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What Is Family Law? | Explore Law Firms and Legal Advice

When facing marital strife involving divorce or disputes over children, legal issues can quickly become complex. In these cases, it can be helpful to turn to a family lawyer who can help navigate the court system and represent your interests.

Generally, “family law” refers to the laws that govern issues related to family relationships, primarily those between spouses or parents and children. But family law is not just limited to issues such as marriage, divorce and child custody. It is an industry – estimated to be $12.6 billion in 2022 – that encompasses a wide realm of topics and issues.

According to the American Bar Association, family law extends to other categories such as military law and assisted reproductive technologies. Domestic violence will also often fall under family law. It can also encompass normal family planning that requires a lawyer to outline ownership of real estate, businesses, debt, inheritances and more.

What Is Family Law? 

While there is a broad spectrum of types of family law, the main categories tend to be divorce, custody, alimony, adoption and premarital agreements (also known as prenuptial agreements).

“Those are the big five,” says J. Paul Helvy, chair of the Family Law Group at McNees Wallace & Nurick, while noting that other areas of family law are maturing.

A growing area of family law also surrounds fertility procedures, which are involved in treatments such as in vitro fertilization. This is particularly relevant as scientific developments evolve that allow people to create families in new ways.

This can create new challenges. For example, if two people create embryos and later separate or disagree on family planning, who owns the embryos? Additionally, who should be able to use those embryos in the future?

Each state has different methods of handling family law disputes, which can further complicate already delicate matters. It is important to check the laws that govern your state. For example, all states have some form of no-fault divorce, but only some states have fault-based grounds for divorce such as adultery, cruelty or desertion.

In addition to having different laws, many states have established separate family or domestic courts that are specifically geared toward handling these types of cases.

How Family Law Helps Couples in Divorce

Legal seperation is only one facet of divorce. From divvying up assets to custody agreements, the process will involve multiple areas of family law. Helvy ssays the first thing for people to consider is the divorce laws within their state.

“When I break it down it’s, first of all, are you legally entitled to a divorce and how do you establish that?” Helvy says. “And the second big hurdle in divorce is the economic issues and that generally breaks down to equitable distribution of marital property and alimony.”

The economic aspect of divorce involves assessing marital property, which is considered to be anything acquired by spouses from the date of marriage up until the end. If a couple is married and buys a house in 1990, for example, this process would involve determining what it was worth in 1990 and today.

“This can get really, really complicated, or it could be really easy,” Helvy says, noting that most attorneys will keep a spreadsheet for the client with the name of the asset and its marital value.

Following the economic understanding, attorneys can help clients through the process of deciding custody of children as well as potential spousal support, also known as alimony. Having an attorney involved will assist in making these decisions more civil, as well as legally enforceable down the road.

When You Might Need a Family Lawyer

There is no requirement to obtain an attorney when going through major events such as divorce. However, particularly because family laws vary state by state, the ABA recommends that people meet with an attorney if they are getting divorced. This is even more important if the divorce, which is often the case, becomes more acrimonious and complex.

“If you have kids involved, you have to get a lawyer,” says Mark Briol, founder of Briol & Benson in Minneapolis, who has handled many high-asset divorces. “If one side has a lawyer and the other side does not have a lawyer, you are going to be way behind on your ability to deal with someone who has a lawyer. One of the things I’ve learned about family law around the country is it’s an unusual area of the law.”

Lawyers will be up to date on any new findings or requirements under the law. They will also be familiar with the other people within the family law system and the necessary documents that need to be filed.

To prepare each new client, Briol warns them that the process will be more expensive and more emotional than they expect.

“That’s something that I don’t think many clients hear at the beginning,” he says. “After you’ve been duking it out with your spouse for a couple years, it wears on you.”

Sarah Goldberg
Sarah Goldberg

Sarah is a seasoned financial market expert with a decade of experience. She's known for her analytical skills, attention to detail, and ability to communicate complex financial concepts. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Finance, is a licensed financial advisor, and enjoys reading and traveling in her free time.

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