by Elizabeth Meck
This has been a busy week in celebrity news, particularly with regard to advancements in assisted reproductive technology and the applicability of legally enforceable agreements.
For example, Sophia Vergara, superstar of ABC sitcom Modern Family, is now embroiled in a legal battle with her ex-fiancé, Nick Loeb, regarding two frozen embryos created by the then-couple several years ago when they were planning to use in vitro fertilization and a gestational surrogate to have a baby. Vergara and Loeb executed documents at their fertility clinic stating their agreement to keep the embryos frozen unless both parties mutually agreed to use them (i.e., to implant them into a surrogate) or to destroy them. Otherwise, the parties agreed that the embryos would only be destroyed if one of them dies. Apparently, the standard documents did not address what would happen to the embryos in the event the couple did not remain together or could not agree whether to use or destroy the embryos. Hence, Loeb filed a lawsuit in which he requests that a judge order that the embryos cannot be destroyed under any circumstances and states his position that the survivor between Loeb and Vergara would have control over the embryos upon the death of the other party. For more on the dispute, click here.
This type of dispute is not limited to the rich and famous. Assisted reproductive technology, or “ART,” is on the rise.1 The Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 12% of couples experience problems with fertility and as many as 12% of U.S. women and their partners receive infertility services.2 In 2009, the Colorado Legislature adopted the Uniform Probate Code III into the Colorado Probate Code (the “Code”), which incorporated several important changes regarding ART.3 For example, the Code now specifically includes definitions of a “genetic father” and a “genetic mother,” § 15-11-115(5-6), the definition of a “genetic parent," § 15-11-115(7), and clarification as to the individual who “functions as a parent of the child,” § 15-11-115(4), to assist in the determination of exactly who constitutes a child’s “parent” for purposes of succession under the Code.
Further, sections 15-11-116 to -121 of the Code re-codified the existing concept that marital status is not necessarily determinative of a parent-child relationship. As a result, the rules of who is eligible to “take” in an intestacy proceeding have been expanded to include ART children who are adopted or in the process of being adopted. § 15-11-119(5). An ART child does not, however, maintain intestacy rights as to a gestational carrier, absent additional evidence of the parent-child relationship. § 15-11-121(3). Importantly, though, an ART child who is born to a birth mother, who is not a gestational mother, is considered the child of the birth mother regardless of whether the child is genetically tied to the birth mother; and, the person who consented to the assisted reproduction by the birth mother with the “intent” to be treated as the other parent of the child is the parent. § 15-11-120. Intent can be demonstrated any number of ways pursuant to § 15-11-120(6).4 It is important to note that a parent can demonstrate “intent” to be treated as the parent of a posthumously conceived child, so long as the child is in utero within thirty-six months or born within forty-five months of the intended parent’s death. § 15-11-120(11).
ART children may also be included in the definition of a class defined in estate planning documents such as “children” or “grandchildren” or “descendants,” even though they may or may not be genetically related to the grantor or settlor. For example, an ART child may be included in the class even though he or she is not in utero for thirty-six months or born up to forty-five months after the grantor’s or the settlor’s death. § 15-11-705(7).
The presence of ART and the constantly-evolving technologies in this area require that estate planning attorneys, drafters of marital agreements and probate litigators be vigilantly aware of the repercussions of these definitions and our changing laws, as well as how the changing definition of “family” will play out after a decedent’s death. It is increasingly important to ask estate planning clients whether they have any children who were the result of ART, or whether they still have any cryopreserved sperm, eggs, or embryos. Also, including specific instructions with regard to ART in the estate planning documents may become necessary so as to try to avoid dispute after the passing of a genetic parent, an adoptive parent, or an individual who consented to ART by a birth mother.
Additionally, it is increasingly important to inquire as to the existence of any existing written document or directive that specifies the ultimate use or destruction of frozen genetic material such as embryos. Sophia Vergara’s experience could teach us all a good lesson in terms of covering all aspects of “family” as well as “property” when discussing issues with clients whether in the planning stages or during the administration of an estate or trust. For example, practitioners should start to think about the importance of including genetic material in estate planning documents and marital agreements. Further, practitioners should discuss post-death use and disposition of genetic materials with their clients, and address questions such as whether the surviving spouse should be able to utilize a frozen embryo after the death of the other spouse.
At the end of the day, it is crucial to ensure that a client’s documents consistently reflect his or her wishes regarding all assets, family and dispositions, including the often-difficult decision of how to treat and manage genetic materials. Clarification in the planning documents and marital agreements may reduce the potential for surprises and disputes during estate and trust administration or divorce. Otherwise, as in many other areas of probate litigation, disputes with regard to one’s entitlement to an estate or trust will continue to rise.
1ART commonly includes a variety of assisted reproduction methods such as: sperm or egg donation, in vitro fertilization, gestational surrogacy, embryo donation or adoption, embryo or egg or sperm cryopreservation, post-death conception, and the disposition of cryopreserved embryos.
2Centers for Disease Control, 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth.
3The Code defines ART as “a method of causing pregnancy other than sexual intercourse.” § 15-11-115(2).
4Intent can be demonstrated by the following: a signed record that evidences the individual’s consent; evidence that the individual functioned as the parent of the child no more than two years after the child is born; or, the intent to function as the parent of the child within two years of the child’s birth notwithstanding that the individual’s intent was thwarted by incapacity or death. § 15-11-120(6).