A new law in the state of California allows family courts there to recognize more than two people as the legal parents of a child. The law was created to meet new challenges presented by evolving family structures and the expanding definition of marriage in California. Could a similar law be in Washington’s future?

Understanding Paternity

Paternity has long been associated with marriage. In many states, when a married women gives birth, her husband is presumed by law to be the father of the child. When a married couple adopts a child, both spouses become parents. Even with step-families, the children of one spouse are often the product of a previous marriage.

Of course paternity can exist without marriage, and courts recognize that the biological parents of a child have rights and responsibilities whether or not they were ever married to each other.

Challenges of Same Sex Marriage

The legalization of same sex marriage in more states has presented some challenges to the traditional definition of paternity.

Circumstances can arise where a same sex couple is raising a child who also has an opposite sex biological parent. Current laws in most states do not allow all three to be the legal parents of the child. Either the two biological parents are recognized or one biological parent gives up rights so that the spouse of the other parent can be recognized as the legal parent.

Some states have attempted to address the issues both of step-families and same sex marriages through solutions such as third parent adoptions and “de facto parent” legal statuses.

California’s Answer

California’s new law attempts to resolve this issue by allowing more than two people to be recognized as parents.

The original bill (California SB-274) for the law states:

This bill would authorize a court to find that more than 2 persons with a claim to parentage, as specified, are parents if the court finds that recognizing only 2 parents would be detrimental to the child. The bill would direct the court, in making this determination, to consider all relevant factors, including, but not limited to, the harm of removing the child from a stable placement with a parent who has fulfilled the child’s physical needs and the child’s psychological needs for care and affection, and who has assumed that role for a substantial period of time.

An Expansion of Child Support

One of the most interesting features of the law is that it allows for the court to order more than one person to pay child support. The total child support obligation would be split between all paying parents.

For example, if a court rules in a child support case that a child has 3 parents, it can order 2 of the parents to pay child support to the third parent. This provision has the potential to greatly expand who is obligated to pay child support.

Multiple Parents in Washington Law

Currently, Washington state family law does not provide for the designation of more than two persons as the legal parents of a child. Nearby Oregon does allow for third parents adoptions. With the recent legalization of same sex marriage here, the issue of more than two legal parents may soon be raised in Washington as well.

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