Polyamorous Relationships Now Recognized By The City of Somerville, MA

The city of Somerville, MA has decided to officially recognize polyamorous relationships. What does it mean for the rights of the people in those relationships with more than one partner? Attorney Ben Barry of Martin, Harding & Mazzotti, LLP discusses the implications.

Please give it a listen or read the transcript below.

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Interviewer 1: We’re talking with Ben Barry from Martin, Harding & Mazzotti. And Ben, there is a story in the news about Somerville, Massachusetts. Somerville, Mass as a city. This is not about private businesses. This is not about a statewide mandate or anything like this, just the city of Somerville has decided to allow now for its employees to identify multiple partners. So, I can choose to have this wonderful lady that I’m married to, this is my partner, and by the way, this is my other partner over here. So, now they have access, by what I read, it sounds like access to information about me when it comes to medical emergencies and things like that. Is that correct?

Ben: Yeah, that is correct. Presumably, I guess, the second partner, would likely, as far as the city is concerned, would have recognized rights to obtain information that the city might compile about you if you’re a city employee. They will have access to your health care plan as a dependent. So, there are a lot of, I think, financial privacy, and a number of other implications about or related to the city recognizing these types of unions. Generally speaking, I think it’s contained, however, in terms of financially and in terms of the recognition of the benefits that come along with marriage, or civil unions. I think it’s pretty well contained right now within the jurisdiction of Somerville, so this isn’t likely something that’s gonna have wide, wide and disparate effects on anybody else other than the residents of that municipality.

Interviewer 1: So Ben, I’m a little confused about this. Does this… It sounds like polygamy in a way, and that’s not allowed across the United States. It’s not legal. Does this in any way legalize polygamy?

Ben: Well, the line between polygamy and a polyamorous relationship. One, generally, polygamy is one man having several wives. And I think that the issue with polygamy, generally speaking, is that some of the practices that are involved in polygamy are unsavory to most of the American population. Polyamory on the other hand, I think, suggests that there is some sort of free movement of love and some less… there’s less subordination, I believe. I’m not an expert on either of them. I really don’t know that much about polygamy, I don’t know anything about polyamory. But it seems to me that polyamory and polygamy probably have some similarities, but they diverge at some particular point in time.

Interviewer 1: And I don’t have any direct experience with this, but I know people who are polyamorous. It’s more about having multiple relationships. And so, they are partners and significant partners, like, it would be, you know, this is my boyfriend, girlfriend, we’re going steady, that kind of thing. But you’re doing it with multiple people versus I’m only in a relationship with this one person. I think it diverges when it comes to the marriage portion of things. That’s my understanding. But again, I’ve got enough problems with my one wife, I don’t need multiples, and…

Ben: I’m with you on that. I’m with you on that.

Interviewer 1: And of course, anyone could do whatever they want. But in this case, it is extending benefits to people who are in a relationship with more than one person, right? Extending benefits just to city employees. But if nothing else…

Interviewer 2: Is that right?

Interviewer 1: Can I ask us to back up for a second because, I mean, benefits It’s right now… And I remember back in the day, I used to only be able to give benefits to my married spouse. There was a time when that was the case. But now I can identify a partner, somebody I’m living with, who I’m not married to to be that particular partner. Maybe we start there and then work our way to then adapting to multiple partners.

Ben: Yeah, I mean, again, I’m not an expert on this. But generally speaking, too, I think for the municipality to recognize the rights, there has to be some sort of partnership arrangement, like a marriage. I think that some of the arguments for same-sex marriage is that, look, two men can do business together, they can form a partnership, they can allocate rights between the two of them with a written document, and marriage is, but for the religious component, basically the same arrangement. So it’s arrangement between a man and a woman and they have, essentially there are semi contractual rights and responsibilities between the two of them. And so, I think that there was an argument for same-sex marriage that was similar to that, and also, we should recognize universally love between two people, despite their sex. Polyamory, I believe, at least in Somerville is a recognition of that partnership. And so, I think what will be interesting to see is that if you have a polyamorous relationship, let’s just say it’s four men and one woman and that polyamorous relationship is recognized by Somerville, and that relationship disbands for one reason or another, or one person leaves that polyamorously recognized group, what rights and responsibilities come as a dissolution of that thing? I think that’s where we get very complicated. In a divorce, it’s relative… In a standard regular traditionally defined marriage and then divorce, it’s kind of like 50% to the husband, 50% of the other husband or wife, and the contract is dissolved in a way that there’s within a framework. I don’t know that that’s true in polyamory. And it would be interesting to see how the courts would deal with that. It would be interesting to see how the city would deal with that as it relates to, for example, health benefits. There’s a five-person polyamorous relationship, all five people are covered under the city’s health insurance plan. And one of those people decided to leave that relationship, how and who would pay for continuation of the coverage of benefits? Or would those benefits by the city then extend to an individual who’s no longer in a polyamorous relationship, but is entitled to receive those benefits by virtue of the, I guess, contractual rights between the other parties?

Interviewer 2: Well, it’ll be interesting, Ben, to see how the voters in Somerset feel about this once it’s enacted because obviously they have to pay for these benefits. But let me ask you this in a legal sense. Is there any… do you see any potential where this could be gamed by people? Where they could say, “Hey, listen, I’m able to say because I’m a city employee, I can get you four or five, six different people health benefits through the city. All you gotta do is say you’re one of my several partners.” Do you think there’s any way that could be gained?

Ben: Absolutely. My understanding right now is that there is no limit. I mean, polyamory is kind of opening up the door. And so, I think anybody that wants to test this limit, somebody with city benefits goes and engages in a relationship with every homeless person in Somerville. And now, every homeless person in Somerville has the health benefits that the city worker would be entitled to under the family plan.

Interviewer 2: Good point.

Ben: So, I don’t know… I imagine that there are some situations where it’s a very slippery slope. You let two people in well, then you have to let 20 in. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I certainly think that that will absolutely be a consideration for voters because again, the City of Somerville has a budget. they have to pass that, and have to determine what the city benefits are going to be for those workers.

Interviewer 2: But my taxes are high enough in Burlington, Vermont. I’m not moving to Somerville.

Ben: Right. So, I think that there… I think it’s a very good point that you make in gaming the system because that is where the rubber meets the road. I don’t know how it plays out, but it seems very progressive. I don’t know what their financial analysis looks like. But I’m certain that there are some areas where this is really going to impassion some people who don’t wanna pay for all these benefits if that’s the way it plays out. Maybe they get a couple of polyamorous couples that have benefits under the city plan and that’s just kind of where it sits for several years. But I’m certain that this will be tested in the courts.

Interviewer 1: Yeah, this would be one thing if we were talking about just having access to records or access to information, like, my wife can get information when I’m hospitalized. That would be one thing. But yeah, when you’re talking about actually being able to say, “This is my partner, therefore, they get access to the benefits,” it does open up some other doors. Very interesting. Ben, we’ll have to continue to watch the story and see how it transpires.

Ben: Yeah, I imagine that goes to referendum, most probably what’s gonna happen.

Interviewer 2: Yeah, that will be an interesting vote.

Interviewer 1: Absolutely. Ben Barry, he is an attorney with Martin, Harding & Mazzotti. We always appreciate their insight. And if you have questions, reach out to Martin, Harding & Mazzotti at 1800law1010.com.

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