As paternal rights laws attempt to catch up with science in the age of sperm donors, many headlining custody disputes have fathers wondering what their paternal rights are in the U.S. The fact is that fathers’ rights vary across states for sperm donors, same-sex adoptive fathers, and biological fathers no longer involved with their child’s mother. Here we look at recent cases in the news and what the outcomes mean for fathers’ rights.
Actor Jason Patric donated sperm to his former girlfriend on the condition that he would serve only as a donor and not as the child’s father. However, despite that initial agreement, he became involved in the child’s life after the child’s birth. Although a trial court ruling first denied custodial and visitation rights to Patric, a California appeals court eventually reversed the decision, setting an interesting legal precedent for sperm donors’ rights.
Since Patric maintained a relationship with the child for the first two years of the child’s life, the court determined that allowing that relationship to continue, despite the mother’s reluctance, was in the best interest of the child.
According to California law, someone is a legal parent if he or she “receives the child into his or her home and openly holds out the child as his or her natural child.” In short, sperm donors who play a role in parenting their biological children have the chance to gain legal rights in California and other states.
Sperm donors wishing to relinquish their parental responsibilities must go through proper legal channels from the beginning of the donation process, as in the recent case of a Kansas sperm donor.
After signing documents waiving his parental rights, the man donated sperm, gratis, to a lesbian couple wishing to have a child. The couple later separated. When one of the mothers filed for state assistance after she became ill and could no longer work, the state of Kansas sued the donor for thousands of dollars in child support on the grounds that, according to state law, artificial insemination must be performed and documented by a licensed physician. In this case, insemination was performed privately in the couple’s home, rendering the signed agreement void.
Non-married biological fathers
Paternity of a child born outside marriage may be established by court order in all states; childwelfare.gov provides information on establishing paternity in individual states.
Utah’s adoption laws have been the topic of recent news stories. State adoption laws allow unwed mothers – even those who are not citizens of the state of Utah – to give up babies for adoption without the fathers’ knowledge or consent, unless the father has already initiated a petition to establish paternity.
Many assert that this controversial legislation is backed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in the state and influential in lawmaking decisions. Since the Mormon church maintains that children have the right to be raised by married parents, the legislation supports their goal of discouraging abortion and encouraging unwed mothers to place their children in the care of married, two-parent homes. The result, however, is that many unwed mothers travel from out of state to pursue adoptions in Utah.
After their babies were put up for adoption without their knowledge and against their wishes, 12 biological fathers filed a federal lawsuit against Utah earlier this year, alleging that the state’s adoption policy endorses “legalized fraud and kidnapping.” A few of the fathers were able to gain custody of their children as a result of the lawsuit, but many are still fighting, and many children continue to be given up for adoption without the consent of both parents.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recently signed a bill requiring birth mothers to either live in Utah for at least 90 days before giving their babies up for adoption or provide courts with information on the biological father. Before the mother can put the baby up for adoption, the court can also order her to notify the father of her plans.
California’s Modern Family Act, now on its way to the state Senate, benefits families with children conceived by assisted reproductive technologies such as surrogacy or in vitro fertilization. The act clearly lays out rights and responsibilities for sperm donors in a statutory form and includes specified contributions to medical costs in the case of surrogacy. Though there are exceptions, this bill would primarily benefit LGBT couples who have created families through assisted reproductive technologies.
State laws vary greatly on same-sex couples’ adoption rights. Some states do not accept birth certificates that list two fathers or two mothers as parents of the child, forcing same-sex couples to go through a lengthy stepparent adoption process in order to gain parental rights after having children through assisted reproductive methods.
In California, the Modern Family Act helps remedy this issue by providing a more streamlined adoption process, including the waiving of associated adoption fees, for same-sex married couples and registered domestic partners.