Court Decision in Same-Sex Couple Custody Dispute Looms

December 18, 2015

A recent custody battle involving an LGBT couple has highlighted concerns that many people have about the legal rights afforded to same-sex couples in this country.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, upheld the legality of same-sex marriages and made it legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married in all 50 states earlier this year, the Court’s ruling did not necessarily affect the status of LGBT couples who are not legally married.

Amber Berndt and Joy Phillips were a same-couple in Michigan for more than 13 years but never got married. (Although the couple held a marriage ceremony, it occurred prior to the Supreme Court’s decision and was not legally recognized.) As a result, the couple’s eventual breakup meant that the ensuing custody battle over their two daughters would likely be complicated under existing law.

When Phillips and Berndt decided to end their relationship in December 2014, their children were ages 7 and 10, respectively. Berndt is the biological mother of the couple’s two kids, leaving Phillips, the non-biological mother, out of luck when it came to fighting for custody. Phillips’ parental rights are limited precisely because she is not recognized as the parent from a legal perspective.

None of this was an issue until recently. As Phillips’ attorney has pointed out in court, the couple co-parented the children to an equal extent even after the relationship ended. Additionally, the children referred to both women as “mom,” according to court records in the case. The custody dispute became contentious, however, when Berndt attempted to relocate with the children, prompting Phillips to petition the Kent County Family Court in Michigan to formally recognize Phillips’ custody rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) LGBT Project has recognized the importance of the case as far as setting precedent for future custody battles involving gay and lesbian couples who are not married. Jay Kaplan, an attorney for the civil rights organization, argues that denying Phillips custody rights over her children would be unconstitutional.

Kaplan observes that while many gay and lesbian couples were generally unable to win custody battles before Obergefell v. Hodges, the same should not be true after the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality decision. Just as one parent in a heterosexual couple cannot have their kids taken away without justification, LGBT parents should also not lose custody rights over their children simply because they were involved in a same-sex union or partnership. Moreover, Kaplan adds, same-sex couples “who didn’t get married because they couldn’t shouldn’t be denied the rights that same-sex married couples now have.”

For anyone involved in a divorce or separation, whether it’s a heterosexual marriage, a same-sex marriage or a same-sex union, the process is almost never simple. Divorce proceedings can become even more complicated when they involve questions about child custody. That’s why it is imperative that anyone going through a child custody dispute speak with a knowledgeable family law attorney.

To learn more about the recent same-sex union case, view the article entitled, “Inside the Unique Battle Between Two Moms for Custody of Their Kids.

If you are thinking about filing for divorce, you need an experienced family lawyer by your side. Jonathan Katz Esq. will fight for your rights during the divorce and help you explore all of your legal options. Contact Mr. Katz today for a consultation about your situation.

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