In Re: The Estate of Susan Hamilton, 1989

By Connie Cain Ramsey

 Chittenden County Probate Judge L. John Cain as seen in 1955.

Chittenden County Probate Judge L. John Cain as seen in 1955.


In Re: The Estate of Susan Hamilton, 1989

Although the cornerstone of the American Constitution is its
proclamation of equality for all, over the course of our history, it's
been the day-to-day courtroom battles that have moved equal
rights from ideology to reality. Today, as more and more states
legally accept same-sex adoption, we can look back at a 1989
Vermont court case that helped forge the way.

Susan Bellemare and Susan Hamilton were intensive care nurses
and ten-year domestic partners who decided to have a child
through artificial insemination in 1987. As co-parents, they agreed
that Hamilton would carry and give birth to the child.

In 1989, tragedy struck when they, along with their now 15-month
old son, were hit head-on when a truck crossed the center line on
Route 4 in Mendon, Vermont. Ms. Hamilton was killed and Ms.
Bellemare seriously injured. Fortunately the boy survived the crash
with only minor injuries.

While Ms. Bellemare was hospitalized, the boy was cared for by
the late Ms. Hamilton's parents, who resided in Montvale, NJ.
When Ms. Bellemare recovered, she presented her partner's will to
the Probate Court, which gave guardianship of the child to her.
Hamilton's will was the only recourse for Ms. Bellemare to keep
custody of the boy at the time, as same-sex parents could not
legally adopt children until 1993. However, the grandparents sued
for custody, feeling that blood relatives in a traditional marriage
setting would offer the boy a more stable future. A court date was set.

After the Washington County Probate Judge recused himself from
the case, Chittenden County Probate Judge L. John Cain, my
father, was called upon to preside over the court battle. When the
grandparents entered the courtroom with the child, Judge Cain
noticed that the boy seemed to want to be with Ms. Bellemare.

The grandparents filed for custody saying “it was inappropriate for
Bellemare to raise the child.” They further stated that Bellemare
“planned to end the relationship” with their daughter, and exerted
“undue influence” on her. Bellemare countered that she had been
“co-parenting the boy” and that she would “love him and nurture
him.” When Judge Cain asked if she was physically and mentally
up to the task of raising the boy, she answered: “Yes, and my
doctor has told me that it is time to get on with my life.” The boy,
she believed, was an important part of that life.

After hearing both sides, Judge Cain awarded temporary
guardianship to Ms. Bellemare and asked that the Sheriff take the
boy from the grandmother’s arms and hand him over to Ms.
Bellemare. There wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom as the Sheriff
complied with Judge Cain's order.

Three months later, the will was declared to be valid and full
custody was given to Ms. Bellemare. Thanks to Susan Murray,
Bellemare’s attorney, an agreement was reached in lieu of an
appeal. Both parties agreed it was in the boy’s best interest to keep
a strong bond with his blood relatives. The grandparents were
given visitation rights of one weekend a month, plus holidays and

The court case and its decision received national attention and
spurred debate as to whether more lagislation was needed for
same-sex couples and their children.

When I asked my father recently about the decision he said:

“Susan Hamilton's parents were trying to do the right thing with
their grandson, but had already raised their children and were not
in a position to be sole guardians. Susan Bellemare had planned on
being the boy's parent all along and went into parenting
knowingly... it was the right thing to do.”


Bob Boyd and Jack Ramsey contributed to this chronicle.

02/news/8907020249_1_hamilton-bellemare-custody (this is the
free press one, entered into zoominfo)

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