Households at Law
With all the complex intersection of intimacy and economic activity going on in households, one might think that lawyers would delight in bringing household disputes to court. In fact, American law sets important barriers between household struggles and litigation. Unlike commercial dealings, the law generally presumes that economic transactions among cohabiting family members are “gratuitous,” not for sale. Courts are loath to enforce promises made within households, much less to judge the value of such matters as companionship, fidelity, and contributions to household upkeep. In short, American law approaches households hesitantly, with gloves on. Nevertheless, household relations do become matters of legal dispute. Here is a sample of questions that have come before American courts over the past few decades:11
• If a couple divorces, does a wife who supported her husband as he worked toward a professional degree have a claim on his future professional earnings? 
• If, unbeknownst to other household members, a spouse runs up a large debt, is the other spouse liable?
• If parents pay their children for work in their family businesses, may the parents deduct the wages as business expenses on their income tax?
• If parents contribute the down payment on a house purchased by their son and daughter-in-law, but the couple later divorce, can the parents recover their contribution?
• If a household member buys a lottery ticket and wins the jackpot, what claims do other household members have on the money?
• If parents collect large sums of money for the performance of a child actor or athlete, how much can they legitimately spend on themselves?
• If a lesbian parent has children during her cohabitation, does her partner, who shares partial custody, owe child support in case of separation?
• Is a divorced father liable for his children’s tutoring expenses?
Money obviously looms large in such disputes. Furthermore, legal settlements in court cases on these issues commonly take the form of forced monetary payments. In recent years, for example, payment for child support has become a dominant issue in divorce settlements (Carbone 2000; Elrod and Spector 2004). Yet the disputes go far beyond money as such. They center on the mutual rights and obligations of household members.
Instead of surveying this wide range of legal disputes, let us return to the three main areas of household practices already examined: control and transfer of household assets, consumption-distribution, and household production. In the legal arena, these three areas of household activity commonly reappear as (1) disputes over household finances, (2) claims on household property, and (3) valuation of economic contributions of household members. As we will see, the law is more likely to take up those aspects of households that most closely resemble nonhousehold legal matters—contracts, torts, crimes, and so on. Indeed, the law regularly reinterprets household transactions into the languages of contracts, torts, crimes, and the like. Furthermore, households disrupted by death, divorce, separation, imprisonment, or bankruptcy appear more frequently before the bar than do intact households. As a consequence, households take on different guises in courtrooms than in routine social life.