Immediate Family Definition, Criteria, and Legal Aspects

What Is Immediate Family?

Most of us know how we define "immediate family" in our own minds, but our views of the matter may not matter when it comes to its definition in the fine print of legal documents or company policies.

The definition of an immediate family can affect whether a person can use paid or unpaid leave to care for a sick family member or attend a funeral. It also can restrict some financial transactions, especially those involving the stock market.

Key Takeaways

  • The immediate family usually consists of one's parents, siblings, spouse, and children.
  • Who is considered immediate family matters in situations such as a company's family leave policy.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, defines immediate family as your spouse, parents, and dependent children.
  • For U.S. immigration purposes, immediate family is limited to one's spouse, parents, or unmarried children below age 21.
  • In estate law, the right of inheritance passes to one's spouses and surviving children before moving on to other relatives.

Understanding Immediate Family

In general, a person's immediate family is their smallest family unit, including parents, siblings, spouse, and children. It may include relatives through marriage, such as a mother-in-law. But the exact inclusions may differ depending on the law or organization that defines an individual's immediate family.

However, the definition of an immediate family can be murky because, unless a specific law is involved, it’s up to companies, organizations, and policy-makers to make their own rules.

Parents, spouses, and minor children are almost always considered to be immediate family, while siblings may or may not count. In addition, adoptive parents or children are also considered immediate family, although there is no blood relation. Half-siblings, step-siblings, and other near relatives are also ambiguous.

Criteria for Immediate Family

In addition to blood ties, there are also other factors that may help determine what counts as immediate family. The following are some other criteria that may determine who counts for one's immediate family:

  • Distance: In the past, family members who lived at a great distance might not have fit the definition of the immediate family, even if they were close blood relatives. Due to the growing importance of Internet communication and air travel, this factor is less important.
  • Relationship: Half-siblings, step-siblings, and stepparents do not always count as immediate family, depending on the type of relationship that they have with you.
  • Length of Time: In some cases, a long-term relationship might qualify someone as a member of the immediate family even if there are no blood or legal ties. One example of this type of relationship is common-law marriage.

Legal Aspects of Immediate Family

The members of your immediate family may be allowed to make important legal or medical decisions in the event that you are incapacitated. Moreover, there are certain legal restrictions on their ability to trade or sell stock in a company where you are an executive officer, and when you die, they may be permitted to make a claim on your estate.

Medical Leave and the Immediate Family

For example, companies with 50 or more employees must comply with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires that up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave be given to employees who need to care for a sick member of their immediate family.

The act in this case broadly generally defines that as a spouse, parent, or minor child. Notably, it does not mention an adult independent child or a grandparent, not to mention a more distantly related family member who may live with you or depend on you for assistance.

The fine print in the law further specifies that the leave must be extended to care for children under age 18 or unable to care for themselves, and it includes adopted and foster children. In-laws are excluded, even if they live with the employee.

As another example, federal law does not require a company to give its employees paid bereavement leave when they attend a funeral for a family member. Many companies choose to offer this benefit anyway, but they are free to define family members in any way they choose.

The Stock Markets and Immediate Family

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is responsible for preventing corrupt practices in the financial markets. For instance, it prohibits brokers from selling hot issues such as initial public offering (IPO) shares to members of their immediate families.

As such, its Rules of Fair Practice include a strict definition of what constitutes an immediate family member. In this case, it includes all in-laws and anyone who relies on the person for material support. Rules governing transactions with a person's immediate family also are noted in FINRA's concepts of withholding and free-riding.

Adoptive parents or children are usually considered immediate family, although there is no blood relation.

Inheritance and Immediate Family

If a person dies without leaving behind a will, the assets of the deceased are divided according to the laws of intestate succession. These rules vary from state to state, as do the definitions of those family members entitled to make a claim.

In most states, a surviving spouse inherits at least half of the deceased's assets, with the remainder divided among their surviving children. If there are no immediate children, the right of inheritance passes down to any grandchildren, before returning to the deceased's parents, and any collateral heirs (such as brothers and sisters).

If there is no identifiable next of kin, the asset passes on to the state. Close friends, unmarried partners, and unrecognized children may not be able to inherit even if they believe that the deceased would have wanted it. For that reason, it is important to have a clear will that states how you wish your estate to be divided.

How to Protect Your Immediate Family

Given the ambiguity, it's wise for everyone to consider making sure that all of the members of their immediate families, as they define them, are protected. A few considerations:

  • Make sure that you have a will, and that it specifies who gets what. Every state has its own inheritance laws, and you want to make sure that your assets are awarded to the family member or members that you want to have them.
  • Check other key documents including all financial accounts to make sure you have correctly identified the beneficiaries of your assets, and make sure you keep this information up to date.
  • Read the fine print in your company's employee manual to determine how it defines your immediate family, particularly in that Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provision. The policy may be negotiable if you are responsible for a mother-in-law or other family member not defined as "immediate" by law.

Immediate Family vs. Extended Family

In contrast to the immediate family, the extended family is a large network of individuals with blood or legal ties. This can include aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren, as well as their married spouses (and their extended family).

In some cases, extended family may be able to exercise some rights if the immediate family is unable to exercise them. For example, if a child loses one parent, the grandparents may be able to exercise some custody rights, such as legal visitation. Extended family members may also be eligible to adopt the children of parents who are deceased or otherwise unable to provide care.

Who Counts As Immediate Family for Bereavement Pay?

Federal law does not require companies to offer bereavement pay, so each company may have its own definition for which family members count. Generally speaking, one's legal children and parents will almost always count for bereavement leave. Siblings, step-children, and step-parents are also likely to be included.

Who Counts as Immediate Family for a Green Card?

A U.S. citizen can petition for members of their immediate family to receive permanent resident ("green card") status. For these purposes, the immediate family is defined as one's spouse, a child who is unmarried and less than 21 years old, or a parent (if the applying citizen is over 21 years old). Older children, married children, siblings, half-siblings and adoptive siblings are also eligible, although they may face longer wait times.

What Counts as Immediate Family for Asylum Claims?

People with asylum or refugee status may petition for members of their immediate family to be given green card status. Under U.S. law, "immediate family" only includes the spouse, parent, or child of the person making the application. A "child" is considered to be younger than age 21 and unmarried.

The Bottom Line

Immediate family is a term for the closest members of a person's family unit: their spouse and children, parents and siblings. However, the exact definitions of one's immediate family may vary depending on the context.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "Family and Medical Leave Act."

  2. USCIS. "Bringing Siblings to Live in the United States as Permanent Residents."

  3. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. "US Citizen Petition for an Immediate Relative to Become a Lawful Permanent Resident."

  4. United Nations High Commission on Refugees. "US Family Reunification."

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