SAN FRANCISCO – A man who helped rear a young boy since birth is his lawful father even though he is not the biological parent, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The unanimous decision upholds a line of cases that say men who establish themselves as parental figures with children may become legal fathers even if they did not help conceive the child.
Thursday’s case was unusual in that there was only one man asserting legal fatherhood status, and it wasn’t the biological father. That man has never come forward in the custody dispute.
The justices overturned a state appeals court ruling that the Southern California man had no legal right to the boy because he wasn’t the biological father. Other appeals courts faced with similar circumstances have sided with men seeking to be recognized as the father.
Lawyers said the state Supreme Court’s narrow ruling applied only to men seeking legal fatherhood in the absence of a competing biological father.
“What the court said is that, to the extent that people volunteer and assume the role of parent, their rights should be acknowledged,” said Francia M. Walker, the court-appointed attorney who represented the 7-year-old boy in the dispute. “It’s better for children to have fathers than not to have fathers — the ones that tuck them in at night and take them to ballgames.”
The decision did not address circumstances in which the biological father and another man are competing for the legal right to be called dad. The court previously has ruled that, depending on a variety of circumstances including the relationship between the child and parental figure, biological fathers are not automatically entitled to be legal fathers.
Even so, the case decided Thursday was another victory for men who perform the duties of fatherhood even though their seed was not used to conceive the child.
The case concerns Nicholas, who has been living with his non-biological father, Thomas, in the Southern California city of Lakewood. Because the matter involves a custody dispute, the court withheld the last names of the people involved.
Thomas started living with Nicholas’ mother, Kimberly, after she became pregnant with Nicholas by another man, and assumed parental duties. The couple, which since has split apart, had a rocky relationship, including spats of domestic violence aimed at each other.
Kimberly was jailed for minor offenses. While the woman was in custody, the boy lived with Thomas’ mother and with Thomas under a temporary court order. When Kimberly got out of jail two years ago, she claimed Thomas had no legal right to the boy and that Nicholas should live with her.
Now that the Supreme Court has recognized Thomas as the legal father, he will seek legal custody of the child, his attorney said. Nicholas has been living with Thomas while the case proceeds through the courts.
But the mother’s attorney, Sheri Cohen, said Kimberly will seek custody of the child as well.
Cohen said the court assumed that Thomas had established himself as a parental figure. Cohen, for example, said that the couple separated several times and when Nicholas was living with Kimberly, Thomas made no effort to financially support Nicholas.
“We wanted the court to elaborate more on how you establish yourself as a parental figure. They didn’t do that,” Cohen said.