What the Heck is a Family, Anyway? Part I

Family law. Simple enough in concept, right? It’s legal stuff…about families. But what the heck is a ‘family,’ anyway? Almost every attempt to define ‘family’ in any legal, moral, ethical, or other rules-oriented fashion has given rise to the kinds of problems that would have overthrown small countries a few centuries ago. Let’s look at a few classic examples of complete disasters in family-defining:

  • Intellectual property circles have tried several times to use the idea of ‘family’ to limit the extent to which someone who purchases a song, movie, or other work can show it freely. The European DRM community has tried several variations of ‘family’ that all fail the laugh test because thus far, they have all centered around the idea that a family lives in a single household, meaning you can’t legally send that rip of Doctor Strange to your mom who happens to work on a fishing boat for four months out of the year.
  • Many companies attempt to define ‘family’ so that they can give customers a specific amount of latitude when it comes to sharing their product with the people around them. Google Play, for example, recently defined a ‘family’ as 5 or fewer people with a single “Family Manager” who was over 20 (and had a credit card). Sorry, parents of more than three children!
  • In Michigan law alone, there are several different definitions of family, including:
    • A person and their spouse, parent, child, or sibling (link);
    • A person and their (non-divorced, non-separately-maintained) spouse, parent, child, dependent, sibling, spouse-of-sibling, or parent-in-law, any of which may be by blood, half-blood, marriage, adoption, or effect of law. (link)
    • A child and one of parent, stepparent, or caretaker, or a parent of a child in foster care, or a pregnant woman (link);
    • A person and their child, spouse, or dependent (link);
    • A person and their father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse and a relative of any degree residing in the same household as that individual (link).

It’s Never That Simple
Of course, this doesn’t even begin to address the most fundamental level of complexity in attempting to define family: the change in family composition over time. Couples divorce and remarry, and that alone means it’s completely commonplace in modern America to have a mother, a stepmother, a father, a stepfather, two half-sisters, a step-brother, and a full sister all split between (and often moving back and forth between at least two of!) the mother’s house, the stepmother-and-father’s house, and the stepfather’s house.

 

But of course this is all just the beginning…check back next post for some great examples of why even considering a legal definition of ‘family’ is impossibly complicated at even its most basic levels — and why it matters.

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