Family Law Overview

Starting a family can be a joyous time in your life. But sometimes, even the happiest events need the court’s help. Family law is a broad practice area covering domestic relations, including divorce, property division, child custody and support, alimony, and adoption.

LawInfo’s family law overview includes information to help guide you in your journey. Many family law issues are emotional, contentious, and complicated. If you face a family law matter, consult with and hire a family law attorney.


If you want your relationship to be legally recognized and reap the legal benefits of marriage, you must comply with statutory procedures. Although exact rules can vary from state to state, couples must apply for a marriage license to get married. They must also submit a marriage certificate following the ceremony. Most states have relaxed regulations regarding who can serve as an officiant. Others maintain strict rules about who can perform legally recognized marriage ceremonies.

Same-sex couples now have the constitutional right to marry and no longer need to worry about civil unions, domestic partnerships, and other quasi-legal distinctions. That said, some states have been slower to recognize the full legal rights of same-sex spouses.

Prenuptial Agreements

Sometimes, a couple will enter into a prenuptial agreement before they marry. Typically, a lawyer will draft the prenup for you and your significant other. Common subjects addressed in prenuptial agreements include division of property, waiving the right to alimony, and the duties and responsibilities of each spouse. The agreements may not include provisions for child custody or child support.

Unmarried Couples

Unmarried couples might have issues regarding paternity and other situations. Commonly, family courts handle these matters by ordering paternity tests and enforcing child support orders after establishing paternity.

Common Law Marriage

When unmarried couples are in a long-term relationship, their relationship might become a common law marriage in some jurisdictions. A common law marriage affords the couple the same rights as a married couple. There are legal requirements for common-law marriage. These include cohabitation and holding themselves out as married.

If the honeymoon is over in more ways than one, you may be thinking of ending your marriage. There are several options, depending on how long you’ve been married and your reasons for separation.


A traditional divorce ends the marriage. The couple has to decide on spousal support, child support, child custody, parenting time, and how to divide property.

Every state allows you to file for divorce under no-fault grounds instead of requiring spouses to provide a reason for the divorce. In a no-fault divorce, one spouse says the marriage has broken down and cannot be preserved. The court then enters a divorce decree ending the marriage. Some contentious divorces may go to trial. However, most divorces are resolved through settlement or mediation proceedings.


Sometimes referred to as “divorce lite,” a summary dissolution is generally available to couples married for five years or less and don’t have any shared minor children. Some states also require that spouses don’t have any shared real property interests, have less than a certain amount of marital property to divide up, and have no claim to spousal support.

These options may be quicker and cheaper paths to ending a marriage. They generally require less paperwork, court time, and legal expenses.


If the marriage itself was legally invalid, spouses might get an annulment. In the case of annulments, the law treats the marriage as if it never existed. Examples of invalid marriages may include bigamy (marriage to more than one person), misrepresentation, fraud, concealment, lack of consent, and incest.

In some family law cases, a couple opts for legal separation rather than permanently ending their marriage. This includes cases where the tax and health care benefits outweigh the benefits of divorce. A legal separation may also be the choice of couples who want to live separately for a time to determine if they want a divorce.

Child Custody Arrangements

Legal custody determines which parent will make the crucial decisions concerning their child. Physical custody refers to the parent with whom the child primarily lives. There are various custodial and visitation arrangements, and arguing over family time can lead to contentious legal issues. In all cases, courts make child custody decisions based on what is in the best interests of the child.

Child Support

Child support is customarily paid by one parent to the parent holding primary physical custody. This provides children with a standard of living similar to what they would have enjoyed if their parents remained together. In many states, judges use child support guidelines to help them determine the monthly amount ordered. Most courts lean towards an award of joint custody to both parents as opposed to sole custody to one parent.

Child custody and visitation agreements are separate from child support orders. You can’t stop paying child support if your ex denies you visitation. You can’t keep your ex from seeing your children if they miss a few support payments.

If either side is violating a child support, custody, or visitation agreement, it’s best to document it in court. On top of the initial orders pertaining to these cases, the family court will also handle modifications to these orders when warranted, according to state law.


Alimony, or spousal support, is a monthly amount paid from a higher-earning spouse to their former spouse. Depending on several factors, it may be for a short time, indefinitely, or not at all.

Support amounts, timing, and duration will vary depending on several factors. These include the length of the marriage, the financial resources and earning potential of each spouse, their contributions to the marriage, and the standard of living during the marriage. Each state has its own criteria for determining spousal support.

Property Division

A significant part of divorce cases is determining the division of property. States are either community property states or equitable distribution states. In community property states, courts consider the marital assets jointly owned and divide them equally.

In equitable distribution states, judges divide the marital property based on a fair (but not necessarily equal) division. For example, the judge might decide that it’s fair for the custodial parent to keep ownership of the house until the youngest child graduates high school. After graduation, they will sell the house instead of forcing a sale as part of the divorce.


Paternity affords both the parent and the child certain legal rights. It also carries specific legal responsibilities.

After establishing paternity, the parent has rights to custody, visitation, and to make essential decisions in the child’s life. The parent, as noted above, also has the responsibility to support the child. The child also has rights. Children have the right to: 

  • Inherit from both parents
  • Access to veterans’ and social security benefits
  • Access to a parent’s genetic and medical background

In some cases, courts presume paternity, like when a married man’s wife gives birth. In other cases, it may have to prove paternity by court-ordered DNA testing.


Adoption law governs the legal process of legally adopting a child. This includes looking to add to your family by adopting a child. It also includes making your stepchild equal to your biological child in the eyes of the law. The adoption process differs depending on the type of adoption and where the adoption is taking place. An adoption attorney can help guide you through this potentially complex process.

Domestic Violence and Abuse

Criminal issues of abuse and domestic violence cases are handled in criminal court. However, family courts can manage some aspects of the cases. In the case of child abuse, the family court may need to determine if a family should be reunified or if parental rights should be terminated. For domestic abuse cases, family law would handle the restraining orders against the abusive spouse.

Speak With a Family Law Attorney Today

Aspects of family law issues are complex. Learning the state and local laws of a case is time-consuming. Working with an experienced family lawyer might help make the process easier. These attorneys can help present your side of the case, petition the court, negotiate in mediation, and work through any legal matters that might come up.

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