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Guest Blog: Polyamory and the Law

polyamorists from the back

By Erez Benari

For people who practice polyamory, one of the many challenges stems from the fact that the majority of the world does not have a legal framework for a multi-partner relationship. This causes both legal challenges and philosophical/ethical ones. On a philosophical/ethical level, marrying one of your partners can lead to other partners feeling like 2nd-class in the relationship. From a legal perspective, being unable to have a legal union with more than one partner prevents other partners from receiving benefits that would be considered fundamental to a “legal” spouse, such as medical insurance and certain tax-breaks. It can also lead to legal challenges in the event of a death of a partner, as by default, their inheritance would only go to their legal spouse, unless they have taken the time to setup a will to handle the matter (and even if they have, such a will can be easily challenged in court by legal family members).

When polyamory is discussed, a common myth that comes up often is that it is “illegal”. This is untrue, of course, and stems from the confusion between “polygamy” and “polyamory”. Historically, polygamy is indeed illegal in the United States, as well as some other countries and societies. However, with the huge growth in popularity of polyamory over the past few years, many individuals, organizations, and municipalities have started taking steps to address this situation, so here is a summary of some of these efforts and results.

Possibly the most well-known changes in recent history are the actions by 3 municipalities in the state of Massachusetts, which have adopted polyamory into law. These cities: Arlington, Somerville and Cambridge have adopted language that defines a domestic partnership as one that can include more than 2 adults. While each of the cities adopted somewhat different language in their application, this work is a strong foundation and example to others, and has been completed with the support of the Chosen Family Law Center, as well as the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, and members of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Consensual Non-Monogamy.

At this point, work is being done to adopt similar legislation at the state level, but we can see some preliminary results in the form of a court ruling in San Diego, California, where a family of 3 fathers were able to have their names listed on their daughter’s birth certificates as legal parents. Similarly, the state of Massachusetts, which is exceptionally progressive as seen by the above legislation, has also issues a 3-parent birth certificate.

Outside the United States, other countries are also being part of the conversation; each with its own laws and practices. Israel, a country known for fostering a particularly strong polyamory community has had a recent court victory, when a man was successful in having his relationship with his two partners recognized as “common law partners”. This status could provide the partners with financial relief in case the relationship terminates, or in the event of the passing of one of the partners, and thus is comparable to a marriage in many ways.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, a court in 2018 recognized three adults as legal parents of child that was born in their polyamorous household (a woman and two men). When making his ruling, the judge noted that society is changing, and so family structures are changing with it, and added that this is ultimately in the best interest of the child.

Another country that’s breaking new ground is Columbia, where 3 gay men were granted a legal status similar to marriage, and this was all the way back in 2017; a time where many of us haven’t even heard of polyamory.

And finally, South Africa, which is one of few countries where polygamy is already legal in the form of polygyny (a man married to multiple women), it is now being considered to adjust legislation to support polyandry as well, which would allow women to have multiple husbands. The South African government has requested public comments on suggested legislation change, with the purpose of making the law more equal and just.

As a side note, while not quite at the “legal” level yet, Microsoft corporation is the 1st major organization who has taken a strong step in recognizing ethical non-monogamy. In a keynote speech she gave at Microsoft’s annual “Include” summit, Corporate Vice President Lindsay-Rae McIntyre noted that the company needs to include people who practice ethical non-monogamy. Microsoft has supported ENM (ethical non-monogamy) for several years now, in the form of an internal employee resource group dedicated to this, and appropriately named “ENUM” (a tongue-in-cheek reference to a common programming term that sounds like ENM). This keynote paves the way for Microsoft itself to do more for its vast number of ENM employees, as well as show the way for other organizations. McIntyre also mentioned a series of metrics, which show that taking progressive inclusion policies can benefit organizations greatly, as many candidates have indicated they would choose a place to work based on the organizations’ diversity and inclusion policy. Other employees have indicated they would leave a job for another with a company with progressive D&I policies.

We will likely see more policies and regulations like those mentioned above in the coming years, so stay tuned to see what happens next for polyamory relationships.