Expanding Definition of What It Means to Be a Parent

The New York State Court of Appeals ruled last week in Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 05903, that a loving caretaker who is not related to, or the adoptive guardian of, a child could still be permitted to ask for custody and visitation rights.

The ruling came from a litigation between a couple, known in family court papers only as Brooke S.B. and Elizabeth A. C.C. In 2008, Elizabeth became pregnant with the couple’s child through artificial insemination. Though Brooke had no legal or biological ties to the child, a boy, she maintained a close relationship with him for years, cutting his umbilical cord at birth, giving him her last name and raising him jointly with Elizabeth. In 2013, after their relationship ended, Elizabeth tried to cut off Brooke’s contact with the boy. Brooke sued for custody and visitation privileges, but was turned down by a lower court, which found that legal precedent pursuant to Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), did not define a non-adoptive, non-biological caretaker as a parent.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals overturned Alison D., stating that “the definition of ‘parent’ established by this court 25 years ago in Alison D. has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” It further held that “where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the non-biological, non-adoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody.”

While Brooke S.B. seems to be applicable primarily to same sex couples, it is easy to see that the same type of argument may be applicable to heterosexual couples in situations where one partner is artificially inseminated.  The Court of Appeals declined to state what the proper test should be in cases where no preconception agreement can be shown to have existed between nonbiological couple. As far as the proof of the parties’ intent, the courts are likely to look at the parties’ participation such activities as birthing classes, partners’ inclusion on birth notices and other traditional indications of the existence of a pre-conception agreement between a couple.

Surrogacy and Adoption

One area where New York still lags behind other states has to do with surrogacy contracts. New York does not recognize surrogacy contracts statutorily since it deems the underlying surrogacy contracts to be against public policy, and they are void and unenforceable in New York. See N.Y. Dom. Rel. L. § 122. However, what happens to a child born as a result of such contract?

In a recent decision, Matter of J.J., 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 24089 (Fam. Ct. Queens Co. 2014), New York Family Court held that a child born as a result of a surrogacy contract can be adopted in the State of New York, notwithstanding the fact that such contract would be void and unenforceable.  In that decision, Judge Salinitro held that a man may legally adopt his husband’s biological twins even though they were born to a woman under a surrogacy agreement that is illegal in New York State. According to the court, the best interests of the twins is the most important consideration in weighing the adoption petition, not the surrogacy agreement that resulted in their birth. According to the decision, a home study provided to the court showed that the children are thriving in the care of the parents.

Thus, the court stated that it is not being asked to enforce the surrogacy contract that forms the basis for the adoption, nor does the relief sought include claims relating to the surrogacy agreement itself. Rather, the case involved proposed adoptive parent who wanted to have equivalent legal status as the birth parent, and is prepared to assume the rights and responsibilities that accompany legal parentage.

Therefore, the surrogacy agreement with the woman who bore the children in Mumbai, India, in 2013 was of no consequence to the adoption. The court specifically found that “where a surrogacy contract exists and an adoption has been filed to establish legal parentage, such surrogacy contract does not foreclose an adoption from proceeding”.

Section 122 of Domestic Relations Law declares that “surrogate parenting contracts are hereby declared contrary to the public policy of this state, and are void and unenforceable”. The judge said she found a “paucity” of previous rulings in New York on surrogacy and none directly focused on surrogacy contracts in the adoption context. Accordingly, she called the issue before her an apparent question of first impression in New York courts.

I think that the judge made the right decision. Given that the law does not always keep up with changes in medical technology and society, the courts have to step in and address these types of issues.

Paternity and Equitable Estoppel

Equitable estoppel typically arises as a defense in situations where a person, typically a nonbiological father, seeks to avoid child support obligations or the biological father belatedly seeks recognition of his parental rights.

DNA testing is a way to guarantee that non-custodial parents provide financial support for their children and make it possible to accurately determine a child’s paternity in a quick and inexpensive manner. The widespread availability of reliable genetic testing has reduced the need for extensive fact finding hearings and protracted litigation in the court system and can essentially ensure that the presumptive father is really the child’s biological father. However, in New York, not every putative father entitled to a DNA test.

Consider a scenario where a presumptive father files a paternity petition in a New York family court, together with a petition for custody of a child he believed to be his own. The child’s mother concedes paternity and acknowledges that her son refers to the putative father as his father and that the putative father has had some involvement with the child. Lets assume farther that during the paternity hearing, however, the putative father requests that the Court order a DNA test to confirm that he is indeed the child’s biological father. Must the Court issue an order subjecting the child to DNA testing?

In New York, the answer is no. Under what is known as the doctrine of equitable estoppel, the Court may deny an application for a DNA test in a paternity proceeding on the principle of fairness and in the best interests of the child. Equitable estoppel precludes a presumptive father from speaking out against his own acts, commitments or representations if they are reasonably relied upon by the child.

If a substantial parent-child relationship has developed between the putative father and the child and no biological father has come forward to contribute to the costs of the child’s upbringing, New York courts may find that it is not in the child’s best interests to admit DNA evidence that disproves the presumptive father’s paternity. The doctrine of equitable estoppel has often been applied to protect the child from an untimely assertion or denial of paternity, which, if permitted, would damage an existing parent/child relationship.

In Shondel J. v. Mark D., 7 N.Y.3d 320 (2006), the Court of Appeals directly addressed the application of equitable estoppel in paternity and support proceedings. In that case, the court found that the respondent, who never married the mother and was not the biological father of the woman’s child, was equitably estopped from denying paternity. The child was believed to be the product of a brief liaison between the respondent and the mother. The respondent initially acknowledged paternity and provided some financial support. He had intermittent visitation with the child, although he was often not even in the same country as the mother and child. Four years after the child’s birth, it was determined that he was not the biological father. The court found that the respondent was equitably estopped from raising the issue of paternity, both by statute (Family Court Act § 418 [a]; § 532 [a]) and at common law. The court concluded that both the statute and case law required that the best interests of the child controlled whether a person was required to continue support payments, even if it was belatedly determined that he was not the biological parent. “The potential damage to a child’s psyche caused by suddenly ending established parental support need only be stated to be appreciated. Cutting off that support, whether emotional or financial, may leave the child in a worse position than if that support had never been given. . . . [T]he issue does not involve the equities between the two adults; the case turns exclusively on the best interests of the child.”

The doctrine of equitable estoppel evolved as a balancing test between the best interests of the child and the rights of the parent. Where there has been a bond formed between the parent and child, the interest of the child in preserving that relationship and the obligations of the parent toward that child, outweigh the putative father’s interest in establishing whether he is really the child’s biological father.