The Economic Rights and Responsibilities of
Margaret M. Mahoney
The University of Pittsburgh School of Law
This chapter explores the current state of the law regarding several important financial issues that arise between members of the nontraditional family headed by an unmarried cohabiting heterosexual couple: the child support obligations of the unmarried partners to their children, the economic rights of the partners when they dissolve their relationship, and the rights of the surviving partner and children following the death of one partner. Many legal issues affecting such nontraditional families are not discussed herein including the child support responsibility of one partner for the children of the other, economic issues involving third parties such as creditor claims, and noneconomic issues within the family such as health care decision making. As to each topic discussed, the current rules are analyzed in terms of the various policy goals of the state that operate in the field of family law.
Historically and today, a key policy that has informed lawmakers in their treatment of nontraditional families is the preference for marriage and the related preference that children be born and raised in families headed by married parents. This is the same policy concern highlighted by Primus and Beeson (chap. 12, this volume) in their discussion of safety net programs for low-income families. In each context, a policy operates along with other important concerns of state and federal lawmakers when they undertake the regulation of family economic rights. Furthermore, the question whether the rules of law actually affect private decision making about family matters remains a speculative one, whatever the context in which it is posed.
An important aspect of private family relationships is the mutual economic responsibility of adult family members for each other and for their children. Every state in the United States has embodied the economic rights and responsibilities of husbands and wives in a series of legal doctrines that include spousal support, child support, inheritance rights, and the sharing of assets between spouses in the event of divorce. This chapter explores the extent to which the economic rights, responsibilities, and protections of the traditional family have been extended, as a matter of state law, to nonmarried couples and their children. Generally speaking, the state legislatures and courts have not extended their recognition and treatment of the family as an economic unit to the adults living in nontraditional families.