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Keeping Families Together, No Matter How They Are Formed

One year ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made it clear that children born to unmarried same-sex couples stood on equal footing as all other children. Thanks to our plaintiff Karen Partanen, who bravely brought her case to our state’s highest court, Massachusetts parentage statutes recognize that same-sex non-birth parents can be full, legal parents.

I was honored to work with Karen on her critical parentage case. Karen and I connected last week about how we couldn’t believe that it has only been one year since her case changed the legal landscape for families like hers in Massachusetts. She had just gone apple picking with her children, a family outing she might not have experienced had she not fought to be secured as their equal, legal parent.

Karen and her family are among the wonderful diversity of today’s modern families, and their story is representative of so many across the country.

Karen and her former partner Julie were a couple for nearly 13 years, and decided to have children together using assisted reproduction. Julie conceived and, with Karen by her side, gave birth to their two children. Together, they cared for their kids, made mutual decisions to further their well-being, and held themselves out to family, friends and their community as a family.

Eventually their relationship ended. They never married and didn’t complete co-parent adoptions, so Karen filed suit to secure her children’s rights to continue their relationships with her.

Massachusetts “paternity” law enables children who are born to unmarried parents to have a determination of who their legal parents are, ensuring that both parents are available for support, parenting time and decision making, based on the children’s best interests. The Court faced resolving the question of whether the law applied to non-biological parents like Karen.

Karen’s case argued that child-centered laws should protect children born from assisted reproduction whether their parents are a same-sex or different-sex couple, and should ensure equal treatment of all children without regard to their parents’ marital status and genetic connection.

The Court concluded that the plain language of the statute applies to children born to same-sex parents like Karen, regardless of genetic ties, and declared Karen a legal parent to her children.

What does this mean for families in Massachusetts?

It means that unmarried parents – who planned to create a family, who conceived through assisted reproduction and who welcomed children into a joint home – can be full legal parents. It means that children cannot be deprived of their parents because they are unmarried or because they are not the birth parents.

More broadly, Karen’s case illustrates how the courts and the law are catching up to today’s families. More and more, states are recognizing the diversity of our families and ensuring protections for all children. GLAD is working hard across New England to ensure that all children are secure and all families are recognized – no matter how they were formed.

Part of our work involves helping parents navigate what can be complex legal terrain to understand their rights, as well as finding accessible resources to empower parents to protect their families. Here are some key points that unmarried same-sex couples or parents should know about securing their relationships with their children, before and after birth.

Model Known Donor Agreement

When thinking about creating your family, it is important to plan ahead and seek legal advice. If you are planning to use a known donor, an agreement can help clarify everyone’s intentions and make sure that all involved have the same goals. GLAD has developed a model known donor agreement that can be a starting point for unmarried parents in Massachusetts considering using a known donor. This model is no substitute for individual legal advice, but it is a starting point for discussions with your donor and to clarify roles going into the family creation process to ensure a smooth process.

Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage

In Karen’s case the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court noted that same-sex parents should be able to establish their legal parentage through a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage (VAP) form, just like different-sex parents. Although this right exists, Massachusetts hasn’t yet updated their VAP forms to be gender neutral, and GLAD is advocating for these key forms to be updated. Never-married parents should ask about VAPs at the hospital and contact GLAD if they encounter barriers accessing this form.

Parentage Adjudications

For never-married parents who cannot use a VAP or if there is a dispute between parents, never-married same sex parents can seek parentage adjudications through the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.

GLAD believes that all parents – regardless of their marital status – should be able to create and secure their families. If you are encountering barriers to establishing your legal parentage, please call GLAD Answers, our legal information line, at 800-455-GLAD or visit www.GLADAnswers.org.