Diana Adams: How can we provide better care for non-traditional families? For LGBTQIA and non-nuclear families, navigating the legal system and family benefits is difficult. Attorney Diana Adams says we need more inclusive laws that cater to all chosen families.

How can we provide better care for non-traditional families?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On today's show, Take Care.


DIANA ADAMS: When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, I was in a stuck place in the American health insurance system.

ZOMORODI: This is Diana Adams. Back then, Diana was 20-something, broke and trying to start a law practice.

ADAMS: I'd been duped into buying a very sort of limited freelancer's health insurance. And once they determined this is cervical cancer and you actually need surgery, that's when I was told we can't treat you anymore because your health insurance actually doesn't cover that. So while emergency counted as getting in a car accident, it didn't count as cancer. And so I couldn't buy health insurance on the open market with a cancer diagnosis. And I couldn't get on cancer services Medicaid. And a lot of people in that situation just die. So I really felt like I was stuck and was just completely overwhelmed and terrified.

ZOMORODI: And that could have been where Diana's story ended.

ADAMS: But my chosen family really stepped up for me. My girlfriend helped me pick apart, OK, what are the specific needs that I have right now and organize them into a schedule. And every day for a few months, somebody showed up to bring me food, and somebody else showed up to sit with me while I'm making terrible phone calls all day long about health coverage and just breathe with me and keep me focused and grounded.

ZOMORODI: Friends tracked down the best oncologists. Others helped Diana win an appeal to get on Medicaid.

ADAMS: And that's just incredible, just absolutely astonishing the way that people showed up for me.

ZOMORODI: And Diana got better. But then they got mad.

ADAMS: I felt somewhat outraged that the kinds of relationships I had with the people who really supported me and saved my life were not something that was legally recognized.


ADAMS: And I couldn't have gotten on the health insurance of those friends because we weren't romantic partners. And those kinds of close friend relationships don't get the kind of priority as romantic relationships do.


ADAMS: Right? I mean, I could marry some guy that I met on Match.com two weeks ago, and he could get on my health insurance. But my best friend of 20 years can't. Why?

ZOMORODI: So you decided to focus your law practice on exactly this?

ADAMS: Absolutely. And I really wanted other people to be able to formalize those kinds of relationships and try to make sure that there are fewer people who fall through the cracks like I could have. We can't keep divvying out the benefits that we give to people just through the institution of marriage, for example, because that doesn't account for the actual reality of the many people that need and deserve support, too.

ZOMORODI: Here's Diana Adams on the TED stage.


ADAMS: The nuclear family has been the basis for our cultural stories and our laws. But only about half of U.S. adults are married, fewer every year. Forty percent of U.S. adults don't live with a romantic partner at all. As of 2013, less than half of U.S. children had two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage. The majority of us are not in a nuclear family with a spouse and kids. Yet somehow, we treat this majority of people like social failures.

What's worse? Our laws treat unmarried people as lesser citizens. Marriage comes with over 1,000 rights and benefits under federal law. These include the ability to get your spouse citizenship, share health insurance, get better tax rates, and inherit tax free at death and more. Part of the winning argument for same-sex marriage was that we shouldn't deprive gay couples of all of these essential benefits. But I ask you, why should anyone be denied benefits because they're in a romantic relationship of which some people disapprove or because they're single?


ADAMS: Thank you. Or because they're basing family on something other than a romantic relationship, like co-parenting a child. Our laws should move away from the idea that there's one ideal family form and value all families as they exist.

For nearly 15 years with my law firm for LGBTQ and nonnuclear families, I've supported same-sex couples, but also the many family forms beyond marriage, like platonic partners who are raising a child together or sharing finances without a romantic relationship or grandparents who are raising their grandchildren or a lesbian couple co-parenting with a male friend or polyamorous partners who might be in a committed relationship of three or four. And it is my core belief that no matter how you form family, actively discussing how we intend to live together is the best thing we can do to strengthen our own personal relationships.

ZOMORODI: So, Diana, as you point out, these days, families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. But how are we at this point where the traditional marriage contract remains the gold legal standard, at least here in the U.S.?

ADAMS: We really get an emphasis on legal marriage in the 20th century, especially as we got more toward the industrial revolution. In 1850, many Americans were living in extended nuclear family, and something like three quarters of people who are 65 and older lived with their adult children and grandkids and helped out with the grandkids. So this idea of the nuclear family - I think we have an idea that it's, quote, "traditional" and it's been that way forever and it's maybe the way things were intended. It's actually a relatively new invention, and it's really an invention of factors of capitalism, for example, of organizing workers. At the time, in the 1950s, was a brief blip in history when a man, even without a college degree, might be able to earn enough to support a wife and two kids and buy a house. That was also to prevent out-of-wedlock births, because the U.S. has really resisted having the kind of robust social welfare state that's enjoyed by others in Europe where marriage is actually much less emphasized and there hasn't been as much of a same-sex marriage movement because people don't need to get married to get health insurance and don't need to get married to feel like they're going to get support for their kids if they're a single mom, because the state will provide that support. But instead, in the U.S., it was really partly a way to organize, OK, who is the father of which children so that we know - so that he can pay for this rather than the government? And this nuclear family was really only in a majority in the 1950s and '60s. But that doesn't necessarily mean that those are good bases for how we need to form family today.


ADAMS: When we embrace the idea of chosen family, our own free will is more important than biological connection. We can choose to create family relationships with the people who provide us with the meaningful support that we need and deserve.

Same-sex parenting has also advanced the concept of family beyond biology because in a same-sex couple, only one parent's providing the sperm or the egg. In my family-building legal work with these families, I facilitate discussions to make sure that everyone's intentions are aligned before designing that legal agreement. For example, I'll often work with a same-sex - female same-sex couple who has a male friend who wants to help them become parents. So I'll facilitate discussions to make sure they're all clear on whether he's going to be a co-parent or a sperm donor and design a legal agreement either way. Without that, I've seen too many situations of ambiguity where mom calls him a dad when she needs child care help but a donor when it comes time to make a big decision she doesn't want his input on. He calls himself dad when the baby's adorable at the park, but feels more like a donor when the school bill comes, you know? When we're designing our own families, we need clear written agreements, especially if children are involved.

ZOMORODI: It sounds like you are coaching people who are in less traditional family arrangements to get very clear on what their legal obligations are to each other, that to be successful, you're saying they need to be clear-eyed about what the future might hold and their obligations.

ADAMS: Absolutely. And so I would have a clear written agreement that would be just as valid if this is a platonic co-parent or if this was a guy who got you accidentally pregnant or if this is your ex-husband. So write down an agreement that makes it clear, OK, he agrees that he's going to make a 50% contribution to child expenses, but if our incomes change drastically, we can check in about that. And maybe he pays 70% or 30% based on our respective incomes in that calendar year, if needed. Because as a family lawyer, we've seen too many situations of words like, you know, he'll contribute in a reasonable way or he'll provide child care as mom finds appropriate - that can lead to misunderstandings.

And so I try to get people to really open up about, what are your real fears here and what are your real expectations? Tell me what an average week looks like. Tell me what an average year looks like. Does mom have a hidden expectation that the sperm donor will always come to the kid's birthday party? Because you were saying he doesn't have any rights or obligations as a parent, but are you actually really kind of secretly hoping that he's going to be in a special relationship?

ZOMORODI: Oh, but maybe she doesn't even know that that's what she wants.

ADAMS: That's right. But - and I think you're right. People sometimes don't even know. I ask a lot of the questions that I've seen lead to agreements falling apart.


ADAMS: I have found in my work that these kinds of discussions are much more powerful for preventing future disputes than any written contract can be. We need to have these conversations. Legal contracts are sometimes written to avoid looking eye to eye and coming to an agreement, but family contracts should only be written after you've done that.

When I design relationships for polyamorous triads of three or quads of four, I sometimes use existing legal structures, like trusts or LLCs, that allow you to share property and finances without a question as to your relationship. So for example, if I've got a polyamorous triad - Ayesha, Susan and Linda - I can set up an LLC for them so that they can co-own real estate properties, pay taxes together, purchase a common health insurance and have clear exit strategies if they wish.


ADAMS: Thank you. And if people trust each other enough to pool their financial fortune and want to pay taxes together, it shouldn't matter whether they're business partners, siblings or romantic partners. All of those families are valid.

Domestic partnerships have been used for 30 years by same-sex couples, but also by best friends and siblings. Doing so, as domestic partners, allows you to share your health insurance, to visit each other in the hospital and across borders in a pandemic, like spouses. But unlike spouses, you don't become a social welfare state of two, which can be a good thing. I had a client who had a severely disabled sister. By becoming domestic partners, she was able to put her sister on her excellent health insurance coverage. Why would a sister be any less worthy of that than a boyfriend?

I think we cut people off from other means of support when we have an assumption that the romantic relationship is the person who, for example, shares your health insurance. And then also, there are situations of not being able to visit each other in the hospital or not being able to make medical decisions. It's been something terrifying for some people in my community who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender - the idea that their parents, who have ostracized them or even been abusive toward them, that that would be the person that would show up and make medical decisions if they got into an accident. Somebody that doesn't respect that they're trans or somebody who made their life miserable is the last person they actually would want to show up and make medical decisions, but didn't feel like they had an avenue to create those other kinds of relationships.


ZOMORODI: There are so many reasons why people do or don't want to be in a relationship or be, quote, unquote, "family," so many different scenarios. One story that I hear regularly is about people who are married but maybe only stay married because of their health care, health insurance. Do you have clients like that, too?

ADAMS: So I've worked with a situation in which a man was able to stay legally married to a disabled wife so that he could keep taking care of her and providing her with benefits through his military career, as well as his good health insurance, but in which he was able to then also make family agreements and legal agreements for his new female partner and the child they have together, and sat down with all three adults to make a plan about what would feel right for them. So that's the kind of example of the complicated families that I serve, which aren't necessarily LGBTQ families at all.

ZOMORODI: I mean, it sounds like you're a chef who's being given a random batch of ingredients. And you're like, what am I going to make with these ingredients? Whereas, like - sorry. I don't know where I'm getting this metaphor. But it sounds to me like...

ADAMS: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...You want to get to a point where you're not having to figure it out fresh every single time but that there would be laws that cover all these less traditional family units, that there would be sort of structure and tools for you to use, and you wouldn't have to be quite so creative.

ADAMS: Absolutely. You're absolutely right, Manoush, that it feels like I'm on some sort of "Iron Chef" challenge where I've got a certain set of ingredients...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ADAMS: ...And a certain desired outcome. And I have to kind of mash them together in something bizarre and hope it works out. But ultimately, I always have to tell them, there's nothing that we can do that's going to get you all of those thousand benefits and rights of marriage. You're just not going to be able to have the right to cross a border in a pandemic. You're not going to have the ability to inherit tax free. You're always going to be disadvantaged in these large ways. And I'm just going to try to Scotch tape it really well around the edges and package this together so that you feel as much security as possible. But I think, as a next stage, we really need to start unbundling these many rights from marriage and provide support for other families as they exist.


ADAMS: In 2020, my organization helped pass the first laws for multi-partner domestic partnership, which have passed in several cities and counting. When relationships have legal status like this, it reduces discrimination and promotes social acceptance and awareness, as we saw in the same-sex partnership movement. Still, we hope to pass family status non-discrimination laws at city levels across the United States, which mean that you can't be discriminated against, you can't be fired from your job or denied housing because of your family configuration.

And if we really want to value families as they exist rather than incentivize marriage, I also suggest that we separate out some of the legal perks of marriage so that single people and other kinds of families get these benefits without an evaluation of whether they're in a romantic relationship that passes muster. Marriage should not be the gateway to social and economic privilege anymore. That time is done. And marriages will be stronger when we do that. Do you know anyone who got married faster than they should have for health insurance or citizenship? Because I know too many, and I'm a divorce lawyer.


ADAMS: When we expect any one relationship in our lives to meet most of our needs, we may be putting too much pressure on that relationship. And whether it's your romantic partner, your parent, your adult child, your relationship may be stronger if you also strengthen other connections in your lives and find other ways to get some of your own needs met. I think it's worthwhile to question, no matter what kind of family configuration you're in, whether you could be part of a movement for greater interconnectedness beyond our romantic relationships and beyond the walls of our home. Your family and your community will be stronger when you do.


ZOMORODI: Diana, aside from changing the law, it sounds like you also want all of us to think really hard about what it means to be a family, how we care for each other, no matter how the government defines our relationship.

ADAMS: That's right. Breaking down the legal barriers will require a movement of all of us. But breaking down those kinds of social barriers about creating these greater connections is something we can all do. And I think it's really, critically important that we have conversations with people in our lives about how we want to be more interconnected and be able to speak out loud just how valuable a friendship might be to you, you know, taking that extra leap of boldness and vulnerability to say, hey, I'm a single person. And I live alone. And nobody actually knows about my diabetes medication. And would you be willing to just know about that and have a key to my house? We're comfortable saying that about, you know, would you care for my pet? My pet has diabetes. And I might need some help sometimes.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Right.

ADAMS: And here's how you inject his medication if you're the dog walker. But we don't say that about ourselves. We're more comfortable asking about care for our pets than we are about, you know, having a backup person to look out for you. So I really, especially want to be encouraging us all to take that bold step in our own lives toward greater interconnection.

ZOMORODI: That's Diana Adams. They are the founder of Chosen Family Law Center. You can see their full talk at ted.com. When we come back, the dilemmas facing transracial adoptees.

SARA JONES: When I went to school, there was definitely this trying to distance myself, right? I'm not, you know, quote-unquote, Asian. I am American, I'm white - just really trying to just be the same as all the other kids around me.

ZOMORODI: On the show today, Take Care. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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