Remanding a 2017 trial court decision in a renowned same-sex custody matter, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, held yesterday in the Matter of K.G. v. C.H., that while a non-biological, non-adoptive party to an adopted child did not have standing as a “parent” under New York Domestic Relations Law Sec. 70 to pursue custody and visitation based solely on a preadoption agreement reached during the parties’ relationship to adopt and raise a child together, the trial record was incomplete as to whether such standing could be achieved based on an equitable estoppel theory.
A brief history of the extensive fact-pattern is worth noting here, since the Appellate Division’s affirmance of the trial court’s conclusion that K.G. lacked standing as a parent based on the preadoption agreement was essentially limited to the facts of this case.
The parties were in a romantic relationship that concluded in December, 2009. In 2007, they agreed to internationally adopt and raise a child together. The parties’ planned for C.H. to complete the adoption, the child would arrive in the United States, and K.G. would second adopt the child to become a legal parent.
- When the parties’ relationship ended, no child for adoption had yet been identified by the adoption agency. C.H. argued that when the parties’ relationship ended, so too did the preadoption agreement. K.G. disagreed and argued that the agreement, once made, conferred standing upon her as a parent to file a petition for custody and visitation.
- Extensive testimony was taken at trial regarding the nature of the agreement, the parties’ relationship, and the parties’ respective intentions regarding whether such agreement survived the relationship’s conclusion in 2009.
- In March, 2011, the adoption agency identified and offered a child to C.H. for adoption. C.H. adopted the child and K.G., despite the relationship’s demise, developed a loving and affectionate relationship with the child.
Based on the above general facts and underlying details developed at trial, the trial court held that the “parties’ mutual intention to raise an adopted child together did not survive the end of their romantic relationship.” As a result, the trial court, as affirmed by the Appellate Division, rejected K.G.’s argument that the mere creation of the preadoption agreement conveyed standing upon K.G. to seek custody and visitation with the child. In so affirming, the Appellate Division noted that the trial court’s decision did not mean that – in every case – the mere end of a romantic relationship does not, in and of itself, terminate the plan to adopt and raise a child together. Rather, said plan terminated under the specific facts and circumstances at issue.
The Appellate Division also held that the trial court’s ruling on this component of its decision was consistent with the 2016 Court of Appeals seminal decision in Matter of Brooke, which expansively defined who is a “parent” under New York’s Domestic Relations Law to include non-biological, non-adoptive parents and, as a result, who has standing to seek custody and visitation of a child. The Appellate Court provided:
Contrary to K.G.’s arguments, this legal analysis does not eviscerate Brooke. If the parties have a plan in place when a particular child is identified, then they become parents under Domestic Relations Law Sec. 70 at that time, with standing thereafter to seek custody/visitation in the event of a change in the household.
As noted above, however, the Appellate Court remanded so that the trial court could more fully develop the record and consider K.G.’s position that she has standing as a “parent” under an equitable estoppel theory designed to ensure fulfillment of the child’s best interests stemming from a recognized parent-child relationship. Specifically, “under Domestic Relations Law Sec. 70, equitable estoppel concerns whether a child has a bonded and de facto parental relationship with a non-biological, non-adoptive adult” with the emphasis placed on the child’s point of view. the key is whether the relationship between the subject adult and child “rises to the level of parenthood.”
As a result of the incomplete record, the Appellate Court could not rule on what factors a court should consider to establish “parent” status under the estoppel concept. In so holding, the Court found that C.H. had a right to be heard in opposition to the estoppel theory, and the child’s voice was not heard (K.G.’s requests during the trial court matter for the appointment of an attorney for the child, a forensic evaluation and/or a Lincoln hearing where the child undergoes questioning by the judge in private).
Developments in this newsworthy case will continue to unfold as the trial court conducts further proceedings in a manner consistent with the Appellate Court’s ruling.
Robert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey and Manhattan. He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or firstname.lastname@example.org.