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Can a child have more than two legal parents?

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What does it take to make someone a parent in the eyes of the law? And can a child have more than two designated legal parents?  

As families become more complex, those are questions courts in Washington and elsewhere are wrestling with.

Back in 2005,  the Washington State Supreme Court became something of a national leader when it ruled on a case involving a lesbian couple.

The court determined that, after the couple split up, the non biological mother could have full parental rights as a “de facto parent.”

More recently, the “de facto parent” law has come up in heterosexual couple custody cases as well. David Ward, an attorney with the advocacy group Legal Voice, sees this as a healthy trend.

"We believe that the courts are starting to recognize that we don't live in 'Leave it to Beaver' world," he said.

He says, unlike Ward and June in the 1950's sitcom, multiple marriages and divorces and blended families have resulted in numerous people parenting kids in some cases.

So how many is too many? Ward says no one is arguing a child should have 7 or 8 legal parents.

“But, in certain circumstances we do believe that more than two parents can be recognized,” he said.

For example, the Washington State Court of Appeals recently ruled (In Re The De Facto Parentage And Custody Of: M.m., Russ Fulton, Resp. v. Meghan Cotton, Appellants) that a Snohomish man who’d been raising  a child after his wife left could seek de facto parent status even after genetic testing proved another man was the actual father.

In essence, the child would have two legal fathers in addition to the mother.

Meanwhile, the Washington Supreme Court is considering two "de facto parent" cases.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.