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Defining Families in Family Law

Tonight's post about how we define families in Family Law, was written by our Savannah Family Law Attorney, David Purvis.

I teach Family Law, also known as Domestic Relations, at Savannah Law School. One of the central discussions on the first day of class is: "What is a family?".

Family is an ever evolving concept and regularly the legal conceptions of family fall short of social norms. Often by the time legal concepts begin catching up with the real world, the real world has gone and changed again.

You may be familiar with the hit television show "Modern Family". It's a comedy filmed as if a documentary, showcasing a family made up of: a patriarch in his 60s married to his second wife who is much younger than he, the Wife's adolescent child from a previous relationship and the toddler born to the current marriage, the patriarch's daughter and her family of five, and the patriarch's son and his same sex spouse and adopted daughter.

The show takes place in California, but as a family law attorney watching it, I can't help but think of the different resulting legal relationships if the show were based in other states. I recently heard one of our civic leaders in Savannah speak. A portion of her speech talked about family. I smiled when I heard her speak warmly of her ex-husband and his wife (who the speaker refers to as her "wife-in-law") and how she and her ex-husband created this bi-nuclear family, not only for the children while they were young, but a bi-nuclear family that continues even after all of the children became adults. What a "modern family"!

Centuries ago, our ancestors would have probably defined "family" as more than those related by blood or marriage, but to include other members of their tribe, village, or clan. A century ago, "family" was viewed as husband, wife, and children (and often very many children). In the mid-20th century, "family" was husband, wife, and 2.5 children. Today's family takes on almost as many definitions as the mind could conjure: a bi-nuclear family of once married parents and perhaps new spouses, a same sex couple, multiple step-relationships, adopted, foster, and/or biological children, one parent or two, one child or many children, extended family living as one, the list could go on indefinitely.

Often, the law seems to be scrambling to evolve with these myriad definitions of "family" - played out most recently in the realm of same sex relations. In the past, that played out in the form of laws preventing "mixed" race marriages or zoning laws that limited some extended family members from residing in the same house together.  The times, they are a-changing.

How do you define family? Should there be standard definitions of what a "family" is? Should our laws be flexible enough to allow everyone the freedom to define "family" as they individually desire and then have the same rights and protections under the law as every other "family"?

What will evolve and what will not? Food for thought. 

David Purvis

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