Sign Here and Here and Here: Exploring the Legality of Polyamory

HBO’s Big Love, TLC’s Sister Wives, and Showtime’s Polyamory—non-monogamous relationships seem to make for gripping television viewing. Certainly the thought of multiple sexual partners captures the attention. But what about the more mundane aspects of a polyamorous (poly) lifestyle?

To start, what does polyamory mean? Jen, a third-year law student from University of California Hastings in San Francisco who has worked with the Transgender Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that it was an amorphous, encompassing term that was defined different ways by different people.

“I consider it any subset of people having intimate relationships, however they define them, with more than one person at a time,” she said. The terms polygyny and polyandry are more specific, meaning one man with multiple wives and one woman with multiple husbands. The broader term, polygamy, may refer to either polygyny or polyandry.

How do poly people navigate parenting, bank accounts, and other everyday family business? Serious poly relationships might involve three, four, or more people that want to share the same rights and responsibilities that spouses or domestic partners would.

Parenting problems might arise because a child can by law only have two people recognized as parents. This is an issue not only for poly families but also divorced parents and step-parents. Multiple parents could be an asset to children though, and the issue may never come up unless there’s a larger problem.

“When there is some sort of problem and the court gets involved,” Jen said, “the court is going to scrutinize poly families very closely.”

In that case, the parents that aren’t legally recognized may not have a say.

“That doesn’t mean that people don’t successfully co-parent, multi-parent all the time,” she said.

Poly families could turn to contracts that approximate marriage or custody. This route is expensive though because the contracts aren’t prefab forms that anyone can complete.

“It’s really a question of how much money you have,” Jen said. “The more affluent you are, the more likely you’ll be able to get your family protected.”

Even if you do get your family protected, there’s no guarantee that your contracts will be recognized. If a member of a poly family is hospitalized, for instance, will the hospital allow multiple visitation rights?

“There is no reason that they shouldn’t,” said Jen. “But as plenty of people know, hospitals can be really difficult even if it’s law that they should comply. There are also plenty of people that live a life like this and it’s never an issue.”

Mortgages can also be difficult for nontraditional families to acquire.

“Banks find more than two people trying to purchase things together strange and unnecessarily confounding,” Jen said.

Despite some of the difficulties associated with being poly, the lifestyle is gaining more recognition and people continue to practice it. Corvallis even has its own poly social group that meets once a month. For more information, visit

by Lana Jones

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