Equitable Parent Doctrine and Same-Sex Marriage

Michigan Court of Appeals has confirmed that the Equitable Parent Doctrine applies equally to same sex and opposite sex married couples with children

Not too long after the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell v Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States, we predicted that many of the statutes relating to family law would apply equally to both gay and straight married couples; any law that made explicit reference to husbands and wives may have to be rewritten or otherwise interpreted to accommodate the Obergefell ruling. One recent opinion from the Michigan Court of Appeals, Stankevich v Milliron, is an example of the expansion of the application of one legal rule, the Equitable Parent Doctrine, to include divorcing same-sex couples with children.

What is the Equitable Parent Doctrine?

The Equitable Parent Doctrine was adopted by the Michigan Court of Appeals in Atkinson v Atkinson, 160 Mich App 601, 608-609; 408 NW2d 516 (1987). It recognizes that a parent who is not the biological parent of the child of the marriage may still be considered the child’s parent if the following can be proven:

  1. The parent and the child “mutually acknowledge a relationship as [parent] and child, or the mother of the child has cooperated in the development of such a relationship over a period of time prior to the filing of the complaint for divorce;
  2. The parent “desires to have the rights afforded to a parent,” and
  3. The parent “is willing to take on the responsibility of paying child support.”

Michigan courts have only applied the equitable parent doctrine to married couples.

Does the Equitable Parent Doctrine apply to Same-Sex Married Couples?

The short is answer is yes – the Equitable Parent Doctrine does apply to married (or formerly married) gay couples in Michigan.

The United States Supreme Court invalidated state laws “to the extent they exclude[d] same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” Obergefell, 135 S Ct at 2605.

In Stankevich, the plaintiff and the defendant were married to one another in Canada in 2007. During their marriage, the defendant became pregnant through insemination. The defendant is the biological mother of the parties’ child and the plaintiff does not have a biological relationship with the child. The plaintiff sought a parenting time, custody, and child support determination from the trial court. In support of her argument for standing to file her claim seeking equitable parenthood, the plaintiff alleged a number of facts that (if proven true) would support a finding that she was an equitable parent – she was significantly involved in the child’s life (including the period after which plaintiff and defendant separated) until she was prevented from doing so. Some of the facts alleged include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • An agreement was made between the plaintiff and defendant to raise the child, discussing the rights and responsibilities involved;
  • Plaintiff was present during the insemination process;
  • Plaintiff was present during the birth of the child;
  • Plaintiff participated in the care and raising of the child until she was prevented from doing so by the defendant;
  • Responsibilities and duties were shared equally between plaintiff and defendant (until defendant prevented plaintiff from participating); and
  • After the separation, both plaintiff and defendant worked out a parenting time schedule for a significant time period.

The Court of Appeals determined that the Equitable Parent Doctrine applies to married same-sex couples, just as it applies to married heterosexual couples. The only question left for the Trial Court is the validity of the parties’ 2007 marriage in Canada.

Questions or Concerns? Contact our Lansing Divorce Attorneys.

Our team of divorce lawyers have decades of collective experience handling many issues associated with separation and the dissolution of a marriage, especially when children are involved. We take pride in the fact that we open our doors to ALL Michigan families, regardless of composition or makeup. Contact us today to learn how we may be able to assist you in handling your family law or domestic relations issues.