Love comes in all shapes, sizes, genders, orientations, and numbers. The law should be there to match but has not caught up yet.
As a family law attorney, I spend most of my days dealing with divorce, child custody, and the unfortunate end of loving relationships. However, on some wonderful days I get to work with happy partners who want help building, solidifying and celebrating their connection with each other. These are often the best days of my week and something I am thrilled to do. Just such a group recently came to my firm with a situation we hadn’t worked on before but have since come up with a solution that I believe gives the best of all possible outcomes.
Ruby, Jordan, and Elliott* came to our office and explained their relationship. They are a self-defined throuple in a committed polyamorous relationship. They wanted to the next step in solidifying their relationship as so many partners do when they’re ready for a long-term commitment. Unfortunately, the current state of laws in the United States, and particularly in Kentucky where they live, does not allow for that commitment in a standard way. That is why they came to us for help and have ended happy with the results.
Here are how things currently stand: until 2015 the only marriages recognized at the federal level in the United States were straight monogamous relationships. In 2015 the Supreme Court finally decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that the institution of marriage should encompass lesbian, gay, and queer relationships as well. This was a huge step but, as with all progress, was of course not all encompassing. There were still plenty of people left in the cold. (This is all a major oversimplification. There are of course so many more pieces in analyzing the problems with the legal institution of marriage: racial inequity, prohibition of interracial marriages, inherent misogyny in the individual rights of the members of a marriage and more than can be named here. The point of this post is never to minimize those but rather to give a narrow focus on one singular issue. More time should and is being given to those important topics all over the internet by people much more qualified than me and I certainly urge you to read them!)
As of today, there are a total of 0 states that recognize any marriage that is between more than two people. This is a problem. The fact is, love and commitment do not inherently have any bounds. Monogamy is great for some people, but not others. Ruby, Jordan, and Elliott are three of the most loving, joyous people I have ever met and the feelings that each of them has for both of the other two is plain from the moment you interact with them. It goes without saying that their relationship is no less valid or deserving of recognition than any monogamous relationship. However, that it is not what it is met with in the eyes of the law.
For some people in polyamorous relationships, their commitment to each other and recognition within their own social circles is enough. They don’t require a formal recognition and are happy to know that what they share is true. That is wonderful! But Ruby, Jordan, and Elliott are part of a growing group of polyamorous partners realizing that the inability to formally declare their relationship not only ostracizes them from being viewed legitimately by others, but also keeps them from having rights that married people take for granted.
See, we may not often think about it, but there are legal assumptions made regarding monogamous married couples. The rights they have to each other’s property, what happens if one of them passes away, how property that they own together is viewed. In a polyamorous relationship where you can’t get married these things tend to just get overlooked.
This is why for Ruby, Jordan, and Elliott we had to develop a new way to formalize things. We realized that, short of convincing tons of old white men in state legislatures to change the way they view the world overnight, we would have to come up with a creative solution. Our first step was realizing that the most effective way to have their relationship recognized was to style it essentially as a business. One of the legal benefits of a marriage is the ability to be viewed as a unit and taxed that way as well. To give our clients a similar benefit we created a family owned business that could be used to run their finances. We developed and created for them an LLC that will be owned equally by all three of them. This LLC has then been used to both manage family business matters and protect family assets. The family home is now owned by the LLC rather than any group of individuals. This gives the three of them essentially the same benefits that a married monogamous couple would have when they carry on their business as a single unit.
After that is when my firm developed our Polyamorous Relationship Agreement. Essentially, we have written a contract between three parties that functions as a marriage would with a prenuptial agreement. At a basic level it can grant rights previously reserved for monogamous couples to every member of a polyamorous relationship. Its beauty, however, is that it is entirely customizable. For instance, Jordan and Ruby co-own a vehicle. But Elliott doesn’t drive. In our agreement that car belongs to the two of them, but not Elliott. If we were doing this agreement for another group that wanted to start a family, we could write in sections outlining the parental rights and responsibilities of each person since in the current law of the land a child cannot have more than two official parents. Everything is possible and since it is just a contract and not a “marriage” it has the full backing of the law for all three of them.
Our firm is so excited to have been able to create this document that we have decided to start offering similar agreements to others as a package where we will do your entire family and estate planning. It is an honor to get to help people celebrate their loves and celebrate themselves in a way they may not have thought possible.
The laws need to catch up to a rapidly changing society. Until they do, we will continue to find creative solutions and new ways of looking at the law.
*All Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Written by Zachary Trinkle of Connally Law Offices in Kentucky.
The family allowed us to share their answers to specific questions:
Do you feel that the solutions you’ve been given allow you to feel more validated as a family?
Jordan: I feel validated as a family by living our lives together every day: We cook food for each other, share in each others’ triumphs and mourn each others’ losses. We dance together.
The solutions that Connally Law Office provided for us helps me feel more assured that when life’s eventualities roll around, we have the tools that we need to best navigate the legal world that simply wasn’t built for us.
Ruby: In some ways yes. I have felt validated in our family for some time, and I don’t think that within our family this will help us feel more valid. I feel validated through the everyday choices we make to live together, care for one another, and continue to build our lives and goals together. I do think the steps we are taking with Connally Law will provide further validation in the eyes of our families of origin and institutions. Being able to complete advanced directives and name Elliott and Jordan in the roles that would otherwise default to my parents as an unmarried person is powerful. When we bought our home together it was not without criticism. People voiced confusion, said out loud that “it won’t last” and that it was a mistake, despite the fact we’ve been together longer than a lot of marriages. Every step we take to legally define and protect our relationship further demonstrates our commitment to each other to those who won’t accept it otherwise. I do not believe that our actual commitment or relationship has increased with this step, only that the demonstrability of it, and our ability to verify the legitimacy of it to those who would not accept it without a legal backing has.
How did you feel the law viewed you as a polyamorous family when you started this process?
Elliott: It’s easy to see there is a lack of explicit definitions for many queer topics in a legal system persists in an environment embedded with cis- and heteronormative values. An underdiverse language is a key to identifying how the law is hostile towards of polyamorous and queer families.
Every individual’s agency to a home and a family should be able to depend on their government’s legal recognition that cohabitation creates a socially and economically empowering environment. When I learned that, as a homeowner, an unexpected death could transfer partial or full possession of our home to another entity, compromising the agency of the remaining family, I knew the law to be insufficiently equipped with the kind of language I use every day to define who is my family and what is my home.
Marriage is integrated with the cultures of religion, heteronormative gender, and a generational attitude. While the social benefits marriage are, to some degree, available to many people, it is an unacceptable catch-all to expect that the granting of or expansion of marriage rights to “all families” would have a formative impact on the future of queer and polyamorous culture.
For me, to be an empowered polyamorous person is to act on the agency to write my own social narrative at every resolution of life, from my daily friends to my lifelong legal interactions, and in setting a precedent for people that will live after me. To say something as simple as “These are my people, and this is my home,” is a social narrative that I expect to be represented. And yet, mainstream society often frames that which is taboo or a deviation from it as a challenge to it, or a source of hostility, and is systematically xenophobic against the people who demonstrate those deviations.
For these reasons, this process showed me that although laws may be too specific or limiting, an important aspect of representation will always be the people who aim to represent your identity. A legal team that is sympathetic to various queer situations and the modes marginalization that are experienced across LGBTQ+ communities is an integral part of the process. If you want to depend on the law, you’ll need to depend on people who understand your situation to take what tools of law already exist and shape them into what’s needed.
What other things would you want people in a similar situation to yours to know going forward?
Ruby: Queer people trying to validate and protect their relationships is nothing new. Prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage couples would try to find work arounds, some with more success than others. I would hope that all people take the time to consider how the legal system interacts with their lives and relationships. I think queer people are more likely to consider it because they have been excluded from many of the protections and benefits that heterosexual, cis people have not been. From my perspective, many heterosexual couples marry for romantic/social/religious reasons and don’t consider the extent of the legal contract marriage is. I’d encourage people to be actively engaged in the process of legally validating relationships, and use the law to their advantage whenever possible. Don’t just assume it will work out okay, because with a system not built to support poly and queer people, it likely won’t without some intentional effort. Poly people who are excited to get married should absolutely be able to, but for those that aren’t looking for that, they should still have access to legal protections as they see fit.
Connally Law Office is helping us ensure that a system not built for our situation doesn’t harm what we’ve worked to build together, and even supports it to some degree. I’m so glad we found a place willing and excited to help us figure out how to achieve that. While I’ve never wanted a marriage in the traditional sense, I am so happy to be forming a legally recognized unit with my family and look forward to celebrating that. It is exciting to see increasing acceptance and understanding for queer and otherwise non-traditional relationships. Until the law is more flexible and reflects the diversity of relationships and people, it is crucial to have the support of legal professions to navigate an unjust system.