Family Law Definition
Family law is a specialized practice area dealing with issues arising from domestic relationships of all kinds, including marriage, domestic partnerships, civil unions, and other family structures, both traditional and non-traditional. Dissolution of these relationships through divorce or separation gives rise to matters most commonly handled by family law practitioners, notably child custody and visitation, the division of assets and liabilities between the parties, and spousal alimony and child support. Other and often related aspects of a family law practice include domestic violence, paternity, annulment, adoption, surrogacy, child abduction (domestic and international), termination of parental rights, and pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements. The statutes and case law of individual states determine most domestic matters, although there are also uniform laws adopted by all of the states, as well as international treaties that relate to parentage, child custody, parental abduction, and child support enforcement.
Many financial aspects of family law are highly complex. Family attorneys must have proficiency in other areas of law that impact these financial issues and a roster of outside experts to assist them when necessary. Knowledge of tax law as it pertains to alimony, support, asset allocation, filing status, and dependency exemptions is essential. Familiarity with accounting principles, financial statements and balance sheets, retirement plans, asset (including business) valuation, health insurance following divorce, the effect of bankruptcy, wills and trusts, and real estate also is important.
The psychological aspects of family law are also highly complex. Dealing with families in conflict, often emotional and highly charged, requires special sensitivity and a broad array of skills. A good family lawyer must have, in addition to substantive knowledge, the ability to listen, to counsel, to investigate, to negotiate, to plan, to draft, to defuse conflict, to advocate and, when necessary, to litigate. Recognizing that out-of-court settlements are vastly preferable for their clients, and with the growing burden on court dockets, an increasing number of practitioners are using (and becoming trained in) alternative dispute resolution, including mediation, arbitration, and private judging.