Two years ago, the Illinois Supreme Court recognized the doctrine of equitable adoption in the context of an estate proceeding. In In re Parentage of Scarlet Z.-D., the Court was presented with the question of whether the doctrine should be extended to a parentage proceeding. In late March, the Court handed down its unanimous decision: No.
The two parties to Scarlett began living together in 1999, and became engaged not long after. In 2003, the mother – a native of Slovakia – met a child during a visit home. The mother and her fiancée decided that the mother would adopt the child (the father had no right to do so since was neither a Slovakian national nor married to the mother). The adoption was finalized under Slovakian law in 2004.
The adult parties never married; nor was the child’s Slovakian adoption domesticated in Illinois. In the summer of 2008, the adult parties’ relationship ended; the mother moved out of the couple’s house, taking the child with her. Not long after, the putative father filed a six-count petition, seeking physical custody of the child, or in the alternative, primary custody with reasonable visitation for the mother; an equitable division of child support; breach of an oral agreement to be equal parents to the child; promissory estoppel, and breach of a contract implied in fact and law. After a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the putative father lacked standing and denied relief on the first two counts.
The Appellate Court initially affirmed. On petition for leave to appeal, the Supreme Court directed the Appellate Court to reconsider in light of the Court’s recent recognition of the doctrine of equitable adoption. On reconsideration, the Appellate Court concluded that the putative father might be able to make out a case for standing under the doctrine of equitable adoption. The Supreme Court granted a second petition for leave to appeal.
On appeal, the putative father argued that the mother should be equitably estopped from challenging his standing. Equitable estoppel involves balancing of several factors: (1) the other party knowingly misrepresented or concealed material facts; (2) the party claiming estoppel didn’t know the representations were untrue when they were heard and acted upon; (3) the other party intended that the representations be acted upon by the party claiming estoppel or by the general public; (4) the party claiming estoppel reasonably relied upon the misrepresentations in good faith to his or her detriment; and (5) the party claiming estoppel has been prejudiced by his or her reliance. The Supreme Court held that the putative father’s claim failed because there was no allegation that the mother had ever suggested that he was the child’s biological or adoptive father, and any promises about future intentions were not actionable. Therefore, the mother’s ultimate termination of the putative father’s relationship with the child was not inconsistent with any factual representation.
The putative father also argued that he could remedy his lack of statutory standing pursuant to various functional parent theories. After thoroughly reviewing the state of the law with respect to such equitable theories, the Court concluded that the putative father’s argument must fail because Illinois does not recognize any functional parent theories.
Finally, the Court turned to the question of whether the putative father could get standing based on the equitable adoption doctrine. The Court pointed out that equitable adoption had been adopted by the Court only in the limited context of facilitating an inheritance from a father who apparently intended to finalize an adoption and had never finalized the proceeding. The Court concluded that there was no basis for expanding the doctrine to a parentage and custody dispute.
The Court concluded its opinion by rejecting the putative father’s common law contract claims, concluding that all of the father’s claims were, at bottom, attempts to end-run his lack of statutory standing to pursue a parentage finding and custody determination.