SM COURTHOUSE — There’s a big difference between being a sperm donor and being a dad.

That’s the message that came out of a paternity suit recently resolved at the Santa Monica Courthouse in which a sperm donor sought joint custody of a toddler he helped conceive.

As is customary in paternity cases, the full names of the parties involved have not been disclosed. But the story goes like this:

Karen B., a lesbian looking to become a mother, found a sperm donor who seemed like a good fit in Daniel C., a gay man who had posted an ad on Craigslist offering his services.

Under the terms of a written agreement that would later become the subject of dispute, the baby boy born to Karen through artificial insemination would occasionally visit with Daniel, but lived with his mother, who was responsible for making all decisions regarding the child’s upbringing, schooling, religion and health care.

After two years, though, Daniel wanted additional rights and eventually sued Karen, claiming he was entitled to joint custody.

In court, Daniel presented two main pieces of evidence. First, he pointed out he had signed the boy’s birth certificate. Second, he showed the boy’s mother had signed a so-called “voluntary declaration of paternity” designating him as the child’s biological father. (Karen argued she had been sedated when she signed the document days after giving birth).

In the end, though, Karen prevailed and retained full custody of her child.

Her lawyer, Ilene Trabolsi, said she relied heavily on a family code statute that says a sperm donor will be treated under the law “as if he were not the natural father of a child thereby conceived” in order to win a favorable result for her client.

The case may seem like merely an unusual episode between a disgruntled donor and a mother who should have taken greater legal precautions before agreeing to an unusual artificial insemination arrangement. But, Trabolsi said, the case was an important affirmation of mothers’ rights at a time when more people are using alternative means to start families. Had Karen been forced to give up full custody of her child, she said, the case might have discouraged other women from using artificial insemination for fear of custody complications with donors.

“The decision upholds the law … that men are free to donate their sperm without fear of liability for child support and women can obtain semen for artificial insemination without fear that the donor may claim paternity,” she said.

But to David Pisarra, a local family law attorney (and a columnist for the Santa Monica Daily Press) who represented Daniel C., it was simply a case arising from an unclear contract.

“The big lesson is that if you are trying to do something that’s unconventional, get an expert to help you,” he said.

Both parties reportedly spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting in court — amounts that could have been saved if an experienced lawyer had been hired in the first place to draw up the original agreement between donor and recipient, he said.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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