Who Is Considered Immediate Family?

Who technically counts as your immediate family? Is it just your spouse and kids, or could it include your parents, grandparents, and even cousins? And who even decides these things? We have answers.

Family is complicated. Of course, that’s true for many reasons, from the secrets some family members keep to the individual quirks that drive you slightly insane. But beyond that, the very concept of family is one that isn’t easily defined. For example, what does it mean to be a second cousin once removed or a third cousin twice removed? And what about your immediate family? Which family members are counted in that term, and who determines that?

When Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” readers could infer he was referring just to one’s spouse and children. By contrast, when SNL‘s Kenan Thompson said, “My immediate family is real close-knit,” he was likely also including his parents and siblings in this well-known family quote. And when Carrie Underwood said she could trust her immediate family, she specified that included the husbands of her sisters, their children, and even her “Aunt Donna.”

In other words, what we’re talking about when we talk about “immediate family” is highly personal, and it could even change every time we talk about it, depending on the context. However, that is only true in the context of casual conversation. In virtually any other context, there’s a hard and fast definition of what it means, and that definition can vary widely, according to attorney Sapana S. Grossi. “Every situation (and applicable law or company policy) needs to be independently evaluated,” she explains. “While the concept of ‘immediate family’ may seem simple and self-evident, we can never just assume what the definition is.”

In the context of child custody cases in Texas, for instance, immediate family includes “parents, siblings, spouse, child by blood, adoption or marriage, grandparents and grandchildren,” according to the lawyers at Texas law firm Bineham & Gillem. By contrast, for the purposes of deciding who can visit an inmate in a Tennessee prison, an immediate family member includes “mother, father, husband, wife, children, grandchildren, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, half-siblings, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law,” and, in some cases, stepparents and stepchildren.

If you’re not getting a divorce in Texas or trying to visit a Tennessee inmate, where does that leave you? Let’s take a look at some of the more common contexts in which defining “immediate family” matters.

For obtaining a green card

If you’re not an American citizen but you have an immediate relative who is, you can be eligible for a green card, according to federal law. So, what is considered an immediate relative under the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)? Unlike the laws regarding inmate visitation in Tennessee, USCIS defines immediate family members as your spouse, your unmarried minor-age child, and your parents. And that’s pretty much it, give or take some exceptions for deceased spouses and children born of surrogates.

If you’re wondering about other immigration issues, Grossi adds that someone who has recently been granted asylum can petition for a spouse or dependent child under the age of 21 as a “derivative refugee” or asylum seeker. “A naturalized citizen, however, can petition for any child over the age of 21, parents, siblings, fiancé, and/or the children of a fiancé to immigrate to the United States,” she explains. “Circumstances matter, especially in nuanced immigration laws.”

RELATED: Famous People Who Got American Citizenship

For inheriting from someone who died without a will

When someone dies without having drawn up a last will and testament, the “intestacy laws” of the state where that person lived determines who inherits what. Many states have laws in place for this purpose that follow what’s known as the Uniform Probate Code, which favors closer relatives over more distant relatives in the following order:

  1. Spouse
  2. Children
  3. Grandchildren
  4. Parents
  5. Siblings
  6. Nieces and nephews
  7. Cousins

Nevertheless, the laws of different states can vary greatly from one another and from the Code itself, including which relatives are considered “closer” versus “more distant.” That’s why it’s so important to draw up a will, as well as organize these other legal documents for your family before it’s too late.

For using the Family Medical Leave Act

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that can provide certain employees of certain employers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year in a number of situations, including “to care for an immediate family member” with a “serious health condition.” How does the FMLA define immediate family member for this purpose?

  • Spouse
  • Child
  • Parent

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, this specifically excludes siblings, in-laws, and grandparents. An exception may be made for anyone, including non-relatives, who acted as a parent to the employee during the employee’s childhood (through financial and guardianship responsibilities). In addition, “foster children” are included under “children” under the FMLA.

For taking bereavement time from work

Although the FMLA protects employees who are caring for immediate family members with serious health conditions, nothing in the federal law protects private or state employees who wish to take time off in the event a loved one dies. There is a federal law that protects federal employees who wish to take time off (three days) for the funeral of an immediate family member who died while serving as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces in a combat zone. For this purpose, immediate family members are defined broadly to include a spouse, parents, in-laws, children, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, step-relatives, foster-children, and domestic partners, including same-sex domestic partners.

What is an “immediate family member” when there is no applicable law?

In situations where one’s status as an immediate family member isn’t governed by law, private companies and organizations can make their own rules. For example, a private company can make rules regarding bereavement leave—as long as those rules don’t violate any existing laws. In such cases, however the company defines “immediate family member,” and that may vary considerably from company to company.

To determine if a tenant can be evicted from a rent-controlled apartment in New York State

In New York State, some apartments are subject to rent-control laws that prevent landlords from significantly raising the rent on an apartment for as long as the tenant or any family member lives there. Fortunately for tenants of rent-controlled apartments, and less fortunately for their landlords, New York law defines family members very broadly to include a “spouse, son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, father, mother, stepfather, stepmother, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, or daughter-in-law of the tenant,” as well as anyone else living in the apartment who “can prove emotional and financial commitment and interdependence” on the tenant.

To determine whether insider trading has occurred

Insider trading laws prohibit you from buying or selling stock based on important information that hasn’t been disclosed to the public. Their purpose is to support the full disclosure of all information that might be relevant to deciding whether to buy or sell a publicly traded stock and to prevent lawyers, investment bankers, and company insiders from profiting unjustly by virtue of what they know before the general public has an opportunity to find out. One common scenario in which insider trading is found to have occurred is when a family member of an insider trades stock based on information they learned from the insider. In those cases, courts tend to look at family relationships quite broadly. For example, a distant cousin might be considered close enough. Next, find out how being an immediate family member of a U.S. president could cause problems.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.