Modern Families and the Law

New Mexico has always been emblematic of a diverse cross-section of our society. However, over the past 100 years, it has seen a dramatic shift in demographic and social perspectives that now challenge accepted legal norms and introduce new levels of complexity into family law matters.

Influential Trends

Trends have emerged in recent history that challenge the accepted norms and will continue to shape and influence our futures. By 2009, women were representing 59.2% [1] of the workforce. It is anticipated that this trend will continue, potentially even accelerating to the point where the majority of modern families will consist of dual-income couples.

Another trend is that couples are marrying later in life. In 1966, the average marriage age for men was 23; it is now 29 [2]. This trend is attributed to a number of factors, including the blurring of spousal roles, the accessibility of cohabitation and raising children outside of marriage, and the need to overcome the challenges of completing education, securing a stable job and achieving sufficient financial stability to embark on married life [3].

Despite many Americans marrying later in life, the divorce rate has also increased over the course of the last century, although it has been relatively stable at around the 50% mark since 1976 [4].

The Modern Family

The modern family is no longer adequately represented by the age-old image of a father, a mother and two children. Nowadays, many new family forms have emerged, including cohabiting couples, single-parent families, same-sex couples, blended families and extended families. Despite all of these examples becoming recognized norms, the way in which they are treated by the law is sometimes unequal and can be ambiguous.

Some examples include:

Gender-Neutral Roles Imposed on Women and Children

The traditional family unit in determining post-marital support and child custody determinations have been replaced by gender-neutral rules that assume that the role of both parents will be equal post-divorce.

Despite many campaigns continuing to highlight the inequalities between men’s and women’s pay, the pay gap still exists, and it is well reported that women will typically assume the greater proportion of childcare and domestic duties post-divorce while not being entitled to any long-term spousal support.

Inadequate Support Obligations and Asset Division Between Cohabitants

The majority of couples who cohabit outside of marriage, particularly if they share a child, tend to pool their incomes in the same way as is typical of a married couple, but neither receives the legal protection afforded by marriage should they decide to separate or one party dies.

Being unmarried means that neither party can inherit under intestacy laws, and if the relationship dissolves, neither party has any legal right to a fair division of assets or spousal support. In other words, marriage operates to protect people in the event of a rift in the relationship and separation. Where married couples are entitled to one half of the assets and debts acquired during the marriage, unmarried couples are not protected and one person can find themselves essentially penniless when the relationship ends. In the event an unmarried couple has children, child maintenance and custody arrangements do not change whether parties are married or not but it can be complicated if paternity is not legally established upon the birth of the child.

Relationships Post-Divorce

Maintaining familial relationships post-divorce is becoming ever more complex as grandparents wish to retain access to their grandchildren, unmarried parents wish to put appropriate custody agreements for their children in place, and blended families require all parties to adapt to new family figureheads, schedules, routines, homes and lives.

It can be challenging to create a stable environment for children in a blended or single-parent family, but with the help of an attorney who is experienced in all aspects of family law in Albuquerque (, it is possible to create a custody agreement or obtain Court Orders that prioritize the best interests of the child and implements appropriate protections for divorced parents.

Inconsistent Treatment of Same-Sex Couples

Same-sex marriage has been legal in New Mexico since 2013, but complications do still arise. During a divorce in the state of New Mexico, community property should be divided fairly, but community property only accounts for assets and things acquired during the course of the marriage. Many same-sex couples were in relationships from well before marriage became legal, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to separating their assets and finances if they obtained assets titled in one party’s name before the marriage. The law in New Mexico dictates that, outside of marriage (and unfortunately including where parties had a very long pre-marriage relationship), property belongs to the person in whose name it is titled. For instance, same sex couples may have purchased a home together prior to their marriage where both parties contributed but the home is deeded in only one party’s name. That home may be considered that party’s sole property to which the other partner is not entitled to any equity or control over the home.

Spousal support is another gray area that does not take into account the full duration of a same-sex relationship, only the time elapsed since marriage. This can place one party in financial hardship when the support is necessary but not awarded. Another major challenge is that of child custody when the non-biological parent did not legally adopt their spouse’s child but wishes to retain contact post-divorce. While paternity laws in New Mexico are gender-neutral and the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of New Mexico has acknowledged that non-biological parents are entitled to protection vis-a-vis their children as much as biological parents, this can be somewhat of a grey area in certain circumstances.

Although the field of family law is continually evolving, many people in our society are in a vulnerable position due to adopting a modern family norm that is not adequately protected by law. To discuss your personal circumstances and seek specific advice, contact the Law Office of Dorene A. Kuffer today.