Jacob, Matter of

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation86 N.Y.2d 651,660 N.E.2d 397,636 N.Y.S.2d 716
Parties, 660 N.E.2d 397, 64 USLW 2294 In the Matter of JACOB, an Infant. Roseanne M.A. et al., Appellants. In the Matter of DANA, G.M., Appellant.
Decision Date02 November 1995

Johnson, Atkinson, Getnick & Livingston, Utica (Nicholas S. Priore, of counsel), for appellants in the first above-entitled proceeding.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., New York City (Beatrice Dohnn, of counsel), and Weil, Gotshal & Manges (Harris J. Yale and Victoria A. Kummer, of counsel), for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, amicus curiae, pro se in the first above-entitled proceeding.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., New York City (Beatrice Dohnn, of counsel), for appellant in the second above-entitled proceeding.

Ruth E. Harlow, Marc E. Elovitz, Arthur Eisenberg and Donna Lieberman, New York City, for American Civil Liberties Union and another, amici curiae in the second above-entitled proceeding.

Janet Gallagher, New York City, for Association of the Bar of the City of New York, amicus curiae in the second above-entitled proceeding.

Susan L. Hendricks and Laura R. Johnson, New York City, for Center Kids and others, amici curiae in the second above-entitled proceeding.


KAYE, Chief Judge.

Under the New York adoption statute, a single person can adopt a child (Domestic Relations Law § 110). Equally clear is the right of a single homosexual to adopt (see, 18 NYCRR 421.16[h][2] [qualified adoption agencies "shall not * * * reject[ ] [adoption petitions] solely on the basis of homosexuality"]. These appeals call upon us to decide if the unmarried partner of a child's biological mother, whether heterosexual or homosexual, who is raising the child together with the biological parent, can become the child's second parent by means of adoption.

Because the two adoptions sought--one by an unmarried heterosexual couple, the other by the lesbian partner of the child's mother--are fully consistent with the adoption statute, we answer this question in the affirmative. To rule otherwise would mean that the thousands of New York children actually being raised in homes headed by two unmarried persons could have only one legal parent, not the two who want them.

The Adoptions Sought

In Matter of Jacob, Roseanne M.A. and Jacob's biological father (from whom she is divorced) separated prior to the child's birth and Roseanne M.A. was awarded sole custody. Jacob was a year old when Stephen T.K. began living with him and his mother in early 1991. At the time of filing the joint petition for adoption three years later, Stephen T.K. was employed as a programmer/analyst with an annual income of $50,000, while Roseanne M.A. was a student at SUNY Health Center. Jacob's biological father consented to the adoption.

Though acknowledging that "the granting of an adoption in this matter may be beneficial to Jacob," Family Court dismissed the petition for lack of standing on the ground that Domestic Relations Law § 110 does not authorize adoptions by an unmarried couple. The Appellate Division affirmed, two Justices dissenting (210 A.D.2d 876, 620 N.Y.S.2d 640), and an appeal to this Court was taken as of right.

In Matter of Dana, appellants are G.M. and her lesbian partner, P.I., who have lived together in what is described as a long and close relationship for the past 19 years. G.M. works as a special education teacher in the public schools earning $38,000 annually and P.I., employed at an athletic club, has an annual income of $48,000. In 1989, the two women decided that P.I. would have a child they would raise together. P.I. was artificially inseminated by an anonymous donor, and on June 6, 1990, she gave birth to Dana. G.M. and P.I. have shared parenting responsibilities since Dana's birth and have arranged their separate work schedules around her needs. With P.I.'s consent, G.M. filed a petition to adopt Dana in April 1993.

In the court-ordered report recommending that G.M. be permitted to adopt (see, Domestic Relations Law § 116), the disinterested investigator described Dana as an attractive, sturdy and articulate little girl with a "rich family life," which includes frequent visits with G.M.'s three grown children from a previous marriage "who all love Dana and accept her as their baby sister." Noting that G.M. "only has the best interest of Dana in mind," the report concluded that she "provides her with a family structure in which to grow and flourish."

As in Matter of Jacob, Family Court, while conceding the favorable results of the home study and "in no way disparaging the ability of [G.M.] to be a good, nurturing and loving parent," denied the petition for lack of standing. In addition, the court held that the adoption was further prohibited by Domestic Relations Law § 117 which it interpreted to require the automatic termination of P.I.'s relationship with Dana upon an adoption by G.M. Despite its conclusion that G.M. had standing to adopt, the Appellate Division nevertheless affirmed on the ground that Domestic Relations Law § 117 prohibits the adoption (209 A.D.2d 8, 624 N.Y.S.2d 634). We granted leave to appeal.

Limiting our analysis, as did the courts below, to the preserved statutory interpretation issues, we conclude that appellants have standing to adopt under Domestic Relations Law § 110 and are not foreclosed from doing so by Domestic Relations Law § 117. There being no statutory preclusion, we now reverse the order of the Appellate Division in each case and remit the matter to Family Court for a factual evaluation and determination as to whether these adoptions would be in the best interest of the children.

The Context of our Statutory Analysis

Two basic themes of overarching significance set the context of our statutory analysis.

First and foremost, since adoption in this State is "solely the creature of * * * statute" (Matter of Eaton, 305 N.Y. 162, 165, 111 N.E.2d 431), the adoption statute must be strictly construed. What is to be construed strictly and applied rigorously in this sensitive area of the law, however, is legislative purpose as well as legislative language. Thus, the adoption statute must be applied in harmony with the humanitarian principle that adoption is a means of securing the best possible home for a child (see Matter of Malpica-Orsini, 36 N.Y.2d 568, 571-572, 370 N.Y.S.2d 511, 331 N.E.2d 486).

Ten years ago, in Matter of Robert Paul P., 63 N.Y.2d 233, 481 N.Y.S.2d 652, 471 N.E.2d 424, we refused to allow the adoption of a 50-year-old man by his 57-year-old homosexual partner even though the statutory language permitted the adoption. Our refusal in Robert Paul P. rested solely on the fact that the adult adoption sought in that case would have been "wholly inconsistent with the underlying public policy of providing a parent-child relationship for the welfare of the child" (id., at 236, 481 N.Y.S.2d 652, 471 N.E.2d 424).

The very next year, in Matter of Best, 66 N.Y.2d 151, 495 N.Y.S.2d 345, 485 N.E.2d 1010, we again chose not to construe the words of the adoption statute strictly, declining to permit an adopted child to inherit under the will of his biological grandmother because "[p]owerful policy considerations militate against construing a class gift to include a child adopted out of the family" (id., at 155, 495 N.Y.S.2d 345, 485 N.E.2d 1010). One commentator has characterized our decision in Best as "in defiance of * * * the text of the Domestic Relations Law * * * yet in accordance with current societal views of adoption and the adoptive relationship" (Note, When Blood Isn't Thicker Than Water: The Inheritance Rights of Adopted-Out Children in New York, 53 Brooklyn LRev 1007).

What Matter of Robert Paul P. and Matter of Best underscore is that in strictly construing the adoption statute, our primary loyalty must be to the statute's legislative purpose--the child's best interest. "The adoptive family arises out of the State's concern for the best interest of the child" (People ex rel. Sibley v. Sheppard, 54 N.Y.2d 320, 327, 445 N.Y.S.2d 420, 429 N.E.2d 1049). This profound concern for the child's welfare is reflected in the statutory language itself: when "satisfied that the best interests of the * * * child will be promoted thereby," a court "shall make an order approving the adoption" (Domestic Relations Law § 114 [emphasis added].

This policy would certainly be advanced in situations like those presented here by allowing the two adults who actually function as a child's parents to become the child's legal parents. The advantages which would result from such an adoption include Social Security and life insurance benefits in the event of a parent's death or disability, the right to sue for the wrongful death of a parent, the right to inherit under rules of intestacy (see In re Tammy, 416 Mass. 205, 619 N.E.2d 315, 320) and eligibility for coverage under both parents' health insurance policies. In addition, granting a second parent adoption further ensures that two adults are legally entitled to make medical decisions for the child in case of emergency and are under a legal obligation for the child's economic support (see, Domestic Relations Law § 32).

Even more important, however, is the emotional security of knowing that in the event of the biological parent's death or disability, the other parent will have presumptive custody, and the children's relationship with their parents, siblings and other relatives will continue should the coparents separate. Indeed, viewed from the children's perspective, permitting the adoptions allows the children to achieve a measure of permanency with both parent figures and avoids the sort of disruptive visitation battle we faced in Matter of Alison D. v. Virginia M (see, 77 N.Y.2d 651, 656, 569 N.Y.S.2d 586, 572 N.E.2d 27 ["Petitioner concedes that she is not the child's 'parent' * * * by virtue of an adoption."].

A second, related point...

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