When Bill Novak and Norman MacArthur moved to the Philadelphia suburbs nearly 20 years ago, they were dismayed to learn that Pennsylvania would not recognize their domestic partnership from New York.
So, in 2000, Novak adopted MacArthur — two years his junior — as his son. The move reduced their inheritance tax liability and gave them hospital visitation and other legal rights then unavailable to same-sex couples.
"We were told when we started to look into this that hell would freeze over before Pennsylvania allowed same-sex marriage," said MacArthur, now 76. "So doing the adoption was literally the only thing we could do to give legal underpinning to our relationship."
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After a federal judge lifted Pennsylvania's same-sex marriage ban last year, the couple, who have been together more than 50 years, wanted to tie the knot. But their legal status as father and son stood in the way.
Judge Gary B. Gilman of Bucks County Orphans' Court vacated the adoption decree last week. It's the first time a same-sex couple in Pennsylvania petitioned to have their adoption dissolved so they could marry, according to the couple's attorney, Terry Clemons.
"It removes the hurdle for other people who may be in the same position as Bill and Norm," Clemons said.
There are no statistics on the number of gay couples who have used adoption as a means to obtain legal recognition of their relationships. But the practice had been controversial within the gay community, said Angela Giampolo, a Philadelphia attorney specializing in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender law.
Giampolo said she was approached years ago by a gay couple who wanted her to help them navigate the adoption process, but she turned them down.
"What a lot of advocates back then were saying was this was delegitimizing" of same-sex relationships, said Giampolo, who blogs as Philly Gay Lawyer.
Also, unlike a marriage, the adoption could not be undone, she said she told the couple.
MacArthur said his status as Novak's legal son did not change the dynamics of their relationship in any way. Friends and family greeted it with a shrug, he said.
About 30 of the couple's friends were in the courtroom last week when the judge, noting rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage nationally, agreed to vacate the adoption.
"The courtroom burst into applause. I burst into tears," MacArthur recalled. "They were certainly happy tears. After months of investigating ways that we could do this and finally having the decision coming down in our favor, I'm still walking 3 feet above the ground."
He said he knows of several gay couples who went through the adoption process, and Clemons is representing one other couple who is petitioning to vacate the adoption so they can marry.
Novak, 78, and MacArthur have already gotten a marriage license and plan to wed soon.
The Doylestown Patch news site first reported on the couple.