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What Does it Mean to be in a Multi-Parent Family?

The definition of a multi-parent family and the legal protections that exist.

Sarah Jacobs Co-Founder Jacobs Berger, LLC

As a parent, there’s a good chance you understand the importance of a support network throughout your child-rearing experiences. From blood relatives to chosen family (not to mention neighbors, babysitters, and more), it can take any number of people to provide all of the comfort, safety, and mentoring needed to raise a child.

Now, with the increase in blended families, LGBTQIA+ marriages, chosen families, and assisted reproduction options like surrogacy, new family structures have emerged and become more prevalent. And one of those family structures—the multi-parent family—is pushing the statutory definition of who qualifies as a parent.

What is a multi-parent family?

Simply stated, a multi-parent family is a family unit in which three or more adults have agreed to play a very significant role in a child’s life.

This role is not just a financial one. In a multi-parent family, all parties involved share the same parental responsibilities found in a traditional family. Each adult is responsible for supporting, caring for, teaching, and building a relationship with their child.

Family taking a selfie

Types of multi-parent families

Most families do not fit the mold of what is deemed “average.” Many are not nuclear families with a mother, a father, and any number of biological children. There are all kinds of families—single-parent, multi-generational, adoptive, blended, and multi-parent—and each has its own unique family law concerns.

Multi-parent families come in a variety of forms, which include but are not limited to:

  • LGBTQIA+ and other families with children born via surrogacy or a sperm/egg donor
  • Step-families where a child or children have developed a significant relationship with one or more step-parents
  • Extended relationship families where relatives are raising the child
  • Friends who wish to share the emotional and physical cost of child-rearing through platonic parenting
  • Polyamorous families

Multi-parent families can result from circumstances that take place after a child has been born, such as divorce, parental death, or remarriage, but they can also be intentionally created before conception even takes place.

The legal rights of multi-parent families

Through terms like “psychological parents,” “in loco parentis,” and “intended parents,” courts have a long history of establishing and recognizing custodial or guardianship relationships for individuals who are not a child’s biological or adoptive parents. But granting actual parental rights to more than two people is a fairly new concept.
Family hiking

Why legal rights matter for multi-parent families

Some states (like North Dakota, New Jersey, and Alaska) have established case law granting parental rights to more than two people in very specific circumstances. Meanwhile, other states (Florida, Oregon, and Maryland) have granted third-parent adoptions, but there isn’t a lot of consistency across the country regarding the legal rights granted to multi-parent families.

This lack of consistency has real-world consequences. It’s not uncommon for multi-parent families to lack the rights other families take for granted, such as getting health insurance, receiving government aid, making medical decisions, or choosing a guardian for their children.

Additionally, without legal protections in place, custody disputes, breakups, or death can permanently disrupt foundational relationships between de facto parents and children. Abruptly severing these important bonds can have detrimental impacts on everyone involved.

What legal protections exist for multi-parent families?

Local governments are increasingly recognizing the need to legally address the rights and responsibilities of individuals in multi-parent families.

Seven states currently have laws on the books that give courts the power to recognize more than two parents: California, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, Washington, Connecticut, and Colorado. Meanwhile, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kansas, and Hawaii have introduced the Uniform Law Commission’s updated Uniform Parentage Act in their 2023 legislative sessions.

But until the federal government or a majority of states establish a standardized legal framework for families who aren’t connected by biology or marriage, it is essential to work with a compassionate family law attorney who can help you identify the right solutions for your unique family.
Family eating dinner

Why multi-parent families should consult a family law attorney

Agreements governing non-biological parental rights can be complex. Legal options vary widely between states, and in most states, multi-parent families may find themselves pushing the boundaries of existing law.

This is especially true for those hoping to establish non-traditional parenting arrangements before a child is conceived or born. Whether you’re a gamete donor who wants to stay involved in your biological child’s life, a group of close friends who want to divide the responsibilities of parenthood, or you’re hoping to bring a child into your committed polyamorous relationship, an experienced family lawyer can help you prevent future custody, financial support, and parental standing battles.

For those already knee-deep in raising a family, an attorney who understands the nuances and complexities that come with multi-parent families will be able to guide you through securing your rights and protecting the best interests of your child or children.

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