By Julie Dick, Esq.
Laws that govern familial rights and responsibilities are not always intuitively related to the continual social evolution of what it means to be a family. Many do not consider the legal realities of their family structure until a moment of crisis, and a lack of planning can cause difficult legal situations down the line.
When laws governing parentage were written, they contemplated families in which there was a biological mother and a biological father, and marriage was heavily incentivized. Since then, family structures and paths to existence have diversified. The law and society have both recognized a significant growth of LGBTQ+ visibility and rights, assisted reproductive technology has become increasingly accessible, and more children are being born to unmarried parents.
During the fight for marriage equality in the U.S., the importance of marriage to family building and parentage was one of the central talking points of the movement, and it is no wonder why. Marriage is often a social, religious, and cultural event, but it is also a legal contract that confers many protections, benefits, and obligations unavailable to unmarried people. From the right to access a spouse’s health insurance to the availability of some forms of family leave to financially significant tax and estate-planning benefits — the legal and financial impacts of marriage are broad. Until recently, those benefits, and the benefits associated with parentage, were categorically unavailable to LGBTQ+ families.
In Massachusetts, the automatic rights and responsibilities accorded to individuals within a family are still largely dependent on whether the birth parent is married. If a married person gives birth to a child, the second party to that marriage is automatically presumed to be the second parent. That parentage comes with obligations, but also rights, including a presumption of shared legal and physical custody (i.e., the right to make decisions on behalf of the minor child and to have that child live with them).
“During the fight for marriage equality in the U.S., the importance of marriage to family building and parentage was one of the central talking points of the movement, and it is no wonder why.”
Massachusetts was the very first U.S. state to allow marriage equality. A 2004 case, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, interpreted civil marriage to mean “the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others,” recognizing that doing so would advance the state’s interests in “providing a stable setting for childrearing.”
The decision directs the reader of Massachusetts marriage laws to interpret terms like ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in a gender-neutral way. In 2015, marriage equality became available nationwide with a landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court’s majority opinion boldly stated that “no union is more profound than marriage,” recognizing that it is so essential, in part, because it “safeguards children and families.” By accessing marriage, LGBTQ+ families can now access those automatic presumptions of parentage available to married people.
What if a child is born to an unmarried parent? In Massachusetts, the law views this family very differently. When the birth parent is unmarried, they have automatic sole legal and physical custody of the child. A second parent can establish their legal parentage by signing an acknowledgment of parentage or by asking a court to determine they are a parent. It was not until a 2016 case, Partanen v. Gallagher, that parents who were not the birth parent and not biologically related to the child (often the case for LGBTQ+ parents) could establish parentage under this law.
However, establishing parentage here in Massachusetts through either of these avenues is not the same as safeguarding parentage across jurisdictions, or across time in a changing legal landscape. Laws governing marriage and parentage are not necessarily entitled to comity — mutual respect and enforcement — between states or countries. A marriage or birth certificate that is recognized as valid in Massachusetts may not be recognized as valid in another jurisdiction. Parentage is only legally meaningful so long as the jurisdiction considering it agrees to give it meaning.
Future disputes with a co-parent and international travel pose two common points of risk when it comes to parentage.
Imagine you are in a committed relationship but haven’t gotten married. You and your partner decide to have a child together, and with the help of assisted reproductive technology, your partner carries a child. You present that child to the world and your family as your own and live together as a family raising the child. Eventually, your relationship breaks down, and your former partner now claims you are not a parent of your child and should not be awarded custody or parenting time. That was the scenario in Partanen v. Gallagher, where the ensuing argument involved years of contested litigation.
Occasionally, birth parents (married or not) have tried to take advantage of another state’s less LGBTQ+-friendly laws. By filing for divorce or custody in a state where the laws are not as inclusive, a birth parent may seek to interrupt the other’s legal parentage or gain an upper hand in custody or parenting time determinations.
In one infamous case, a birth parent residing in Vermont was dissatisfied with the state’s orders recognizing her former partner’s parentage of their child and filed a new case in a Virginia court, which denied the lesbian second parent’s legal parentage altogether. The resulting multi-state legal proceedings lasted years and involved multiple appeals. Ultimately, the birth parent kidnapped the child to Nicaragua and successfully remained in hiding until the child was 18.
The risks the accompany international travel can be even more surprising. Picture this: you’re on vacation with your family, and your child — born to your spouse during your marriage using reproductive technology — falls ill. Will the hospital allow you in the room? Give you information? Let you make vital medical decisions? Let you take your child home? “It depends” is hardly a comforting answer.
Adoption as an Answer
For those wishing to decrease that uncertainty, adoption may be the answer. A 1993 case, Adoption of Tammy, confirmed that an existing legal parent and their co-parent can together adopt their own child to secure their parentage in Massachusetts and across jurisdictions.
Sometimes called a confirmatory adoption, marital adoption, or second-parent adoption, this was one of the first tools available for LGBTQ+ families to establish parentage of their children and remains the most secure. Unlike a marriage or a birth certificate, an adoption is entitled to comity across jurisdictions. In Massachusetts, it is a widely available legal proceeding which can stand alone or in addition to an acknowledgement of parentage or marriage to secure a non-birthing parent’s parentage.
In an internationally varied and ever-evolving legal landscape, consider utilizing the law to protect your family so you know what to expect when the unexpected happens.
Julie Dick is an attorney at Bulkley Richardson, where she leads the firm’s family-law practice.