Who gets the Frozen Embryos in the Divorce?

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

Scrolling through the newsfeed on my Facebook page recently brought me to an article about the actress Sofía Vergara’s long legal battle with her former fiancé, Nick Loeb, over the disposition of their frozen embryos.

They had apparently planned to have children – and gone through the beginning stages of the process to do so – but then broke up before any of the embryos were brought to term. At issue in the multiple lawsuits across multiple states was the fiancé’s desire to keep the frozen embryos and bring them to term without Vergara’s consent. Vergara opposed these requests and sought court intervention to stop his unilateral actions.  

Like so many of the issues we deal with in divorce, what is supposed to be an exciting and happy time for a couple can quickly turn into an expensive and protracted dispute if the relationship sours. Compounding the issue here is that technology develops at a much faster pace than our laws do, despite many of our legislators’ best efforts. As a result, if you are considering expanding your family using assisted reproductive technology, you may want to consult with a lawyer as part of the process.  

Most fertility clinics have expansive paperwork that each hopeful parent must complete as part of any assisted reproductive technology process. Included in the many decisions the hopeful parents must make are what should happen to any fertilized embryos following the process. Will the extras be stored? Disposed of? And what should happen to them if one party wants to dispose of them but the other party does not? What about if one party were to pass away? Can the other party keep them and use them as he or she sees fit?

If the hopeful parents have elected to keep the fertilized embryos stored, and then their relationship ends, what happens to the embryos then? And can a court intervene?

What can the Courts do?

In Maryland, the court would not have jurisdiction to make a custody decision regarding frozen embryos. The court can only make custody decisions with regard to a “child” which is defined in multiple places in our Family Law statutes as an “individual under the age of 18” (with some exceptions). Frozen embryos are not children because they have not been born yet so, political/religious stances notwithstanding, a custody action is of no utility.

If the hopeful parents were married when the embryos were created, then the embryos would arguably be considered “marital property” at the time of the divorce – which is defined as property, however titled, acquired by one or both parties during the marriage. If the parties’ contract with the fertility clinic is not clear on the disposition of the embryos upon a divorce, then the court could have the power to determine ownership of the embryos under the marital property statute. Whether the court would actually do it, however, given the ethical and legal ramifications attendant to granting one parent the ability to create a life that the other parent has not consented to, remains to be seen. 

How do you avoid this possible quagmire? 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.

For more information, contact Casey at 301-657-0162 or cwflorance@lerchearly.com.