COA Rules on Paternity Case Involving Artificial Insemination

The Indiana Court of Appeals was divided rendering an opinion in a case establishing paternity and child support obligations for children conceived by artificial insemination.  This latest ruling reveals the lack of legislation or case law for judges to use in determining issues related to alternative reproduction.  With a growing demand for alternatives to pregnancy including A.I. and surrogacy, the findings in this case will affect how attorneys advise clients contemplating contracts for alternative reproduction matters.

In the instant case, the biological mother was in a long-term same-sex relationship and entered into an agreement with a man (identified as W.M.) to donate his sperm so she could conceive a child.  A contract was drawn up as a donor agreement indicating the donor father would not be responsible for the child in any way and would have no parental rights.

Mother subsequently had 2 children conceived with donor father’s sperm.  Mother’s relationship with her partner later ended and she sought financial assistance and support.  The Fayette County prosecutor’s office filed a petition to establish paternity and Mother asserted that the donor agreement was invalid because it “ran afoul of public policy”.  However, the trial court denied to the petition to establish paternity of the children based on the contract terms of the donor agreement.  Mother appealed.

In Paternity of M.F., et al.; J.F. v. W.M., No. 21A04-1002-JP-84, Court of Appeals Judges Ezra Friedlander and Michael Barnes affirmed the trial court’s decision in regards to the older child. Because there is very little case law on the issue regarding donor agreements and artificial insemination, the COA relied on Jhordan v. Mary K., 224 Cal. Rptr. 530 (Cal. Ct. App. 1986), which the Indiana Supreme Court cited in Straub v. B.M.T. by Todd, 645 N.E.2d 597 (Ind. 1994). An underlying factor upholding the contract between a donor and recipient is the involvement of a licensed physician in the insemination process.  The contract is invalid if the child is conceived through intercourse, regardless of an agreement between the parties.

In this case, the manner of insemination and conception was disputed by the parties.  The majority of the judges determined that Mother held the burden to prove the manner of conception.   The judges found that Mother failed to prove that the manner in which she was inseminated for the eldest child would void the contract law and render the donor agreement unenforceable.

Judge Terry Crone dissented regarding which party held the burden of proof, arguing that the father must bear the burden as the one trying to avoid his support obligation. Judge Crone did agree with the majority of the judges that the circumstances affecting enforceability of “assisted conception contracts”  must be limited “in order to avoid creating a slippery slope whereby parents could evade their support obligations simply by signing an informal agreement hastily scribbled on a sheet of paper.”

The COA’s ruling does indicate an attempt by the court to prevent incomplete, impetuous or informal donor agreements absolving a father of any responsibility. First, a physician must be involved in the process of artificial insemination, and the agreement must show the parties’ careful consideration of the implications of such an agreement, wrote Judge Friedlander. However, the COA declined to specify any minimum requirements for a donor agreement.

As for the ruling regarding the youngest child conceived by the parties, the judges all agreed that the trial court erred in denying the petition to establish paternity. This is significant because the opinion focused on the language in the contract, indicating the agreement contained ambiguous language that did not apply to future children.  The COA remanded with instructions to grant Mother’s petition to establish paternity for the younger child.  Therefore, while the judges found the donor had no obligation regarding the eldest child due to the contract, they found that the contract did not apply to the youngest child because of the ambiguous language.  This ruling is significant in that the donor is ultimately financially responsible for the child and will have an opportunity to establish parental rights through the paternity action if he chooses to exercise them.