By: Denise Blake
In July 2016, the Court of Appeals of Maryland decided Conover v. Conover, which held that Maryland courts should recognize de facto parent status for individuals who have assumed a parental role but lack a biological or adoptive relationship with their children. This holding provides legal standing for de facto parents to contest custody or visitation without being required to show parental unfitness of the biological or adoptive parent, or exceptional circumstances. This decision overruled the high court’s 2008 decision in Janice M. v. Margaret K., which abrogated de facto parent status as a legal status in Maryland.
Brittany and Michelle Conover were in a relationship for seven years when they decided to conceive a child via artificial insemination. Brittany became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. Six months after their son Jaxon was born, Brittany and Michelle were legally married. However, after one year of marriage, they separated. In the months following the separation, Brittany allowed Michelle overnight and weekend visits with Jaxon. However, after almost a year of separation, Brittany abruptly terminated Michelle’s visitation with their son. Almost eighteen months after separating, Brittany filed a divorce complaint in which she claimed that the parties had no children. Michelle filed an answer and a counter-complaint requesting visitation. Although Michelle was not biologically related to the child and had not legally adopted him, she had resided with her son during his early life, had a close relationship with him, and both parties had signed a handwritten joint custody agreement. The trial court ruled that Michelle was legally a third party and lacked standing to contest custody and visitation. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed.
Conover is significant for family law practitioners with LGBT clients because it reinstates the doctrine of de facto parental status that was established in S.F. v. M.D. in 2000 and abrogated by Janice M. v. Margaret K. in 2008. Janice M. was detrimental to LGBT parents seeking custody or visitation of a child to whom they were not related biologically or by adoption. In that case, the court held that de facto parents were third parties and had to overcome the rebuttable presumption that parental custody was in the child’s best interest by showing parental unfitness or exceptional circumstances. The court’s ruling in Conover acknowledges the important role of de facto parents in their children’s lives despite the lack of biological or legal parenthood, and recognizes that this type of strong parental relationship should not require a showing of parental unfitness or exceptional circumstances before determining whether custody or visitation with the de facto parent would be in the child’s best interests.
Denise A. Blake is a third-year day student at the University of Baltimore. She serves as a second-year Staff Editor of the UB Law Forum. Her legal interests include Family Law and Trusts and Estates. She earned a Master of Arts in Sociology from Tulane University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit her LinkedIn profile here.