Norman MacArthur, left, and Bill Novak were married on Sunday after spending more than a decade as father and son. (Photo: Matt slocum/AP Photo)
A couple who were legally father and son for the last fifteen years had their adoption vacated and were married this week after 52 years together.
Norman MacArthur, 74, and Bill Novak, 76, were married in Pennsylvania on Sunday. The couple, who has been together since their 20s, registered as domestic partners in New York City in 1994, but in 2000 they moved to Erwinna, Penn., where domestic partnerships are not legally recognized. “When we moved to Pennsylvania, we had both retired and we were of the age where one begins to do estate planning,” MacArthur tells Yahoo Parenting. “We went to a lawyer who told us Pennsylvania was never going to allow same-sex marriage, so the only legal avenue we had in order to be afforded any rights was adoption.”
MacArthur says he thought the suggestion was strange at first. “It struck me as fairly unusual, but we looked into it and discovered that other couples had done it. [Without the adoption] we would be legally strangers.” An adoption would grant the couple certain legal rights they felt compelled to secure. “Most importantly, it would allow us visitation rights in a hospital, and gaining of knowledge if one of us was in the hospital,” he says. “With new HIPAA privacy laws, hospitals are very constrained in what they can say to other people. If we were legally related, I would be allowed into the ER and entitled to know what Bill’s condition was if anything should happen.”
Bill Novak, left, adopted Norman MacArthur in 2000 in order to secure legal rights. Today, the two are married. (Photo: Matt slocum/AP Photo)
So in 2000, the two went through with a legal adoption. Since both men’s parents were dead, the adoption proceeding was fairly easy. “It wasn’t as though I was replacing one parent with another,” MacArthur says. “I was the son and Bill was the father. Bill is two years older than I am, so that was the only reason.”
Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal, says that while adoptions like these aren’t common, they aren’t unheard of, either. “It reflects people’s deep need to protect each other as family, and the attempt to use law that obviously isn’t a perfect fit to their situation to protect each other,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “While we’ve had a patchwork nation and people have been desperate to take care of each other in some basic way legally, people have sometimes gotten creative to do what they need to do to protect each other as a family. It’s entirely understandable.”
But when Pennsylvania’s marriage laws, which prohibited same-sex marriage, were declared unconstitutional last year, MacArthur and Novak wanted to marry. “As marriage equality, which we’ve fought so hard for, is becoming more available, it makes sense that people would pursue the legal option that more closely explains who they are to each other,” Gorenberg says. “Marriage is the better fit, and if it was available without discrimination, it is what they would have chosen originally.”
The couple’s original lawyer told them that no court would dissolve an adoption unless another person adopted MacArthur. “I said, ‘that makes no sense to me,’ so we began to look around for other options,” he says. Terry Clemons, a lawyer MacArthur knew through volunteer work on the township’s land preservation movement, suggested that the courts might look favorably on a petition to vacate an adoption if it was made clear that the only reason for the original adoption was to give a legal underpinning to the relationship.
The couple went to court on May 14 in hopes the judge would sign the petition to vacate their adoption so they could get legally married. “When we went to court my knees were knocking, but at the end of the hearing Terry said, ‘we’re hoping you will sign the order to vacate the adoption from the bench,’ and the judge said ‘I will happily do that,’” MacArthur says. “We had 30 friends in court to show that this case was out of the ordinary — though the judge knew that — and when the judge signed the order our friends burst into applause and I burst into tears.”
The case is the first time in Pennsylvania that an adoption between a same-sex couple has been vacated in order to allow the couple to marry, according to a statement from Clemons.
Ten days later, the two went from father and son to married couple. “We wanted to get the marriage done fairly quickly after the court vacated the adoption,” MacArthur says. “At that point we didn’t have any legal protection so we wanted to get it taken care of.”
The wedding was a small private ceremony conducted by an old friend of the couple’s who is an Episcopalian priest. “I feel incredibly happy. It’s the only way I can describe it – just enormously happy,” MacArthur says. “It was very much worth the wait.”