Two is company. Three's a crowd.
Traditionally, children have two parents, a mother and a father. More recently, courts have recognized that children can have two moms or two dads. But, can a child have two moms and a dad, or two dads and two moms?
In some multi-parent states, yes!
Two Parents Only
It only takes two people to make a baby. However with divorce, unwed parents, in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and multiple marriages becoming more common than 200 or even 20 years ago, children often find themselves with multiple acting parents.
But going as far back as English common law, the laws of most states allow children to have only two legal parents. For example, in case of stepparent adoptions, one birth parent loses parental rights when the stepparent gains parental rights.
Why Does It Matter?
A child can of course have more than two people act as its parent unofficially. The state doesn't care if a stepfather or a biological father disciplines a child, helps with homework, or buys her Christmas presents. So, why do we care if it's recognized legally?
Custody and government benefits
Let's do a hypothetical.
Jane's biological mother is Anne. Anne is married to Beatrice. Jane's biological father is Charlie. Since the law only allows for two parents, Anne and Charlie are listed on her birth certificate as Jane's legal parents.
This means Beatrice does not have legal custody. If she and Anne divorced, Beatrice would not be able to petition for custody of Jane. Or, if Beatrice died, Jane would not be able to receive Social Security payments as Beatrice's beneficiary.
Only a few states have recognized more than two parents for a child.
In 2013, California passed a bill allowing children to have more than two parents in reaction to a case of one child with two mothers and a father.
In other states, such as Louisiana, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and Alaska, courts have recognized third-parent adoptions in individual cases. In the District of Columbia and Delaware, semen or egg donors can be "de facto parents," so a child could, conceivably, have three parents.
Most states, however, cling to the belief that a child only has two parents. If you have a non-traditional family, and are considering a third, fourth, fifth parent adoption, consult with an experienced local family attorney for guidance.