We hope you enjoy this latest installment of the LGBT Family Law Institute’s Blog. This piece is written by Diana Adams (pictured above). In early 2019, Diana Adams will be launching a new legal nonprofit to serve polyamorous families, multi-parent families, LGBTQ families, and other families of choice. To receive a notice about the launch of this project and other work on behalf of these families, sign up for Diana Adams’ monthly email newsletter.
Families with more than two adults are on the rise, along with other families of choice beyond a nuclear model. Many don’t realize that legal options exist to provide stability and protect these family connections. If you’re in one of these families, take steps to secure and clarify your parenting or partnership rights when legally possible, and make contracts between yourselves to minimize potential disagreements.
What kinds of families have more than two adults?
My clients and community include polyamorous families of three or more committed partners, some of whom may be metamours – those who share a partner and familial bond without being romantically connected. Some of these polyamorous families include children, and some of those co-parent as three or four, while others maintain the structure of two parents with their other partner(s) as loving adults to their children like aunts and uncles, but not parents. (It is critical to pick a side, as I’ll explain below.)
These polyamorous families have overlapping legal concerns with multi-parent families, which are most often a female same-sex couple who are co-parenting with a platonic male friend, who does not relinquish his rights as a sperm donor but instead stays on as a dad, sometimes with a partner of his own in the parenting mix. This can be a much more organic and affordable option for biological parenting for gay men as compared to surrogacy, which often costs over $100,000 and several years of effort with matching programs, physicians and attorneys. Multi-parent families also arise in non-LGBTQ contexts, in which a woman might have two men in her life who take on the role of father (perhaps one who is a husband and one who is the biological father).
Finally, these issues overlap with platonic partnering, in which two or more adults who are not in a romantic relationship band together to live as a family, which may include female friends (or sisters) sharing a household and parenting duties, a woman opting to co-parent with her gay best friend, an adult banding together with a romantic couple as a family, or a small group of friends wishing to create the bonds of family. If the Golden Girls wished to share end of life caregiving, finances, estate-planning, and hospital visitation as family, they’d be in this category (and I’d love to have them as clients).
Let’s recognize the solidarity between all of these family forms, along with same-sex couples and those bucking the norm to live single or redefine their partnership, as different expressions of the desire to choose families in our own way outside of the heterosexual nuclear family model. We’re all in that movement together.
Are you a dad or a donor? Mommy or auntie? Be clear on whether a third adult is a parent.
When people create families of choice, they don’t have clear cultural models to follow. Many of us wing it, which can lead to misunderstandings and legal ambiguities. I see this most often with ambiguous parenting status. This happens sometimes when a female same-sex couple or single mother finds a male friend to “help” create a turkey baster baby, without making a clearly negotiated agreement on whether that male friend is a sperm donor with no rights or responsibilities or a father. This also happens when a polyamorous couple with children invites a serious partner to live with them as a family, without agreeing on the role this adult will play in their child’s life. Sometimes I see these families when disputes or misunderstandings have occurred – and I’d much rather help people sort this out in advance through clear communication and a written agreement.
Secure your legal parenting rights, if you can in your state:
Depending on your state, it may be possible to do a third-parent adoption to ensure the parenting rights of all three parents are in effect.
Third-parent adoptions are possible in California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and sometimes Alaska, generally in cases in which neither biological parent relinquishes parental rights but the partner of one of those parents becomes a legal parent through adoption. For example, if a woman gives birth, her legal wife could have a claim to parentage, as could the biological father if he did not enter into a Donor Insemination Agreement, and thus a third parent adoption clarifies that both spouse and biological dad are intended as parents.
I haven’t yet seen a third-parent adoption case in which all three adults are openly in a polyamorous relationship, but even if they are, I would focus away from the polyamorous relationship and back to the connections and commitments to the child.
If an adoption is not yet possible, Delaware, California, and Washington, DC have statutory provisions that allow for third parents, and law on this is rapidly evolving. An attorney in this field in your state could advise on whether or not this is possible; I strongly recommend finding a lawyer well-versed in LGBT family law and Assisted Reproductive Technology, such as the members of our vetted group of attorneys in the LGBT Family Law Institute (a project of the National LGBT Bar and National Center for Lesbian Rights) with this interactive referral map.
Make a Co-Parenting Agreement
Whether or not you can secure legal parentage rights for a third or fourth parent in your state, if you are co-parenting as three or more I strongly encourage you to make a Co-Parenting Agreement with a professional well-versed in this field. In my own cases, I facilitate vulnerable conversations between potential co-parents about their intentions, hopes, and concerns to make sure that expectations are aligned. I ask difficult questions about levels of financial contribution and caretaking time expected of co-parents, about whether everyone has an equal vote on medical/educational/religious/parenting philosophy decisions and discussion of existing views on these topics, methods of resolution of potential disagreements, and about expectations for continuing parenting relationship if the co-parents become estranged. The decisions made in these meetings are codified in a Co-Parenting Agreement, a contract signed between the parties. The enforceability of Co-Parenting Agreements vary depending on state and sometimes depending on the personal view of your local Family Court judge using a subjective “best interests of the child” standard and the circumstances of your case. Nonetheless, I find that these conversations and mutual understandings are incredibly useful at helping to prevent disputes and misunderstandings between parties. Downloading a sample agreement from the internet and signing it without these careful discussions is not useful with this or other family agreements.
Clarify obligations & agreements between adults
Whether or not you are parents, the relationships and commitments between adults also deserve their own clarification and legal recognition. There is no way to replicate all of the 1,000+ rights and responsibilities of marriage to three unmarried parties. Still, we can work creatively with the legal tools we do have, to discuss your hopes and concerns and address them with legal agreements. You could make agreements on finances, such as Real Estate Agreements about co-ownership of property, estate planning to pass inheritance and provide financial security to each partner if one partner passes away, or a Co-Habitation Agreement to agree to financial support (akin to maintenance/alimony) for a financially dependent partner if you split up. You may also wish to utilize Living Wills, Health Care Proxies, and Hospital Visitation documents to try to ensure that all partners can be present and involved with hospital care, when you want your family with you dearly.
Be mindful of discrimination
There is no civil rights protection for being in a polyamorous family or other non-nuclear family. Polyamorous people are often surprised to realize this. Polyamorous people have no coverage under existing anti-discrimination protections from employment, housing, or other discrimination. As religious exemptions to anti-discrimination provisions increase for LGBTQ people, polyamorous people may also face more open discrimination because of a perception that polyamory is against traditional family values. Of course, this is more of a risk in conservative areas.
Consider this family insurance
Getting this legal paperwork in order may cost you time and money. Yes, this is a lot of work you shouldn’t have to do. Think about the insurance you get for your car and possessions, and think about this as insurance payment for the security and stability of your family relationships. The extra time is worth your peace of mind.
In early 2019, Diana Adams will be launching a new legal nonprofit to serve polyamorous families, multi-parent families, LGBTQ families, and other families of choice. To receive a notice about the launch of this project and other work on behalf of these families, sign up for Diana Adams’ monthly email newsletter.