New Federal Court Ruling Helps Same-Sex Couples in Securing Parental Rights

June 8, 2016

For gay and lesbian couples in Florida, the battle for the legal recognition of their family relationships has often been a slow one, marked by gradual legal advances. This spring, some same-sex couples scored another victory when a federal court judge issued a ruling that appears to have hastened the process of getting both parents’ names on the birth certificates of their children.

Of course, the path to arriving at this point in Florida has been a complicated one, with the cause of same-sex marriage having been advanced by a wide array of different people. While most people associate the cause of same-sex marriage with unmarried Floridians who desired to marry their partners, the issue was actually broader than that. Many of the people who brought challenges in court seeking to overturn Florida’s ban were actually couples desiring a divorce. One such couple was Mariama Changamire Shaw and her wife, Keiba Shaw. The women married in Massachusetts in 2010 and then moved to Tampa. The women sought an uncontested divorce in 2013, but the trial court in Tampa ruled that Florida courts could not dissolve a marriage that, under Florida law, never validly existed in the first place.

Another woman caught in this state of “wed-lock” was Heather Brassner, who had entered into a Vermont civil union with Megan Lade in 2002. Lade became unfaithful, and the women separated. When Brassner encountered a new partner and sought to marry her, she found herself stymied because Florida did not recognize the union she wanted to dissolve. Brassner, unlike the Shaws, secured a favorable decision in her case, marking one of the first times that a state court had declared the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional.

A significant breakthrough came in the case filed by James Brenner. Brenner married his husband, Charles Jones, in Canada and sought recognition of that marriage in Florida. Unlike Brassner and the Shaws, whose harm was an inability to secure access to the courts (and divorce), Brenner and Jones’ harm was retirement benefits. Both Brenner and Jones were state government employees, and they sought to designate each other as their spouses within the Florida employees’ retirement program, but they could not due to the marriage ban. In the summer of 2014, federal Judge Robert Hinkle issued an injunction declaring that the state’s marriage ban was unconstitutional. Shortly after that, as most people know, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry. This decision functionally struck down all same-sex marriage bans throughout the country.

While the Obergefell ruling may have answered the question of same-sex marriage itself, several collateral issues remained unsettled, especially in states like Florida that had previously prohibited these couples from marrying and had laws on the books expressly working against these families. The matter of children’s birth certificates was such an example. Judge Hinkle, in his final ruling in the Brenner case, demanded that the state begin including both spouses in same-sex marriages on the birth certificates of their children.

By May, the state Department of Health began instructing hospitals and birthing centers to put both spouses’ names on birth certificates. This change is a highly important one for same-sex couples when it comes to parental rights, especially in cases in which one parent is biologically related to the child and one is not. In the past, completing the legal adoption process was often the only way that the non-biological parent could ensure that he or she had secured legal status and parental rights.

While many major advances have already occurred with regard to same-sex marriage, there are still issues that have yet to be resolved entirely, especially in states like Florida. If you have a family law issue that relates to a same-sex marriage, you need highly knowledgeable and skilled legal counsel on your side. By reaching out to South Florida child custody attorney Susan R. Brown, you gain the asset of a Board Certified Specialist in Marital & Family Law with 31 years’ experience who is ready to work with you to pursue the results your family needs.

For an initial consultation, contact my Broward County law office online or call us at 954-474-9500 to learn more about how I can help.

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