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April 11th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
An Arlington, Texas man can stop making child support payments to a California woman who, with his consent, used his sperm to conceive triplets.  Read about it here (BND.com, 4/10/12).

Body builder Ronnie Coleman began a relationship with the woman, identified only as Jo D. in court documents, in 1991.  They saw each other sporadically because she lived in California and he in Texas.  But Coleman often travelled to California and when, in 2006, the woman announced she wanted to have children, he agreed to donate semen to a sperm bank that would then be used to inseminate the woman.  Jo D. told Coleman she wanted to know who the donor was.

The woman became pregnant and, in June of 2007, gave birth to triplets, one of whom died in March of the following year.  Despite their agreement that Coleman would have no part in parenting the children and no obligation to support them, Jo D. sued him for child support shortly after they were born.   That was in 2008, and a California appellate court has just ruled that Coleman has no obligation to the children.

That should have been obvious given that a California statute clearly states that, when a man donates sperm to a sperm bank for the purpose of inseminating a woman who’s not his wife, he has neither parental rights nor duties toward any children born as a result.  That law exists for some obvious reasons.  First, it encourages sperm donation for the purpose of artificial insemination.  After all, if men knew they could be made to pay support to mothers they’d never met for children they’ve never seen, the chances of donation would likely drop to nothing.

Second, the law shields women who conceive artificially from the parental claims of men they’ve never met.  And third, it protects men from claims of child support for children whose lives they want no part of.

Given the clarity of the law, why did Jo D. claim support in the first place and why did the lower court grant it to her?  For several years, Coleman paid $5,000 per month for the children.  That’s where the story gets murky. 

After her children were born, Jo said, Coleman signed papers stating that he was the father and visited the children in her home and had an overnight visit with them at his daughter’s apartment.

But Coleman and court documents say that although he visited the babies at Jo’s house, he did not take steps to declare that he was the children’s father, such as welcoming them into his home.

And while court records say that five days after Jo delivered the triplets, Coleman signed documents at the hospital saying he was the father, Coleman said he thought he was signing forms that only confirmed that he was the sperm donor but not the father.

Coleman said he did not have an understanding of what he was signing and did not read the forms. He also did not have an attorney.

Apparently, in California, it’s the intent of the father that matters and Jo D. used the documents Coleman signed to claim that he intended all along to act as the children’s father.  Coleman denied that and, with the exception of coming to visit the babies once, there’s nothing but those documents to suggest he intended to play the role of father to Jo D.’s kids.  Among other things, six months after the insemination, he married someone else.

That raises the question of exactly how those documents were presented to Coleman.  He says they were falsely represented to be simply an acknowledgement of his donor status.  Jo D. claims he knew what they were and signed them anyway.

Who knows who knew what when, but from here there looks like a very simple explanation for Coleman’s signing.  At the time, Coleman had been a world-renowned body builder, having won the title of Mr. Olympia eight times, more than all but one other person.  That meant he made good money in appearance and speaking fees.  A newspaper article in 2003 reported Coleman saying he made some $500,000 a year from his status as a body builder.  Did that pot of money encourage Jo D. to tap Coleman as her donor of choice?

And the extremely brief time between the birth of her children and the filing of her lawsuit strongly indicates that Jo D. never intended to keep their agreement.

In the end, the Court of Appeals did the right thing, both in the way it construed California law and equitably.  Ronnie Coleman and Jo D. had an agreement that she tried to get the courts to allow her to violate.  To me, if a woman wants to avoid the involvement of a father in her children’s lives via the expedient of artificial insemination, she shouldn’t be able to later decide that she wants his money.  California law and that of many states, agree.

Interestingly, I like the element of intent that’s now part of the law in this area.

Lauren Duffer, an attorney specializing in reproductive technology law, said an unmarried sperm donor must intend to be the parent of a child if he donates sperm to a licensed physician for use by an unmarried woman.

“When an unmarried man donates sperm to a licensed physician or sperm bank, was it his intent to be the father or the donor?” she said. “In situations where women donate their eggs, it is more common to have a contract, but that’s not often the case for sperm donors.”

The question “did the man intend to become a father?” has the potential to accomplish great things in the realm of fathers’ rights.  The infamous case of the man whose girlfriend secretly inseminated herself with semen from his condom and was tagged with child support is one example.  Had the law included an element of intent, he wouldn’t have been forced to pay.  Use of a condom strongly indicates his intent to not become a father.

And many paternity fraud cases could be solved if there were a requirement that the intent to become a father be shown in order to acquire the rights or duties of a parent.

The time is a long way off in which fathers’ rights and duties will be governed by the concept of intent.  Indeed, it may never come at all.  But with each passing day, the law on fathers’ rights gets a little more sane.  That’s just what happened in Ronnie Coleman’s case.

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