Academic journal article Family Relations

In the Event of Death: Lesbian Families' Plans to Preserve Stepparent-Child Relationships

Academic journal article Family Relations

In the Event of Death: Lesbian Families' Plans to Preserve Stepparent-Child Relationships

Article excerpt

Recent changes in marriage laws in the United States signify a major advancement toward equal rights for gay men and lesbians. However, questions remain regarding parenting rights in the context of same-sex marriage. For instance, it remains unclear whether a presumption of parenthood (the assumption that both individuals in a marital union are legal parents to any child born within that union) will be extended to gay and lesbian married couples as for married heterosexual couples. Thus far, legal precedent has been inconsistent with regard to extending the presumption of parenthood to same-sex couples. At times, the parent who is not biologically or legally related to the child has been afforded legal parental rights and at other times they have not (Leonard, 2015). Moreover, only 13 states explicitly allow for second-parent adoption, whereby a nonbiological parent can be legally recognized as a parent to children conceived in that relationship. Thus, despite gaining the ability to marry nationwide, access to second-parent adoptions remains uncertain in most states (Warbelow, 2013).

Since the passing of nationwide marriage equality, national gay rights organizations have emphasized that although marriage affords same-sex couples legal protection for their relationship with each other, it may not protect nonbiological parents' relationship to their children (Parent-Child Relationships, 2015). Further, marriage alone does little to protect the rights of same-sex couples who, as a unit, parent children from previous relationships (Barfield, 2014). Lesbian parents to children from previous relationships are the focus of this article. Existing parenting policies used to provide legal recognition to gay and lesbian families, such as second-parent adoption or joint adoption, are not accessible to these stepparent families, thus rendering them legally vulnerable in the event of death.

Same-sex stepparent households share this lack of legal protection with heterosexual stepparents; however, there are additional vulnerabilities associated with being a same-sex family, including those stemming from others' prejudicial views regarding the well-being of children raised in these homes (Herbstrith, Tobin, Hesson-McInnis, & Schneider, 2013; Massey, Merriwether, & Garcia, 2013). By not having equal access to marriage (until recently), same-sex couples have been disadvantaged in establishing their parental rights; for example, at least one study found that judges placed primary emphasis on marital status when awarding parental rights to nonbiological parents (Holtzman, 2011). Historically, gay men and lesbians have had a long fight for the legal right to parent their children in the United States. These parents (whose children were most often conceived within heterosexual partnerships) found themselves on the receiving end of animosity and judicial bias in family courts, largely stemming from broader societal misconceptions that being gay or lesbian is antithetical to parenting (Rivers, 2013). Arguments contending that maintaining a relationship with a gay or lesbian parent was in the child's best interest often backfired as judges perceived that stigmatization for having a gay or lesbian parent would not be healthy for the child. For gay or lesbian parents (with children from prior heterosexual unions) who later enter same-sex relationships, the distrust for and contentious history with family courts likely continues. Gay and lesbian stepparents seeking parental rights are limited to using legal statutes previously formulated for heterosexual stepparents, a strategy that has yielded mixed results (Richman, 2002). Beyond these legal obstacles, social obstacles also exist. For instance, one study found the biggest hurdle for lesbian stepparents was the ambiguity of their role in relation to the children in their homes (Berger, 1998). Although many heterosexual stepfamilies also experience this hurdle, the shared gender between lesbians adds to the role confusion experienced in these stepparent households (Erera & Fredriksen, 1999). …

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