The NY Times published an interesting Op-Ed piece by Stephanie Coontz entitled Illegitimate Complaints that does a good job of highlighting how “traditional” family values were historically very harsh on out-of-wedlock or “bastard” children. Generally accepted notions of the rights of lineal descendants – irrespective of whether or not the parents were married – have changed dramatically over the last hundred years or so.
The harsher aspects of the common law dealing with an illegitimate child have been eliminated in all states, primarily through the application of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see here for discussion). Florida codified its approach to persons born out of wedlock in F.S. 732.108.
Here are a few excerpts from the linked-to NY Times piece:
PITY poor little Dannielynn, just 5 months old and already the potentially multimillion-dollar prize in a paternity battle waged by three of the unsavory men who partied with her mother, Anna Nicole Smith, in the last years of her troubled and tawdry life. There’s an even creepier fourth potential candidate: Ms. Smith’s half-sister claims that Ms. Smith’s late husband, the nonagenarian billionaire J. Howard Marshall, left behind frozen sperm. And now Ms. Smith’s estranged mother has also rushed forward to claim custody of the baby. Could anything be worse for this little girl than to be at the center of such a media circus or to end up with one of these characters?
Actually, yes. For thousands of years, the future of a child born out of wedlock was of absolutely no interest to anyone, especially if she was an orphan. The only people likely to take her in were people who needed free labor on their farms or required a child “helper” small enough to run under dangerous factory machines piecing together broken threads or picking up dropped objects.
For 500 years, British law, on which American law was modeled, held that a child born to an unwed mother was a “filius nullius” — literally, a child of no one, entitled to support from no one. Little Dannielynn would not have had a right to her mother’s inheritance, much less a legal claim to receive support from the family of either her deceased mother or her father.