As the makeup of families change, so may California law. A bill that passed the state Assembly earlier this week would allow courts to recognize more than two legal parents.
The bill was written in response to a recent California Court of Appeal case that ruled that courts could never recognize more than two parents, even if doing so prevented a child from entering the foster care system.
The bill doesn’t actually change the definition of a parent, just expands the number of people who can be one for a given child. Among the ways that a person can be legally defined as a parent are giving birth, fathering a child, agreeing to have a child through assisted reproduction, or raising and treating a child they are not biologically related to as their own.
The most common case when three people fit the legal definition of a parent is when a woman has a child with someone and marries someone else who raises the child as his or her own, while the biological father is still involved in the child’s life, according to Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which supports the bill. But there are other instances where there could be more than two legal parents – like when a lesbian couple raise a child with a man who has donated sperm to conceive the child.
“It’s very common for a lesbian couple to raise a child in a co-parenting situation with three people,” said Minter. “It’s sad that one parent has to be left out in the cold. You can’t put that child on your health insurance if you’re not a real parent. The child can’t get Social Security benefits if that person dies. The person can’t make emergency medical decisions for the child. It hurts kids in significant ways, and it would be helpful for courts to recognize those families.”
The bill doesn’t limit the number of legal parents at three, either, but Minter said it would be “exceedingly unusual” to find a situation where there were more than three people who fit the legal definition of a parent.
She also added that she believed the law would be applied in rare circumstances and used very cautiously by courts.
There are other states that already give courts the ability to recognize more than two parents, including Delaware, Maine, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.
“This legislation gives courts the flexibility to protect the best interests of a child who is being supported financially and emotionally by those parents,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who authored the bill, in a statement. “It is critical that judges have the ability to recognize the roles of all parents, especially when a family is in distress and a child’s security is a concern.”
The Association of Certified Family Law Specialists notes that the bill would have implications for tax deductions, citizenship, probate, public assistance and school notifications, the Sacramento Bee reported.
"This bill, in our opinion, if passed will cause significant unintended consequences," Diane Wasznicky, the group's president and a family law attorney told the Bee.
The bill was amended in the Assembly and must go back to the Senate for another vote.