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Family Law - Origins Of Family Law

inheritance children rights responsibilities

In Western society, the family has historically served as the key means for passing ownership of land and other wealth down through generations. During the Middle Ages of Europe, inheritance was of primary importance in families, given the uncertainties of life. Formal rules of inheritance provided for family continuity. The rise of feudal lords increased regulation of marriage, such as determining how land could be disposed by widows. The Magna Carta of 1215 addressed various aspects of inheritance. It provided greater protection to widows and children, including the forced sale of inheritance to pay debts. The Magna Carta underscored the crucial connection between early property law and the central place of the family in medieval society. This relationship formed the basis for English common law.

Colonists in America, influenced by Puritan and Protestant beliefs, adopted principles from English law. They believed that the well-being of the commonwealth largely depended on the proper discharge of family responsibilities. Protestants viewed marriage as a contract rather than a sacrament, while Puritans stressed the responsibilities of family members. During the colonial period, fathers held sole legal authority over children of the family. State governments replaced colonial governments after independence from Britain and retained primary governmental powers to regulate family matters. With the progression of the Industrial Revolution into the nineteenth century, husbands increasingly worked away from the home and wives assumed greater responsibilities for raising children. This shift in roles of family members greatly influenced development of family law over the next century. For example, the "tender years" doctrine was adopted, routinely awarding mothers custody of their children in a divorce. By the mid-twentieth century, an emphasis on individual rights and privacy grew in family law including greater freedom to dissolve marriages. In a prisoner sterilization case, Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), the Court expanded equal protection of the law by declaring marriage and procreation fundamental rights. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the first Court ruling to address privacy rights, upheld a couple's right to use birth control.

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