Custody of Nonbiological Children—Burden and Proof Issues
In the matter of R.L. v. M.A., Case No.: 2740 EDA 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court delved into the leading edge of family law when it ruled upon whether an individual in a same-sex relationship can be awarded custody of a child with whom she has no biological relationship.
In R.L., the appellant, M.A., entered into a romantic relationship with R.L. (appellee) in 2012. During the relationship, the parties decided to impregnate the appellant via artificial insemination using sperm from the appellee’s brother.
The couple proceeded to prepare for the birth of the child by setting up the baby’s room and purchasing typical baby supplies. R.L. was present for the baby’s birth, chose the baby’s first name, and gave the baby her own surname. Not long after the child was born, the couple broke up.
Instead of litigating, the parties entered into an informal agreement for the custody of the child. The child lived primarily with the appellant and spent every other weekend with the appellee. This arrangement lasted until 2014 when the parties informally elected to equally share custody of the child. This 50/50 arrangement lasted nearly four years until R.L. called the daycare center where the appellant worked and which the child attended. R.L. complained that the appellant was having too much contact with the child while in daycare and even inappropriately (in her opinion) removed the child from the daycare premises.
In response to the above-mentioned telephone call, the appellant unilaterally discontinued their customary 50/50 arrangement, which led to R.L. filing a complaint for custody of the child. R.L. was granted in loco parentis over the child fairly quickly, which conferred R.L. standing to have custody of the child. The matter went to trial and the trial court entered an order granting each party equal custody, alternating on a weekly basis; the appellant appealed this order to Superior Court.
On appeal, the appellant argued that the appellee did not meet the burden of clear and convincing evidence that a nonparent should have custody equal to a parent, and that the court erred in weighing the evidence presented.
In support of her argument that appellee did not meet her burden of proof, the appellant argued that 23 Pa.C.S. Section 5327 requires a trial court to apply a presumption in favor of parents over nonparents, and, as a “nonparent,” the appellant did not meet her burden to overcome the presumption in favor of the appellee. The appellant also argued that the trial court erred in considering the parties’ informal shared custody arrangement when rending its decision.
In making its ruling, the Superior Court acknowledged that “even before the proceedings start, the evidentiary scale is tipped, and tipped hard, to the biological parents’ side.” In saying that, the Superior Court also recognized that this principle does “not preclude an award of custody to the nonparent.”
Additionally, the court made it clear that the “best interests” standard is still the touchstone when entering a child custody order. Furthermore, once someone is granted in loco parentis, she need not demonstrate that the other party is unfit, but rather merely demonstrate that it is in the best interests of the child (as proven by clear and convincing evidence) to be with the nonparent party.
The Superior Court ruled that the appellant did meet her burden of clear and convincing evidence, specifically by demonstrating that the parties lived out an agreed shared custody arrangement for a number of years, indeed most of the child’s life, and only discontinued that arrangement due to the appellee being upset over the appellant’s telephone call to the daycare center, as opposed to anything directly related to custody.
The Superior Court also indicated that the appellant’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. Namely, while the scales do tip heavily toward a parent over a nonparent, there is a distinction as to whether that nonparent is seeking shared, as opposed to primary, custody. As she was only seeking shared custody, the appellant only had the burden of clear and convincing evidence to bring the scales even with the appellee. Only if the appellant were seeking primary custody would she have to tip the scales hard toward herself under the burden of clear and convincing evidence.
Ultimately, a nonparent seeking shared custody of a child has to have standing and demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that such a custody arrangement is in the best interest of a child.
This article was originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on June 27, 2019 and can be found here.