The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that a state law presuming a mother’s spouse is her child’s parent applies equally to same-sex couples.
Kimberly and Suzan McLaughlin legally married in California in 2008 and in 2010 Kimberly became pregnant through an anonymous sperm donor. During the pregnancy, they moved to Arizona and signed a legal document declaring Suzan a “co-parent” of the child. When the child was 2 years old, the couple separated, and Kimberly cut Suzan off from contact with him. Suzan sued seeking to be equally recognized as the child’s parent.
Under Arizona state law, a man is presumed to be the father of a child if he and the mother were married “at any time in the ten months immediately preceding the birth or the child is born within ten months after the marriage is terminated.” Suzan argued this presumption should apply equally to her, while Kimberly argued that the law should only apply to different-sex couples because it’s related to the biological parentage of the child.
But as the Court pointed out, that interpretation is not actually consistent with how the law is written and applied. For example, if a woman in a different-sex marriage gets pregnant via an anonymous sperm donor, her husband is still considered the father under the law even though it’s known that he’s not the biological father.
In the time since Suzan first filed her complaint in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court has also made clear what the outcome of this case should be. In Obergefell v. Hodges — the historic 2015 marriage equality case — the Court found that same-sex couples must be treated on “the same terms and conditions” as different-sex couples as far as marriage is concerned. In 2017’s Pavan v. Smith, the Court also weighed in on a nearly identical controversy in Arkansas about whether a birth mother’s spouse should be named on the child’s birth certificate; the Court concluded in that case that same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefit.
“Although a woman, Suzan is similarly situated to a man who is presumed to be a parent even though his wife conceived a child other than by him,” the Arizona Supreme Court explained. It also noted that expanding the law to apply to same-sex couples was the correct response because one of its primary purposes is “to ensure children have financial support from two parents.” Continuing to apply the rule that spouses of all genders are the presumptive second parent will “ensure all children, and not just children born to opposite-sex spouses, have financial and emotional support from two parents and strong family units”, the Court determined.
“I am relieved and overjoyed that the court recognized me as my son’s mother,” Suzan said in a statement. “All I have ever wanted is to be there for him like any mother would.” Suzan was represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which also litigated Pavan.
Several other state courts have arrived at similar conclusions in recent years. Last year, the New York Court of Appeals expanded the definition of the word “parent” to include individuals who might not be biologically related, legally adoptive parents, or legally connected through marriage. In that case, the same-sex couple formed their family before they could legally marry, so none of the traditional definitions appropriately reflected the fact that both women were parenting the child. A month prior, the Maryland Court of Appeals similarly found that a non-adoptive same-sex partner was still entitled to legal recognition in a custody dispute.
Other states may yet wrangle with questions related to adoption and parentage for same-sex couples and their families. The outcome in this Arizona case suggests that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Pavan will help guarantee that same-sex couples and their families enjoy the same protections as different-sex families in the future.