Almost all societies have traditionally recognized only two legal parents per child, the biological mother and father. Even in cases of adoption, adoptive parents could only step into the place of a missing biological parent. Despite this long history, this has never really reflected the reality of children’s lives. Many children have more than two people in their lives who act as parents, providing care and love and making decisions, but the law rarely recognizes this fact.
Legal Parent Status
Being a “legal parent” is a special status. It gives a person unique rights to and responsibilities for a child. In the United States, the Constitution has been interpreted to protect the rights of legal parents to parent their children in the way they see fit. Legal parents are presumed to be the best people to have custody of a child unless there is evidence otherwise. Legal parents can make final decisions about their child’s care, education, medical needs, religion, etc. These decisions can be delegated to others, like guardians, but the legal parents can always withdraw that delegation.
Legal parents are usually denoted by their inclusion on a child’s birth certificate. When legal parenthood changes, a new birth certificate must be issued to reflect that. There is no federal law that controls who counts as a legal parent. Who and how many people can be named a legal parent varies significantly by state.
Who Can Be Named as a Legal Parent
Some states allow more than two people to be named as legal parents and listed on the child’s birth certificate, although it is difficult to know how many because most juvenile matters are private. In Florida, for instance, a lesbian couple and a sperm donor were listed on a child’s birth certificate in 2013. Many of the states that do allow more than two legal parents only allow it in cases involving assisted reproductive technology or, less often, stepparent adoption. In California, however, a polyamorous gay family were all allowed to be listed on their adopted child’s birth certificate in 2017, possibly the first polyamorous family in the United States to do so.
Other states may not prohibit courts from naming more than two legal parents but have no mechanism for more than two people to be listed on the child’s birth certificate. Massachusetts, for example, allowed three parent adoptions starting in 2000 but didn’t have the option for three parent birth certificates until 2021.
North Carolina is among the states that specifically do not allow more than two legal parents. The only way to be a legal parent in NC is by birth, a paternity proceeding, or adoption, and adoption is only allowed if both parents have died or had their rights terminated or a stepparent is replacing someone as a legal parent. Only two people may be listed on a child’s birth certificate.
Legal parenthood is an important and permanent status. Regardless of the size or type of family you intend to create, it is important to remember that anyone with whom you share legal parenthood of a child will always be in your life and that child’s life. That person will always have an equal say in how that child is raised and will always have the right to make decisions for that child. It can be hard enough for two people to agree how to raise a child; every additional person creates another opportunity for conflict. Think very carefully before you approach forming a family with more than two legal parents and consider consulting with an experienced family attorney to discuss your rights and options.