The Court of Special Appeals Weighs in on the Frozen Embryo Issue

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

In my last post (Who gets the Frozen Embryos in the Divorce?), I explored how the Court might handle the disputed disposition of frozen embryos upon the divorce of the parents-to-be.

I hypothesized that the Court might view embryos as marital property, and I recommended consulting a lawyer as part of the assisted reproductive process to ensure that a clear and enforceable contract is in place regarding the disposition of any frozen embryos upon divorce or either party’s death. 

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland has since answered the question I posed, in a reported opinion issued on April 29, 2021.  In Jocelyn P. v. Joshua P. (WL 1684645), the Court held, as a matter of first impression, that frozen embryos should be given special consideration in light of their potential for human life, and in light of the fundamental and coextensive rights of the embryos’ creators to decide “whether to bear or beget a child,” and accordingly the embryos should not be treated simply as property.  The Court also clarified and set forth the process that the trial courts should follow when addressing the disputed disposition of frozen embryos, using a blended contractual/balancing-of-interests approach.

First, trial courts need to consider the parties’ preferences as set forth in any existing agreements. This may include oral agreements between the parties, and would certainly include an express agreement drafted by the parties’ attorneys.

The Court was careful to caution that trial courts should not consider, however, “boilerplate language in third-party form contracts [such as the form contracts that many fertility centers utilize] that lack expression or direction from the progenitors” because such form contracts “will not qualify as an express agreement for this purpose.” This lends further support for my prior recommendation to engage an attorney to draw up a separate agreement with your partner as part of the assisted reproduction process, so that your and your partner’s intentions and desires are clear and will therefore likely be upheld by a court in the event of a later dispute. 

If there is no express agreement regarding the disposition of the frozen embryos, then the trial courts are directed to seek to balance the competing interests of the parties using six different factors, including the intended use of the frozen pre-embryo if preserved, the parties’ original reasons for undergoing IVF, and the potential burden on the party seeking to avoid becoming a genetic parent. 

Further, the Court of Special Appeals has directed that the trial courts should specifically not consider financial or economic distinctions between the parties, the number of existing children, or whether “reasonable alternatives” such as adoption may be available to the party seeking to become a genetic parent.  

Jocelyn P. v. Joshua P. is a lengthy and interesting read for divorce lawyers, and makes clear that this area of dispute is ripe for invasive and costly litigation when parties do not agree.

So how do you avoid this quagmire if you are thinking of using assisted reproductive technology? See a lawyer and have a clear contract in place between you and your partner regarding the disposition of any fertilized embryos. It will cost time and money upfront, but could save you a boatload of both in the future.