New York Fathers' Rights: Did Kramer Vs. Kramer Change Anything?

Although it would seem obvious that a mother and father should have similar rights regarding divorce, visitation and custody, they don't. The movie Kramer vs. Kramer is what many of us think of when the issue of fathers' rights emerges – but did it really change anything?

How fathers' rights have changed over past 20 years

Elliot Schlissel, a New York fathers' rights attorney who has been practicing law for over 30 years and represents clients in the metropolitan New York area and Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk counties, says that initially in the state of New York, a man's responsibility was to support his family and a woman's responsibility was to raise his children. However, he says that the law changed and men and women became equal under the New York law around 1989:

At that time, there was a presumption that men would be treated equally in matters involving children and families. Prior to that, there was a movie called Kramer vs. Kramer with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep which portrayed the status of the law in New York. In the movie, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman are living in Manhattan and have a young son. One day, Streep heads out of town with no forwarding address.

Hoffman raises his son for a year or two, gives up his job and totally reorganizes life to be a single parent. Then, Streep comes back and says, 'I'm home and I want our son.' They litigate and she gets the son back because she is the mother and he was the father.

Fast forward 20 years

Although Schlissel and other New York support and custody lawyers say that there was a hope that those types of situations would change when the law changed, Schlissel told us that has not come about in New York family courts, specifically with regard to issues of custody, visitation and support – and especially with orders of protection in both the criminal courts and family courts. Although it's been 20 years since Kramer vs. Kramer, he says that the truth is that women are still treated differently than men. He explained:

With orders of protection, if a woman brings a charge against a man that he's misbehaved, he's generally guilty until proven innocent and men are not on an equal playing field with custody and visitation issues with women, even though the law says that they should be.

The concept of fathers' rights was to develop an area of the law that was specifically geared to helping fathers deal with the fact that New York courts often treat fathers unfairly (link to article entitled New York Attorney Advocates For Fathers' Rights) and to get them the justice they deserve in the legal system.