California lawmakers look to update family law
By Fenit Nirappil
Bitter, high-profile disputes have inspired legislators to modernize laws molded for “Leave it to Beaver”-era families. Jason Patric, star of “The Lost Boys,” has been seeking custody rights over a son he fathered through sperm donation. The children of radio personality Casey Kasem had been in a legal fight with their stepmother to visit their father in the last years of his life.
Supporters of these bills say such cases demonstrate that laws are lagging behind technology and social change. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat and longtime gay rights advocate, said updating the laws is just one way for nontraditional families to gain acceptance.
“As a lawmaker, what you can accomplish is changing what’s in the law that’s being detrimental and dehumanizing,” Ammiano said.
For example, legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this month deletes the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman” in family law and replaces references to husband and wife with the word spouse.
With gay marriage legalized in California last year, the Senate is considering Ammiano’s “Modern Family Act” to confront thorny situations same-sex and other couples have found themselves in under existing law. The bill, AB2344, would expedite adoptions for non-biological parents, such a lesbian woman whose spouse gave birth to their child.
The bill would remove a procedural requirement that adds a state investigation and court hearing. Non-biological parents are encouraged to formally adopt children because some states do not recognize them as parents even though California does.
The bill also creates methods to clarify the financial and legal responsibilities of surrogate mothers and sperm donors. That’s an important step to prevent disputes from happening, some family law experts say.
“Most of the laws we have in place deal with the use of these technologies once they have already been used and the child is born,” said Lisa Ikemoto, a University of California at Davis law professor specializing in reproductive-technology issues.
The need was highlighted by the case of Patric, who helped former girlfriend Danielle Schreiber artificially conceive a child in lieu of her using an anonymous sperm donor. They disagree whether he was meant to have a role in the now 4-year-old boy’s life, after Schreiber cut off Patric’s access.
Broader legislation that failed last year would have allowed sperm donors to petition for paternal rights if they demonstrate involvement in their biological children’s lives.
The new bill, AB2344, instead would create an optional form that would clarify what, if any, role a sperm donor should have in a child’s life. But it doesn’t address the underlying question in Patric’s case when a donor takes on fatherly roles regardless of agreements.
“Because families are formed in so many different ways and (disputes) are always based on the factual situation that a particular family is facing, it’s almost impossible for any family code to address all needs,” said Cathy Sakimura, the family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Social conservatives say legislation to change family law wouldn’t be necessary if traditional family structures remained the norm.
“This shows how far our society has fallen: It used to be a simple answer to who’s your father and who’s your mother,” said Randy Thomason, president of SaveCalifornia.com and an advocate of traditional families.
Such arguments didn’t resonate in the Assembly, where the Modern Family Act passed on a 62 to 4 vote with some Republican support and little organized opposition.
Another bill moving through the Legislature addresses conflicts between children and their stepparents given the prevalence of divorce and remarriage. The bill, AB2034 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, would create a new avenue for adult children who want to visit ailing parents over the objections of new spouses.
Kerri Kasem, whose father, Casey Kasem, was a famous radio personality and voice of Scooby-Doo’s sidekick Shaggy, tearfully testified in support of the bill a week after her father died in June. She and two siblings were in a lengthy battle with their father’s second wife Jean over his care.
Gatto’s bill allows adult children to petition judges for visitation rights of abused or dependent parents. It’s meant to be a simpler alternative to existing law.
Kasem said in an interview that she and her siblings settled for limited visitation at one point after facing more than $100,000 in legal costs and months in court for a complicated dispute over dueling conservatorships.
“Most people don’t have that money. Most people don’t have anything signed,” Kasem said. “There are so many people suffering through the same exact horrible experience we are.”
Family law bills proposed in California
As the rise of nontraditional families leads to disputes under outdated law, California lawmakers returning from summer break will consider bills that seek to update family law.
Here are the bills:
• AB2344 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, creates methods for sperm donors and surrogate mothers to clarify their parental and financial responsibilities over biological children and expedites adoptions for non-biological parents, such as a lesbian whose spouse gave birth to their child.
• AB1951 by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, would update state birth certificates to accommodate same-sex couples by including a gender-neutral parent option. Gay men must identify as mothers and lesbian women must identify as fathers under the existing system.
• AB2034 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, would allow adult children to petition for visitation rights of their parents, even over objections of future spouses. This is meant to simplify their options under existing law.
• AB1628 by Assemblyman Steve Fox, D-Palmdale, would allow grandparents to petition for visitation rights of their grandchildren when a parent is incarcerated or institutionalized. This adds to a list of reasons that grandparents are allowed visitation when the parents are still married.
• AB1701 by Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, is an annual update to California adoption law. One provision allows parents who pre-arrange adoptions to win temporary custody of a child if a birth mother disappears without relinquishing parental rights. Under existing law, the child can be reclaimed during a six month abandonment period without a court hearing.