ALBANY — New York’s highest court effectively expanded the legal definition of parenthood by ruling Tuesday that gay parents can seek custody and visitation rights for their nonbiological children.
The decision settled two cases — including one originating in Suffolk County — of former same-sex couples in which the biological mothers kept the children and their ex-partners sought legal standing to sue for custody and visitation rights.
Times have changed, the Court of Appeals said in a 6-0 decision, and thus so should the parameters of who qualifies for parental rights.
“The definition of ‘parent’ established by this court 25 years ago . . . has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships,” Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote for the court. “Accordingly, today, we . . . hold that where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the nonbiological, nonadoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody under” state domestic relations laws.
The previously used definition of parenthood required a person seeking custody or visitation to have a biological or adoptive connection to the child. That definition, established in a 1991 Court of Appeals decision, now is viewed as “needlessly narrow,” Abdus-Salaam wrote in noting the evolution of the law.
“In 1991, same-sex partners could not marry in this state. Nor could a biological parent’s unmarried partner adopt the child,” she wrote. “As a result, a partner in a same-sex relationship not biologically related to a child was entirely precluded from obtaining standing to seek custody or visitation of that child under our definition of ‘parent.’ ”
She said that in the two cases decided Tuesday, both couples had been “co-parenting” the child until dissolving their union. Allowing the nonbiological parent to petition for visitation and custody was consistent with “best interests of the child,” a maxim that often governs custody cases, she said.
The ruling “shows a real shift in society toward a respect for same-sex couples and nontraditional families,” said Jeff Trachtman, partner in the law firm that worked on behalf of a woman referred to in court documents as “Estrellita A.,” who had been raising a daughter with her then-partner until they split in 2012. They fought over support and visitation for the child, who is now 8 years old, according to court documents, in Suffolk County Family Court.
“It recognizes that parents are parents, not just by biology or legal adoption,” Trachtman said.
A lawyer for Estrellita’s ex-partner didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
The ruling also would apply to nonmarried heterosexual couples who had jointly raised a child.