Complete Guide to Family Law

You hear about going to court to sort out issues of custody, support, and community property, but where are these cases being tried? The rights of domestic partners and their children are protected by law, but they fall under a different court system than other civil issues, mainly because family law is such a vast and complicated area.

What Is Family Law?

Family law is the area of legislation that deals with domestic matters. Family law courts tend to have the most crowded dockets and see the broadest variety of litigants. People from all socio-economic backgrounds may find themselves in family court. Here are just a few of the issues that might be handled by a family law attorney or in family law court.

  •  Partnerships: These include marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships, cohabitation, and common-law marriages, among others. Family law courts recognize the rights and legality of such partnerships and help partners form and dissolve them. Issues relating to partnership include prenuptial agreements, marriage, spousal abuse, separation, divorce, and alimony payments.
  • Children: Child-related issues include paternity, abuse, adoption, guardianship, foster care, parental responsibility, child custody and support, and emancipation of minors.
  • Reproduction: Cases involving reproductive rights, birth control, surrogacy, and artificial conception fall under the category of family law as well.

In recent years, family law has had to expand and reshape itself to include new kinds of families. For example, custody issues for adopted children of same-sex partners who have terminated their partnership; parental rights of surrogate mothers and sperm donors; fathers seeking joint or full custody; grandparents’ visitation rights, and even the rights of and responsibilities owed to frozen embryos. As our culture broadens to accept families outside the traditional, nuclear model, the law must adapt to stay relevant.

DIY Family Law

To ease the strain on family courts, many simple legal changes can be handled outside the courtroom or with minimal judicial involvement. Forms are available online to file for divorce, create prenuptial or paternity agreements, and change your or a child’s legal name. It is still a good idea to find a qualified attorney specializing in family law to assist you.

How To Find an Attorney

The search for a caring and competent family law lawyer can be daunting, but here are a few ways to focus your search.

The search for a caring and competent family law lawyer can be daunting, but here are a few ways to focus your search.

  • Ask for referrals from friends or family members. Chances are you know someone who has dealt with a family law situation and can share the name of his or her attorney and their experience.
  • Check the local listings. This gives you a basis of comparison and allows you to see the specialties of family law practitioners in your area.
  • Check online listings. Three basic sites that list attorneys by geographic location and professional area are martindale.com, findlaw.com, and lawyers.com. You can also search the database of your state’s bar association. For a more personalized match, you can try Martindale-Hubbell’s matching service or LegalMatch.com. Many sites such as findlaw.com also have an option where you can ask a question online and receive an answer from an attorney free of charge.
  • Ask questions. Be sure any candidates are not only family law professionals but also experienced in your particular area. Not all attorneys have a deep understanding or commitment to same-sex partnerships or fathers’ rights, for example.

Do Your Research

The family law courts are overburdened, and the complexity of domestic issues is constantly increasing. For these reasons, it’s best to try everything you can outside the courtroom first, either through mediation or with an attorney. Search the law sites mentioned above for further information on any specific topic of family law. New articles and cases are being published all the time to help the average person understand their rights and responsibilities.

Also, laws and precedents differ drastically by state. For example, some states do not recognize the custody rights of same-sex parents. Others are behind the times when it comes to awarding even partial custody to fathers or other family members. Not all states recognize common-law marriage, and those that do may define it differently. If you are considering adoption, particularly if you are part of a nontraditional partnership, learn all you can about your state’s laws and legal precedents as early as possible.

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