Equitable Adoption and Child Custody Proceedings
The Illinois Supreme Court's recent decision in In re Parentage of Scarlett Z.-D addressed the sensitive issue of a non-parent’s rights during a custody proceeding. The plaintiff in the case presented a unique argument, claiming that the doctrine of equitable adoption, which had previously only been applied to probate proceedings, also governed custody cases. Ultimately, the Court disagreed, holding that the doctrine could not be extended to custody disputes.
In 2003, a Slovakian national and American immigrant, Maria, returned home on a trip to visit her extended family. During the visit, Maria and her fiancé Jim decided to adopt a young orphaned girl, Scarlett, whom they had encountered on the trip, despite the fact that under Slovakian law, Jim was not permitted to legally adopt the child.
In 2004, Maria’s legal adoption of Scarlett was finalized and the family returned to the United States. The couple gave Scarlett the hyphenated form of their last names and, for all intents and purposes, Jim fulfilled the role of a father figure for the child. Maria and Jim, however, were never married. Moreover, Jim did not pursue a formal adoption in Illinois where the family resided. In 2008, the couple separated and Maria relocated with the child.
After the couple’s separation, Jim filed a petition for a declaration of parental rights in which he sought recognition of parentage and an order granting joint custody. Maria contended that Jim lacked standing to commence a custody proceeding. The Trial Court agreed.
The Appellate Court rejected Jim’s claim of standing based on functional parent theories, but also held that the equitable adoption doctrine presented a possible theory under which standing could be established and remanded the case to the Lower Court.
The doctrine of equitable adoption allows a person who was accepted as a natural or adopted child but who was never legally adopted although such an adoption was contemplated, to share in the inheritance of the non-parent. Illinois law requires that a plaintiff arguing the theory of equitable adoption must prove the non-parent’s intent to adopt the child, as well as actions consistent with that intent — namely the formation of a close familial relationship.
However, the Court ultimately held that despite the emotional and sensitive nature of the situation, the doctrine of equitable adoption was designed to address probate proceedings, and as such, applied only to inheritance determinations and not custody cases.
In a society where family relationships are difficult to define, unorthodox family dynamics can make already difficult custody proceedings even more emotional. Contacting an attorney with experience in family law can help all parties reach the best possible result. If you are considering a separation and need assistance with determining a custody arrangement, please call skilled Palatine family law attorney Nicholas W. Richardson, at 847.873.6741, to schedule a free consultation.