Marci Frazier v. Kelly Goudschaal, Supreme Court of Kansas, United States (23 February 2013)
Frazier sued Goudschaal to enforce their coparenting agreement. The district court divided their property and awarded joint legal custody, designated Goudschaal as the residential custodian and gave Frazier unlimited and unsupervised visitation, and ordered Frazier to pay child support. Goudschaal appealed, specifically challenging the district court’s jurisdiction to award joint custody and parenting time to an “unrelated third person.”
Frazier and Goudschaal were a long-time couple who planned and raised two children together. Goudschaal conceived the children via ART. The couple were not married nor did their relationship have any legal status or recognition. After their separation, Goudschaal decreased Frazier’s contact with the children and then announced her intention to relocate with the children to Texas. In response Frazier filed a petition to enforce their co-parenting agreement with regards to child custody and visitation.
Whether Frazier, who was not biologically related to the children of her former partner, was a parent under the Kansas Parentage Act and whether the district court had jurisdiction to enforce the co-parenting agreement.
Kansas Parentage Act
Reasoning of the Court
Goudschaal argued that, as the only legal parent, she was the only one with the right to make decisions concerning her children’s custody and care. She argued that the State could interfere with a biological parent’s fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of his or her children unless there has been a judicial finding that the natural parent is unfit, which did not occur in this case. According to her, Frazier was an unrelated third party with no standing to petition for custody.
The district court had relied on provisions of the Kansas Parentage Act providing that “any interested party” could bring an action to determine the existence or nonexistence of a mother and child relationship. The district court considered Frazier as an interested party “by virtue of her claim that she has notoriously and in writing acknowledged the mother and child relationship with these children.” Goudschaal, on appeal, contended that “any presumption arising from a notorious or written acknowledgment of maternity is always rebutted if there is another female who is the known and undisputed birth mother.” In the words of the Supreme Court, her position was that “known biological lineage always and definitively trumps any statutory presumption of parenthood.”
The Supreme Court decided that the district court did have jurisdiction to hear Frazier’s petition. Frazier was seeking to enforce the co-parenting agreement. The Supreme Court noted, “The jurisdiction of equity to grant specific performance of contracts, or to reform or cancel them in a proper case, is well settled. [. . .] Accordingly, the district court clearly had jurisdiction to address the consequences of the termination of the parties’ cohabitation arrangement and to determine whether the co-parenting agreement in this circumstance unlawfully violated public policy.”
The Supreme Court also agreed with the district court that the terms of the Kansas Parentage Act were not limited to biological or adoptive parents only. Under the Act, a woman could “make a colorable claim to being a presumptive mother of a child without claiming to be the biological or adoptive mother, and, therefore, can be an ‘interested party’ who is authorized to bring an action to establish the existence of a mother and child relationship.
Moreover, the Supreme Court found that Goudschaal’s arguments did not address the power of courts in Kansas to make decisions in the best interests of the child. In order to accomplish this function, the district court must necessarily be vested with subject matter jurisdiction.
Turning to the substance, the Supreme Court held that the co-parenting agreement was not unenforceable as against public policy. It referred to older cases finding that “not all contracts in which a parent shares or transfers child custody to a non-parent are unenforceable on public policy grounds.” The co-parenting agreement was “not rendered unenforceable as violating public policy merely because the biological mother agreed to share the custody of her children with another, so long as the intent, and effect, of the arrangement was to promote the welfare and best interests of the children.”
The Court stated: “We are not presented with a circumstance where an unrelated third party wants to become involved with a child who commenced life with two biological parents. The situation presented here is an agreement between two adults to utilize artificial insemination to bring children into the world to be raised and nurtured by the both of them. The biological mother is not abdicating her duties and responsibilities as a parent; she is sharing them.” Because sperm donors have no parental rights, there was no biological father to displace.
The Court also held that the children were third party beneficiaries of the co-parenting agreement. It stated: “They would have a reliance interest in maintaining the inherent benefits of having two parents, and severing an attachment relationship formed under that contract would not only risk emotional and psychological harm, as the National Association of Social Workers asserts, but also void the benefits to the children that prompted the agreement in the first instance. So what Goudschaal really wants is to renege on the co-parenting agreement without regard to the rights of or harm to the children, all in the name of constitutionally protected parental rights. Surely, her constitutional rights do not stretch that far.
By enforcing the co-parenting agreement, the district court had ensured that the children had two legal parents. This was part of the purpose of the Kansas Parentage Act.
The Court affirmed and remanded with directions to appoint an attorney to represent the interests of the children.
Marci Frazier v. Kelly Goudschaal, Supreme Court of Kansas, United States (23 February 2013), (Full text of judgment, PDF)