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What Is a Family?

Posted on, Feb 13, 2017 in Family by

With Mary Tyler Moore’s recent passing, we all had the opportunity to revisit the final scene of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Do you remember how Mary, Lou, Murray, Ted, Sue Ann and Georgia were clutching each another tearfully, as they prepared to leave the newsroom together for the last time? Mary suddenly burst out in tears with the revelation that after seven years of sharing and caring, her newsroom coworkers had become her family. Family, she sobbed, were the people you cared about  and who cared about you. Do courts agree with that? Is a family only defined by bloodlines and legal ties? Or is a family the people we choose to love and the people we allow to love us and our children?

The meaning of “family” has been transformed since that last episode aired in 1977. Courthouse doors and human hearts and minds have been opening to reconsider and redefine what “family” means in almost every field of law.

For instance, on July 6, 1989, in Braschi v. Stahl Associates, the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the State of New York, expanded the legal definition of “family”, when it held that a partner in a long-term gay relationship, who had resided together for more than ten years could be considered a “family” under New York City’s rent-control regulations. New York State’s rent control law at that time provided that only “family members” could continue to live in rent-controlled apartments when the tenant, whose name was exclusively on the lease, had died. Miguel Braschi had shared a Manhattan rent-controlled apartment for 11 years with Leslie Blanchard. When Mr. Blanchard died the landlord sought to evict Mr. Braschi, claiming he was not related to the deceased tenant by “blood, marriage or adoption.” The trial court held that Mr. Braschi could remain in the apartment at the rent-controlled price but the Appellate Division, a first-level appeals court, reversed and supported his eviction by the landlord. In reversing the Appellate Division, the Court of Appeals in 1989 held that the lower Appellate Court had failed to consider all the relevant factors as to who constitutes a “family member”, such as the fidelity and longevity of the relationship, the level of emotional and financial commitment and the manner in which the parties had presented themselves to society. Judge Vito Titone articulated what Mary Richards was saying, as they clumsily stumbled out of the newsroom office. He held, “We conclude that the term family… should not be rigidly restricted to those people who have formalized their relationship by obtaining, for instance, a marriage certificate.” The redefinition of family by the Court of Appeals in that case did not just change the rights of Mr. Braschi to that rent controlled apartment, but, rather it changed the perception of relationship choices of adults.  

Laws reflect the needs and values of our society. And when they change, laws can alter the hearts and minds of its people.

On July 24, 2011 New York State’s Marriage Equality Act was enacted which enabled gender-neutral marriages for both same and opposite sex couples, while prohibiting state and local courts and governments from penalizing religious and religious-supervised institutions, their employees, or clergy for refusing to sanctify or recognize marriages in contradiction with their religious doctrines or for refusing to provide services and accommodations for such weddings.

Four years later, on June 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges by a majority of 5-4 held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to our Constitution.

In a world of instant global communication, change in popular opinion can lead to change in laws and changes in law can lead to changes in public opinion. When Justice Kennedy wrote "… many same-sex couples provide loving and nurturing homes to their children, whether biological or adopted. ... Excluding same-sex couples from marriage thus conflicts with a central premise of the right to marry. Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser." Justice Kennedy was articulating society’s evolving attitude towards same-sex marriage and families.

A little more than a year later, on August 30, 2016, the New York Court of Appeals proclaimed that the definition of “parent”, which had been established by that very same court a quarter of a century earlier, was no longer workable. Suddenly, an unmarried partner, without a biological or adoptive tie to a child, has standing to show by clear and convincing evidence that the parties had agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together and the non-biological, non-adoptive partner can seek visitation and custody.

We live in a time of potential, fundamental change. How the changes in the law affect the most sacred aspects of your life and your loved ones’ lives should not be assumed as inalterable or stagnant. If the family that you or anyone you care about is at risk, it is essential that expertise be secured promptly. As Mary Richards theme song proclaimed “You’re gonna make it after all.”