Friends with benefits

Is it time to legally recognize the bonds of friendship?

Published August 21, 2008 6:04PM (EDT)

They're there for you in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad -- and yet where the law is concerned, your friends don't mean squat. According to the Boston Globe, however, some scholars think this should change: They think that friendship should be granted legal recognition, with some of the rights and privileges restricted to family expanded to include designated friends.

"These could be invoked on a case-by-case basis," explains the Globe, "eligibility to take time off to care for a sick friend under an equivalent of the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example. Or they could take the form of an official legal arrangement between two friends, designating a bundle of mutual rights and privileges ... One scholar even suggests giving friends standing in the tax code, allowing taxpayers to write off certain 'friend expenditures.'" The result would be, as Laura Rosenbury, a law professor at Washington University, put it, legally recognized "friends with benefits."

I think some aspects of the idea would be more of a bureaucratic hassle than they'd be worth, like the idea of adapting the tax code to allow for "friend expenditures." But others make good sense; as Jane Gross points out in a related article in the New York Times, having a legal arrangement with a friend would be very beneficial for single, childless people worried about who might care for them in old age. As the Globe points out, "If a person is incapacitated and has no functional familial relationships, friends are not typically permitted to make medical decisions, unless designated in advance. Hospitals often restrict visitors to kin, or allow family members to vet visitors, which can cause anguish when friends and families come into conflict."

That's why David Chambers, a law professor at the University of Michigan, suggests "permitting people to register as 'designated friends' with mutual benefits and obligations. The friends would have the right (and duty) to make financial and medical decisions on each other's behalf in case of incapacitation; they'd have the same medical leave and testimonial privileges as spouses; and if one died without a will, the other would be entitled to a share of the estate."

So what do you think? In an age where more and more Americans are single and childless, does it make sense to grant legal rights to their friends? Or are there certain rights and privileges that should be reserved for family members and spouses?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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