Are your in-laws still your in-laws if your spouse passes away?
One’s marriage does not bestow any kind of secular/civil legal relationship or status of any kind upon the family members of one’s spouse. One’s status as an “in-law” is not a secular/civil legal status of any kind.
In any case, “in-law” is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “A phrase appended to names of relationship, as father, mother, brother, sister, son, etc., to indicate that the relationship is not by nature, but in the eye of the Canon Law, with reference to the degrees of affinity within which marriage is prohibited.” Anyone with in-laws knows that the relationship is not natural, but the relevant bit of that definition is the fact that it is “Canon law,” rather than civil law, that made the original rules about “in-laws.” Canon law is the internal law of churches, in the case of “in-law” in English, specifically the Church of England.
While Canon law today deals primarily with the internal workings of the church (ordination of clergy, etc.), in past centuries Canon law had the force of civil law, and in ruling on the legality of marriages the church considered what is called the “affinity” of the parties. Two people getting married created various degrees of “affinity” between their families, and there were specific rules about who in those families could, thereafter, marry whom. The rules varied over time, but at one time it was not legal under Canon law, for instance, for your brother to marry your wife’s sister, or your father to marry your wife’s mother (even presuming the relevant spouses were no longer around to object, of course). The suffix “in-law,” therefore, was a sort of marker declaring certain relatives by marriage to be “off limits.” Interestingly, at one time “in-law” was also used to denote the relationship we signify with “step” (“step-son,” etc.) today.
Most of these “in-law” restrictions have been abolished today, and I actually happen to know someone whose sister married his wife’s brother years ago. But none of those people speak to each other any longer, so maybe those “in-law” rules were a good idea after all.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the origin of the term is:
The earliest recorded use of the formation is in brother-in-law (13c.); the law is Canon Law, which defines degrees of relationship within which marriage is prohibited. Thus the word originally had a more narrow application; its general extension to more distant relatives of one’s spouse is, according to OED “recent colloquial or journalistic phraseology.” Middle English inlaue (13c.) meant “one within or restored to the protection and benefit of the law” (opposite of an outlaw), from a verb inlauen, from Old English inlagian “reverse sentence of outlawry.
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