Below is the abstract for “Parents in Fact,” available for download on SSRN.

The Restatement of Law, Children and the Law, protects a child’s relationship with a “de facto parent”—a person who has “established a bonded and dependent relationship with the child that is parental in nature.” De facto parent doctrines are part of a broader category of functional parent doctrines that extend parental rights to an individual who has developed a parent-child relationship and acted as a parent to the child. Application of the de facto parent doctrine depends on a conclusion that the person formed a parental relationship, and yet debate remains over whether the person is a parent or merely a third-party nonparent.

This Essay examines the Restatement’s full-throated embrace of a de facto parent doctrine—an immensely important development—in the context of family law’s evolving treatment of functional parents. In the past, family law generally cast functional parents as nonparents. For example, a 1995 state court decision, on which the Restatement relies, treated a de facto parent as a third party entitled merely to visitation with the child she had raised. More recently, family law has grown to see functional parents as parents. Common law doctrines have regarded de facto parents as entitled to the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, and a growing number of states have adopted statutory provisions that treat functional parents as legal parents. The Restatement’s approach to de facto parents reflects these developments. Even as the Restatement begins by locating de facto parents in a framework designed around conflicts between legal parents and third parties, it distinguishes de facto parents in ways that render them, both conceptually and legally, like parents. Indeed, the Restatement pushes well beyond the American Law Institute’s earlier endorsement of a de facto parent doctrine—the 2002 Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution, which recognized de facto parents but consigned them to an inferior legal status.

After situating the Restatement’s approach to de facto parents within broader family law developments, this Essay explores how the evolving status of functional parents—from nonparent to parent—matters to constitutional understandings of the parent-child relationship. To account for the fundamental right of parents to direct their children’s upbringing, including by excluding third parties, the Restatement requires a de facto parent to show that “a parent consented to and fostered the formation of the parent-child relationship between the individual and the child.” This consent-based approach to de facto parenthood proceeds from an assumption that a functional parent is a third party who, based not only on their conduct but also on the conduct of an existing legal parent, can transcend that third-party status. Yet, seeing de facto parents as parents prompts skepticism of this constitutionally grounded consent requirement. Such skepticism is reflected in law, as courts have resisted a restrictive application of the requirement, and newly enacted statutory doctrines have explicitly softened the requirement. Further, the fact that other functional parent doctrines, including those that yield legal parentage, do not expressly require parental consent suggests that consent is not a constitutional requirement. More broadly, the focus on consent obscures the constitutional interests of the functional parent, who, like other parents, may have a constitutional claim to parental recognition.


Douglas NeJaime

Yale Law School

Douglas NeJaime is the Anne Urowsky Professor of Law at Yale Law School, where he teaches in the areas of family law, legal ethics, law and sexuality, and constitutional law. Before joining the Yale faculty in 2017, NeJaime was Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, where he served as Faculty Director of the Williams Institute, a research institute on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.