Merle Weiner’s book, A Parent-Partner Status for American Family Law, is a tremendously important contribution to the debate about how to strengthen families and improve outcomes for children. At a time when families are rapidly changing and marriage is of dwindling importance in some communities, it is imperative to think anew about how to support a wide range of families. Weiner’s proposal for a new parent-partner status is a bold and welcome addition to this debate.
Weiner proposes five core legal obligations that would attach to the parent-partner status. Three of these obligations are incremental changes to existing law—a duty to aid regardless of marital status, a heightened duty of loyalty in contracting, and additional protections against domestic violence for parent-partners. These obligations strike me as reasonable and would seem to further Weiner’s goal of inculcating stronger ties between parents. A fourth obligation—financial compensation for a parent who does a disproportionate share of the physical caregiving—usefully builds on existing law as well as the proposals in the ALI Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution, which Weiner convincingly critiques. Together, these obligations would formalize a status that exists currently in the interstices of family law, which is itself a positive step forward.
It is Weiner’s final obligation that, at least at first glance, appears to be a major departure from existing law. She proposes that parent-partners have a legally enforceable obligation to engage in “relationship work”—counseling, education, and so on—both at the time a child is born and if the parents’ romantic relationship ends. The relationship work at the first juncture is intended to help parents navigate the stressful transition to parenthood. The relationship work at the time of dissolution contemplates reconciliation as a first measure. If, after considering the impact of the dissolution on the child, the couple still proceeds to break up, then the relationship work would focus on helping the couple remain friends while ending their romantic relationship.
This obligation would not be enforced by a third party, but one parent-partner could seek a court order to enforce the obligation against the other parent-partner. A court could not require a resistant parent to engage in the actual relationship work but could order the parent to attend an educational session touting the benefits of relationship work. Weiner believes creating an enforceable legal obligation does not necessarily mean parties will flock to the courts to seek enforcement but rather that it “should help couples internalize the value of relationship work and the social expectation of participation.” (p. 358)
Weiner claims that the “proposal is not as radical as it may sound” (p. 352). It is true, as Weiner notes, that both the federal and state governments are already involved in some form of relationship work: mandating mediation for custody and visitation disputes, requiring co-parenting education classes for separating and divorcing couples, and funding programs designed to strengthen family relationships, such as the federal Responsible Fatherhood program.
As I elaborate below, her proposal differs from these kinds of programs in meaningful ways, and therefore I think it is a significant departure. But audacity alone is not a problem. The real question is whether the proposal is good policy.
I am not so sure. In my own work, I, too, have argued that if the law wants to improve the vertical relationship between a parent and child, it needs to focus on the horizontal relationship between the two parents. Whether and how the parents get along deeply affects the ability of each parent to provide a child with the time and attention needed for healthy child development. Further, I have argued in favor of the kinds of programs that Weiner’s proposal builds on, particularly co-parenting classes for parents at the end of a romantic relationship. (I have also proposed a legal status that would attach at birth, which I called co-parent status, but whereas I dedicated a short section of a long law review article to the idea, Weiner has dedicated an entire book; therefore I want to focus on her proposed status, not mine.)
So why am I resistant to Weiner’s proposal while seeming to promote many of the same ideas? Read More