Brief Fact Summary. During a divorce proceeding plaintiff disclaimed defendant’s parentage of a child, even though he had always acted as the child’s father. The court determined that he was neither the child’s biological or equitable parent and denied requests for stepparent visitation.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Equitable parenthood is a permanent status. If a party satisfies the criteria for equitable parenthood for a reasonable period of time, a subsequent change would not alter the party’s status.
All custody orders must be affirmed on appeal unless the trial court's findings were against the great weight of the evidence, the court committed a palpable abuse of discretion, or the court made a clear legal error on a major issue.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Did the trial court err in finding that defendant was not an equitable parent to the child?
Held. The trial court erred by failing to consider facts that led to the conclusion that defendant had attained the status of an equitable parent.
Defendant first argues that the court erred in terminating his parental rights and denying his rights as an equitable parent. The court’s finding that he was not the child’s biological parent was not against the weight of the evidence. However, the court misapplied the test for determining if defendant could be an equitable parent.
The test provides: A husband who is not the biological father of a child born or conceived during the marriage may be considered the natural father of that child where 1) the husband and the child mutually acknowledge a relationship as father 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 husband desires to have the rights afforded to a parent, and 3) the husband is willing to take on the responsibility of paying child support.
The trial court held that defendant’s actions during the pendency of the divorce did not demonstrate an actual sincere effort to provide support, despite his contention that he was willing to provide support. The court entirely ignored his role in supporting the child for the first four years of his life. The trial court’s interpretation erroneously suggests that equitable parenthood may ebb and flow over time. Equitable parenthood is a permanent status once it attaches. Once it is determined the party becomes endowed with both the rights and responsibilities of a parent.
It is not necessary that a party continuously meet the three criteria. If a party satisfies these criteria for a reasonable period of time, a subsequent change would not alter the party’s status. The view that equitable parenthood is fluid is untenable because it would undermine the principle that equitable parents stand on equal footing with natural and adoptive parents. Furthermore, the stability in acknowledged parent-child relationships is generally in the child’s best interests, as well as the stability and security in familial relationships being in the parents’ best interests. Finally, permanent status fosters legal certainty and predictability in collateral areas.
Discussion. This case demonstrates the criteria for establishing the status of an equitable parent and demonstrates that once obtained, such status is permanent.