Polyamory is a non-traditional way of engaging in relationships, where individuals have multiple partners and maintain multiple romantic and sexual relationships simultaneously. But is it legal? How does it intersect with marriage and domestic partnerships? Let’s discuss what you need to know about polyamory and domestic partnerships and how they can work together.
What is Polyamory?
Did you know that one in nine Americans have tried polyamory? Let’s define what we mean by polyamory before diving in. Polyamory is a consensual non-monogamous practice of having more than one romantic and sexual relationship at the same time. Sometimes people refer to it as a “throuple.” Basically, it’s a relationship between multiple people, not just two people. The relationships can be intimate, sexual, or emotional in nature and can involve any combination of genders. Polyamory is not the same as cheating because all of the people involved are consenting to this type of relationship.
We mentioned domestic partnerships earlier, but what are they? They are a legal status that is sometimes available (depending on your situation and your state) for couples who aren’t married but want legal recognition of their relationship. Domestic partnerships can provide some benefits, such as access to health care, inheritance rights, and the ability to make medical decisions for your partner (depending on your state). However, the benefits and requirements of domestic partnerships can vary widely depending on the jurisdiction.
Polyamory and Domestic Partnerships: How They Work Together
We’d like to start off by saying there is no such thing (legally speaking) as polyamory in an American marital union. In other words, no, you cannot get married to more than one person in America. That brings us to domestic partnership. So, can you make your polyamorous relationship “legal” through a domestic partnership? Well, the answer is “not really” unless you live in Massachusetts, in one of two particular cities (Somerville or Cambridge). In either of those cities, you may register your polyamorous relationship as a domestic partnership. This is a relatively new ordinance, arising in the last few years due to health insurance needs from COVID-19.
How Polyamory and Domestic Partnerships Work in Somerville and Cambridge
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two cities in Massachusetts have opened up the right for polyamorous couples to register as domestic partnerships in order to receive health insurance benefits and/or make hospital visits (among other benefits). These are the first and only cities to recognize polyamorous relationships legally in the entire United States! The ordinance passed unanimously at the city council meeting in Somerville, Massachusetts, back in 2020.
According to the ordinance, domestic partners do not have to be romantic, per se. They could be platonic “lifemates,” too. This allows them to purchase real estate together and also have secured health insurance, but they can also seek out a romantic relationship outside of the domestic partnership or even have them added as a partner in the domestic partnership.
The problem with this ordinance allowing multiple-person relationships to receive benefits such as health care is whether or not health insurance companies will accept this.
The Ordinance Fine Print (Somerville)
Remember, these ordinances are on a local level, not on a state level, so the rights provided are limited compared to a two-person domestic partnership or marriage.
In Somerville, the only guaranteed right through the city is access to children at school. This allows any of the partners in the partnership to have access to your kids’ records, school, etc.
The rights that might be allowed include employee benefits, travel issues, hospital visitation, and school access. However, these can be limited. For example, some employers are not legally required to provide benefits to domestic partners. School access may be limited if the school is located outside of the city of Somerville and may vary depending on the school’s specific policy.
The rights that are NOT allowed include taxes, immigration status, federal benefits, etc.
The Ordinance Fine Print (Cambridge)
Again, the rights allocated by the city of Cambridge ordinance are not state or federal level, so it’s generally limited to the scope of the city.
In Cambridge, the rights guaranteed through a polyamorous domestic partnership include hospital visitation, correctional facility visits, access to children at school, and non-discrimination rights (such as housing or employment).
What Cambridge polyamorous partners might have a right to include employee benefits, travel issues, hospital visitation, and school access, depending on the location of each. For example, if you are in a hospital outside of Cambridge, the visitation rights may vary, and you may not have any there.
Same thing as with Somerville, rights that are not given is those for taxes, immigration status, and federal benefits.
Bigamy Laws and Polyamorous Domestic Partnerships
Beware of bigamy laws. “Bigamy” means being married to more than one person. Some states have anti-bigamy laws which explicitly restrict being married to more than one partner. However, some states actually extend this prohibition on bigamy to domestic partnerships, as well.
For example, in California, Penal Code Section 284 was amended to say that anyone who enters into a marriage or registered domestic partnership with someone who is already married/domestically partnered has committed a felony. This could be punishable by a fine ($5,000) or imprisonment. (Note: this law is technically different from bigamy, which is when someone marries someone while they are still married. This is the opposite, but still very similar).
Same goes for the District of Columbia. Section 22-501 in the Code of the District of Columbia states that you cannot enter a domestic partnership if you’re already in a domestic partnership (or marriage). If you do, you will be guilty of bigamy and will be imprisoned for two to seven years.
Domestic Partnerships, Polyamory, Prenups, and Alternatives
The long and the short of it is that you cannot get a prenup for a domestic partnership. Prenups are only valid after a legal marriage takes place. An alternative may be cohabitation agreements for domestic partnerships. However, how a polyamorous domestic partnership coincides with a cohabitation agreement is unclear since the legalization of polyamorous is so new and limited to only two cities in the U.S.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about polyamory and domestic partnerships
Q: Can I form a domestic partnership with multiple partners?
A: Yes, but only in two cities in Massachusetts. Even then, there are major limitations since this is on a local government level, not a state or federal level.
Q: What is the difference between polyamory and polygamy?
A: Yes, there is a difference. Polygamy is when one husband has multiple wives (i.e., legal marriage is involved), and polyamory is having multiple partners/relationships without marriage. Polygamy is illegal, but polyamory is not. In other words, the government says, “You cannot legally marry multiple partners, but if you want to have a relationship with multiple partners, we can’t stop you.”
Q: What legal protections are available to polyamorous individuals?
A: There may be some domestic violence protections for polyamorous people in certain states, but for the most part, the only legal protections that exist are in the two Massachusetts cities in which polyamorous domestic partnerships are legalized.
Q: Do I need to live in Cambridge or Somerville in order to register as a domestic partnership?
A: No, and you don’t even need to be a citizen of the U.S. either! The only thing required is an ID.
Q: What is required to register as a polyamorous domestic partnership in Cambridge and Somerville?
A: It’s generally a matter of filling out a form (name(s), date of birth(s), signatures) and declaring that you are in a committed relationship, you are not blood relatives, you haven’t been in another domestic partnership within the last 90 days, and you’re competent. After that, all you have left is to notarize it and mail it to make it official.
Q: Can I register a polyamorous domestic partnership in Cambridge or Somerville and then live in another city or state?
A: It depends, but you may risk violating a criminal law. Some states may have bigamy laws (or similar laws) that consider it a crime to be in a polyamorous domestic partnership. Those states include California, Colorado, Maryland, Washington, Wyoming, and District of Columbia.
Polyamory and domestic partnerships have a long way to go in terms of legalization in the U.S. Currently, there are only two cities that have legalized it (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Somerville, Massachusetts). In those places, there are some legal protections provided, but they may only extend to the local government level since they are not necessarily recognized on the state and federal level (yet). The word on prenups? They’re a no-go for domestic partnerships, but cohabitation agreements might be an option – it’s unclear exactly on how that would work given that polyamorous domestic partnerships are so new on the legal horizon.
Nicole Sheehey is the Head of Legal Content at HelloPrenup, and an Illinois licensed attorney. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to prenuptial agreements. Nicole has Juris Doctor from John Marshall Law School. She has a deep understanding of the legal and financial implications of prenuptial agreements, and enjoys writing and collaborating with other attorneys on the nuances of the law. Nicole is passionate about helping couples locate the information they need when it comes to prenuptial agreements. You can reach Nicole here: [email protected]