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Home / Expert Testimony / All in the Family: Quad-parenting and cowboy boots

All in the Family: Quad-parenting and cowboy boots

Cynthia Brown and Jason Brown

Cynthia Brown and Jason Brown

Increasing use of assisted reproductive technologies and open adoption, coupled with the recognition of same-sex marriage, have redefined the meaning of family itself. As noted in a recent article by Virginia attorney Colleen Quinn, “our world is facing a new frontier of family formation.”

The leading edge involves the question of whether a child can have more than two parents. What Quinn characterizes as “tri-parenting by design” has evolved — in ways that may not seem obvious.

A case of quad-parenting

We recently had the privilege of representing four grandparents seeking to adopt their granddaughter. A Child was born to Birth Mother in April 2014. Birth Father, imprisoned following a criminal sexual misconduct conviction, never established a relationship with the Child.

Birth Mother’s parents divorced more than 15 years ago. Maternal Grandmother and Grandfather each remarried shortly thereafter. Birth Mother died in a car accident in May 2018. Grandparents were appointed Guardians for the Child following Birth Mother’s passing.

The Child transitioned between Grandparents’ homes on a week-on/week-off basis, pursuant to a Guardianship Order. All were concerned about the permanent placement of the Child. The notion of all four Grandparents adopting the Child surfaced, after Father agreed to voluntarily terminate his parental rights.

Grandparents contacted our office to explore their options. We were hesitant to assure them that an adoption petition involving four parents would be embraced by the Court. A number of arguments were presented in their favor.

Statutory authority outside of Minnesota

A few states have enacted legislation expressly recognizing that a child may have more than two parents.

The state of Washington, for example, has adopted the newest draft of the Uniform Parentage Act, which explicitly recognizes that a child may “have more than two parents.” Minnesota is a UPA state, but the legislature has yet to address the recent amendments to the act.

In California, Family Code section 3040(d) provides that [i]n cases in which a child has more than two parents, the court shall allocate custody and visitation among parents based on the best interests of the child…”

The Maine Parentage Act provides that “Consistent with the establishment of parentage under this chapter, a court may determine that a child has more than 2 parents.”

The Louisiana Civil Code was revised to acknowledge the possibility of dual paternity after a 1999 decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court in T.D. v. M.M.M.

No numerical limit

Although Minnesota statutes do not expressly afford a child the ability to have more than two parents, there is no provision in the law limiting the number of parents to “two.”

Minn. Stat. sec. 257.52 defines a “parent and child relationship” as “the legal relationship between a child and the child’s biological or adoptive parents…[i]t includes the mother and child relationship and the father and child relationship.”

There is no numerical restriction found within the relevant statutory language. Nowhere in the statute does it suggest that a child has “one” mother or father. In fact, the statutory language contemplates something more than “one,” in providing that a parent and child relationship “includes” the mother/child and father/child relationship.

Gender neutrality

Moreover, one cannot logically argue that Minn. Stat. sec. 257.52 mandates “one” mother and “one” father, given that same-sex couples are allowed to adopt a child in the State of Minnesota. That fact provides further proof of the inclusive nature of the statutory definition of a parent/child relationship.

Marital status irrelevant

Minn. Stat. sec. 257.53 provides that a “parent and child relationship may exist regardless of the marital status of the parents.” The focus of a parent/child relationship rests among parent and child, not the marital status of the prospective adoptive parents.

No adoption limits

Minn. Stat. sec. 257.54 provides that a “parent child relationship between a child and…an adoptive parent may be established by proof of adoption.” Nothing in the relevant statute limits the number of prospective parents who may adopt a child.

The adult adoption statutes in Minnesota apply by analogy, and provide further evidence that an adopted child may have more than two parents. Our courts recognize adult adoptions without terminating the parental rights of the biological mother or father of a child, leaving an adult with more than two parents.

The LaChapelle decision

Almost 20 years ago, the Minnesota Court of Appeals first recognized a three-parent arrangement, of sorts.

In In re the Matter of Mark LaChapelle and Denise Mitten, 607 N.W.2d 151 (Minn. Ct. App. 2000), two homosexual female partners decided to have a child with a homosexual sperm donor and his partner. While no parent/child relationship was established with the men, all signed an agreement calling for them to have a “significant relationship” with the child – including, for donor male, legal custodian status.

After the birth of the child, the two female partners petitioned for adoption. The two did not inform the court of the donor’s identity or the agreements that had been reached concerning the relationship between the child and the male partners.

The two women initially allowed the men to spend time with the child, but eventually terminated the visits. The two men moved to vacate the adoption of the child by the non-birth mother and began paternity proceedings. By that time, the two women had ended their romantic relationship. Three parties (male donor, birth mother, birth mother’s female ex-partner) claimed parental rights to the child.

The District Court awarded legal custody, and parenting time, to all three.

On appeal, birth mother argued that the District Court had created an “impermissible ‘triumvirate’ parenting scheme.” The Court of Appeals affirmed, on the basis of the parties’ agreement. Birth mother was viewed as “biological mother.” Donor male was viewed as “biological father.” Birth mother’s former partner was viewed as the child’s “emotional parent.”

The terms “mother,” “father,” and “parent” are used interchangeably within Minn. Stat. sec. 257.52. In essence, the LaChapelle court recognized, for the first time in Minnesota, the ability of a child to have more than two parents.

The Court of Appeals did not strike the agreement of the parties as a violation of the law or against public policy.  Instead, the court looked to the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration.

Adoption petition granted

Back to our case, the District Court had already determined that the Child’s best interests were served by dividing time equally among the two sets of Grandparents as part of a temporary guardianship. Ultimately, the court agreed that it had the authority to take the next step and established a parent/child relationship between four Grandparents and the Child.

One couldn’t help but notice the Child’s red cowboy boots, stitched stars and all, at the final hearing. Grandparents shared that they were purchased especially for court — given Birth Mother had a similar favorite pair. Sometimes, but not often, you can leave family court with a smile.

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