How have the issues judged under family law changed over time?

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The issues judged under Family Law in the U.S. have changed through changing legal definitions of family law terms and through changing dynamic of court procedures. Family law in the U.S. has its roots in European feudalism, introduced into England by William the Conqueror at the Norman Conquest of 1066, English common law, Catholic canonical law and, increasingly, which is a significant change, civil law.

  • Feudalism: a system of hierarchical authority with king and nobles at the top and peasants at the bottom.
  • Common law: a system of uncodified (no legal code) rules and statues built through traditions and precedents of judges' decisions over time.
  • Canonical law: a system of ecclesiastical (religious) law and regulations that is based on religious doctrine and writings but that also borrows from civil law while simultaneously influencing both common and civil law.
  • Civil law: a system of codified law that is comprehensive and updated and applicable to all matters, procedures and punishments capable of being attended to in court.

Family matters in pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon England were private and had no legal governance, which means that marriage did not change the definitions of identity for women or children. After the Conquest, French common law, derived in part from feudalism, applied to family matters. As a result women and children lost their individual identities and became chattel of the male and husband: the identity of the wife and their children was merged with the identity of the husband and father such that he was the only one with legal identity or legal authority to own, buy, sell, or make legally recognized decisions. Widows retained their husbands identities thus gained some legal rights.

Family law in our contemporary age is characterized by change that is in the process of developing new definitions of relationships, marriage, divorce or dissolution, custody and visitation, and financial support in dissolved relationships. Major changes have developed since the latter half of the twentieth century and continue to develop into the present decade, since 2011.

  • Relationships are being redefined to include couples who do not marry and couples who are of the same sex.
  • Marriage is being redefined after a journey through several stages, including partner registries for same-sex and opposite-sex couples registering as "domestic partners" who did not marry but whose registry allowed them equal legal rights with married couples.
  • Divorce has been redefined to eliminated the need to prove "fault": all states now have "no fault" divorces where no legal wrongdoing needs to be proven. Divorce is being further redefined so as to remove it from the common law adversarial system (winner/loser) and to reestablish it as a mediated process where contractual agreements are reached. For couples who do not marry, dissolution of their union is being incorporated into family law, thus changing it by adding a new category.

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