Dear Carolyn,

What causes a parent to favor one child over another? I am a father, divorced from my two children’s mother. For the life of her, that “mother” cannot treat our daughter fairly and favors our son.   The children are now 9 and 11, and the daughter is older. Both children are smart and in good health. She just gave a lavish birthday party for the son, and I don’t think she did more than a cupcake for our daughter’s birthday. Can I do anything to help the situation?


Carolyn Answers …

The favoritism you describe is so sad and so very harmful, not only for your daughter but your son in a predictable way. Favoritism is taboo in our society, and as an American population, we dislike the favoritism of one child over another as a general rule. Of course, there are some necessary exceptions, such as a newborn or a sick child that might have special needs. These situations are not arbitrary favoritism, and in those instances, the best thing to do is candid discussions with all of those who are affected. Discussion and transparency generally will offset the negative consequences. This justifiable favoritism doesn’t seem to be what you are talking about, however.

I would have to know more facts to understand the cause of the favoritism you are witnessing, but a common cause is a patriarchal culture where a boy child is valued more than a girl child. Perhaps your ex-wife grew up in a patriarchal family of origin, and she considers neither herself nor her daughter to be equal with your son and you. I think this is strange in 2016, but based upon what I see every day in my family law practice, I think this view still exists. You mainly see this favoritism problem with step-children, the Cinderella story over and over.

You should seek to deal with this problem because psychologists report that the consequences of favoritism last for the rest of your children’s lives. The consequences are far worse than you might imagine and can be very bad. For the disfavored child, you need to look for depression, greater aggressiveness, lower self-esteem and poorer academic performance. These may be life-long problems existing long after your daughter leaves home.

This toxic family environment isn’t good for your son either. Even though he is favored, his sister is going to learn to resent him, and the brother-sister relationship will be poisoned.

I would suggest two things to you. First, seek a psychologist who has studied the topic of parental favoritism and its consequences. Psychology Today has published articles on the topic “When Parent’s Play Favorites.” If you have the means, seek out one of the psychologists who writes on the topic. Get counseling for yourself and both of your children. Second, while I don’t think you necessarily have an easy case with a judge, I would ask for primary custody if I were you, and minimize the contact both children have with that mother. It is not going to get better; it is likely going to get worse. I would arm myself with as much data and as many experts on the topic as possible. Keep a day to day detailed diary on every incident of favoritism. Ask the court to order this mother in therapy with a therapist who hopefully can educate her on the harms to both children of parental favoritism.



Dear Carolyn,

I had two children by in vitro fertilization (IVF). My husband and I are now going through a divorce and we have four frozen embryones that could still be used. The storage facility says that the frozen embryo may be good for at least eight more years. The contract with the storage facility says we both have to agree on the disposition of the frozen embryo, or the facility will simply continue to keep them frozen and send us an annual bill, which we must pay or the facility will send a collection agency after us. What happens in my divorce if my ex and I cannot agree on the disposition of the frozen embryo? I may want more children, but my ex does not.


Carolyn Answers …

You ask a most intriguing question. My strong advice to anyone is to make sure the IVF contract clearly covers the contingency of divorce or any subsequent disagreement over the use of a cryopreserved embryo. A typical contractual provision might be: “The cryopreserved embryo shall not be implanted in the womb without the written permission of both gamete donors given at the time of the implantation. In five years if no joint decision has been made by the donors, the cryopreserved embryo will be donated for research by the storage facility.” This provision allows for a change in circumstances, such as a divorce when the parties now disagree on the disposition. It also allows for surrogacy.

The law is still in a developing stage on the issue of cryopreserved embryo in divorce nationally, and the law in North Carolina lags. There is an interesting case from Massachusetts, A.Z. v B.Z. Husband and wife were donors to create a frozen embryo, and husband gave wife blank forms stating she controlled the use of the frozen embryo, even in the event of divorce. They had twins. Subsequently, they divorced. The facility notified now ex-husband that ex-wife sought to implant the embryo in her womb and have another child. Ex-husband got an injunction from the court prohibiting her from implantation. Notwithstanding the contract signed in blank, circumstances had so changed since the creation of the cryopreserved embryo that enforcement of the blank forms was improper. The public policy of Massachusetts is that a gamete donor should not involuntarily be forced to be a parent.

Just think about it. What a way to get more child support after the marriage is over. The DNA would match.


Note that answers are intended to provide general legal information and are not specific legal advice for your situation. The column also uses hypothetical questions. A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need. Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by Ask Carolyn.