Immediate Family

By law, the term “immediate family” refers to a person’s parents, or spouse of a person’s parent if that parent has remarried, and siblings, as well as his own family. For example, immediate family also refers to a person’s spouse and children. Immediate family can include individuals not related by blood, such as stepchildren or adopted children. To explore this concept, consider the following immediate family definition.

Definition of Immediate Family


A person’s parents; siblings; child by blood, adoption, or marriage; spouse; grandparent or grandchild.


1525-1535       Medieval Latin (immediātus)

Immediate Family for Legal Purposes

The law defines a person’s immediate family for legal purposes as a person’s:

  • Father
  • Mother
  • Parent’s spouse, if a parent has remarried
  • Child (by blood, adoption, or marriage)
  • Brother
  • Sister
  • Spouse
  • Grandparent
  • Grandchild

Further, a person’s immediate family for legal purposes also includes the spouse of his child, brother, or sister, as well as the father, mother, brother, and sister of his spouse.

For example, immediate family members can visit a patient in the hospital. Often, hospitals tell these individuals that they are the only people permitted to visit during certain time periods. If someone is not a member of the immediate family, such as a sister- or brother-in-law, or a family friend, then they can only visit with the patient after the immediate family has already visited him. Hospitals give members of the immediate family higher priority over everyone else, as the law defines them as direct relations to the patient.

Bereavement Leave

When a member of a person’s family dies, he may ask for bereavement leave. Bereavement leave is paid time off from work wherein a person must be absent as the result of a death in the family. However, many companies specify that only immediate family members may take bereavement leave. If the employee is not a member of the deceased’s immediate family, then the company probably will deny the request for time off. However, the company may demand the employee take a vacation or sick day instead.


There are times when members of the military may request emergency leave to be with a member of their immediate family. This may be due to a medical emergency or a death in the family. The U.S. Navy defines a serviceman’s immediate family members as his mother, father, legal guardian, brother, sister, spouse, children, or only living relative. The military may also grant emergency leave if the failure of the serviceman to return home could result in severe hardship for a member of his immediate family.


The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a labor law that requires employers to provide employees with paid time off for medical or family reasons. The FMLA also requires employers to hold the employee’s job for him until he is able to return to work. One such reason why a person would take time off under the FMLA is for the birth of a new baby. Other reasons may include:

  • Adoption
  • Becoming a foster parent
  • Personal illness, or the illness of an immediate family member
  • Family military leave

Congress passed the FMLA as a way to “balance the demands of the workplace” with the needs of a person’s family. Under the Act, eligible employees can enjoy a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period. In order to qualify for FMLA leave, an employee must have:

  • Worked a minimum of 1,250 hours for 12 months or more
  • Worked in a location where 50 or more employees within 75 miles are employed

Immediate Family Example Involving A Lesbian Couple

An example of immediate family coming before the U.S. Supreme Court involves the case of U.S. v. Windsor, which the Court heard in June of 2013. This was a landmark case that decided the future of same-sex marriage. Here, Edith Windsor was the widower of, and executor of the estate for, Thea Clara Spyer, who passed away in 2009. The two had married in 2007 in Toronto, Canada, and New York State recognized their union as a legal marriage. However, the federal government did not.

Spyer left her estate to Windsor, however, because the federal government did not recognize their marriage as legal, Windsor incurred over $360,000 in taxes on her inheritance. If the federal government had recognized the marriage as legal, Windsor would have received a marital exemption, and would not have incurred any taxes whatsoever.

The Lawsuit

In November of 2010, Windsor filed a lawsuit demanding that the courts recognize the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. Passed in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, defined the words “marriage” and “spouse” to be between a man and woman only in the eyes of the federal government. In February of 2011, President Barack Obama and the Attorney General announced that they would not defend the DOMA.

In April of 2011, the House of Representatives got involved, filing a petition to have the case dismissed. The district court denied the motion and decided that the DOMA was, in fact, unconstitutional. Windsor appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, however the Court affirmed the lower Court in the end. Windsor then decided to try her luck at the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and, as such, had to decide three important issues:

  • Did the fact that the executive branch of the government agreed with the lower court deprive the Supreme Court of the jurisdiction to even decide the case?
  • Did the House of Representatives even have the authority to intervene?
  • Did the DOMA violate the Fifth Amendment rights of same-sex couples who got legally married under state law?

On the first issue, the Court decided that no, the President and Attorney General did not rob them of their jurisdiction to decide the case. And, as it turned out, the House of Representatives gave the Supreme Court enough of a substantial argument that they could rule on the third point without even having to address the second point.

And, the stunning blow that rocked the nation: the Supreme Court ruled that yes, the DOMA was unconstitutional and violated the rights of same-sex couples to enjoy equal protection under federal law. Going forward, the federal government was to recognize same-sex marriage as if it were a union between a man and a woman.

In the Court’s Own Words

In its Decision, the Court wrote the following:

“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State. It also forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Executor – A person appointed to carry out the will of an individual who has passed away.
  • House of Representatives – A body of elected officials who represent districts within their home states.