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Family Law

Duties And Rights Of Spouses

Under common law, the husband had a duty to support his wife, while the wife had a duty to perform household chores and other services for the husband. Generally, courts, as in McGuire v. McGuire (1953), were unwilling to set a specific standard of support to be provided by the husband while the family remained intact. Family living standards were considered a matter of concern for the family, and the courts found no grounds to interfere with such marital matters for the most part. However, courts have the option of intervening by applying the "doctrine of necessities." Under this doctrine, a husband or wife could be held responsible for the purchase of essential goods or services, including food, clothing, shelter, and medical and legal expenses. Similarly, a spouse could be held liable for the other spouse's debts and contracts regardless of her or his consent or knowledge of the purchases.

All states today require husbands to provide necessities for their wives and children, and in many states wives face similar requirements. Debts incurred during marriage, especially for necessities, are normally considered joint debts, even if spouses are living apart but are not divorced. Creditors may therefore sue either spouse to recover such debts. In many states, debts incurred before marriage by one spouse do not become the responsibility of the other spouse. However, marital property may be claimed by creditors if the original debtor cannot pay pre-marriage debts. After divorce, debt is allocated to each ex-spouse in accordance with the state's property laws. Debts are often divided equally, especially when associated with providing necessities. Creditors can sue either ex-spouse regardless of the split.

An individual also holds the right to file personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of a spouse or child. Under common law principles, a spouse has the right to receive compensation from the wrongdoer for the love, affection, care, services, companionship, and sexual relations that she or he, as the surviving spouse, is now denied. These aspects of marital relations are collectively known as "consortium" and any person who willfully interferes with this relation is liable for damages. In order to recover such compensation, most courts require proof that the wrongdoer intentionally or negligently harmed the spouse or the child and caused physical injury or death. Loss of consortium is limited to married couples. Unmarried cohabitants may not receive any compensation for such a loss. In wrongful death cases, the surviving spouse and children of the deceased generally also qualify for compensation from the wrongdoer for the amount of future income which would have been provided by the deceased or incapacitated spouse. Regarding misdeeds of a child, parents are not liable under common law for a child's wrongful activities unless the actions were somehow supported by a parent. However, by the 1970s, states began making parents liable in civil suits for damages caused by their children.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesFamily Law - Family, Origins Of Family Law, Marriage And Divorce, Children, Property In The Family