The Ultimate Guide to Family Law

Locate a Local Family Lawyer

Find Lawyers in Other Categories
Most Common Family Law Issues:

The Ultimate Guide to Family Law

As the name implies, family law is the field of law dealing with personal and familial relations. Most people recognize that family law deals with divorce and child custody. However, family law also addresses other family matters, including marriage, parentage, adoption, domestic violence, and estate planning, among other issues.


Getting married is typically a very simple process.

Formal Marriage requires:

Common Law Marriage: Common law marriage is informal marriage. Some states recognize common law marriage while others do not. If the following is true, the parties do not have go through the procedure outlined above to be legally married.

Same-Sex Marriage

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, ending the federal government’s refusal to give marriage benefits and rights to same-sex married couples. The Supreme Court is expected to take up the issue of same-sex marriage at the state level in 2015.

Leaving Marriage

Marriage can end through divorce and legal separation. It can also end if it is found to be invalid.

1. Divorce: There are two types of divorce: fault and no-fault divorce. Fault divorce requires some type of evidentiary showing of misconduct or wrongdoing on the other spouse’s part, such as adultery or cruelty. No-fault divorce do not require the petitioner to show a reason for ending the marriage; the court only needs to find that the "marriage is broken."

Although these are two different types of divorce, many states retain both systems because the reason for a divorce often affects how alimony and marital property is distributed. Alimony is awarded if one spouse made non-financial contributions to the marriage and needs support to be financially independent after the marriage ends. Marital property is assets obtained by the parties during the marriage. Courts distribute marital property based on the following systems:

In recent years, states have sought to curb the divorce rate by enacting certain reforms in the divorce process. Many states require that couples filing for divorce go through mediation before proceeding to trial.

For more on divorce, check out our Ultimate Guide to Divorce.

2. Legal Separation: Divorce is the main vehicle for terminating a marriage, but there are other ways of leaving a marriage. Legal separations are court decrees resulting in the termination of the right to cohabitate. In legal separation, the court does not officially dissolve the marriage and the parties’ status remains as "married."

3. Invalid Marriage and Annulment: A marriage may be invalid for many reasons. A marriage can be invalid if one of the parties was already married, if one of the parties were not present during the marriage ceremony, or if the marriage was a sham to get around immigration laws. Invalid marriages are typically annulled.

Divorce ends the marriage, but annulment treats the marriage as though it never happened. If a marriage is annulled, the state pretends that the marriage never existed. Spousal support is typically not given because the parties were never married (although there are a few exceptions). The grounds for annulment include:

Supporting and Raising Children

Child support and child custody are different legal issues, but they both raise a preliminary question: Who is a parent?

1. Fathers: The identity of the legal father can be established in one of the following ways:

2. Mothers: The identity of the legal mother can be established in one of the following ways:

3. Third Persons: In some states and under certain circumstances, a person who is biologically or legally unrelated to the child may petition to be the child’s legal father or mother. These third parties are typically stepparents or domestic partners.

Adoption is the preferred method of establishing paternity or maternity. However, a third person may wish to get around adoption procedures by presenting him or herself as a psychological parent to the court. To be a " psychological parent," the third person must show:


Adoption is the legal process where an adult without parentage becomes the legal parent of another person. Single persons or couples (married or unmarried) can adopt another person. The adopted person is typically a minor, although there are some situations where an adult may consent to be adopted. Adoption can be very important because it formally establishes a parent-child relationship for all purposes, including child support obligations, inheritance rights, and custody.

Adoption processes vary by state and will vary depending on whether the adoptive parent(s) use private or state agencies. However, all adoptions, regardless of state or process, must ultimately be approved by a court.

Courts have jurisdiction over adoptions to ensure that the child’s best interests are preserved and to guarantee that the rights of biological parents are protected. Adoptions can be reversed by the birth parents, although this should be done when the child is younger to ensure there is stability in the child’s life.

Alternative Reproduction Technology

Science has provided a variety of methods for women to get pregnant outside of sexual intercourse:

Child Custody and Child Support

Child custody is divided into two different rights:

Family courts have a great deal of leeway in determining which parent should have custody and in structuring child visitation. However, there are a number of rules and factors that judges may and may not consider in determining child custody:

If the parent with primary custody doesn’t have sufficient income to support the child, child support will be awarded. Child support is given based on:

Child support is mandatory; if the noncustodial parent refuses to pay child support, support will be taken directly from the parent’s wages.

For more on child custody and support, check out our Ultimate Guide to Child Custody.

Domestic Violence

Spousal abuse is any abusive conduct between intimate partners who are married, dating, or residing in the same residence. "Spousal" abuse is a misnomer as it may involve relationships where the parties are merely dating or cohabiting. Spousal abuse is typically a pattern of behavior, but single instances may also be abuse if they involve major physical violence. Spousal abuse may include emotional, physical, or financial abuse.

Courts may issue restraining orders, but the person being abused must ask for such an order. If proven, spousal abuse (and child abuse) may result in criminal charges and civil liability.

Child Removal

Under certain circumstances, the state can remove a child from a parent’s custody. Children are removed from custody if the child is endangered by the parent’s activities or endangered by the parent’s neglect.

Although everyone is encouraged to report child abuse to police, certain persons have a duty to make a report if they believe a child is being abused. These persons include:

Estate Planning

Estate planning is the subfield of family law that deals with managing and transferring property in anticipation of death. Planners, also known as testators, can use a variety of tools to plan for their demise, including wills, trusts, and durable power of attorney. If a person dies without a will, his or her property will be distributed according to the state’s intestacy.

1. Wills: A will is a written or oral communication by a person (the testator) stating how they want their property disposed of at death. To create a will, the will must either be handwritten or meet the following requirements:

2. Trusts: Trusts are legal arrangements where one person (the trustee) holds assets at the request of another person (the settlor) on behalf of third persons (beneficiaries). In order to create a trust, the settlor must:

Although trusts are typically created during a settlor’s lifetime, trusts are intended to outlast the settlor. Trusts are most useful if the beneficiaries are not prepared to receive or manage the property they are given. For instance, the beneficiaries might be young children or disabled persons, although there is no requirement that beneficiaries are unable to act for themselves. Trusts are also favored because they exist outside the probate system, thereby avoiding costly court battles.

There are many different kinds of trusts, but all trustees owe principals a heightened level of duty. In other words, trustees cannot abuse their positions for their own gain and they must manage the property entrusted to them with care.

Durable Power of Attorney

In recent decades, doctors have been able to extend the life of the body, but the mind and soul of the patient cannot be healed.

A Durable Power of Attorneyis a legal arrangement where one person appoints an agent to act on his or behalf. If the principal is unconscious or crippled due to an injury, illness, or age, the agent can make financial or healthcare decisions for the principal. Depending on what powers are given, the agent can file taxes, purchase or sell property, remove or preserve life support, or decide whether the principal can undergo surgery.

More than one agent can be appointed, but a process for conflict resolution should be in place if the agents disagree with one another. The powers end upon the death of the principal.

Should I Contact an Attorney?

Family law issues are emotionally taxing and can have far-reaching financial and life consequences. A family lawyer can help you understand your situation and can represent your best interests in a legal dispute.

Consult a Lawyer - Present Your Case Now!
Last Modified: 08-18-2015 09:15 AM PDT

Find the Right Lawyer Now

Link to this page

Law Library Disclaimer

LegalMatch Service Mark