A custody showdown between a former same-sex couple has sparked interest not only in legal circles, but also among the LGBT community. Speculation is mounting as to how the issue of custody will be resolved in the wake of same-sex marriage legalization.
Like all custody conflicts, the one between Amber Berndt, 37, and Joy Phillips, 41, is a sad situation, because the lives of their seven and ten-year-old daughters have been upturned. The women were never legally married, but did have a commitment ceremony and spent a total of 13 years together. Unfortunately, their relationship came to an end in 2014.
Berndt, the biological mother, wants to move closer to her new partner with her daughters, leaving Phillips pleading for her parental rights.
Both women raised their daughters, and the legal last names of the girls are Berndt-Phillips. While this last name shows the intent that Phillips be a parent to her daughters, in the eyes of the law, it does not establish the right of parentage. Because Phillips is not biologically related to the children and could not adopt them under Michigan law, her rights to the children are unclear.
LGBT project attorney, Jay Kaplan of the American Civil Liberties Union, is calling this legal battle a very important case.
He told reporter Jennifer O’Neill of Yahoo Parenting, “We are going to see more of these cases in the future, because courts are going to have to deal with the effect of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision.” Kaplan went on to say, “Couples who didn’t get married because they couldn’t shouldn’t be denied the rights that same sex-married couples now have.”
O’Neill writes that the women raised the girls together and continued to do so even after their break up. However, the situation changed when Berndt wanted to relocate, and Phillips petitioned the court for “formalized” shared custody.
“According to court records examined by Michigan Live, each mother claims she was the primary caregiver, that the girls called both women ‘mom,’ and that Berndt listed Phillips as the guardian of the children in her will,” reported O’Neill. “Kent County Family Court Judge Kathleen Feeney is considering the arguments, and noted at a recent hearing, ‘I feel like Star Trek in that we’re going to unknown places that have yet to be explored.’”
As mentioned earlier, it’s a shame that Phillips could not go through the adoption process after the children were born, as second-parent adoption was not an option in Michigan. From a legal standpoint, adoption would have allowed her to secure both custody and visitation.
Phillips’ attorney, Christine Yared, told O’Neill, “This case is about securing the right of the children to have a continuing relationship with both of their parents. The children should not lose their relationship with one of their parents simply because the state they live in would not allow their parents to get married or recognize out-of-state marriages.” Yared maintains that because the law prohibiting same-sex marriage in Michigan has been declared unconstitutional, the issue is not as black-and-white as Berndt’s attorney believes it is, and that Phillips’ claim to motherhood should not be easily dismissed.
Let’s hope the court’s decision is in the best interest of these children, and that they are able to maintain relationships with both of the women who’ve raised them since birth.