Civil partner to stepparent: Supreme Court clears up some issues with recent opinion

Cases involving civil unions and stepparents are complicated, but the Illinois Supreme Court has shed light by declaring that civil union partners have the same rights as stepparents in a traditional marriage setting.

In Sharpe v. Westmoreland, 2020 IL 124863, the Supreme Court held a civilly united partner, although not married to the child’s parent, is still a stepparent as defined by the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act. Thus, he or she has standing to ask for visitation and parental decision-making with the child of his or her deceased partner.

In Sharpe, Matt Sharpe’s civil partner Kris Fulkerson petitioned for visitation of Sharpe’s child after his death. The child had lived with Fulkerson and Sharpe for more than three years, but moved in with its mother, Crystal Westmoreland, after Sharpe’s death. Westmoreland refused to allow the child to visit with Fulkerson, prompting her to seek visitation and an allocation of parental responsibilities in court.

After allowing Fulkerson to intervene, the trial court certified two questions for appeal: (1) whether a party to a civil union has standing to request visitation with her deceased partner’s child as a stepparent; and (2) whether that party has standing to request parental responsibilities. The 5th District Appellate Court said no to both questions, but the Supreme Court reversed and remanded. This case drew the attention of the National Association of Social Workers and Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who each filed amicus curiae briefs.

To answer the two certified questions, the Supreme Court focused on the statutory language of the Dissolution Act to ascertain the legislative intent. The high court held the legislature intended for persons civilly united to have the same obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits afforded or recognized by Illinois to spouses. This includes the rights of a stepparent under the Dissolution Act. The court opined, the legislature’s intent in enacting the Civil Union Act was to create an alternative to marriage that is equal in all respects. No difference exists between a civil union and marriage other than the name.? As such, the Supreme Court concluded that a civilly united partner is a stepparent as defined in the Dissolution Act.

The Supreme Court emphasized its holding is limited only to those parties who have entered into a civil union instead of a marriage. It does not apply to a party in a committed live-in relationship that is not state-sanctioned. Additionally, although the civilly united parties in Sharpe were of the opposite sex, it seems apparent from the court’s decision and in-depth discussion of the rights of civilly united partners that stepparental rights would extend equally to same-sex civilly united partners.

The Supreme Court did not address the merits of Fulkerson’s petition for visitation and allocation of parental responsibilities. Its opinion is limited to the issue of standing and recognition that when a child’s parent enters into a civil union with another person. It ruled that person becomes the child’s stepparent as defined by the Dissolution Act and may petition the court for visitation and allocation of parental responsibilities as specified therein.

Of course, the parental rights of Fulkerson as a stepparent are not absolute. Nor is it superior to the rights of Westmoreland as the child’s surviving parent. The crux is that Fulkerson now has standing as a stepparent to petition the court for visitation and allocation of parental responsibilities of Sharpe and Westmoreland’s child under the Dissolution Act. It is still up to the trial court to assess whether Fulkerson has met the statutory criteria to bring a proper petition for visitation and allocation of parental responsibilities and then weigh the factors in determining the best interests of the child.

2021 Law Bulletin Media