What is Family Law?
Family law includes all legal issues related to families and family relationships. This includes everything from marriage and divorce to child custody and child abuse. Most of the laws that apply to these issues are state laws.
This is a broad and diverse category of the law. Many firms specialize only in family law and do not take other types of cases. Some lawyers specialize in specific areas of family law, such as divorce and alimony or guardianship and adoption.
What’s Covered Under Family Law?
Family law encompasses many areas of the law that apply to families and relationships between family members. While most of these are covered by state laws, the federal government may play a role. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2014 that same-sex marriage is legal in all states.
Marriage and Divorce
States set the eligibility requirements for marriage, including age, consent, and legal capacity. They also have their own procedures for getting a marriage license and other elements of the process of getting married. States also have laws regarding non-married legal arrangements, such as domestic partnerships and pre-nuptial agreements.
The dissolution of a marriage, also known as divorce, brings an end to the legal partnership between two people. Regulated by state law, divorce is more complicated than marriage because of property and other money matters.
Ownership of assets from before and during the marriage, and how they can be divided during a divorce depends on state law. States one of two main legal definitions:
- Community property. Some of the most populous states, like Texas and California, are community property states. When a couple divorces, the assets and property are split evenly.
- Equitable division. Most states apply equitable division. This means the assets are split to award more to the partner with the higher income.
State laws also dictate how a divorce splits debt, how taxes are handled, and what happens to retirement funds and inheritances. Divorcing partners can agree about how to split assets, but the court must approve it.
Spousal support, or alimony, is often a major issue of contention in a divorce. The purpose of alimony is to provide financial support to one spouse with consideration for their status before and during the marriage.
For instance, if a wife quit her job to take care of the kids at home, the husband who kept working is typically required to provide her some financial support. Guidelines for determining alimony vary by state but usually consider the standard of living during the marriage and resources the spouse will need to become self-sufficient.
Child Custody and Support
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of a divorce is determining custody for children. Some parents agree amicably on how to share custody, but many need to go through the courts to determine a fair option in the child’s best interest. There are a few types of custody:
- Joint custody is when two parents share custody of a child, including legal rights and physical time with the child.
- In sole custody, a child lives with just one parent all of the time, and that parent has full legal rights.
- Legal custody is the right to make decisions for a child.
- Physical custody is living with and handling daily care for a child.
The court considers the best interests of the child when determining custody. Parents and other adults actively involved in raising a child can be required to attend mediation to come up with an arrangement. A history of domestic violence may wave the mediation requirement.
State laws also govern how to determine child support. This is financial support provided to a spouse with primary or custodial custody. In other words, the spouse with more of the child’s daily care may be entitled to support from the other parent to cover the child’s basic needs.
Family courts outline and issue child support agreements. The non-custodial parent must follow this agreement or face legal issues, such as wage garnishment or even arrest.
Guardianship, Foster Care, and Adoption
Family law and family courts in each state handle issues related to the guardianship of a child, foster care, and adoptions:
- Guardianship. Guardianship is the right to make legal decisions for a minor or an individual unable to make those choices for themselves. They can make choices about daily care, medical care, schooling, and financial decisions. Choosing and establishing a legal guardian is guided by state law and handled by courts.
- Foster care. Children without parents or legal guardians enter foster care. They may live with a foster family, in a group home, or with a relative. Foster parents must go through a rigorous background check, meet certain standards, and go through training to foster a child. The arrangement may lead to an adoption.
- Adoption. Adoption is a legal process of becoming the permanent legal guardian of a child. Prospective adopters must go through a court-ordered process of evaluations, home visits, education, and preparation.
Domestic Violence and Child Abuse
Domestic violence and child abuse are criminal acts under state laws. Too often in the past, these issues were ignored, and perpetrators lightly punished, if at all. More recent laws seek to protect women and children with harsher penalties and more frequent arrests. These include the federal Violence Against Women Act.
Cases of child abuse and neglect are handled by state agencies, usually called Child Protective Services. The more severe cases, including physical and sexual assault, mostly go to criminal courts. Other cases go through family courts.
When to Do in a Family Legal Situation
Family legal issues can be very complicated because they involve personal relationships. If you have an issue with any area of family law, the best thing you can do is contact a family lawyer. These legal professionals can provide advice, explain your options, protect your or your child’s interests, and represent you in mediation and court.
Family law is an important part of the law, and states have the right to govern most of the applicable procedures. If you have a legal issue related to your spouse, partner, or child, contact a family law lawyer for advice and representation.