Today’s family law landscape is the product of a long history of state and federal changes, interpretive shifts, and additions to its numerous concentrations. Here is a brief look at how several aspects of this vital branch came to be.

 

Defining matrimony

Much of family law’s history is centered on a single recurring question: what defines a family? Furthermore, what defines a marriage? The latter was once an ever changing concept; it used to be constituted, via common law and cannon law, as a bond in which the identity of a woman was merged with that of her husband — with the husband being defined as the only legal person in the relationship. The husband would inherit all of his wife’s personal property in return for his support of both her and their children.

This antiquated interpretation of matrimony began to change during the middle portions of the 19th century, following several women’s property acts that permitted women to “own and transfer property in their own right.” At the same time, the New Deal legislation of the 1930s set in motion a series of federal statutes, enabling Congress to oversee family legal issues that states were previously unable or unwilling to resolve on their own.

The branch as a whole has only grown since the 1970s, including a series of paradigm shifts surrounding the legal aspects of divorce, child custody, child support, and other relevant focal points.

 

Child welfare and support

The New Deal legislation of the 1930s also helped pave a path for federalized child welfare regulations. These changes culminated in the formation of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which began as a partnership between federal government officials and states aimed at minimum support payments for children living with a single parent. Subsequently, Congress established the Office of Child Support Enforcement in 1974, which could create and manage standards for the establishment and enforcement of child support; this was complemented by a decision in 1984 changing the federal government’s role to emphasize adequate support orders, rather than ones founded on mere enforcement alone.

Also enacted in 1974, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act “authorized the use of federal funds to improve state responses to child neglect,” further solidifying a general increase in attention to such situations.