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What Does Immediate Family Mean?

By Emma Davies


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The term immediate family is used to describe the closest relatives in a family structure. A person’s personal interpretation of their immediate family may be different from the legal definition and it is important to know the difference.

What Does Immediate Family Mean?

If you need to apply for a visa, family care leave or inheritance, for example, it is essential you know which family members are classed as your immediate family.

Definition of Immediate Family

The exact immediate family member definition refers to the closest relatives in the family unit. If you live in a traditional style of a nuclear family, you will be living with most of your immediate family – spouse, and children.

The immediate family can be officially defined in two different ways:

Blood relatives – Your immediate family members are those you are directly related to by blood. For example, your parents, children, and siblings. The immediate family can also include your grandparents on both your mom’s and dad’s side of the family – the inclusion of grandparents can vary between different laws.

In-laws – As well as your blood ties, if you are married your in-laws can count as your immediate family. For example, your mother-in-law and father-in-law are members of your immediate family.

Who is Considered Immediate Family?

Who is in the immediate family exactly? If you have close bonds with all of your family members, you may feel like everyone is a part of your immediate family. The truth is, it doesn’t matter how much you love your great aunt or third cousin, they are not officially part of your immediate family.

Here is a list of family members that are often considered to be a person’s immediate family:

  • Parents
  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Spouse
  • In-laws

Adoptive parents and step-parents are also classed as the immediate family. Step-parents may not always have the same legal rights as blood relatives, such as giving consent for medical care.

Legal Definition of Immediate Family

While you may be close to all of your family, there are several legal reasons why it is important to know who your immediate family members are.

If you were to get into an accident and needed someone to make medical decisions for you, for example, only a member of your immediate family could do it – often this will be your legal next-of-kin. In certain circumstances, our immediate family can also make important legal decisions on our behalf.

Why is Immediate Family Important?

Knowing who is in your immediate family is important for many different reasons. You would be incorrect to assume that everyone you are related to by blood is a part of your immediate family. For example, your cousins are not part of this family unit and will not automatically have any legal rights when it comes to your care, finances or will.

Here is a list of situations where knowing the legal definition of the immediate family is important:

  • Medical Leave – If a member of your immediate family falls ill and is in need of extra care, the Family and Medical Leave act allows you to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave from your employment.For instance, if your child is sick and needs treatment, you can be out of work for at least 12 weeks to focus on taking care of them. The FMLA makes it possible for immediate family members to look after their loved ones, without worrying about losing their job.

In-laws are not included in the FMLA but it does include your spouse, parents and children under 18 years of age. The law includes foster and adoptive children and the leave can be increased for parents caring for children under the age of 18.

  • Inheritance – When a person dies, if they have not left a will behind, their assets will be divided by the intestate succession laws. In these circumstances, the possessions will be divided between immediate family members, but exactly who this is can vary from state to state.

In the majority of states, the deceased assets will be split between their spouse and children. If a person has no living spouse or children, their inheritance will be passed to their next surviving immediate family members: parents, siblings and grandchildren,

Remember, if you don’t have any immediate family and want to avoid your assets being passed to the state after you die, you need to write a legal will detailing your wishes. Even if you are best friends with your cousin and want them to have everything you own, unless it’s written in your will, they won’t get anything as they are not your immediate family.

  • Getting a green card – If you want to live or work permanently in the United States, you will need to have a green card. When applying for ‘green card’ status, the immediate family is classed as your spouse, parents (if you are over 21) and children who are unmarried or under 21 years of age,
  • Selling stock – There are laws in place by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority that prevent people from selling IPOS and certain other stock to their immediate family. If you are investing in the stock market, it is important that you know the laws and do not sell certain stocks to your immediate family.

Other Ways to Define Immediate Family

The key members of the immediate family are parents, children, spouse and siblings, but this family unit has become open to interpretation. For example, someone may not have their biological mother present in their life and instead see the aunt who has always supported them as their immediate family.

While the following ways of defining the immediate family may not align with actual US laws, they can be how many people define their closest family members:

Length of relationship – Not all couples are legally married and may not be able to enjoy all of the ‘legal spouse’ benefits. Nevertheless, if you have been in a relationship for several years, live together and perhaps have children together, you may consider your partner to be your immediate family.

Distance – If your mom and dad live on the south coast and you’ve most to the east, for example, they are still an immediate family. You don’t need to be living with your immediate family members or even see them to still be legally connected.

That being said, families today are all different shapes and sizes and there are people who see their closest friends as their family. Also, adult children can cut ties with their parents when they leave home, move away from their siblings and have little to do with their immediate family members.

Type of relationship – Love your cousin more than your sister? Feel more connected to your uncle than your dad? All family relationships are different and a close bond with your immediate family is not a guarantee.

In the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter if you have the best relationship with those you consider to be your ‘real’ family, only parents, children, siblings and your spouse are your immediate family.

Benefits for Immediate Family Members

It is important that you know exactly who your immediate family members are so you can access any benefits you are entitled to, now or in the future. Benefits for immediate family members include:

  • Preferences for immigration visas, asylum, ‘green card’ status
  • Employment health care benefits
  • Bereavement leave from employment following the death of an immediate family member
  • Life insurance payment entitlement

Choosing your Family

Families today look very different to how they did fifty years ago. While you may have your own personal views on the people who make up your family, in the eyes of the law, your immediate family will always be your closest legal ties.

Parents, their children, siblings and spouses are all members of the immediate family according to law. For people who don’t have strong connections with their immediate family, they can seek legal guidance on how to make sure their ‘chosen family’ can make medical or financial decisions for them if needed in the future.

Family can mean many different things to each of us, but there is only one definition of immediate family when it comes to most US laws.

About Emma Davies

Emma Davies is a freelance writer that specializes parenting and animal topics. With over 20 years experience as a parent there are very few topics that faze her.

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