Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wisconsin court leaves stand a parentage order for a nonbio mom but precludes such orders in the future

The most horrific part of last month's North Carolina Boseman v. Jarrell opinion against second-parent adoption was that it said the court that granted the adoption lacked "subject matter jurisdiction," which means that the order was void, along with all second-parent adoption orders, the moment it was granted. That wiped out every second-parent adoption in the state.

Well, within days of that opinion a Wisconsin appeals court ruled in Dustardy H. v. Bethany H. that the state does not allow a nonbio mom to obtain a parentage order, but it refused to vacate the order that a court had granted in 2004. The trial court did have subject matter jurisdiction, the appeals court ruled, and therefore, although the order was erroneously granted, it remains in effect because the bio mom did not challenge it in enough time.

Wisconsin does not permit second-parent adoption. So when Dusty and Beth had a child, Christian, by donor insemination in 2004 they filed a parentage petition and obtained an order from a trial judge that Dusty, the nonbio mom, was also Christian's parent. The trial court had two theories. First, it applied the state's donor insemination statute, which makes a husband the legal parent of a child born to his wife using donor insemination. It also used the "de facto parent" standard established in a 1995 visitation case and named Dusty a legal parent because she met that standard. These are both plausible theories supporting recognition of both of the Christian's parents. The couple's lawyer clearly sought some mechanism to protect Christian's emotional and economic security and the intent of this couple that their child have two parents.

When the couple split up they informally shared custody of the child, but in 2008 Dusty filed for joint custody and Beth responded by asking that the parentage order be declared void. Beth won, and Dusty appealed.

The appeals court said Beth was right on the law. It limited the insemination statute to husbands, and it said the "de facto parent" test could only support a visitation order, not a parentage petition. On the insemination issue, I blogged a little over a year ago about an Oregon appeals court ruling interpreting a similar statute to apply to the lesbian partner of a woman who gave birth through donor insemination. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin court ruled differently.

But -- and here is where it differed from the North Carolina court -- the Wisconsin court said the trial court that issued the parentage order DID have subject matter jurisdiction to do so. Therefore, it was a valid order unless appealed or unless Beth used a different statute to file for relief from that order within a "reasonable time," which she did not do. So Dusty remains Christian's mother. And similar parentage orders from Wisconsin courts, at least if they are several years old, cannot be challenged by a bio mom trying to get rid of her child's other parent. And if the couple remains together and has such an order it is valid for purposes of determining the right to government benefits, inheritance, or other matters flowing from the parent-child relationship.

It's worth mentioning again that this bio mom has destroyed a source of legal security for children of lesbian couples in Wisconsin while gaining nothing for herself. In the North Carolina case, the court vacated the adoption but ruled that the nonbio mom met the standard for obtaining a visitation order for her child, so the bio mom didn't get what she wanted there either. Instead she wiped out every second-parent adoption in the state, even for happily-still-together families.

And a note for gay male couples: Wisconsin has a surrogacy statute that allows a nonbio dad to obtain a parentage order when the child is born using a donor egg to a gestational surrogate. One of the country's most reputable surrogacy agencies is The Surrogacy Center in Madison, and they happily work with gay male couples.

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