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Court Discusses Doctrine of Equitable Estoppel

A New York Family Lawyer said the court has before it the petitioner’s objections to the order of Support Magistrate, dated March 7, 2007, dismissing the petition filed herein. A New York Child Support Lawyer said that, pursuant to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (Family Court Act Article 5-B), the petitioner (a resident of Canada), commenced this proceeding by filing a petition seeking the establishment of an order of paternity and child support. The petition alleged that the parties were engaged in a same-sex relationship between August 1989 and January 1995. During their relationship, the parties made plans to conceive and raise a child together. In December 1993, the petitioner became impregnated via artificial insemination. On September 20, 1994, the petitioner gave birth to a child.

A New York Child Custody Lawyer said that shortly after the birth of the child the parties’ relationship ended and petitioner, along with the child moved to Montreal, Canada. Petitioner claims that despite her requests, the respondent has not provided any support for the child. Petitioner seeks a declaration of parentage and an order of child support retroactive to the date of the birth of the child.
A New York Order of Protection Lawyer said that, on March 6, 2007, the parties appeared before Support Magistrate. Petitioner appeared via telephone, respondent personally and with counsel. Prior to conducting a hearing, upon oral application by counsel for respondent, the Support Magistrate dismissed the petition, finding that under the facts of the case and the laws of the State of New York, the court could not grant an order of filiation. The question of the appropriate amount of child support was never reached.

A Staten Island Family Lawyer said that, petitioner objects to the order of dismissal, alleging that respondent should be required to provide child support based on the implied promise equitable estoppel doctrine. It is also noted that both the petitioner and the respondent are women. The petitioner argues that she relied upon the respondent’s promise to support the child when she (petitioner) agreed to become inseminated. Accordingly, petitioner claims that the respondent should not be relieved of any duty of furnishing support for the child as petitioner’s reliance on the respondent’s promise has acted to deprive the child of support from a biological father.
The issue in this case is whether the respondent, a legal and biological stranger to a child, can be declared to be a parent and compelled to provide support to the child who is in the custody of his biological mother.

The court said that, on a motion to dismiss, such as was before the Support Magistrate, the allegations of the petition must be deemed to be true, and the petition must be deemed to allege whatever may be implied from its statements by reasonable intendment. The petitioner is also entitled to every favorable inference that might be drawn.

Here, the petition alleges that the parties were engaged in a same-sex relationship for approximately five (5) years and five (5) months, commencing August 1989. A Staten Island Child Custody Lawyer said that during that period, the respondent was attending school to become a chiropractor and petitioner stayed home to care for respondent’s children and tend to the home. The parties planned that once the respondent graduated, she would commence work as a chiropractor and the petitioner would return to school to obtain a degree in social work. Within the first year of their relationship, the parties began making plans to conceive a child and explored the options of using known versus unknown sperm donations, as well as various alternative insemination procedures. The parties discussed child rearing issues, including how their children would be raised as siblings, how the children would address each parent and how the children would attend the same schools. After the parties received fertility services from three (3) fertility clinics, and after eleven (11) failed attempts to conceive a child together, in December 1993, the parties laid on the bed they shared together as a couple and the respondent inseminated vials of sperm into the petitioner, resulting in the conception of the child.

During the petitioner’s pregnancy, she was accepted into an adult education program and achieved her high school equivalency diploma in June 1994, thereby completing a major step towards achieving the parties’ commitments and plans. On September 20, 1994, the subject child was born at the parties’ home with the aid of a certified nurse midwife as the parties had planned. The respondent cut the umbilical cord and welcomed the child into the world. For the first three (3) months of the child’s life, the respondent nurtured and cared for the child as a parent, however, in January 1995, the respondent ended the parties’ relationship. She gave petitioner $1,500, however, as petitioner had no other income or place to live, she and the child moved in with her parents in Montreal, Canada. Petitioner claims that the respondent has failed to honor her commitment to support her while she acquired her social work degree, and has refused to accept financial responsibility for the child.

Petitioner argues that the doctrine of equitable estoppel should be applicable to the facts alleged. Generally, equitable estoppel is a “defensive doctrine preventing one party from taking unfair advantage of another when, through false language or conduct, the person to be estopped had induced another person to act in a certain way, with the result that the other person has been injured in some way” Once a party makes a prima facie showing of facts sufficient to support equitable estoppel in the context of a paternity proceeding, the opponent of equitable estoppel must demonstrate why estoppel should not be applied in the best interests of the child.

Initially, this court notes that under controlling law, a former same-sex partner who is neither an adoptive nor biological parent of the subject child has no standing to seek custody or visitation, and cannot rely upon the doctrine of equitable estoppel to establish her status as a de facto parent of a child to which she was a legal or biological stranger. However, as far as the obligation of a former same-sex partner to support a child which is neither her biological nor adoptive child, there appears to be scant authority in the State of New York.

In the pending proceeding, this court is not aware of any written agreement between the parties. Nevertheless, petitioner has alleged an agreement was reached by the parties and the facts which are alleged surely establish an implied agreement. “An agreement may result as a legal inference from the facts and circumstances of the case, although not formally stated in words.

There are other situations where the courts have held individuals responsible for the support of a child even though they were not related to the child by biology or adoption. In one case, the husband and wife agreed to adopt a child. As a consequence, the child was removed from its natural mother and began living with the parties. Before the adoption was finalized, the parties separated and a proceeding was brought seeking support from the husband. Although there had been no adoption and there was no legal relationship between the child and the husband, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held the non-parent responsible for the support of the child and stated:

However, as between the parties themselves, the primary liability for support properly rests upon the plaintiff. Having agreed to adopt the child and support her, and having treated her as his own prior to the parties’ separation, the plaintiff may not now disavow all obligations and shift the entire burden onto the defendant. It may be reasonably inferred from the evidence that the defendant would not have acquired the child and brought her into their home in the absence of the plaintiff’s consent to adoption. Therefore, the plaintiff’s primary obligation rests upon the dual foundation of an implied contract to support the child and equitable estoppel. More recently, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed the principle that under certain circumstances a biological stranger to a child can be declared to be the parent and ordered to pay child support. The Court of Appeals found a man to be equitably estopped from denying paternity when he had held himself out as being the father of the child, despite the fact that he was a biological stranger to the child.

By statute, the Legislature has recognized the viability of the doctrine of equitable estoppel applying in paternity proceedings. Those statutes direct the court to not order Genetic Marker on DNA tests if the court finds that it is not in the best interests of the child on the basis of, inter alia, equitable estoppel. Therefore, if the circumstances exist to justify the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel, no scientific test is ordered and the issue of biology is never even reached. If the issue of biology is not a factor in a paternity proceeding where equitable estoppel is established, it would appear that the gender of the individual against whom the doctrine is applied becomes irrelevant. Consequently, a paternity proceeding could proceed against a same sex partner if circumstances are established justifying the application of equitable estoppel.

At this stage of the proceeding the court must deem the allegations of the petition to be true and must read same in the light most favorable to the petitioner. In this court’s view, based upon the facts alleged by the petitioner, it is possible that a court could conclude that the respondent should be estopped to deny her role as a person responsible to provide support for the child. Applying the principles of the case decided by the Court of Appeals, that a “parent” does not necessarily have to have a biological link to the child in order to be liable for child support warrants the denial of respondent’s motion to dismiss.

The focus of a court’s analysis must be on the child, and the protection of his rights, interests and welfare. The Court of Appeals’ decision mandates that it is not in the best interests of children for couples to enter into relationships and bring children into the world, only to abandon all responsibility for that child. Although there does not appear to be a bright line rule by which a court can easily determine under what circumstances a non-biological nor adoptive parent will be held responsible for the support of a child, where a petitioner alleges that it was reliance upon the behaviors of a respondent which induced her to bring into the world a child and that as a result of this reliance a child was conceived and that child requires adequate financial support from the respondent, a hearing is required. To automatically relieve an individual of any duty of furnishing support for a child resulting from the artificial insemination of her same-sex partner, to which insemination the same-sex partner submitted in reliance upon certain promises, could be against the best interests of the child as well as cast a financial burden upon the biological parent which in equity and conscience should be shared.

Accordingly, upon review of the petition filed January 5, 2007, the court order of dismissal, the audio recording of the proceedings conducted before the Support Magistrate, the petitioner’s objections and the respondent’s rebuttal thereto, it is ordered that the objections be and the same are hereby granted and; it is further ordered, that the order of dismissal dated March 7, 2007 is reversed.
Under the controlling law, a former same-sex partner who is neither an adoptive nor biological parent of the subject child has no standing to seek custody or visitation, and cannot rely upon the doctrine of equitable estoppel to establish her status as a de facto parent of a child to which she was a legal or biological stranger. If you facing the same case scenario, seek the representation of a New York Child Support Attorney and New York Family Attorney at Stephen Bilkis and Associates.

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