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The polyamorous family

Study shows how Canadian relationships are evolving
By John-Paul Boyd
November 11 2016 issue

Askold Romanov / iStockphoto.com

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The Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family began a study on perceptions of polyamorous relationships this summer. The data gathered to date, from 540 Canadians, paint a fascinating picture of polyamorous individuals and their family arrangements and have important implications for the future of family law in Canada.

Although Statistics Canada does not track the number of Canadians who identify as polyamorous, 82.4 per cent of the study’s respondents agreed that the number of people who identify as polyamorous is increasing and 80.9 per cent thought that the number of people who are openly involved in polyamorous relationships is increasing.

The growth of polyamory suggests that the meaning of “family” continues to evolve, as it has since the legal recognition of unmarried cohabiting relationships and the extension of the right to marry to same-sex couples, which in turn suggests that significant change is on the horizon for the practice of law in Canada.

The legal issues facing those engaged in polyamorous relationships are both mundane and esoteric. From a public law perspective, polyamorous individuals will be concerned about the calculation of benefits and liabilities based on family size or income, entitlement to benefits that depend on status as a spouse, parent or guardian, and the right to participate in decisions about education, travel and health care. Other questions will arise for lawyers whose practice involves wills and estates and those who practise elder law and may have concerns about Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan.

The individuals the institute are studying are young (74.4 per cent of respondents are between 25 and 44 years old), relatively affluent, tending to earn more than the general Canadian population, and very well educated (37 per cent report having a university degree compared to 17 per cent of the general population, and 19 per cent report having a post-graduate or professional degree compared to 8 per cent of Canadians). They tend to live in British Columbia (35.6 per cent), Ontario (28.7 per cent) and Alberta (17.6 per cent).

Most of respondents’ polyamorous relationships involved three adults (50.4 per cent), but only a fifth of respondents said the members of their relationship lived in a single household (19.7 per cent). Where the members of a polyamorous family live in more than one household, most live in two households (44.3 per cent) or three households (22.2 per cent). Where the members of a polyamorous family live in one household, three-fifths of those households involved at least one married couple (61.2 per cent). Where the members of a polyamorous family lived in more than one household, almost half involved at least one married couple (45.4 per cent), and 85 per cent of those households involved one married couple while the remainder involved two married couples (12.9 per cent), three married couples (1.4 per cent) and more than three married couples (0.7 per cent). Almost a quarter of respondents (23.2 per cent) said that at least one child lives full-time in their household, and 8.7 per cent said that at least one child lives in their household part-time.

In distinction to the faith-based, patriarchal polygamists resident in Bountiful, B.C., and featured in shows like Sister Wives, respondents place a high value on equality. Respondents tended to agree that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of gender (94.7 per cent) or parental status (74.4 per cent). Respondents agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have an equal say in changes to the relationship (80.5 per cent) and in the admission of new members (70.3 per cent), and have the right to leave the relationship when they choose (99.2 per cent).

From the perspective of the matrimonial lawyer, the issues potentially afflicting polyamorous families are the bread and butter problems that occupy most of the work day, but include some very interesting twists. When a polyamorous family diminishes or dissolves, participants will need to negotiate:
  • the care of children after the departure of one or more members from the household;
  • the payment of child support, and identifying who in addition to the child’s parents are potential obligees;
  • entitlement to and liability for spousal support;
  • the division of property, including jointly owned property and interests in property owned by only one member of the household; and,
  • the allocation of debt for which one or more participants is liable.
Those entering such a family will be concerned about matters including:
  • responsibility for household expenses;
  • liability for existing family debt and entitlement to existing family property;
  • the acquisition of new debt and new property;
  • the distribution of management and parenting functions; and 
  • family members’ relationships with others outside the family and expectations as to sexual fidelity.
Many of these issues are subtle and nuanced, and turn on a careful reading of how provincial legislation defines terms like spouse, partner, parent, guardian and child and the extent to which matrimonial property rights have been extended to unmarried cohabitants. Other issues will be new to even experienced family law lawyers.

It is likely time for interested family law lawyers to begin forming practice associations, as have coalesced in relation to assisted reproduction, to share knowledge and expertise on polyamorous families and their legal needs, prepare model retainer agreements and relationship agreements, monitor amendments to the legislation and developments in the case law, and develop referral networks. Our clients will benefit enormously from resources and talent shared in this manner, and counsel may find advising on polyamorous relationships to be a profitable and stimulating practice niche.

John-Paul Boyd is executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, an independent organization affiliated with the University of Calgary.

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