HARRISBURG - A sperm donor who helped a lesbian couple conceive two children is liable for child support under a state appeals court ruling that a legal expert believes might be the first of its kind.
A Superior Court panel last week ordered a Dauphin County Court judge to establish how much Carl L. Frampton Jr. would have to pay to the birth mother of an 8-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl.
"I'm unaware of any other state appellate court that has found that a child has, simultaneously, three adults who are financially obligated to the child's support and are also entitled to visitation," said New York Law School professor Arthur S. Leonard, an expert on sexuality and the law.
But Frampton, 60, of Indiana, Pa., died of a stroke in March, leaving lawyers involved in the case with different theories about how his death might affect the precedent-setting case.
Jodilynn Jacob, 33, and Jennifer Lee Shultz-Jacob, 48, moved in together as a couple in 1996, and were granted a civil-union license in Vermont in 2002. In addition to conceiving the two children with the help of Frampton - a longtime friend of Shultz-Jacob's - Jacob also adopted her brother's two older children, now 12 and 13.
But the women's relationship fell apart, and Jacob and the children moved out of their Dillsburg home in February 2006.
Shortly afterward, a court awarded her about $1,000 a month in support from Shultz-Jacob. Shultz-Jacob later lost an effort to have the court force Frampton to contribute support - a decision that the Superior Court overturned April 30.
Jacob, who now lives in Harrisburg, said Frampton provided some financial support over the years and gradually took a greater interest in the children.
"Part of the decision came down because he was so involved with them," Jacob said yesterday. "It wasn't that he went to the [sperm] bank and that was it. They called him Papa."
Lori Andrews, a Chicago-Kent College of Law professor with expertise in reproductive technology, said that as many as five people could claim some parental status toward a single child if its conception involved a surrogate mother, an egg donor and a sperm donor.
"The courts are beginning to find increased rights for all the parties involved," she said. "Most states have adoption laws that go dozens of pages, and we see very few laws with a comprehensive approach to reproductive technology."
In his written opinion requiring Frampton to help pay for the child's support, Superior Court Judge John T.J. Kelly Jr. noted that Frampton spent thousands of dollars on the children, including purchases of toys and clothing.
"Such constant and attentive solicitude seems widely at variance with the support court's characterization of [him] having 'played a minimal role in raising and supporting' the children," Kelly said.
The children knew he was their biological father and attended his funeral, but Frampton opposed the effort to compel support from him.
"We made the argument that, according to Pennsylvania law as it stands, there can really only be two adult individuals that can be held liable for support in a child-custody case," said Frampton's lawyer, Matthew Aaron Smith.
Shultz-Jacob's lawyer, Heather Z. Reynosa, wants Frampton's support obligation to be made retroactive to when Jacob first filed for support. Frampton's Social Security survivor benefits may also help reduce Shultz-Jacob's monthly obligation.
It's unclear how the child-support guidelines, which assume two parents, will be adapted to account for three parents.
"That's what's going to be interesting because there's not a whole lot of guidance out there," Reynosa said.
The state Supreme Court is currently considering a similar case, in which a sperm donor wants to enforce a promise made by the mother that he would not have to be involved in the child's life. That biological father was ordered to pay $1,520 in monthly support.
About two-thirds of states have adopted versions of the Uniform Parentage Act that can shield sperm donors from being forced to assume parenting responsibilities. Pennsylvania has no such law.