was that  H.M. who was never married to or in a civil union with E.T., sought to have E.T., a woman having no biological or legal connection to the subject child, adjudicated a parent of that child and required to pay child support. Since the Family Court received H.M.’s support application pursuant to UIFSA, it was authorized to determine “parentage” (Family Ct Act § 580-301[b][6]; § 580-701). UIFSA provides that in deciding such a proceeding, the Family Court is required to apply the procedural and substantive law generally applicable to a “similar” proceeding originating in this State, and may only exercise whatever “powers” and provide whatever “remedies” that are “available” in such a proceeding.

The only proceeding in this State “similar” to a proceeding for a determination of “parentage” is a proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act article 5. Yet, as the Support Magistrate recognized, Family Court Act article 5, entitled “paternity proceedings,” only provides a vehicle for resolving controversies concerning a man’s fatherhood of a child.  After analyzing the language of the Family Court Act, the court concluded that a paternity proceeding requires “the male party” to be “the father” of the child.

The court further held that although the doctrine of equitable estoppel can be applied in a proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act  Article 5, when the Family Court applies the doctrine, the Family Court is merely precluding a party from “denying a certain fact”.  This is not the same thing as the Family Court granting equitable relief, something the Family Court lacks the power to do. Therefore, when the Family Court applies the doctrine, the Family Court is doing so as a means of granting relief specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute. That is, the Family Court is applying the doctrine as a means of adjudicating a “male” “the father” of a child. However, H.M. has demanded certain relief the Family Court is not specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute to grant. Under these circumstances, the Family Court could not apply the doctrine, and could not reach the issues of whether E.T. should be estopped from denying her parentage of the subject child, and whether estopping E.T. from denying her parentage of the child would be in the child’s best interests. If the Family Court applied the doctrine as a means of granting relief not specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute, that would be tantamount to the Family Court granting equitable relief.

The logic of the Appellate Division’s decision, its heavy emphasis on the language of the Family Court Act, and especially the use of the term “male”, raise the question of whether a different result would have been reached on these facts if both parties to this litigation were male. Since recent decisions in this area of family law have been gender neutral, it seems likely that the Court of Appeals, if the case is appealed, will likely focus on on whether any such applications should be considered on a gender neutral basis and also, even more importantly, whether the courts will move away from “paternity by estoppel” toward “parentage by estoppel” as a matter of equity. I believe that we may learn the answer to this question in the foreseeable future.

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