Non-traditional Family Structures Challenge Modern Society

The Decline of the Nuclear Family

By Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley, Esq.


Historically, a nuclear family (also known as an elementary family, atomic family, cereal-packet family or conjugal family), was the traditional family structure which is defined as a family group consisting of parents and their children (one or more), typically living in one home residence.

Statistically speaking, this is no longer the norm. In fact, 80% of households in the U.S. have a non-traditional family structure. Family structures that may be considered non-traditional or alternative include, but are not limited to, single-parent families (a single parent raises a child alone), cohabitation (an unmarried couple shares a household), same-sex families (two individuals of the same sex raise a family), grandparenting (grandparents raising grandchildren), and polygamy (marriage among at least three people).

Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley

Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley

“In the Baby Boom of 1960, there was one dominant family structure, with 73% of all children living in a family with two married parents in their first marriage. By 1980, 61% of children were living in this type of family, and today, less than half (46%) are in households with two married parents.”

Gay and lesbian households increased from 540,000 to 980,000 post-legalization of same-sex marriages, and multi-generational households have increased from 7 to 26%, which represents a 271% increase over a decade. The change in the common family structure from traditional to non-traditional happened quickly, and the laws have not moved as quickly to keep up with the times.

To highlight the change and how quickly it has taken place, consider that in the Baby Boom of 1960, there was one dominant family structure, with 73% of all children living in a family with two married parents in their first marriage. By 1980, 61% of children were living in this type of family, and today, less than half (46%) are in households with two married parents.

The formation of the non-traditional family, and the children that may result, can bring complex legal issues such as custody, visitation, child support, property division, estate planning, and constitutional issues, to name just a few of the most obvious ones. These are the legal issues only and do not even touch on social and emotional issues, which exist due to lack of understanding and/or acceptance in a society still rooted in traditional values.


Planning Is Paramount

Given how quickly the nuclear family has become the non-dominant family structure, one would think the members of non-traditional families would have all the resources they need available to them to address all the legal issues we face in our increasingly more complicated modern family society. Unfortunately, due to lack of concrete guidelines, non-traditional families are often forced to resolve these legal issues in a court process due to failure to understand the unique issues of their family structure or a lack of legal process.

By way of example, it is the unfortunate reality that some laws may not support the same federal estate or tax benefits in non-traditional households versus traditional ones. Federal benefits and retirement may not pass to non-married partners or same-sex spouses without actions taken specifically to designate beneficiaries. Proper tax planning and asset planning should be a priority in these households and relationships; however, these are areas often overlooked when dealing with the daily challenges of managing life and household dynamics.

When considering that most households have more than one income, likely have purchased real estate, have commingled assets, and may have blended families with children from other parents, non-married partners, or multi-generational households caring for children, the need to plan for the distribution of assets upon death is of paramount importance.

However, there is no specific, cookie-cutter estate plan for all non-traditional families to abide by. To ensure that property passes to your non-married partner, same-sex spouse, or non-biological and/or biological children, proper estate plans need to be put into place. These plans may include a will and trusts to ensure that goals of asset distribution are met upon a death.

In the same way, plans need to be put into place and properly documented to make sure that lifetime decisions such as health decisions, personal financial decisions, and end-of-life determinations can be made by your partner if not married, or by any person you chose. In the absence of estate planning, things may not be carried out as you would want them to be or by the people you would have selected had you taken the time to put a plan in place.

The non-traditional family should consider cohabitation agreements, prenuptial agreements, custodial agreements (if recognizable in your home state), as well as formal estate planning in order to protect themselves and their families in the event of a breakup, divorce, dissolution of a household, or death.


Seeking Answers

It can be difficult for partners or single parents to protect their rights as a family. There is no definitive answer to these challenges with custody and parenting arrangements. Many of the outcomes are fact driven and left to the discretion of a court when agreements cannot be reached by the parents or caregivers. When relationships break down, parties are less likely to be able to put the best interests of the children at the forefront in order to reach an agreement.

Does a non-married person who has raised a non-biological child automatically have parenting rights? Are they financially responsible for the child(ren)? Do grandparents who have been a caretakers to a grandchild get visitation if the child returns to the care of the biological parent? The answers are not as clear and obvious as you would think or hope they would be when considering the relationships that may have existed between children and caretakers of any kind.

The law, again, is fact-specific and gives great discretion to the courts in reaching a decision when parties cannot resolve these issues among themselves. Thus, while many partners find informal custodial arrangements and other systems work well for them, the majority face issues when problems arise.

Frequently, mainstream advice is given with traditional families in mind, which undoubtedly creates confusion for unconventional arrangements. All family units of any structure, but especially for certain non-traditional families, should consult knowledgeable family-law attorneys and financial professionals to develop the plans that best meet the unique needs of their chosen life.


Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley is a shareholder with the law firm Bacon Wilson, P.C. and chairs the firm’s Family Law department. She is a certified family law mediator, a member of the Springfield Women’s Leadership Council, a member of the United Way of Pioneer Valley board of directors, and is licensed to practice law in both Massachusetts and Connecticut; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]