The PA Supreme Court All but Forecloses Adoption by A Parent's Unmarried Paramour
Under the Adoption Act, except in stepparent adoptions, the parental rights of both biological parents must be terminated as a condition precedent to the adoption of the parents’ child by a prospective adoptive parent or parents. The effect of this requirement has been that a parent will only seek to terminate the parental rights of the other parent once the parent seeking the termination has married or remarried and his or her current spouse wishes to adopt the child. That is because under the stepparent exception the parent seeking the termination does not have to relinquish his or her own parental rights if he or she has married or remarried and his or her spouse (i.e. the child’s stepparent) intends to adopt the child. With its stepparent exception to the relinquishment requirement, the General Assembly intended an expedited and easy process for stepparent adoptions, which are the most common type of adoptions.
But what if the parent who wishes to terminate the rights of the other parent chooses not to marry the prospective adoptive parent and as a result the stepparent exception to relinquishment is not available? For example, what happens if a mother seeks to terminate the parental rights of the father so that the mother’s boyfriend may adopt?
Well, there is another exception, in addition to the stepparent adoption exception to the parental relinquishment requirement, which is called the “cause shown” exception. Under the “cause shown” exception, the prospective adoptive parents must show cause why the adoption should be permitted despite the adoption not complying with the Adoption Act (in other words they need to show why the parent seeking the termination of the parental rights of the other parent should not himself or herself relinquish his or her own parental rights in the process). It is under the “cause shown” provision that some courts, years ago before same sex marriage was legalized, permitted same sex couples, who were prohibited from marrying one another, to adopt. In these cases, the parent seeking the termination of the parental rights of the other parent did not have to relinquish his or her parental rights if his or her same sex partner intended to adopt the child. Some courts found the legal prohibition on same sex marriage satisfied the “cause shown” exception and permitted these adoptions without the parent seeking the termination and adoption needing to have to relinquish his or her parental rights. Once same sex marriage became legal the legal impediment to obtaining a stepparent adoption for same sex couples was eliminated, and thus they no longer could or had use the “cause shown” exception to adopt. Same sex married couples could utilize the stepparent adoption procedure just like heterosexual married couples. However, because some courts had permitted unmarried same sex couples to utilize the “cause shown” exception to the parental relinquishment requirement when same sex marriage was illegal, some unmarried heterosexual couples began utilizing the “cause shown” exception and some courts were granting those adoptions even though there was and is no legal impediment to heterosexual couples marrying one another.
In a recent York County, Pennsylvania case, a Mother and her boyfriend filed for the termination of the parental rights of the biological Father so that the Mother’s boyfriend could adopt the child. The Mother and her boyfriend used the “cause shown” exception to the provision requiring the Mother to relinquish her parental rights as a condition precedent to the adoption of her child by her non-spouse boyfriend. The trial court granted the termination of the Father’s rights, without examining the Mother’s “cause shown” claim, and indicated it would approve of the adoption by the boyfriend under the “cause shown” exception. The Father appealed claiming the Mother had not proven the “cause shown” exception and in fact cannot prove it because there is no reason why she cannot marry her boyfriend. The Pennsylvania Superior Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions that the trial court determine whether Mother satisfied the “cause shown” exception. Father filed a petition for allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The PA Supreme Court took the case and on July 19, 2023, issued its opinion. First, the Supreme Court defined “cause shown” to mean that the Mother and her boyfriend must prove they have “good reason” for failing to satisfy the requirements of the Adoption Act. After defining “cause shown,” the Supreme Court announced a two-step test to prove it: first, the Mother must demonstrate why she is unable to meet the Adoption Act requirement. In short, Mother must demonstrate why she and her paramour cannot marry. The Court declared that requiring the Mother to demonstrate why she and her paramour cannot marry promotes the policy of the Pennsylvania General Assembly which is to promote adoptions by a spouse in an intact marriage. The Supreme Court’s holding is:
“Accordingly, we find that, in order to seek termination of Father's parental rights and the proposed adoption by Partner under Section 2901, Mother must demonstrate cause as to why she cannot satisfy the statutory requirement, i.e., why she and Partner cannot marry, and then establish why the relinquishment requirement under Section 2711(d) is satisfied under the facts of her case.”
In re Adoption Of M.E.L., 2023 Pa. LEXIS 957, *27-28
Once the Mother satisfies the first step, she then must satisfy the second step, which is to establish why the relinquishment requirement under Section 2711(d) is satisfied under the facts of her case.
After announcing its opinion with its definition of “cause shown” and its two-step test, the Supreme Court then affirmed the Superior Court’s order remanding to the trial court for consideration of whether Mother has established cause, as it has now been defined by the Supreme Court, to excuse the relinquishment requirement under the facts of this case. The Court does not explain how the Mother can satisfy the first prong of the test or that she cannot satisfy the first prong of the test provided she remains unmarried. A bright line rule would have been helpful in this case, but the Supreme Court did not give us one per se. The Supreme Court declined Father’s request to rule that a parent may never be able to show good cause to excuse the parental relinquishment requirement in an unmarried couple adoption. So, we are left to figure out what “good cause” there would be for a couple who wishes for the child of one of the parties to be adopted by the other party not to marry.
Although the Supreme Court stopped short of imposing a blanket rule prohibiting unmarried couples from utilizing the “cause shown” exception to the relinquishment requirement, Justice Wecht explained that it does not appear that Mother can satisfy the “cause shown” requirement as defined and articulated by the Supreme Court provided she remains unmarried. Justice Wecht in his concurrence and dissent explains:
“In its attempt to effectuate what it discerns to be a legislative preference for formally married couples, the Majority interprets Section 2903 as a "spousal requirement" rather than as an exception to the relinquishment requirement. It then creates a two-part framework that all but forecloses an adoption by a parent's partner if the couple chooses not to marry.”
Id. 30 (emphasis added).
Justice Wecht interprets the Majority Opinion as in essence imposing a blanket rule prohibiting unmarried couples from utilizing the “for cause” exception to the relinquishment requirement. It is hard to disagree with Justice Wecht considering the rationale used by the Majority:
“Permitting a parent, such as Mother, to simply waive the relinquishment requirement in circumstances where she offers her long-term partner as an adoptive resource, but does not first demonstrate why they cannot marry, would allow the "cause shown" exception to swallow the rule, as that parent could proceed with the adoption even if there were no legal impediment to marrying the prospective adoptive parent, rendering the spousal requirements effectively optional, and the stepparent exception to relinquishment under Section 2903 largely unnecessary. Critically, however, the General Assembly did not intend for the spousal requirement for adoption to be merely aspirational. To the contrary, the relinquishment requirement was designed to promote the General Assembly's clear goal of promoting adoptions by a spouse, in the context of an intact marriage. As then-Justice, later Chief Justice, Baer aptly articulated in M.R.D., this goal is "rooted in the belief that children benefit from permanency," the best indicator of which "is to have children parented by two parents in a permanent relationship — a marriage." M.R.D., 145 A.3d at 1131-32 (Baer, J., concurring).”
Furthermore, the Court explains it is not unaware of the changing dynamics in family relationships from the time the Adoption Act was originally adopted, which now includes more than before families comprised of live-in unmarried partners. However, the Court in essence states that it will not create new law to accommodate these new types of family dynamics and will leave law-making to the General Assembly:
“Nevertheless, regardless of the wisdom of the spousal and relinquishment requirements, the General Assembly has not revisited these provisions, and they remain the law.”
So, although the Supreme Court does not expressly state this it appears it believes Mother must show a legal impediment to marriage to establish “cause shown.”
Since this case is on remand to the Superior Court, hopefully, the Superior Court will render its determination as to whether Mother has satisfied or not satisfied the “cause shown” exception and the matter is appealed again so that Supreme Court is compelled to examine this precise issue – whether a parent who chooses not to marry when there is no legal impediment to marriage can utilize the “cause shown” exception to avoid the requirement that she relinquish her parental rights so that her boyfriend my adopt her child. Or, in the alternative, can a parent establish “cause shown” based upon something other than a legal impediment to marriage?
If you have questions about adoption, please do not hesitate to contact Scaringi Law at 717-657-7770 for a consultation.