If you are an intended parent who lives in a state that does not allow more than two persons to be named as legal parents on a child’s birth certificate, it is valuable to consider all your options when deciding the legal structure of your growing family. The law is not structured to deal with or protect non-traditional families, so existing legal structures have to be adapted and carefully applied to fit your situation. Because this is a complicated process and every non-traditional family is unique, you should talk to an experienced family law attorney to learn which options will be the best fit for your child before you take any steps to establish a parenting arrangement with three or more people.
Put Intentions and Decisions in Writing
Before bringing a child into the world or into your family, think very carefully about whether this is the right decision for you. Everyone involved needs to discuss this openly and clearly; don’t ever assume that you know other people’s intentions. Every intention and decision should be in written form before a child is born or adopted and reaffirmed after the child joins the family. This process includes everyone’s intent to act as a parent to the child with all the rights and responsibilities of parenthood and how final decisions will be made if the parents can’t come to an agreement. While such a document can’t be upheld in a court, it will clarify intentions and can help prevent misunderstandings and arguments later and can help protect the custody rights of the non-legal parent or parents.
Once everyone’s intentions are clear, you have to decide which parents will be named as the child’s legal parents. This decision is highly personal and may be based on any number of legal and personal factors. The best way to protect each person involved is to make sure that everyone has some sort of legal connection to the child.
Some examples are: two biological parents and a stepparent through marriage; two genetic parents and a gestational mother; or one genetic parent and two adoptive, married parents. Putting the chosen legal parents on the child’s birth certificate may be automatic based on birth or genetics or may require adoption proceedings. If you are not one of the legal parents, you will need to take other steps to protect your ability to parent your child.
The Right to Make Decisions for a Child
One of the most obvious day-to-day rights of parenthood is the right to make decisions for a child, including getting non-emergency medical care and signing school paperwork. For a non-legal parent to have that power, the legal parents will need to grant a Power of Attorney (POA) over the child. This will allow other people, like doctors and teachers, to accept the non-parent’s decisions for the child. A POA does not need to be filed with a court, but it does need to be notarized and a copy kept in the home and in the non-parent’s vehicle so it’s available if an emergency occurs.
Legal parents can and should have end of life documents expressing their intent for the non-legal parent to be the child’s guardian if something happens to them. Otherwise, the non-legal parent may have no rights to care for their child in an already tragic circumstance. A court is not required to follow the legal parents’ intent but is required to consider it strongly.
Unfortunately, all of these protections can be revoked by the legal parents at any time. Being connected to the child through genetics or through marriage to a legal parent can make custody more likely as a non-parent should it come to that, but this is uncertain and is decided on a case-by-case basis. Being a non-legal parent in a 3+ parent family is inherently risky, but that family may be worth the risk if everyone involved is informed and prepared.