Issues of child custody have never been easy, but over the years, they have become increasingly complex as the make-up of the American family has evolved.
It's not uncommon for partners to cohabitate unmarried for years, even as they raise children, acquire property and take on joint debts. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Indeed, many couples report that such arrangements have led to long-term, stable partnerships. However, where children are involved, both parties should recognize that when one individual has no biological tie to the child and there has been no adoption, that party has no legal rights or responsibilities for that child.
Our Brooklyn family court attorneys know this is true regardless of how long the couple has been together or what role the partner has taken on during the course of the child's life. There may occasionally be a few exceptions made in extreme circumstances, but those are very rare. Unless the individual has legally adopted the child, it is very difficult to assert any sort of legal parental authority.
This was recently illustrated in the case of Moreau v. Sylvester, heard recently by the Vermont Supreme Court.
Here, the plaintiff appealed a decision by a family court dismissing his emergency petition for child custody and parentage of children to whom he had no biological tie or established legal connection. He also appealed an order denying him visitation on the grounds that he is the children's de factor parent - the only father they've ever known.
The Vermont Supreme Court rejected his argument and affirmed the ruling of the other court.
According to court records, the plaintiff and the children's mother were in an on-again-off-again relationship over the course of 10 years. they never married. The defendant gave birth to two children during this period, but the plaintiff was the biological father of neither. However, it was undisputed that during this time, he played a significant father-figure role in their lives.
Even when the couple separated for good in 2009, the plaintiff continue to maintain a relationship with the children and shared responsibility for them. The children even lived with him for a period of time when the mother's home became flooded and uninhabitable.
On a few occasions, the defendant refused to return the children to their mother on the grounds that he believed they were being mistreated. When the mother moved in with another man, the visitations became less and less frequent and the rapport of the former couple quickly deteriorated.
There were a couple of instances in which the plaintiff went to the defendant's home and banged on the door for long periods of time, despite being told to go away. He would later say he was concerned for the girls' safety or that he was trying to return items they needed for school. The mother successfully obtained a temporary restraining order against him, though this was later dismissed.
Then, without the mother's knowledge, her former boyfriend filed an emergency petition for sole custody of the children on the grounds that they were in danger. The court dismissed his requests because he was not related to the children biologically in any way.
The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the denial of his request. The justices noted that case law had allowed in some instances for still-married stepparents to assert rights to the children or to be charged with certain responsibilities for them. However, custody is usually only ever awarded to a stepparent in those instances when there is clear and convincing evidence that the biological parent is unfit or there are other exigent circumstances.
The court underscored the fact that by welcoming nonbiological children into his life, he was accepting that he had no legal remedy to assert custodial rights.
This case shows why long-term cohabitating partners may consider at least formalizing their relationship with regard to child adoption. Options should be explored with an experienced Brooklyn family law attorney.
The Law Office of George M. Gilmer handles Brooklyn adoption proceedings and child custody disputes. Call us at (718) 864-2011.