Maniaci v. Kulstad - Background and Timeline

Michelle Kulstad Files Suit
January 2007
Michelle files suit to ensure she will continue to parent the children she raised with her former partner, Barbara Maniaci, and to receive her fair share of the property she and her partner accumulated during their relationship.

Judge Issues Parenting Plan Recognizing Kulstad as a Parent
March 2007
District Judge Ed McLean issues a temporary parenting plan recognizing that Michelle Kulstad was a parent to the children she had raised with her partner, granting her custodial time with the children and the right to participate in parenting decisions.

ACLU of Montana Joins Case
April 2008
The ACLU of Montana joins Missoula attorney Susan Ridgeway in the representation of Michelle Kulstad.

Trial Shows Michelle Kulstad Is the Children’s Parent
May 2008
Michelle Kulstad describes during a two-day trial how she parented the children she and Barbara Maniaci raised together. Michelle describes how she cared for her children on a day-to-day basis, just as any parent would — feeding and clothing them, providing discipline, playing with them, and teaching them right from wrong.

Because Michelle had been told that she and Barbara Maniaci could not both adopt the children, Michelle’s name is not on their birth certificates. Still, the people who did the home studies for both adoptions testify that Barbara and Michelle told them they both would be parents to the children.

An expert appointed by the Court to do a parenting evaluation of Michelle and Barbara tells the Court about the strong parental bonds that the children have with Michelle. The expert testifies that it is in the children’s best interests for their relationship with Michelle to continue. Importantly, she also testifies that the children could be harmed if Barbara were permitted to sever their relationship with Michelle. The expert characterizes Michelle as the “stabilizing influence” in the children’s lives. The children’s therapist also testifies that the strong parental bonds between Michelle and the children must be left intact for the mental and emotional health of the children.

Montana law recognizes the importance of maintaining a parent-child relationship, and that such a relationship arises not only through the birth or documented adoption of a child, but also when certain strict criteria are met by clear and convincing evidence. The court recognizes a person as a parent when:

  • The person shows that he or she has provided for the physical needs of a child by providing food, shelter, clothing, care, education and discipline;
  • The child’s adoptive/birth parent allowed the development of the parental bond; and
  • It is in the child’s best interests to recognize and continue the parent-child relationship.

Michelle meets all these requirements.

The trial is also about dividing the property that Michelle and Barbara accumulated during their relationship. Michelle describes her financial support of Barbara, how she contributed cash and labor to finish building their house, and how their funds were held and spent jointly. Michelle also testifies about Barbara’s promise to share the property, because of all the time and money Michelle invested in building their home. She asks the Court to divide the property equitably, regardless of who holds title to it, so that she can receive her fair share.

Montana District Court Affirms Michelle Kulstad’s Parenting Rights
August 2008
Montana District Court Judge Ed McLean recognizes that Michelle Kulstad is a parent to the two children she raised with Barbara Maniaci, and orders that Michelle be granted joint custody.

The judge also awards Michelle an equitable share of the property she and Barbara Maniaci shared.

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