The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday issued a decision that serves to clarify the custody rights of same-sex couples in the state, ruling that a non-biologically related woman can pursue custody and visitation rights now that her relationship with the child’s biological mother has ended because, the court found, there was adequate evidence to say she had been acting as the boy’s parent during the life of the relationship.
As such, the court gave permission for Teri Latham and Susan Schwerdtfeger to take their custody case back to the lower courts to decide whether Latham, the non-biologically related parent, should be granted visitation rights.
The two lived together as a couple for more than 15 years before having a son together in 2001. The two women chose a sperm donor together and shared the cost of the fertility treatments for Schwerdtfeger’s pregnancy. Both sides agreed Latham acted as the boy’s mother for the first several years of his life before the relationship ended in 2006.
“The relationship between Latham and Schwerdtfeger, however, is not the deciding factor,” the court said in its ruling. “The record is clear that Schwerdtfeger consented to Latham’s performance of parental duties. Schwerdtfeger encouraged Latham to assume the status of a parent.”
Latham’s attorney, Tyler Block, said this ruling will be important for same-sex couples as well as for other non-married couples where someone who is not the biological parent acts as a parent.
“They got it exactly right,” Block said. “They applied Nebraska law and helped give clarification on how it applies in these particular situations.”
Even Schwerdtfeger’s attorney’s acknowledged that, while this ruling was disappointing on a personal level because it means the couple will now have to go through several more years of court proceedings, it is an important decision in terms of the legal landscape for same-sex couples in the state.
Schwerdtfeger never in fact disputed Latham’s role as a parent during the time of the relationship but said that she had not done enough since the relationship ended, citing that Latham had declined financial support for 10-year-old Parker Schwerdtfeger, and also that Parker had said himself that he no longer wanted to see Latham.
However, the court noted in issuing Friday’s ruling that Latham’s lack of support following the relationship’s end, and indeed lack of contact with Parker, was mainly due to her access being severely restricted by the boy’s biological mother and did not reflect a lack of desire on her part to be involved in Parker’s life. This is, however, something she will have to prove before the courts if she wishes to have a continued relationship.
Notably, the case skirted the issues of marriage and de facto parent rights because Nebraska has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage which was enacted in 2000.