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May 17, 2014

Actor's custody case ruling may impact other dads

LOS ANGELES — A ruling in actor Jason Patric's custody battle could have repercussions for an unexpected population — women who use fertility treatments.

Legal experts say an appellate court ruling issued Wednesday in favor of Patric's fight to regain visitation with his son could lead to changes in cases like his, in which a man donates sperm to a woman he knows and then maintains a relationship with the child.

And Patric's legal victory doesn't just impact heterosexual couples; experts say it could also affect same-sex couples who have friends or acquaintances serve as sperm donors.

Wednesday's decision doesn't completely resolve Patric's fight to reunite with Gus, the 4-year-old boy he fathered through in vitro fertilization with Danielle Schreiber, an ex-girlfriend who no longer wants the actor in their lives. The "Lost Boys" actor must still prove to a Los Angeles judge that he qualifies as a father through his actions.

But experts say the Patric case will have a lasting impact on certain paternity cases.

In California, sperm donors outside of marriage are assumed to have no parental rights or child support obligations. Problems arise when a man donates sperm to a woman he knows and then, as in Patric's case, begins to establish a paternal relationship with the child.

In Patric's case, a family law judge determined his role as a sperm donor who wasn't listed on his son's birth certificate precluded him from having an ongoing parenting role. But the appellate justices unanimously ruled that decision was flawed.

"I don't think the (Patric) case was groundbreaking," said Melissa Murray, a Berkeley Law professor who specializes in family law issues. "I do think it will be an important decision for filling in a vacuum in the law. It will be important for those individuals who are in families but they are not families who have been joined in marriage."

Murray, who is affiliated with Berkeley Law's Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice, said she expects the Patric ruling will prompt an appeal to the California Supreme Court, and will likely lead to legislative changes.

Until then, she and other legal experts think the ruling should prompt women receiving sperm donations from men they know to think twice about whether they maintain a relationship with the man. Doing so could lead to him being designated later by a court to be a parent.

In the wake of the ruling, "You have to have a clear understanding from the minute the child's born about what you want to do," said Los Angeles divorce attorney Steve Mindel.

"Once you start the relationship, the court is going to allow the relationship to blossom," Mindel said, predicting based on comments by a judge handling Patric's case that he will likely be allowed to eventually reunite with his son.

(Women who are married or receiving anonymous sperm donations would not be affected by the ruling.)

Mindel said the circumstances of the Patric case are rare — he and his legal partners could only think of one similar case they've seen in nearly 25 years — the scenario is likely to come up more frequently as reproductive technology advances and more same-sex and unmarried couples employ the procedures to start families.

He said women won't be the only ones having to make difficult decisions at the fertility clinic. For men, Mindel said the key will be, "You have to establish immediately that you want to be the parent of this child."

In Patric's case, he claims he did that, signing documents saying he intended to be a father to Gus and later signing school forms and other paperwork that parents traditionally sign.

Schreiber, however, points to a letter the actor signed stating that he wasn't ready to be a father plus his absence while working as reasons why he shouldn't be allowed to resume visits with her son.

While the Patric-Schreiber case will likely prompt changes, other cases could have more impact on the lives of children born into non-traditional families and through new reproductive technologies, said Michael H. Shapiro, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

Shapiro said he hopes Patric and Schreiber can reach some sort of agreement that would give the actor visitation with his son, to the benefit of young Gus.

"They could have a great parenthood with the kid," Shapiro said. "There's no calamity here. This kid could have a wonderful life."


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