AltInst: Fwd: Legal Group Marriages?

Date: Tue Mar 31 1998 - 10:59:16 PST

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Subject: Legal Group Marriages?
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Oberon Zell-Ravenheart
POB 1775, Laytonville, CA 95454
(707) 984-6284 * FAX 707-984-6473

TO: Poly-Sympathetic Corporate & Family Law Attorneys
RE: A Legal Model for Group Marriage

I have been looking for someone in our polyamorous community with experience
and knowledge of corporate law to help with the following:
With a few of our closest, deepest, and most committed lovers, we have over
the past few years formed a five-person group marriage, conceptually based on
Robert A. Heinlein's concept of the "line marriage" mentioned in many of his
later post-Stranger in a Strange Land books. We have long noted that, while
legally "marriage" is defined as including only two adults, any grouping of
three or more can form the basis of a corporation. Thus it seems a corporate
model could be adapted to give legal structure to a group marriage of three or
more. However, I am not an attorney, and know very little of any corporate
models other than the Church of All Worlds itself. I would like to ask of you
what possible legal forms might be adapted for such a purpose? A Corporation?
A Partnership? A Trust? A Foundation? A religious Order? What other
possibilities are there? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of
these as models for a group marriage structure?
If you become disabled, legal status is all that gives your partner (instead,
perhaps, of your Christian Fundamentalist parents) legal rights over your
care. Or, even enough status to visit you in the hospital, as many beleaguered
gay and lesbian partners can attest. Also, these days more and more employers
will consider benefits and rights for registered partners. This becomes a
serious issue in probate: rights of inheritance, legal rights in the face of
custody battles by former partners, etc.
Many years ago, in 1967, I had a friend who was a corporate attorney for the
St. Louis Diocese of the Catholic Church. I gave him an interesting
assignment: taking Stranger in a Strange Land as a model, could he design a
legal structure for the "Church of All Worlds" as described in the book, that
would give us all the legal rights and privileges of the Roman Catholic Church
while still allowing us the freedom to evolve along our own Pagan lines? He
got out the paperwork for the RC Church, and using it as a model created for
us Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws that formed the foundation of all we
have become as a Church, including the ability to form subsidiary Orders, and
to constantly modify our Bylaws as we grow and evolve. The real-life Church of
All Worlds (CAW) was chartered by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) Religious and
Educational Corporation on June 18, 1970. Our legal structure is quite
remarkable, and has been a key factor in our success and longevity (copies of
our Bylaws are available upon request).
What we need now is a similar legal model for group marriages and extended
families. I have a few thoughts along these lines which I'd like to run by
you, in hopes that you will be sufffiently intrigued by this possibility to
respond with suggestions, or even some concrete templates.
The Church of All Worlds now has an IRS Group Exemption Letter, which covers
our chartered Subordinate Organizations and our fully-chartered "Nests" (local
congregations). We have procedures in place for establishing both of these,
which basically boil down to this: any three registered CAW members may apply
to become either a Subsidiary or a Nest. If the former, the Board of Directors
gives them a two-year probationary period as a "Project," after which, if they
are still in operation and meeting our requirements, they may be chartered by
the Board and receive our Group Exemption. If a Nest, a similar process
ensues: one year as a "Proto-Nest," after which, if they are still functioning
and meet our requirements, they may be chartered (via the Nest Coordinating
Council, as authorized by the Board) as a Nest and receive our Group
Now, as far as I know, legal marriages may be performed by Justices of the
Peace, ship Captains (at sea), or ordained Clergy of established churches. Are
there others I am unaware of? Churches are given considerable latitude in
setting the requirements for their sanctioned marriages. For instance, in the
Catholic Church, both partners have to agree to refrain from using birth
control and to baptize and raise their children in the Church. Oh yes, and no
divorce allowed. Failure to abide by these conditions could result in the
marriage being annulled, or the couple being excommunicated.
Moreover, it is established tradition in at least Judaism that the basic local
congregational unit of the religion is the family, with the female head of the
household serving effectively as Clergy.
So. We are an established Church, with recognized ordained Clergy, and have
long been conducting legal marriages. We have created and performed beautiful
handfasting ceremonies for gay couples as well as triads. We even conduct
parting rituals. Couldn't we set up a structure, similar to that we already
have in place for Nests and Subsidiaries, that would legitimate a group
marriage performed and sanctioned by our Clergy, as a legal entity under our
Group Exemption? If that is how it is legally structured, such an entity could
then purchase property, open joint checking and savings accounts, have a group
health plan, rent "offices" (housing), obtain insurance, pay corporate
(family) taxes, etc. in exactly the same way a nuclear family does, couldn't
Should a group marriage be structured as profit or non-profit under this
model? To qualify for non-profit status, we would have to choose a corporate
model that meets the requirements of a mutual benefit corporation or a
charitable, educational, or religious one, under IRC x501(c)(3). The fact that
incidental to the corporate purpose ("to educate contemporary culture about
alternative historical and contemporary family arrangements," for example), we
form a household, shouldn't matter legally.
The main disadvantages of the corporate form are several. First, there are
obviously record-keeping requirements that must be met. We wouldn't want to
jeopardize the viability of the organization by failing to hold meetings and
keep minutes (though such "family meetings" should certainly be held as often
as needed, in any case!). Secondly, there are tax implications. Anyone who is
paid by the corporation (whether the payment is a salary, or a distribution of
dividends in a for-profit corporation) is subject to personal income tax on
the payments. However, much of that could perhaps be avoided by having the
corporation chartered as a "Religious Order," such as a monastery, and having
each of the members take a "Vow of Poverty." Third, a corporate model injects
a degree of formality into a family relationship, and that may not be
psychologically comfortable or even appropriate. But if a corporate form is
the only way we can accomplish our goals, the price may not be too high to
Here's a possible way this might work: Suppose that a couple wants to add a
third person to their marriage. They would apply to the Board-designated
authority (i.e. a member of the Clergy) to be "officially recognized" as a
group marriage under the aegis of the CAW. They would have a triad handfasting
(marriage) ceremony (already precedents!) properly performed by said Clergy,
who would then issue them a "Charter" in the form of a special CAW Group
Marriage Certificate. The new person would add the Family name to their own.

(Incidentally, Pagan Handfasting is not exactly the same as Christian
marriage. It is not meant to restrict the behavior of the people involved, but
to celebrate an existing bond before their community. The desire to give
polyamorous bonds legal status is neither an endorsement nor a critique of
institutional marriage as it currently exists in Western society. The point
here is to provide more legally-viable alternatives for family life.)
Conditions would, of course, have to include provisions for one or more people
leaving the marriage, or the dissolution of the marriage if only one partner
remains. Perhaps the models of "Marriage Contracts" that have long been
traditional in Jewish marriages might be adapted for these purposes.
Adding more partners would only entail having additional and larger
handfasting ceremonies, presumably involving all present members (but not
necessarily; for a "line marriage," a new person could "marry in" with only
one other partner). The death or other departure of one or more members thus
need not necessarily threaten the stability or permanence of the marriage,
whose legal duration, as with the CAW itself, would be designated as
"perpetual," thereby covering ownership and devolution (inheritance) of
property, health benefits, administration of taxes, and payment of corporate
(family) taxes. We might not, in the eyes of the law, be regarded as a nuclear
family, with all the consequences of that status, but in a practical sense, we
could build a close approximation.
There are many reasons why people need a form like this. Yes, they may be able
to form corporations without CAW; but I believe we should encourage and
sacralize these forms as a sacred duty.
A new Amendment to our Bylaws could be designed to accommodate this model, and
after much thought and discussion, our Bylaws Committee have come up with the
following proposal: to create a new category of "Nests"-the "Family
Nest"-designed to approximate a marital unit, but without limit as to gender
or number of partners. I am appending a copy of the relevant sections of the
proposed newly-amended Article XII, "Nests," and would like to ask for
feedback from your perspective of poly-sympathetic legal expertise. Does this
look like it would work? Can you think of any changes in wording that would
improve its usefulness and workability?
Many people within and without both the Pagan and Poly communities continue to
look to us for new paradigm models. We have already broken much ground by
establishing new models for religion, for churches, for thealogy ("Thou art
God/dess"; the Gaia Thesis), relationships (Water Brothers; "Polyamory"),
liturgy, community, etc. I feel it is now our calling to establish a new and
workable legal model for sustainable group marriage. I'm ready.
Can you assist in this endeavor?

Never Thirst,
Oberon Zell-Ravenheart,
Primate, Church of All Worlds

Church of All Worlds Bylaws
Relevant Proposed Amendments:

12.1: Nests. The basic local organizational congregational unit of the Church
of All Worlds shall be the Nest. A Nest is a small intimate group of at least
three, and it is recommended, not more than 13, Church members, organized in a
local area to learn about, discuss, and creatively practice the purposes of
the Church.
12.1.1: Nests shall be largely autonomous units which have agreed to adopt and
practice the values and purposes of the Church and have, after applying to the
Nest Coordinating Council, been granted a Charter by the Board of Directors. Nests are not required to have open meetings and may determine their
own internal structure and method of participation. Nests shall not have the power to incur debt in the name of the
Church of All Worlds.
12.2: Under the general category of "Nests," the Church of All Worlds
recognizes several distinct forms:

12.2.4: Family Nests. Two or more active adult Church members who wish to live
together as a single committed Family unit or household may constitute
themselves as a "Family Nest," adopting a Family name and structure according
to their own wishes. Family Nests shall not be listed among other Nests in public
listings, receive an automatic subscription to the inter-Nest newsletter, or
be included on the electronic communication lists for Nests. To establish a Family Nest, which may, in cases of three or more
members, be regarded as a group marriage, an appropriate committment ceremony
(such as handfasting) must be performed by CAW Clergy , upon which said Clergy
may issue a Family Nest Charter (or equivalent certificate). Because Family Nest structures may legitimate alternative marital
units, this is the only form of CAW organizational structure that may contain
fewer than three adult members. A Family Nest shall not be required to designate a Nest Coordinator
or submit quarterly reports. However, all members shall be required to
maintain their Family memberships and annual dues in the CAW. Family Nests shall not be eligible to be covered under the Church's
Group Exemption, unless they also meet the criteria for fully-Chartered Nests
as per x12.2.1.


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Received on Tue Mar 31 11:23:23 1998

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