Kpetigo v. Kpetigo, 2122, Sept. Term, 2017

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Citation238 Md.App. 561,192 A.3d 929
Docket NumberNo. 2122, Sept. Term, 2017,2122, Sept. Term, 2017
Parties Hale KPETIGO v. Rebecca MacVittie KPETIGO
Decision Date30 August 2018

238 Md.App. 561
192 A.3d 929

Rebecca MacVittie KPETIGO

No. 2122, Sept. Term, 2017

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

August 30, 2018

Argued by: William M. Ferris (Krause & Ferris, on the brief) Annapolis, MD, for Appellant

Argued by: Brian David Sadur, Rockville, MD, for Appellee

Panel: Nazarian, Friedman, Fader, JJ.

Nazarian, J.

238 Md.App. 565
Parenthood is not an object of appetite or even desire. It is an object of will. There is no appetite for parenthood;
192 A.3d 932
there is only a purpose or intention of parenthood.1

As society evolves in its recognition of relationships and families not formed purely by biology, so too must the law. Hale Kpetigo ("Father") asks us to reverse the judgment of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County finding his ex-wife, Rebecca MacVittie Kpetigo ("Parent"), a de facto parent—a status not recognized by the Court of Appeals until Conover v. Conover , 450 Md. 51, 146 A.3d 433 (2016) —of F, his son from a prior relationship, and granting her visitation with him. Father also asks us to decrease the child support the court ordered him to pay Parent for the care of their son, L, and to revoke the tie-breaking authority to Parent as part of their joint legal custody of L. We reject Father's argument that Conover recognized de facto parenthood only for same-sex married couples, and we affirm the judgment except as to the child support order. We remand for the limited purpose of re-calculating child support using Parent's up-to-date income or for the circuit court to explain its rationale for using the older figure.


While they were married, Parent and Father parented two young boys. L is their biological child and was born during the marriage. F is Father's son from a previous relationship. F was born in France and his mother was a resident of the Ivory

238 Md.App. 566

Coast; she was named as a party in this action, but never appeared and has not participated.

From the time he was approximately four months old, F visited Father in the United States. At that point, Father was not yet a U.S. citizen, but he lived here during the time he dated, and then married, Parent. Whenever F visited, both Father and Parent cared for him. They married in 2009, when F was approximately three years old; F lived practically full time with them by that point. Father and F both obtained U.S. citizenship through Parent.

After their marriage, Parent expressed interest in adopting F, but Father was reluctant to risk disrupting the relationship between F and his mother. Even so, as the circuit court observed in its memorandum opinion and order, Parent "cared for [F] as if he were her own child" and was involved in all aspects of his life:

[Parent] picked him up and dropped him off at school, play dates, doctor appointments, and extracurricular activities .... [She] packed his lunches, went to parent-teacher conferences, and coordinated his education, daycare, and babysitters.... [S]he took time off and altered her work and school schedule to be with [F] as needed. With the help of her extended family, [Parent] financially supported [F]. As a result, [F] has significant relationships with many members of [Parent]'s family. [F] regularly vacationed in Cape Cod with [Parent]'s parents and established close relationships with [Parent]'s siblings, whom he calls Auntie and Uncle, and their children whom he considers his cousins.

L was born in 2013. According to testimony at trial, L and F had a close relationship, and the couple made no distinctions about who was whose biological child.

In 2014, F was abducted by his mother during a trip to visit her in Africa. Both Parent and Father worked tirelessly to regain custody—both made calls to the FBI, Congressmen, local and foreign embassies, and both made personal visits to the mother's house in Africa. F was returned after sixty-two days, and Father gained full physical and legal custody; a

238 Md.App. 567
192 A.3d 933

warrant was issued for the mother's arrest. F's mother visited once in late 2015, but she has not been in the United States to see him since the warrant was issued. She does call and video chat with him.

Parent and Father separated in December 2015. Until then, F had resided full-time with Father and Parent. Although both F and L lived with Parent at first, F eventually moved to live with Father. Even after they separated, Parent continued to visit F until Father restricted her access to him. All told, F lived full-time with both for at least six-and-a-half years by the time he turned 11.

Upon separating, Father and Parent agreed to share custody of L using a 2/2/5/5 custody schedule.2 Additionally, Father agreed to allow F to have visitation with Parent. At first, Parent had free access to F and saw him almost every day, but shortly thereafter Father restricted her access. Nevertheless, Parent purchased a home near Father's to minimize disruptions to the boys' lives.

In March 2016, Parent and Father entered into a Voluntary Separation and Marital Settlement Agreement (the "Agreement") that formalized the arrangements they had been following. The Agreement confirmed that they shared joint legal and physical custody of L. Father agreed to pay Parent $300 per month for L's care. But the Agreement did not address F, or Parent's right to visitation with F, because, according to Parent, Father "was holding the separation agreement over [her] head basically saying that [she] c[ould] see [F] once [they] figure out the written stuff ...." Parent testified that Father "indicated that he wouldn't negotiate [F] until [they] had signed the settlement agreement."

On October, 13, 2016, Parent filed for a limited divorce. She amended her complaint (the "Complaint") to seek an absolute divorce, enforcement of the Agreement, child support, tie-breaking

238 Md.App. 568

authority for matters pertaining to L, and visitation with F. Trial was held in October 2017, and on December 7, 2017, the trial court issued an order granting Parent $1,057 per month of child support for the care of L and joint legal custody of L, with tie-breaking authority for Parent. The court also found that Parent qualified as F's de facto parent under the factors set forth in Conover v. Conover , 450 Md. 51, 74, 146 A.3d 433 (2016), that it was in F's best interests to maintain his relationship with Parent, and that Parent was entitled to visitation with F. Father filed a timely appeal. We include additional facts below as necessary.


A. The Circuit Court Correctly Applied The Standard For De Facto Parenthood.

First , Father challenges the circuit court's decision finding Parent a de facto parent of F and, after finding as well that continuing F's relationship with Parent was in F's best interests, ordering visitation. He quarrels less with the visitation order itself—he consented to visitation both before trial and during his trial testimony—than with the court's analytical path. He argues that the court erred in analyzing Parent's request for visitation using the de facto parenthood standard articulated in Conover rather than treating Parent as a third party, which would have required the court to find him unfit or that exceptional circumstances applied. Conover , he says, is limited to same-sex married

192 A.3d 934

couples, and he's right that Conover itself involved a same-sex divorce. But nothing in the principles underlying the Conover decision or de facto parenthood writ large limits de facto parenthood to the same-sex context. The circuit court applied the right standard and applied it correctly.

We review visitation and custody orders for abuse of discretion. Walter v. Gunter , 367 Md. 386, 391–92, 788 A.2d 609 (2002). "There is an abuse of discretion where no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the [trial] court, or when the court acts without reference to any guiding rules

238 Md.App. 569

or principles." In re Adoption/Guardianship No. 3598 , 347 Md. 295, 312, 701 A.2d 110 (1997) (cleaned up). If, however, the order involves an interpretation and application of statutory or case law, we review the trial court's conclusions de novo , Walter , 367 Md. at 391–92, 788 A.2d 609, and Father's challenge here falls into this latter category.

Generally, step-parents who have neither adopted a child nor been declared his guardian have no parental rights or obligations that survive divorce. Bledsoe v. Bledsoe , 294 Md. 183, 448 A.2d 353 (1982) (duty of child support does not extend to step-parent); see also Brown v. Brown , 287 Md. 273, 412 A.2d 396 (1980) ; Rand v. Rand , 280 Md. 508, 374 A.2d 900 (1977) ; Blades v. Szatai , 151 Md. 644, 135 A. 841 (1927) ; Alvey v. Hartwig , 106 Md. 254, 67 A. 132 (1907)...

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