Getting Personal: The Government Defines “Family”

How do you define a family? There are certainly many definitions of the term, ranging from legal ones, complex sociological descriptions, and innumerable individual ones which are as unique as each person choosing to define the word.

Is it the people you’re blood-related to? Those who raised you? Is it possible to choose your family yourself? Through marriage, co-habitation, or simply pointing at a person and saying “you are family to me?”

“Family” is about as personal as you can get, but that doesn’t stop the government trying to decide their own definition. For Catherine and Ginda Utley, who raised Livvy from birth, this has thrown up a whole host of problems. They aren’t a gay couple – they are sisters. Sisters who have stuck together for decades, raising the child whom Catherine unexpectedly became pregnant with in 1993. At present, they all live together in a house in Battersea, south London. Livvy is a recent graduate, and the sisters are thinking about the future.

Principally, the main problem is the inheritance tax. Despite raising a child to adulthood together, and being related by blood, Catherine and Ginda have no recognition as a family unit before the law. As sisters, the two women cannot transfer capital or property between them like a married couple or those in a civil partnership, which could mean that if one sister died, the other would have no choice but to sell the family home, and potentially foot a tax bill of at least £100 000. It’s a hugely stressful situation to be in, and the sisters are presently engaged in talks with MPs from all parties in the hope of a change in legislation. If the sisters were not related, there would be no issue defining their partnership as a civil one in law. But civil partnerships, like marriage, exclude close blood relations. But to Livvy, her mother and her aunt are interchangeable – “Ginda is completely a second parent to me,” she says.

But until there is a change in legislation, it looks like Catherine and Ginda Utley and their daughter Livvy will have to work out a different arrangement.

[Morgaine Das Varma]

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