Defining Family

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 that family court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate property issues between unmarried parents at the end of their relationship. The parties in this case (In re Mallett, N.H., No. 2011-338, 1/13/12) had cohabitated for fourteen years. The court decided that family court does have the authority to hear issues related to custody and child support, but it does not have such authority over the parties property division.

The court rejected the mothers arguments that family court should have jurisdiction based on fairness and equity because the mother knowingly lived with the father of her children for fourteen years in an unmarried state.

In today’s day and age, the definition of family is more loosely interpreted. Children may have two mothers, two fathers, adoptive parents, sperm donor fathers, or unmarried parents. If a court is trying other issues between the parties who recognize that a parental relationship, which really is a familial connection, exists between them, shouldn’t that court also determine the action in its entirety? Shouldn’t the court choose to redefine the word family for its own organization and time?

Despite lacking the subject-matter jurisdiction on the parent property issues, the court felt it had enough jurisdiction to rule that the father should pay the mother’s attorney’s fees in the future litigation between them. In New Hampshire courts permit an award of attorney’s fees in divorce cases, and now extended this to cover parenting proceedings between two parties who were never married.