Politics & Government

Citing new same-sex marriage ruling, Fayette judge allows step mother to adopt her wife's son

Joan Callahan, left, and Jennifer Crossen at their Windy Knoll Farm in Lexington on November 20, 2008. The two have together for more than 25 years and have been legally married since October.
Joan Callahan, left, and Jennifer Crossen at their Windy Knoll Farm in Lexington on November 20, 2008. The two have together for more than 25 years and have been legally married since October.

On Tuesday, Joan Callahan legally became David Crossen's stepmother after 25 years of parenting him alongside his mother, Jennifer Leigh Crossen.

Three weeks ago, that wouldn't have been possible.

A 2008 state Court of Appeals case restricted step-parent adoptions in Kentucky to married heterosexual couples. That began changing on Feb. 12 when a federal judge issued a preliminary ruling that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.

Callahan and Jennifer Crossen were legally married in Massachusetts in October after more than 25 years together, so Fayette Circuit Court Judge Kathy Stein finalized the adoption of David Crossen, 28, on Tuesday, citing the federal judge's ruling.

It was the first such adoption in Fayette County and possibly in the state in the wake of U.S. District Court Judge John Heyburn II's ruling, which didn't become final until Thursday afternoon. On Friday, Heyburn issued a stay in the case, delaying its effective date until March 20.

If Heyburn's decision is not appealed by Attorney General Jack Conway and Gov. Steve Beshear, other same-sex couples who were legally married elsewhere will move forward with adoptions quickly in late March, family lawyers said Friday.

"I expect the adoption practice to pick up significantly," said Ross Ewing, Callahan's attorney.

In Callahan's case, her adoption will stand even if Heyburn's decision is overturned by an appellate court. Only Callahan and Crossen have legal standing to appeal the adoption, and they won't, Ewing said.

The adoption is more than just symbolic, Callahan and David Crossen said.

"It means a lot to me and to her. It recognizes her for her quarter century of being my parent," David Crossen said. "But it's not as though the legal recognition provides additional validation to us or changes the way I feel about Joan or how she feels about me."

When Callahan and Jennifer Crossen got married in October, as part of her vows, Callahan promised Jennifer Crossen that she would adopt David Crossen as well.

"I wanted all of us to have legal standing," Callahan said.

Before the adoption, if Callahan died and left David Crossen her estate, he would have had to pay an inheritance tax of 16 percent. Now that he's legally recognized as Callahan's stepson, he won't have to pay that tax.

David Crossen has already paid in other ways because Callahan was not legally recognized as his parent. For years, Callahan could not cover David and Jennifer Crossen on her health insurance policy at the University of Kentucky. Callahan is a professor emerita of the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Women and Gender Studies.

Callahan and others pushed the university to institute domestic partner benefits, which allowed same-sex couples and their children to receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples. One of those benefits is a discount on tuition for children of University of Kentucky professors.

Domestic partner benefits were eventually implemented at UK in 2007, but it wasn't until David Crossen's final year of school.

"Now he is facing all of this student debt," Callahan said.

"Money isn't everything," she said. "But there are real material harms caused by this inequity in the law."

Most heterosexual couples don't understand the legal headaches that same-sex couples must go through, said Judy Walden, an estate and probate attorney.

For example, if Callahan gets sick, she has legal documents to show that Jennifer Crossen can make health care decisions for her. The couple spent thousands of dollars on documents to show that Callahan could make legal decisions for David Crossen when he was a minor, including documents that gave her legal authority to take David Crossen across state lines.

"But you have to have those documents on you," Walden said. "If someone says that they are someone's spouse, no one really asks any questions."

Fayette Circuit Court Clerk Don Blevins said Heyburn's ruling will affect many of the services his office performs if it is not overturned.

"You can transfer a vehicle between husband and wife without paying a transfer tax, but gay couples can't do that right now," Blevins said.

Then there are mortgage laws.

"You can't enter into a mortgage without your spouse's signature in Kentucky," Blevins said. "That could also change."

But until the stay is lifted and the state issues clear directions, Blevins' office is not issuing any name changes or other services that same-sex couples married in another state might seek.

"County clerks will look to the attorney general for guidance on how to implement the decision should it stand," Blevins said.

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