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Three or More Parents: An Introduction

In the United States, fewer than half of the children live in a household with just their siblings and married parents. The other children live in a variety of relationships and family structures that often mean that more than two people act as parents in a child’s life.

Blended Families

This most commonly happens in blended families, where both parents and stepparents share care responsibilities and love for the child equally. Children conceived by surrogacy or other assisted reproductive technologies may have three people, or even four involved in their creation and birth – an egg donor, a sperm donor, and a gestational mother. One, some, or all of these people might want to be a parent to the child that they helped bring into the world. More controversially, people in polyamorous relationships, or relationships involving more than two people, may want to raise a child together as a unit.

These types of families and other family structures that don’t meet the idea of what has come to be considered the “traditional” family have always existed, but such families have often been hidden, scorned, or pitied. However, acceptance of families that don’t fit the “traditional” archetype has increased significantly in the past 20 years. As we have all seen, however, changes in public opinion and increased acceptance does not always mean a matching change in the way that the laws recognize those relationships.

Definition of a Legal Parent

Most places only recognize two legal parents per child. Within the United States, the Constitution has been interpreted as protecting the rights of legal parents who want to raise their children as they see fit, but there is no federal law that governs who counts as a legal parent. Who and how many people can be named a legal parent varies significantly by state.

There have been attempts to standardize and codify the rules across the country, but these efforts have had little success. Most states that do allow more than two legal parents only allow it in cases involving assisted reproductive technology or, less often, stepparent adoption. North Carolina does not provide any way to recognize more than two legal parents.

Legal parentage is usually proven by one’s inclusion on a child’s birth certificate. This presents an additional issue. Most states either don’t have any way to include a third legal parent or expressly forbid adding an additional parent in their administrative rules, limiting what judges can do on a case-by-case basis in the courts.

Protecting Rights to the Child

For those who aren’t able to be recognized as legal parents to a child, there may be other options for protecting rights to the child. Documents like a Power of Attorney can provide authorization to make certain decisions for a child, like signing school documents or taking them to the doctor. If the relationship between adults breaks down, many states recognize psychological, or de facto, parents. These are people who aren’t legal parents but who have formed a relationship with the child [with the legal parents’ permission] that is sufficiently like a parent to be considered for custody purposes. North Carolina does recognize de facto parents in certain situations, although this is very dependent on individual circumstances and on the disposition of the judge involved.

Families are complicated, and so are the laws that impact them, especially in alternative family structures that the law wasn’t designed to accommodate. In successive blogs, we will go deeper into each of these issues, looking at the different options available.