It’s Time to Rethink the Definition of Immediate Family

What it means when ”immediate family” is something different for every person or situation

Avatar of null

Shivani Banker

The U.S. Census Bureau defines immediate family as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” While this definition might be appropriate for some, many people don’t define immediate family this way.

Family can mean something else entirely to many people. For instance, a person who lost their parents at a young age may have been raised by aunts, uncles, grandparents, or family friends who are not included in this limited, nuclear definition of immediate family.

The problem with this narrow idea of who qualifies as immediate family is that it rejects so many perspectives. Single parents, folks in poverty, and those in minority communities, for example, might have family structures that look different than two people related by birth or marriage.

Because of this, it’s crucial to change the way we define family. Someone whose boyfriend dies might not be treated with the same level of care as someone who loses their spouse, despite the term and depth of the relationship — and that’s not OK. Extended families, too, might be overlooked as part of the nuclear group, even though grandparents, aunts, and uncles are often critically important in people’s lives. LGBTQ2S+ families, chosen families, single parents, people living alone, and multigenerational families that include grandparents must also be given recognition.

Change to the Census Bureau’s definition of immediate family is important, but that change must also come from businesses. Redefining immediate family in workplace policies is an essential step toward fostering inclusive business practices that benefit workers.

Expanded Definitions and Inclusive Business Best Practices

When it comes to company benefits, such as paid family leave and bereavement policy, businesses have remained fairly exclusive. Certain relationships still don’t fall within the groups of people who qualify for these benefits; caregivers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are often treated differently than spouses, children, or parents in the eyes of employers. And many parents of adopted children still don’t enjoy maternity or paternity leave after adoption.

Companies likely set these limits for two reasons. First, they want to create “guardrails” for their policies to ensure they cannot be abused. Second, they want to implement rules for different “types” of people who can be included, such as one set of rules for mothers and fathers and another set of rules for aunts and uncles. These parameters insinuate that the company does not trust employees to use the policy responsibly.

When businesses consider extended and “nontraditional” family members in HR policy changes, including bereavement policy, they promote the importance of inclusive business practices that reflect the needs of all employees. Changing who is considered immediate family for bereavement and other benefits also communicates that the company supports all family structures.

HR Policy Changes and Immediate Family

Redefining immediate family in the workplace may seem challenging, but it can be done. Start with these key steps:

1. Have a “family-friendly” discussion.

Companies should have an internal discussion about what it means to have a family-friendly and family-forward workplace. How will this translate into the culture? Gauging this may require polling employees to determine what family means to them and whether they would find these benefits useful.

2. Revisit policies.

Before jumping into HR policy changes and bereavement policy alterations, companies should do an internal audit of all policies and procedures to ensure they align with the newly open and inclusive definition of family. It’s also important to evaluate how widening the definition of family affects the company and its employees. Taking the time to evaluate this communicates mutual understanding to employees, which can have the ripple effect of bolstering recruitment, communicating core values and nondiscriminatory employment practices, and improving the company’s bottom line.

3. Communicate support.

By expanding what is considered immediate family for bereavement and other benefits, a company communicates that it supports employees and the people they consider family. It shows employees that the organization wants to grow with them regardless of their family situation. That said, it’s important to remember that real communication requires real action; include the expanded definitions in 401(k) benefits, maternity and paternity policies, and caregiving policies.

While the definition of family has widened at a slow pace, it’s time for companies to reflect on what family actually means to their workers. Do policies foster a supportive, inclusive culture, or do they benefit some employees more than others? These questions create opportunities for support and real, tangible growth.

Creating and implementing inclusive bereavement policies is one of the most important tasks facing businesses today. Learn how Lantern can help you with that process.

Categories: Grief in the Workplace, Supporting Someone Who's Grieving

Lantern provides guidance and support for navigating life before and after a death.

If you're looking to manage a loss, check out Lantern's after-loss services. Or, if you're looking to prepare your own just-in-case plan, check out Lantern's digital pre-plans.

For more articles on grief, loss, and pre-planning, see all Lantern articles.