Family law is the area of law that deals with marriage and divorce, custody, paternity, spousal and child support, along with the many issues that come up when you get married, have children, and perhaps get divorced. Family law also covers adoptions, guardianship, domestic violence, and grandparents’ rights.

Marital agreements are the contracts you and your spouse can enter into before your marriage (“prenuptial agreement”), during your marriage (“postnuptial agreement”), and if you decide to end your marriage (“separation or settlement agreement”).

If you and your spouse decide not to stay together, you have several options.  You can try to get an annulmenet, which is a legal action where you challenge the validity of the marriage on specific grounds and ask the court to declare that the marriage should be undone, as if it never happened.  Most people seek a divorce, which is a legal action where you seek to have your marriage dissolved.  There is also a third option, called a legal separation, which is a legal action where you seek a court ruling that you and your spouse are going to live separately and apart from one another without actually getting divorced.

A decision to end your marriage or separate from your spouse creates many other decisions that you and your spouse must make.  First, you need to figure out your property rights.  You and your spouse may have owned property when you got married, and you may have obtained property while you were married.  This property needs to be divided up when you decide to end your marriage.

Depending on whether you or your spouse is able to financially take care of yourself, your divorce/separation case may involve maintenance.  This is sometimes called “alimony” or “spousal support.” Maintenance can be a temporary payment during the annulment or divorce lawsuit, a payment for a designated period of time or a permanent payment. There is a statutory formula for temporary maintenance that the court is required to apply unless it determines it to be inappropriate. There is a formula for post divorce maintenance including an advisory statute as to potential length of the maintenance award based on the length of the parties’ marriage. If the parties are unable to agree, it is up to the court to determine what is fair and reasonable under the circumstances of your marriage.

Sometimes your circumstances or those of your spouse may change after the court orders maintenance, and you or your spouse may be able to get the court to change the award.  This is called a modification. Under certain circumstances, the court may also order one spouse to pay the attorney’s fees of the other spouse, particularly if there is a difference in the income and assets of the parties

If you and your spouse have minor children, then your divorce/separation will involve other additional issues related to the children, such as custody, visitation, and child support. If you and your spouse are unable to agree on these issues, the court will decide how much time the child or children will spend living with each parent, which is called child custody/visitation. The court will also determine if the parent who has the child/children the majority of the time should receive money from the other parent in order to help care for the child/children. This is called child support.  These issues can also arise when unmarried people have children together. However, if there is a denial of being the father, a paternity proceeding is required. In such case, the court generally requires DNA testing which determines the probability of paternity of the accused father.

Sometimes violence and/or harassment can happen between family members. In these situations, the court can issue an order of protection, which protects you from abuse by someone close to you.

There are two different court systems in New York that deal with family law.  If you are seeking a divorce, annulment or separation, you will file your case in Supreme Court in the county where you or your spouse lives.  As part of the divorce/separation, the Supreme Court can also decide issues related to maintenance, child support and child custody/visitation.

If you are not seeking a divorce or separation, you can file your case in family court, which handles the following situations:

  • Making, modifying and enforcing maintenance and child support orders;
  • Making and modifying child custody/visitations orders;
  • Granting orders of protection; and
  • Determining paternity of a child.

Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.

Just about anyone can start a family on their own, but certain procedures affecting the responsibilities of family life must be pursued in court. While matters of the heart are very personal, the rights of same-sex couples to get married, laws regarding divorce, and the process of adopting a child are governed by state and federal laws. “Family law,” therefore, refers to rules, regulations, and court procedures involving the family unit. While some family law matters may be handled without counsel, processes such as divorce and child custody often require the skill and expertise of a skilled attorney.

FindLaw’s Family Law Center includes information about marriage, child custody, divorce, reproductive rights, adoption, paternity, domestic violence, and other relevant topics. This section provides legal tips, overviews, summaries of state laws, and other resources to help you make the right decisions for you and your family.

What Does Family Law Cover?

Civil procedures and legal matters involving family members’ financial responsibilities, custodial rights, eligibility, and other obligations generally fall under the family law category. Domestic violence and child abuse are included in this section, although they are criminal matters. The following is a list of family law topics:

  • Marriage & Living Together: Eligibility requirements such as age and gender (i.e., same-sex marriage) are primarily governed at the state level. Also, different states have different laws governing legal partnerships other than marriage.
  • Divorce & Alimony: Also called “dissolution of marriage,” divorces come about via court order, either with or without legal representation. Sometimes one spouse will be required to provide financial support for the other after a divorce.
  • Child Custody & Child Support: When parents get divorced, the court must decide what is in the best interests of the children, which includes living arrangements and financial support.
  • Adoption & Foster Care: A variety of legal considerations may come into play when adopting or fostering a child.
  • Parental Liability & Emancipation: Parents often are liable for the actions of their children. Some children may become “emancipated” if they can prove their maturity and ability to live apart from their parents.
  • Reproductive Rights: Laws governing abortion, birth control, artificial conception, and other reproductive rights are established at the state level and change often.
  • Domestic Violence & Child Abuse: While these violations are handled in criminal court, they often raise legal issues affecting the family, as well.

When Do I Need a Family Law Attorney?

As with most other areas of the law, whether you need a family law attorney depends on a number of factors specific to your case. For example, a couple generally won’t need a lawyer to get married, but attorneys may be required if one party asks the other to sign a prenuptial agreement.

Individuals often benefit from hiring an attorney when dealing with divorce, child support, and especially child custody matters. Because emotions can run high during some divorces, hiring an attorney for her legal knowledge and skills, as well as to negotiate with the other party to resolve difficult issues, can be invaluable.

Most lawyers offer free initial consultations, so it may be worth your time to speak with a family law attorney if you have additional questions or learn more on our family law attorney legal answers page.