Family Law Legal Information
 

OVERVIEW

Family lawyers handle all the aspects of the law that touch on marriages and families. Most of these are issues related to divorce: Division of property, spousal support (alimony), child custody and child support. Family lawyers handle those matters initially, can modify them later, and can appeal them to higher courts, if necessary.

But family lawyers also handle matters outside of divorce, which include:

  • Adoption.
  • Prenuptial agreements.
  • Paternity disputes, which are matters proving that someone is a father, with all the associated rights and responsibilities.
  • Domestic partnership issues.
  • Disputes over custody of children removed from their parents’ homes.
  • Conservatorships and guardianships, which give someone responsibility for the well-being of an older adult.
  • Trusts and inheritance matters.
  • Grandparents’ and other family members’ rights.

 

“DO I NEED A LAWYER FOR A DIVORCE?”

You don’t technically need a lawyer for divorce, but having one can save you a lot of time, money and pain. The simplest uncontested divorces can be handled out of court in most states, but you must still fill out legal forms and include detailed information about your financial assets and debts. Many people who aren’t familiar with the law can make mistakes that require them to re-file paperwork, pay more fees and prolong their time in a marriage that has ended.

Divorces that involve children, significant property or any dispute will probably go to court, which makes the matter much more difficult to handle on your own. For that reason, experts recommend that you get a family lawyer for these more complicated divorces. Your family lawyer can help you make your best case in financial and custody matters, make sure you understand and meet all legal requirements and minimize the time and hassle of dealing with a former spouse.

 

“HOW DO WE DIVIDE OUR HOME AND PROPERTY?”

In the United States, states use one of two types of property division:

  • In community property states, the spouses divide property equally if it’s considered the property of both. Property that was given specifically to one spouse, purchased with separate funds or was acquired before the marriage is considered separate property. Community property states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Puerto Rico.
  • All other states are equitable distribution states, which means they require spouses to divide all of the property they acquired during their marriage in an equitable (fair) way. That doesn’t necessarily mean they must divide it evenly. Courts must take into account the incomes each brought into the marriage, their post-divorce financial needs, any financial sacrifices a spouse made to help the other succeed and sometimes, any misconduct in the marriage.

In both types of state, debts can also be marital property -- that is, your mortgage, credit card debt and other debt must also be split. Regardless of your state, it’s important to make sure you report all of your assets and debts completely, so you are not accused of misconduct later. You are not allowed to hide your assets in a divorce, but your family lawyer can help you determine and prove which property is your separate property. A family lawyer will help you make your best case for a fair division of property to the court.

 

“IS IT TRUE THAT COURTS ARE BIASED TOWARD THE WOMAN?”

Family courts were established specifically to provide an unbiased place for families to resolve their disputes. It’s true that, a few decades ago, courts routinely awarded custody, alimony and child support to women. However, this has changed as people began to recognize the importance of fathers, and that not all women are suitable parents. Many states now have laws instructing courts to make custody and support decisions in the best interests of the child. And child support or spousal support payments are now usually determined according to a formula that takes both spouses’ incomes into account.

The number of court awards for spousal support, also called alimony, has gone down dramatically in recent decades. Because both spouses usually work these days, many simply don’t request spousal support anymore. When they do, the support is most likely to be awarded to a spouse with significantly less income -- regardless of whether that’s the husband or the wife.

 

“CAN I CHANGE MY CUSTODY OR SUPPORT ARRANGEMENTS LATER?”

You absolutely can change your custody or financial support arrangements. In fact, most people will do it at least once, because circumstances change as life goes on after a divorce. Sometimes, the terms you agree on with your former spouse made sense at the time, but prove to be impractical or hard to stick to as time goes on. More commonly, the financial and personal needs of the people involved change, especially if there are children who have grown older since the divorce. Teenagers have more expensive needs than younger children, and they may want to change how they spend their time as they grow up. One spouse may remarry, lose or get a job, or move to another area.

In all of these cases, you must file a petition with the court to change custody and support arrangements. While it may be tempting to simply come to an informal agreement with your ex-spouse and leave the court out of it, it’s not always a good idea. Your ex may change his or her mind and complain that you’re not following court orders.

 

“CAN MY FAMILY LAWYER HELP IN A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SITUATION?”

Domestic violence is a common complication in family-law cases. A family lawyer can help spouses on either side of a domestic violence case, or parents whose children may be taken away because of domestic violence charges. If you are a victim of domestic violence, a family lawyer can help you get your abuser criminally charged, get a restraining or protective order and enforce that order. In a divorce or custody dispute, your family lawyer can show that the domestic violence should be a factor in the court’s decision.

A family lawyer may be able to help if you have been charged with domestic violence, are under a restraining or protective order, or are accused of violating the terms of such an order. Because divorce can be contentious, and because states are often able to press charges even when the victim doesn’t want to, domestic violence charges aren’t always valid or fair. A family lawyer can help you prove that you didn’t deserve the charges or restraining order, and show that it’s not related to your parenting ability or your divorce.

 

“WHAT ARE ARBITRATION AND MEDIATION, AND SHOULD WE USE IT?”

Arbitration and mediation are ways to settle a divorce outside of a courtroom, in a cooperative rather than competitive manner. In these alternative methods, you go to a private judge, often a retired judge or family lawyer, who is an expert in family law. This person helps you identify areas where you disagree with your spouse and compromise. He or she can also give you an expert prediction on how your case would likely turn out in a traditional courtroom divorce. You may still have a family lawyer present at an arbitration or mediation -- which experts recommend -- and you will need one to review the terms of an agreement before filing it with a court.

More than 90% of American divorces are settled in arbitration or mediation, and research shows that divorced spouses tend to be more satisfied with the results. It is also, generally, cheaper and faster than traditional divorce. However, divorce arbitration or mediation is not right for everyone. You’re better off with traditional courtroom divorce if one or both spouses:

  • Can’t put aside bad feelings long enough to negotiate
  • Feels unsafe or intimidated around the other spouse
  • Is not ready to consider divorce
  • Is hiding assets or otherwise not being honest.

 

“CAN FAMILY LAWYERS HELP NON-TRADITIONAL FAMILIES?”

The law has increasingly recognized that not all families fit the traditional two-parent, opposite-sex nuclear family model. For a variety of reasons, many couples choose not to marry; for others, that option is just not available. Family lawyers have kept up with these developments and can help nontraditional families of all kinds with:

  • Establishing a domestic partnership.
  • Securing marriage-like rights in the absence of a marriage.
  • Separating and determining custody in the absence of a marriage.
  • Getting your state or employer to recognize a marriage, partnership or divorce from another jurisdiction.
  • Adoption, including adoption of your partner’s or relative’s children.
  • Issues related to sperm or egg donations.

 

“CAN I CHALLENGE A FAMILY COURT’S DECISIONS?”

You absolutely have the right to challenge a family court’s decision. In addition to divorce, family courts may make decisions about:

  • Guardianship, conservatorship and power of attorney for a disabled, mentally ill or older relative.
  • Custody of children who have been allegedly abused or neglected.
  • Paternity and parental rights.
  • Enforcement of a prenuptial agreement.

A family lawyer can help you challenge any of these decisions and others like them. You may have to file an appeal, which asks a higher court to reconsider the decision by the first court. You may also be asked to show your financial information, any criminal history and some information about your family.

 

PAYMENT

In most cases, a family lawyer will bill clients by the hour. Hourly rates for the family lawyer will vary according to where you live and what services you need, with contentious matters and big cities commanding the highest fees. In some cases, especially simple matters that don’t involve going to court, a family lawyer may charge a flat fee. Some family lawyers charge a fee for an initial consultation -- a meeting in which you discuss your case and how the lawyer can help you -- but many others offer free c