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De Facto Parents: Parenthood Status Should Depend on Relationship Between Parent and Child

On February 9, the ACLU of Washington filed a friend of the court brief with the Washington Supreme Court to protect the rights of people who seek to be legally designated as de facto parents. The ACLU-WA asserts (in John Corbin v. Patricia Reimen and Edward Frazier) that when determining status, the law should consider primarily the relationship between the parent and the child.

A "de facto" parent is someone who has been found by the court to have assumed the role of a parent for a substantial period of time. An individual must satisfy a strict common-law test to be granted de facto parent status. This adult typically has met the child's needs for care and affection on a day-to-day basis and has formed a psychological and emotional bond with the child. De facto parents are granted certain rights, e.g., the right to request custody and visitation.

Plaintiff John Corbin has lived with M.F.,who is now 15 years old, since she was an infant. He married M.F.'s mother, Patricia Reimen, in 1995; they were separated in 2000 and then divorced. Even after the divorce, M.F. lived with Corbin and her two half-brothers about half the time and, along with her half-brothers, visited Reimen the other half of the time. She has always called Corbin "Dad" and has had little contact with her biological father, Edward Frazier (who supports Corbin's claim for de facto parent status).

In 2005, M.F. abruptly stopped spending time with Corbin, who subsequently filed a petition in Snohomish County Superior Court to attain de facto parent status. Reimen moved to dismiss the petition, but the Superior Court denied her motion, ruling that former stepparents were not precluded from becoming de facto parents. The Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court, ruling that stepparents cannot become de facto parents and that the only way Corbin could get visitation rights was to show that both biological parents were unfit, something Corbin did not want to do.

The ACLU asserts that the Court of Appeals erred in denying Corbin de facto parent status because he has no other adequate statutory way to preserve his relationship with M.F. without depriving anyone else of their parental status.

"This case is about the relationship between a father and his daughter," said ACLU-WA Staff Attorney Nancy Talner. "The importance of that relationship should take precedence over any previous marital relationship." The brief states that a de facto parent-child relationship should not be limited by "biology, marital status, or adoptive status." The Court of Appeals focused on the relationship between Corbin and his ex-wife rather than between Corbin and M.F., and for that reason its decision should be reversed.

The ACLU brief was written by Talner, ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne, and cooperating attorney Roger Leishman of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.