Family court, sometimes referred to as family law court or domestic court, is a branch of the civil law court system. It typically handles matters affecting the family, such as adoption and alimony. Although family courts often share the same building location as other courts, like traffic court or small claims court, family court is strictly reserved for disputes relating to the family.
While there are overarching federal laws and general rules that apply to family courts, most family law disputes are heard in a specific state’s family law court. Therefore, because every state follows different laws and procedures, the way each family law court operates varies by state, and sometimes even by county.
As mentioned above, family courts hear claims involving families and family law. Since family law courts are governed by state and local laws, the types of claims they can hear may vary according to their jurisdiction. In general, most family law courts will hear the following types of claims:
- Marriages and Civil Unions: Similar to family law, rules concerning marriages and civil unions are specific to a state. A family court may intervene when there is an issue with a marriage license, or a dispute regarding a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
- Divorce and Legal Separation: Not all states have family courts that resolve divorce and legal separation issues. For the states with family courts that do, the court will typically resolve how to:
- Divide property;
- Distribute assets;
- Allocate spousal or child support; and
- Demand the couple participate in mediation.
- Child Custody and Visitation Rights: Child custody and visitation rights include two types of custody: legal and physical. Legal custody means having the right to make important decisions about a child, and physical custody refers to the physical location of where the child lives. A family court has the power to decide and modify these arrangements.
- Child Support: Child support pays for a child’s necessary expenses, e.g., food, healthcare, and education. A family court helps to determine and set these awards, based on specific state law factors.
- Spousal Support: Spousal support, or alimony, are payments made from one spouse to support the other spouse. A spouse can petition a family law court to grant them spousal support. The family law court can then grant or deny it, determine the appropriate amount (if granted), modify it in the future, and terminate it.
- Adoption: Adoption is a process where an adult seeks to become the legal parent of a child, or another adult. There are many ways to adopt, but the most common are through:
- Private agencies;
- Public agencies; and
- Independent adoptions, e.g., when a stepparent or co-parent wants to adopt their partner’s child.
- Name Changes: The Constitution permits a person to legally change their name. These are the most common reasons for why a person might decide to change their name:
- Victim of harassment or stalking;
- They no longer identify with their birth name; and
- When a child is adopted or a parent gets remarried, and the parents want the child to take their last name;
Regardless of the path that the adult who is adopting selects, all adoptions require approval from a court. Normally, that court is a family law court.
No matter the reason, anyone who wants to change their name must petition a court and get approval in order to have it legally changed.
- Domestic Violence: Domestic violence cases are fact-specific and have outcomes that are heavily influenced by state laws. Though parts of a domestic violence claim must be handled by a criminal law court, most family courts hear domestic violence cases and are usually the forum where the case starts. A family law court can:
The above discussion only covers some of the major issues that family law courts handle. However, there are many other things that a family law court can do, some of which are state-specific.
Keep in mind that not all family courts can hear some of these claims. Contacting a local family lawyer can help guide you through the proper process of resolving a family law claim.
Some family law disputes may overlap with another area of law. For example, a domestic violence claim can be heard in a family law court and a criminal law court. This is because both areas have laws that apply to the claim, but their proceedings produce separate results.
Will disputes also commonly overlap with family law, but are mainly handled in probate court. Thus, sometimes issues that initially arise in family court may also need to be heard by another court system. This often happens in a separate proceeding to fully resolve the claim.
A family court lawyer is a lawyer who focuses on representing clients during family court proceedings. They often handle a wide range of matters and have knowledge of various state and federal family laws.
Depending on the situation, family court lawyers also interact with other individuals and agencies, to better serve their clients’ needs. For instance, family court lawyers may work closely with the following:
- Child services departments;
- Employers (when handling a claim for spousal or child support);
- Adoption agencies; and
- Child support collection agencies.
Some family lawyers may specialize in one particular area of family law, such as divorce, child custody, or adoption.
Family court matters can be challenging, both legally and emotionally. If you need to file a claim in family court, then you should contact a qualified family lawyer in your area for assistance.
Your family lawyer can provide legal guidance about your issues and can represent you during meetings and trial proceedings. Additionally, if you have any specific questions regarding the laws in your jurisdiction, a family lawyer can help you address those as well.