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Second-Parent Adoption in Pennsylvania Marks a Decade

Tiffany L. Palmer, Esq. on 9/19/2012

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Ms. Palmer is a partner at Jerner & Palmer, P.C.

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Ten years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in In Re Adoption of R.B.F.&R.C.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002), opening the door to second-parent adoptions statewide in Pennsylvania. Second-parent adoption is the process through which a person petitions the court to adopt the biological or adoptive child of his or her unmarried partner. The first parent retains full parental rights and the unmarried partner then becomes a full legal parent through adoption.

R.B.F. & R.C.F. consolidated two trial court cases, one involving a gay male couple in Erie county and one involving a lesbian couple in Lancaster county. Both couples’ second-parent adoption petitions had been denied by their local trial courts, and in 2000, those denials were upheld by an en banc panel of the Superior Court on the basis that the petitions did not meet one of the requirements of the Adoption Act. The statutory requirement that could not be met in the second-parent adoption cases is the requirement under Section 2711- that a natural parent sign a consent terminating his or her parental rights in order for another person to adopt.

On August 20, 2002, In Re Adoption of R.B.F. & R.C.F. reversed the Superior Court and held that a person may adopt the legal child of his or her unmarried partner without the first parent terminating his or her parental rights. While this process is similar to a stepparent adoption, the Court did not apply the stepparent exception of the Adoption Act to this requirement because it found that a same-sex partner cannot be considered a spouse due to the Pennsylvania Defense of Marriage Act (PA DOMA). Instead, the case turned on the interpretation of Section 2901 of the Adoption Act. That provision affords a trial court the discretion to determine under the circumstances of a particular case, whether there has been “cause shown” as to why a particular statutory requirement has not been met.

Appellants requested that the adoption cases that were denied be remanded to the trial court for the petitioners to have an opportunity to set forth a factual basis for “finding that the purpose of the relinquishment provision would be fulfilled by maintaining the children’s relationship with their existing parent.” Appellants asserted that “cause” as to why the statutory requirement of termination could not be met could be demonstrated because “[h]ere, as in a stepparent adoption, the only means to guarantee family integrity ordinarily achieved through termination of existing legal parent’s rights would be through preservation of that parent’s rights.” The Supreme Court unanimously agreed and did just that.

“There is no language in the Adoption Act precluding two unmarried same-sex partners (or unmarried heterosexual partners) from adopting a child who had no legal parents,” Chief Justice Stephen Zappala wrote. “It is therefore absurd to prohibit their adoptions merely because their children were either the biological or adopted children of one of the partners prior to the filing of the adoption petition.”

Pennsylvania is one of only ten states plus the District of Columbia that permit second-parent adoption statewide either through statute or case law. Additionally, Pennsylvania is unique as one of only two states in this group that does not also have some type of relationship recognition for same-sex couples such as marriage, civil unions or statewide domestic partnerships that grant some marital rights. While Pennsylvania may lag behind many states in the northeast region of the country in recognizing relationships between same-sex couples, Pennsylvania has always been in the forefront nationally in protecting the rights of children who are being raised by same-sex parents.

Since 2002, second-parent adoption has become the standard procedure through which same-sex couples parenting children create legal protections for their families. Second-parent adoption creates a legal parent-child relationship between the child and the second parent, bringing with it significant rights and benefits including inheritance, custody, child support and medical decision-making. One of the most important financial benefits of completing a second-parent adoption is social security survivor benefits in the event of a death of one of the parents. Attorneys representing same-sex couples parenting children should ensure that their clients understand the benefits of second-parent adoption that the R.B.F. & R.C.F. case brought to Pennsylvania.

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