Earlier this week my friend Amy sent me a link to this article, on a proposed law in California which would allow a child to have more than two legal parents. She asked if I had any thoughts on it from the perspective of a divorced parent.
And, it turns out, I do.
First and foremost, let me state that I totally support the idea that there’s more than one way to make a family. But after reading this article and thinking about potential outcomes, I see this law creating more problems than it solves.
We must ask up front, “What is the problem that this bill seeks to address?”
From the Bee article: “SB 1476 stemmed from an appellate court case last year involving a child’s biological mother, her same-sex partner, and a man who had an affair with the biological mother and impregnated her while she was separated temporarily from her female lover.”
This is certainly a complicated situation, but is it a commonplace one? Commonplace enough to warrant new and novel legislation?
A more common scenario would be the increasingly-prevalent custody situation in which I find myself right now. My ex and I have 50-50 split rotating custody over our son.
So I ran through a bit of a thought experiment. Let’s break it down, yo:
Jason has been an excellent step-father to Tyler. He has attended parent-teacher conferences, coached tee ball and soccer, became assistant cub master for Tyler’s cub scout pack, taught the boy to ride a bike, tie a tie, and be a good man. He has most definitely acted in a parental role towards Tyler, without being Tyler’s actual legal guardian. None of the amazing benefits of parenthood – the hugs, the kisses, the laughter, the snuggles, even the application of band-aids and the soothing of emotional hurts – are exclusive to those with the legal status of parent.
But let’s say that the option was available to Jason to become Tyler’s legal guardian, because he is married to me and Tyler spends 50% of his life with us, and because it would be in Tyler’s best interest to have such a good role model for a father.
First, we’d have to get my ex to agree. This would be, to say the least, a large hurdle. Skipping a few other steps for the sake of brevity, BOOM, Jason is now Tyler’s father.
Then my ex realizes that Jason makes a lot more money than him, and sues Jason and me, based on our total household income, for child support.
Then my ex gets re-married. To someone who is unemployed (so we’d have to continue to pay the same child support). And my ex petitions the court to allow his new wife to be Tyler’s parent, based on the fact that Tyler lives with them 50% of the time.
Tyler now has four parents. Four equally-weighted voices to make decisions on his behalf, and “in his best interest.” Try to imagine picking a college (and paying for it), planning a graduation party, or making complex medical decisions, with four competing opinions.
But it appears that this law is not designed with an eye towards groups of people who are trying to codify an already-loving and already-supportive relationship. The article gives us this clue: “Under Leno’s bill, if three or more people who acted as parents could not agree on custody, visitation and child support, a judge could split those things up among them.”
This presupposes that there are already problems. For example, if Jason and I were to divorce, he could petition the court for visitation rights (based on the above and the “best interest” standard) – and instead of seeing Tyler 50% of the time, I’d see him 33% of the time, maximum. Every third Christmas. Every third Thanksgiving. Jason and my ex would have to rotate Father’s Day.
And let’s say I was kind of vindictive, so in the process of our divorce, I petitioned the court to be a legal guardian of Jason’s daughters.
In Florida, not even grandparents have the right to visitation of a child. If I were to die, my ex could disallow all contact between Tyler and my mother, and she would have no recourse. Similarly, if I die, Jason could be (and probably would be) excluded from Tyler’s life – at least until Tyler turned 18 or discovered Facebook, whichever comes first.
It’s pretty safe to say that it’s bad for children to be pulled in two directions when their parents separate. It can reasonably be inferred that being pulled in three, or four, directions is worse for them.
The bill’s supporters claim that it will reduce costs on government. “Designating multiple parents in such cases could enhance the child’s prospects for financial support, health insurance or Social Security benefits, thus reducing the state’s potential financial responsibility.”
I disagree. For one thing, the court could not just reach out and “designate” – the parties would have to hire lawyers and bring a petition and litigate it. That is monstrously expensive, both to the parties and to the court system. Like every other aspect of family law, only the lawyers win. Second, this would require a total overhaul of the formulas and calculations by which child support is determined. We’d need, like, an army of math nerds. They don’t come cheap.
When I first read this article, I was reminded of a few recent cases where same-sex couples or single mothers had sued for child support from their sperm donors. Some couples prevailed, and some did not, but in every case, that donor had to hire a lawyer and pay thousands of dollars to defend himself, sometimes to the appellate level. The Supreme Court recently decided that the biological child of a man, conceived after his death, is not entitled to his Social Security benefits (in Florida). Do you have any idea how expensive it is to take a case to the Supreme Court? And then lose?
To sum up, the best parts of being a parent do not require any kind of legal designation. There is no restriction on the amount of love, attention, and time you can give to a child. This law, I believe, would instead open up a new avenue into the worst, the ugliest, and the most divisive parts of a divorce or separation – all of which revolve around money. While this law may have been drafted with same-sex couples in mind, it could be applied in situations not contemplated by the people who drafted it. I guess the theory is that by creating a bigger pool of potential resources, the child will have more access to those resources. From my somewhat-cynical analysis, the pool gets quite a bit smaller when the lawyers jump in.