Property Division and Embryos

Property division of a couple’s embryos is back in the news again, and will increasingly be an important part of any divorce case, as more couples seek In Vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive technology.

property division embryo

Modern Family

Many people recall that Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara was in a dispute with her former partner Nick Loeb over frozen embryos. They ended their engagement in May 2014, the year after they underwent in vitro fertilization treatment together, and he tried to gain full custody of the fertilized eggs to have them implanted in a surrogate.

In February a court granted Sofia a permanent injunction which would stop her former partner from being able to use the fertilized eggs to “create a child without the explicit written permission of the other person”.

Do agreements matter? When Peter Goldin, a 44-year-old communications director, and his husband decided to start a family through in vitro fertilization, they faced mounds of paperwork at the fertility clinic deciding what should happen to any remaining embryos in the case of divorce or separation?

The couple, who used one embryo to have a daughter, decided that if they broke up, Mr. Goldin would be the one who decided what to do with their one remaining embryo, since it was created with his sperm and a donor egg.

But Mr. Goldin said that when he and his husband separated last year, his husband no longer wanted him to have sole authority to determine what would happen to the embryo. “He had forgotten what he had signed at the clinic,” said Mr. Goldin, who, with the help of a lawyer, ultimately gained custody after a month of back and forth.

Florida Property Division

I’ve written about the Vergara case and the subject of property division in Florida many times before. Property division, or equitable distribution as it is called in Florida, is governed by statute and case law.

Generally, courts set apart to each spouse their nonmarital assets and debts, and then distribute the marital assets and debts between the parties.

Anyone who has been divorced knows the painful process well: disentangling finances, dividing possessions and mapping out custody arrangements for any children. And in recent years, with the use of artificial reproductive technologies on the rise, more couples have been confronting the even stickier question of what to do with frozen embryos.

In some states, consent agreements signed in fertility clinics, which can provide that embryos would be destroyed if the couple were to divorce have been determined to valid and enforceable contracts.

In New York, after a husband requested sole custody of the one remaining cryopreserved embryo and revoked his consent to use any of his genetic material, a court has narrowly read consent provisions and found such agreements permitted either party to withdraw consent to participation in the entire IVF process, and that the husband’s broadly worded revocation of consent was effective to revoke his consent to the continuation of the IVF process. The court awarded the remaining embryo to the husband, but only for the purpose of ensuring that NHF disposes of the embryo as provided in the Consent Agreement.

Divorce and Embryos

In the event of divorce, couples are not together anymore, probably don’t like each other, and if one person is going to use the embryo and have the child, that leaves the other person in an awkward spot.

For those who fail to plan for the worst, the results can be devastating. Couples who produce healthy embryos and freeze them for when they would be ready to have children face a problem years later when they want to divorce.

In many cases, judges have upheld agreements couples have signed at the fertility clinic, which say that the embryos could be brought to term only with the consent of both partners.

But as the New York Times reports:

“My state of mind at the time was complicated by cancer, being a newlywed and just this hope and opportunity to have children. It was unfathomable that that’s what would eventually determine that my last chance of having biological children would be taken away from me.”

Laws governing the disposition of frozen embryos vary from state to state. Judges have generally ruled in favor of the person who does not want to develop the embryo, but in Arizona, for example, the custody of disputed embryos goes to the party who wants to bring them to term.

Kathleen Pratt, 36, said that the process of poring over sheafs of legal documents to finalize the use of a surrogate led to several discussions with her husband, William, about what they would do with any remaining embryos if they divorced.

Ms. Pratt said her husband initially told her it made more sense to give her custody of remaining embryos — made with a donor egg and her husband’s sperm — because she was unable to have biological children. Then, Ms. Pratt said, she felt he should get to keep the embryos because they contained his genetic material, not hers.

Eventually they came to a decision: Neither should keep the embryos. Ms. Pratt, who lives in Charleston, S.C., remembers she and her husband saying to each other, “Why would we raise these babies outside of our family? If things go sour, let’s just call it a day.”

They ended up using both embryos to have a daughter in 2019 and a son last year. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone go through this with someone unless your relationship is solid,” she said.

The New York Times article is here.

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