August 24, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Distribution of Cryopreserved Embryos in Dissolution Proceeding Subject to Contract and Balancing Approaches

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Rooks on Thursday, October 20, 2016.

Dissolution of Marriage—Possession of Cryogenically Frozen Embryos.

The parties had three children together, and it was undisputed that wife used her last eggs to create embryos. The parties’ storage agreement with the fertility clinic provided that in the event of a dissolution of marriage, unless they could agree on who would get the embryos, the trial court would award the embryos. In their dissolution of marriage proceeding, wife argued that the embryos should remain frozen so that she could have another child in the future, and husband argued they should be discarded. The trial court entered a lengthy, detailed, and carefully reasoned decision awarding the embryos to husband. Wife appealed.

This appeal presented an issue of first impression in Colorado: how to determine the disposition of a couple’s cryogenically frozen embryos on their dissolution of marriage. Because there is not case law in Colorado on this issue, the Colorado Court of Appeals reviewed the three different approaches adopted by other jurisdictions for determining the disposition of divorcing spouses’ cryopreserved embryos: (1) the contract approach, which enforces a valid agreement entered into between the parties as to disposition of the embryos; (2) the balancing of interests approach, which the court applies when there is no such agreement between the parties; and (3) the contemporaneous mutual consent approach, under which the court will not allocate the embryos in the absence of an agreement between the parties (the embryos are left in storage indefinitely until the parties can agree to their disposition). The trial court had applied the contract and balancing of interests approaches in awarding the embryos to husband.

On appeal, wife argued that the trial court erred in interpreting the written storage agreement. The court agreed, but concluded that the storage agreement left it to the dissolution court to decide which party should receive the embryos in the event of dissolution of their marriage. Because the contract gave no guidance for this decision, the court construed it to require the trial court to exercise its inherent equitable powers if the parties could not agree. Because the trial court had to apply its equitable discretion, it necessarily had to use the balancing of interests approach.

Wife also argued that some factors the trial court applied in its balancing approach were legally erroneous and others violated her constitutional rights. Based on its review of the record, the court found the trial court’s conclusion that husband’s interest in not producing additional offspring prevailed over wife’s interest in having a fourth child to be reasonable.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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