There was a unanimous ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court on September 24, 2020, that parents in a civil union have the same rights as stepparents as married individuals and that those rights will continue after the death of their spouse.
Stepparent Rights in a Civil Union
The facts of the case were that Kris Fulkerson was in a civil union with Matthew Sharpe who died in 2017. Sharpe had a child with his ex-wife and he and his ex-wife shared equal parenting time, but the child’s main residence was with his father Matthew and his partner, Kris, and her three children. After Matthew died, his ex-wife took custody of the child and would not allow Kris and her children to see the child.
Stepparent Visitation and Allocation of Parental Responsibilities
Kris filed a petition for visitation and for an allocation of parental responsibilities. The circuit court certified two questions to the appellate court:
- Whether a party to a civil union has standing to request visitation with her deceased partner’s child as a stepparent, and
- Whether that party has legal standing to request parental responsibilities.
Does Someone in a Civil Union with a Parent Qualify as a Stepparent?
The question before the court was whether someone who was not married to the birth parent but in a civil union with the birth parent, qualify as a stepparent. Under Illinois law, stepparents are allowed to request visitation and parental responsibilities if their spouse dies. Also, under Illinois law, there are ONLY three other nonparents that are allowed to ask for visitation and those are grandparents, great-grandparents, and siblings.
Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, Illinois passed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act to provide most of the rights of marriage to couples who were not legally married. Set forth in Section 20 in 750 ILCS 75, the law states:
“A party to a civil union is entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses, whether they derive from statue, administrative rule, policy, common law, or any other source of civil or criminal law.”
The Illinois Supreme Court found that “in enacting the Civil Union Act, the General Assembly intended to create an alternative to marriage that was equal in all respects,” Justice Rita Garman wrote for the court. “This intent was not limited to partners’ rights as to each other.”
The case will now go back to the circuit court for the judge to decide how much visitation and parental responsibility Kris will have.
Seek Advice from a Chicago Family Law Attorney About Stepparent Visitation and Civil Unions
The bond between a stepparent and a stepchild can be profound, whether a stepparent is in a civil union or marriage with that child’s parent. When a stepchild suffers the loss of his or her birth parent, losing the relationship with their stepparent relationship can be devastating. If you are a stepparent interested in stepparent visitation, seek trusted legal advice from an experienced family law attorney to discuss your unique situation. Our top rated divorce attorneys have been helping Chicago clients with complex divorce, domestic partnerships, child custody, and family law matters including stepparent visitation. Contact us today for a free consultation.