The inscription on our logo at the R.C. Roby firm is a Bible verse from 1Timothy 1:8, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (NIV). I think this is especially true when it comes to family law. No other area of law has greater impact on the future of those affected by it – husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. It impacts the personal lives of each member of the family systems it touches. At the same time, the statutes and rules that govern this area of the law in Minnesota are written by committees of legislators in St. Paul, with a smorgasbord of input from special interest groups who seldom understand what measures would effectively promote the health of these families. This is why we do family law.
To use the law “properly” is to recognize its limitations. The law is a great tool for prescribing and enforcing boundaries where people don’t have personal incentive to otherwise respect those boundaries. The boundaries we are willing to enforce tell us what we value, because they define what we are willing to protect. In the arena of family law, there has been a long, bell-curved trend over the last century toward decreasing the legal “protection” of the nuclear family. Prior to “no-fault” divorce, a person had to prove that the “relief” of a court “dissolving” a marriage was warranted by certain findings. There was a threshold to be met – there had to have been a violation of trust in the marriage to justify breaking up the home. That got very messy, especially during the “sexual revolution” of the 1970’s, so “no-fault” divorce became the new standard across the country. Courts wanted to wash their hands of the drama, and so many families have now become revolving doors of different partners and relationships. Today fewer than one in four children will grow up with both of their birth parents in an intact home.
Further steps have been taken since then to de-standardize the definition of a family in Minnesota, the most recent being legislation affecting the genders of the “married” couple. The law no longer deems the traditional nuclear family worth protecting, but this was not always true. There are many historical references to the nuclear family being a benefit to the “state”, and therefore worthy of consideration and deference in the laws (e.g., Minn. Stat. §500.24 Subd.1). The recognized benefits were both social and economic. Anyone who has been involved in a family breakup can testify to the negative financial impact of having to establish and maintain an additional residence, not to mention that the average divorce in Minnesota costs each party around $11,400.00. (Martindale-Nolo 2015 Divorce Study). Professionals who work with children in divorces and custody disputes see the clear negative impact of transient relationships and living arrangements on children. (e.g., 1991 Amato and Keith, 92 studies involving 13,000 children) At this time in our history, when it comes to the welfare of children and families, the boundaries being protected by the law have been pretty much reduced to that of immediate physical safety, along with some attempt at fairness around financial interests and parenting roles. One of the effects on the general public has been to make everyone more dependent on state aid and institutions for their basic needs, financially and socially. Where the stable nuclear family had been a self-sustaining unit in both of these areas, the dissolving of that unit has made self-sustenance unreachable for more of the population than ever in history.
So how can the laws related to family be used to help empower the lives of our clients at R.C. Roby Law? There are some basic ways we do this:
- Treat every client as valuable and worth every effort we can make to assure they are treated with respect and fairness in the legal process;
- Look for ways to de-escalate the level of conflict, saving our clients both money and unnecessary emotional pain (We actively seek to be leaders and innovators in all forms of alternative dispute resolution);
- Explore options that others wouldn’t bother to discuss, such as legal separation, with the understanding that dissolving the family unit may not be in every client’s best interest;
- Use our experience to navigate the most efficient path to resolution of your case.
We believe that using the law to devalue the family is NOT a “proper” use of the law. There is a proper use, and that involves protecting the boundaries and respect of individual members of those families, and empowering clients for future success in their relationships, both old and new.