In McLaughlin v. Jones, the Supreme Court of Arizona reconciled previous appellate decisions and held conclusively that the presumption of paternity created by A.R.S. § 25-814 applies equally in same-sex marriages. The Court further held that a parent can be equitably estopped from rebutting the presumption of paternity, or parentage.
The parties, Kimberly and Suzan, married in California in 2008 and later decided to have a child through artificial insemination. During Kimberly’s pregnancy, the parties moved to Arizona. In 2011, the parties entered into a joint parenting agreement that characterized Suzan as a parent. Specifically, the agreement stated, “Kimberly McLaughlin intends for Suzan McLaughlin to be a second parent to her child, with the same rights, responsibilities, and obligations that a biological parent would have to her child” and that “[s]hould the relationship between [the parties] end … it is the parties [sic] intention that the parenting relationship between Suzan McLaughlin and the child shall continue with shared custody, regular visitation, and child support proportional to custody time and income.” The parties also executed wills that likewise characterized Suzan as a parent.
After the child (“E.”) was born, Suzan stayed home as the child’s primary caregiver. When the child was approximately two years old, the parties physically separated and Kimberly moved out of the home and discontinued Suzan’s contact with E.
In 2013, Suzan filed petitions for dissolution and to establish legal decision-making and parenting time in loco parentis. At this time, Arizona law did not yet recognize same-sex marriage. During the divorce litigation, the United States Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges where it held that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry.
Based on that decision, the family court ordered the case to proceed as a dissolution with children based on the presumption of paternity created by A.R.S. § 25-814. Under A.R.S. § 25-814, a man is presumed to be the legal parent when a child is born during the marriage. The family court reasoned that this presumption also must apply to same-sex marriages in accordance with the Supreme Court’s holding in Obergefell. Ordinarily, the presumption of paternity is rebuttable by clear and convincing evidence. However, the family court also held that Kimberly was equitably estopped (barred) from rebutting the presumption.
Kimberly filed for special action review in the Court of Appeals and the appellate court affirmed the family court’s application of law. Shortly after its decision, another panel of the Court of Appeals reached a contrary result in a different case. In Turner v. Steiner, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that the presumption of paternity was intended by the legislature to be gender-specific and thus inapplicable in same-sex cases. The Arizona Supreme Court granted review to resolve the discrepant appellate decisions.
Kimberly’s core argument was that the language of A.R.S. § 25-814 intended to apply only to men because it used the words “father,” “he,” and “man.” Generally, when the plain language of a statute is unambiguous, its clear legislative intent controls interpretation and application. But in this case, the Court reasoned that the legislative intent would create an unconstitutional result. The Court reasoned that the Obergefell decision not only mandated that states recognize same-sex marriage, but that they afford to same-sex couples all of the same rights and benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.
Rather than declare the statute void and end its benefit to all classes, the Arizona Supreme Court decided to extend its benefit to the class excluded by the legislature. The Court reasoned that the primary aim of the statutory presumption of paternity is to ensure children have financial support from two parents. Pursuant to A.R.S. § 25-503, a presumptive father must pay child support unless clear and convincing evidence shows “paternity was established by fraud, duress or material mistake of fact.” The Court reasoned that if it simply voided the statutory presumption, it “would only undermine this important government objective.”
Next, Kimberly argued that she could rebut Suzan’s presumptive parentage under A.R.S. § 25-814(C) (“Any presumption under this section shall be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence”).
The Court disagreed and applied the principle of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel prohibits a party from asserting a claim or right inconsistent with a position previously taken to the detriment of another who relied on the previous position.
In other words, because the parties here previously entered into a parenting agreement and otherwise held Suzan to be a parent; and Suzan clearly relied on this; Kimberly is equitably estopped or barred from now disputing Suzan’s parentage.