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What is Family Law?

Family law is a practice area concerned with legal issues involving family relationships, such as adoption, divorce, and child custody. Attorneys practicing family law typically handle divorce, child custody, child support, and other related legal matters. Some family law attorneys specialize in adoption, paternity, emancipation, or other matters usually not related to divorce. States have the right to determine "reasonable formal requirements" for marriage, including age and legal capacity, and the majority of states do not permit same-sex couples to marry (but this is a rapidly changing area of law). Likewise, state laws govern the various rules and procedures for divorce and other family law matters.

Terms to Know

  • Emancipation: A court process through which a minor becomes self-supporting, assumes adult responsibility for his or her welfare, and is no longer under the care of his or her parents.
  • Marital Property: Property acquired by either spouse during the course of a marriage that is subject to division upon divorce.
  • Alimony: An allowance made to one spouse by the other for support pending or after legal separation or divorce.
  • Paternity: Origin or descent from a father (to establish paternity is to confirm the identity of a child's biological father).
  • Prenuptial Agreement: An agreement made between a man and a woman before marrying in which they give up future rights to each other's property in the event of a divorce or death.

Reasons to Hire a Family Law Attorney

Most family lawyers work represent clients in divorce proceedings and other matters related to divorce. But family law is a relatively broad practice area, including such issues as foster care and reproductive rights. The most common reasons to hire a family law attorney include:

  • Divorce: Each partner hires his or her own attorney, who will help devise a settlement plan in order to avoid a trial. Divorce attorneys typically are skilled at dividing marital property, calculating spousal support, and proposing a plan for child custody, visitation, and support (if applicable). See Do You Need a Divorce Lawyer? for more information.
  • Child Custody / Child Support: Court orders and settlement agreements involving both custody and support usually are included in the larger divorce case, but may be revisited as conditions change. For instance, child support may be altered after the non-custodial parent's financial situation changes.
  • Paternity: In most cases, paternity cases are filed by the mother in an effort to secure child support payments from an absent father. But sometimes biological fathers file for paternity in order to have a relationship with their child. Paternity typically is determined through DNA testing.
  • Adoption / Foster Care: Adoption is a complex process that differs according to the type of adoption, where the child is from, variances in state laws, and other factors. Therefore, it is important to consult with a family law attorney. Foster parents sometimes adopt their foster children, but the foster process does not necessarily require legal representation.

Related Practice Areas

  • Mediation and Collaborative Law
  • Estate Planning

Search FindLaw's directory of family law attorneys to find one in your area.

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