Illinois Supreme Court affirms stepparent rights in civil unions

By Peter Hancock Capitol News Illinois

Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield. (Capitol News Illinois file photo)

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Supreme Court by unanimous decision ruled Thursday, Sept. 24 that parents involved in civil unions have the same stepparenting rights as married individuals and that those rights continue even after the death of their spouse.

“This is a great decision, not only for the LGBTQ community but for all couples who decided to enter into a civil union,” John Knight of the ACLU of Illinois said in a statement after the ruling. “The court clearly recognized that when the Illinois General Assembly passed the Civil Union Act, it intended to extend to civil union partners all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, including those of a stepparent.”

The case actually did not involve an LGBTQ couple. It involved a woman, Kris Fulkerson, whose partner, Matthew Sharpe, died in 2017. Sharpe had a child — identified in court documents only as A.S. Sharpe — with his ex-wife, Crystal Westmoreland, before their 2013 divorce.

Sharpe and Westmoreland shared equal parenting time, but A.S. continued to live with Sharpe at their home in the Metro East with Fulkerson and her three children. After Sharpe died, Westmoreland took custody of A.S. and stopped allowing the child to visit Fulkerson or her other children.

Fulkerson filed a petition seeking visitation rights and an allocation of parental responsibilities. Westmoreland then asked the circuit court to certify two questions for an appellate court to decide: Whether a party to a civil union has standing to request visitation with her deceased partner’s child as a stepparent, and whether that party has standing to request parental responsibilities.

Under Illinois law, the court noted, stepparents are allowed to seek visitation rights and parental responsibilities when their spouse dies. The court also noted that only three other classes of nonparents are allowed to seek visitation rights — grandparents, great-grandparents and siblings.

The question before the court, however, was whether someone who is not married to the birth parent, but instead is part of a civil union, qualifies as a stepparent.

In 2011, the General Assembly passed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, known more simply as the Civil Union Act, as a way to confer most of the rights of marriage to couples who were not legally married. That was prior to the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

That law states: “A party to a civil union is entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses, whether they derive from statute, administrative rule, policy, common law, or any other source of civil or criminal law.”

An appeals court panel answered “no” to both of those questions, but in a unanimous opinion Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed those decisions.

“We find that, in enacting the Civil Union Act, the General Assembly intended to create an alternative to marriage that was equal in all respects,” Justice Rita Garman wrote for the court. “This intent was not limited to partners’ rights as to each other.”

“I am so pleased by the court’s ruling. This was not just a court case. It was about my family,” Fulkerson said in a statement issued through the ACLU. “When my partner and I entered into a civil union seven years ago, we understood that our civil union would give us all the same rights and responsibilities as a marriage. I became a stepparent to a child who became an important part of my life and the life of my entire family. We forged a strong relationship as a family, one that did not end – legally or emotionally – at the death of my partner.”

The case now goes back to circuit court for a judge to decide how much visitation and parental responsibility Fulkerson will have.