Stanley v. Illinois (1972)

Under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, fathers of children born out of wedlock have the same fundamental right to their children as do married or divorced fathers.

Citation: 405 U.S. 645 (1972)
Date decided: Apr 3, 1972
Longer case name: Stanley v. Illinois
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin:
Topic(s):Due process, Equal protection, Family law, Parental rights, and Unwed fathers' rights
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Patrick T. Murphy argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner. (Josh Gupta-Kagan, “Stanley v. Illinois’s Untold Story”, 24 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 773 (2016): “Murphy was a self-described activist leading Chicago’s new Juvenile Legal Aid Society.”)
Others involved:Jonathan Weiss and E. Judson Jennings filed a brief for the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law as amicus curiae urging reversal. Calvin Sawyier and Richard L. Mandel filed a brief for the Child Care Association of Illinois, Inc., as amicus curiae.
More info:

Case Importance

From Wikipedia: “The case was an important step for the rights of fathers and children. Until then, most states held a similar position to Illinois: unwed fathers were de facto unfit to care for their children, and their children should instead be made wards of the state. Perhaps the most important implication of the case was for custody law regarding divorce, as most states had held to the tender years doctrine, which held that mothers were better suited biologically as primary caregivers than were fathers. The few states who had yet to change the laws were in effect put on notice that if the Supreme Court was supporting equal protection for unwed fathers, it would do so for divorcing fathers as well.” Josh Gupta-Kagan, “Stanley v. Illinois’s Untold Story”, 24 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 773 (2016), “Although the Supreme Court issued substantive and procedural due process holdings, it seemingly only addressed equal protection as a one-paragraph afterthought. This shift to due process transformed Stanley from a case about a statute’s treatment of unwed fathers into a foundational case about parents’ rights to the custody of their children and it continues to inform important decisions about the scope of parental rights. The Court, for the first time, recognized that nonmarital families have relationship rights important enough to provide constitutional protection. It issued a broader holding under the Due Process Clause that only parental fitness can justify state action to remove children from their parents’ custody. In so doing, Stanley announced that the Court would meaningfully apply pre-New Deal substantive due process [to] family law cases — thus forming the foundation of modern constitutional family law.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)


Petitioner, an unwed father whose children, on the mother’s death, were declared state wards and placed in guardianship, attacked the Illinois statutory scheme as violative of equal protection. Under that scheme the children of unmarried fathers, upon the death of the mother, are declared dependents without any hearing on parental fitness and without proof of neglect, though such hearing and proof are required before the State assumes custody of children of married or divorced parents and unmarried mothers. The Illinois Supreme Court, holding that petitioner could properly be separated from his children upon mere proof that he and the dead mother had not been married and that petitioner’s fitness as a father was irrelevant, rejected petitioner’s claim.


1. Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment petitioner was entitled to a hearing on his fitness as a parent before his children were taken from him. Pp. 647-658.

(a) The fact that petitioner can apply for adoption or for custody and control of his children does not bar his attack on the dependency proceeding. Pp. 647-649.

(b) The State cannot, consistently with due process requirements, merely presume that unmarried fathers in general and petitioner in particular are unsuitable and neglectful parents. Parental unfitness must be established on the basis of individualized proof. See Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535 . Pp. 649-658.

2. The denial to unwed fathers of the hearing on fitness accorded to all other parents whose custody of their children is challenged by the State constitutes a denial of equal protection of the laws. P. 658.

45 Ill. 2d 132, 256 N. E. 2d 814, reversed and remanded.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:57
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
Case internal status notes: