Not long ago I wrote about Kulstad v. Maniaci, an opinion from the Montana Supreme Court involving separated lesbian mothers. As a result of the case, Michelle Kulstad gained a form of legal recognition as a parent in her struggle with her former partner, Barbara Maniaci.
The same court has now decided a second case, Filpula v. Ankney, arising from a somewhat similar situation. This one doesn’t break new ground, as does the last one. It simply makes it more clear how the law in Montana will operate. That’s worth noting because having a clear understanding of how the law in Montana will operate ought to eliminate the need for (some) litigation.
Filpula arises in a familiar context. Linda Filpula and Dustine Ankney were in a relationship for twelve years. During that time Filpula gave birth to three children. In the Court’s words ” [b]oth Ankney and Filpula were involved in every aspect of caring for the children, who were raised by the two women from the times of their births.”
In 2006 the two women separated. Ankney wanted to move (and though the move was within Montana, Montana is a very large state.) By then all three children were of school age. Filpula objected to the move and went to court to have a parenting plan established. Ankney responded by asserting that Filpula lacked standing.
I’ve discussed this standing argument before. It is essentially an assertion that the plaintiff (here Filpula) has no protected relationship with the child or children. In this case, the trial court did not accept it. It entered a temporary, and eventually a permanent, order that the two women share custody, with the residence of the children alternating between them by weeks.
It’s not terribly surprising that the Montana Supreme Court upheld this resolution after Kulstad. But as I said, it’s affirmance brings a bit greater clarity to the area. It’s also a chance for the Court to say the equivilant of “yes, we really meant what we said.”
There is one aspect of the opinion that is striking to me. Generally these opinions contain a fair amount of factual detail and I’m left to simplify in order to get a reasonably short blog post out of them. But here, I’ve pretty much included all the facts the court recites. We do not know how old the children are, how they were concieved, what exactly each mother did when, and so on.
Now the Supreme Court is reviewing a record prepared before the trial court and I assume the trial court’s findings are themselves much more detailed. But I take the opinion here to suggest that the questions resolve into some broad yet simple inquiries.
There are three critical questions: The court here found that Ankney engaged in conduct contrary to the parent/child relationship; that Filpula established a parent/child relationship; and that it was in the best interests of the children that the two women alternate parenting time. (That first finding doesn’t mean she harmed the child in any way. It means she allowed someone else to parent with her)
It will remain, of course, for each prospective parent to establish that she had a parent/child relationship. And establishing that might well require a detailed discussion of the day-to-day lives of the families involved. But there is no suggestion that any particular facts are needed.
Many of the other similar opinions from other states I’ve looked at present a much more detailed version of the facts. This can lead other litigants to wonder whether they will succeed if their facts are slightly different. And of course, the facts are always slightly different. So the simplicity of the Montana court’s statement of the facts here suggests that it is not the details that must match up but rather the essence of the relationships. That’s a very good thing indeed.