Family Law

Updated March 10, 2023
9 min read

Anything that has to do with the law and family falls under the category of family law. Family law rights refer to the rights of different family members, based on family relationships and the events in question. 

What Is Family Law?

Family law is a field of law that has to do with matters relating to a family, which can be a spouse, a couple, or children. This extends to areas of law like adoption, custody, and divorce. 

Why Is Family Law Important?

Family law is extremely important in that it is designed to cover any issues that might impact a family and, in particular, children. 

What Is the Purpose of Family Law?

Family law makes it possible to protect children from negative or unsafe situations and to take children away from their parents if there are issues of abuse. Family law also deals with issues relating to domestic abuse.

What Is Included in Family Law?

There are so many things included in family law. Essentially, anything that has to do with children or family gets included in this area of legislation. 

Marriage and Divorce

When a couple gets married or divorced, they might need a lawyer to help them draft a prenuptial agreement, or they might need help dividing assets as a result of a divorce. There are states where even a separation is a legal matter and requires similar legal support to that of a divorce.

Child Custody

Family law encompasses a wide range of subjects, including child support and child custody after a separation or divorce. 

After a divorce, child custody is often the most significant issue. Custody refers to who gets to see the child, when they get to see the child, and who gets to make important decisions on behalf of the child. 

In addition to custody, there is the issue of child support. Child support is money that is given to the parent who has custody of the children by the parent who doesn’t. It is intended to help offset the costs of raising a child. Child support is generally determined in court, and the following are taken into consideration when making this determination: 

  • How much money each spouse makes;

  • The costs of raising the child or children, such as private schooling, special needs, or health issues; and

  • The circumstances of the separation or divorce.

If the parent with custody needs financial help taking care of the children, then the judge and a lawyer will review these factors and more to determine exactly how much should be paid in child support each month. 

In some states, a divorce can be characterized as fault-based, meaning one party is considered to be responsible for the divorce. This can play heavily into the process of deciding on visitation and custody of children once the divorce is finalized. 

Similarly, if there is a prenuptial agreement signed by the couple prior to getting married, the terms of that agreement should be enforced in court during a divorce proceeding. A prenuptial agreement is a legal document signed prior to a marriage that is meant to divide and protect assets that one party is bringing to the marriage in the event of a divorce. 


If you’re in a state that has fault-based divorces, the party who is considered to be at fault could end up losing custody of the children during the divorce proceedings. They could also end up losing assets as a result of the behavior that caused the divorce. However, if there is a prenuptial agreement, this can impact how the assets are divided. For example, many prenuptial agreements will state that if a partner cheats, they aren’t entitled to certain money or property that the couple owns together. Other agreements make no mention of this, in which case the reason for the divorce may have no impact on how the assets are divided.

What Is an Example of Family Law?

If John and Jill get married, but John has a large estate and inheritance from his parents, he might wish to sign a prenuptial agreement with Jill. This agreement would likely stipulate that anything he brings into the marriage –– money, property, and other assets –– remains with him and does not get divided in the event of a divorce. 

This can be a wise decision for people who are bringing much more into a marriage than the other party. Many states will equally divide all assets in the event of divorce, which means everything that each party brought to the relationship, and anything earned or purchased after, gets split equally. In other states, if one party is deemed to be at fault, it could lead to a  less favorable division of the assets for that party. 


mother holding his son's hand

Visitation is another key aspect of family law, though it technically falls under custody laws. Legislation here can give family members guardianship over a child if there are issues with both parents or if one parent is not in the picture. Additionally, if there are issues of domestic violence, the court will take those factors into consideration when choosing whether to grant custody, partial custody, or visitation to parents. 

The ability of a spouse to provide for the children and their well being will determine how often visitation can happen, if at all. It will also determine whether a parent is awarded partial or full custody after a separation or divorce. 

Visitation can also apply to adoption cases where a biological parent wants to maintain visitation rights. These situations can be particularly tricky from a legal standpoint because  in some cases, an adoption takes place without a biological father present, and then years later the biological father finds out about the child and demands visitation. There can also be situations where a biological parent changes their mind and wants to set up visitation, despite agreeing otherwise at the time of the adoption.


Paternity tests and paternity law play a big role in family law as well. The justice system has rules about who can adopt and in what circumstances. For example, when two parties get divorced and one remarries, the new spouse cannot legally adopt a child that is not biologically theirs unless the other biological parent has given up their rights. 

In order for this to happen, the biological parent has to either consent to giving up their rights, or be deemed by the court to no longer have parental rights. For example, if a woman gives birth to a child and the biological father doesn’t try to make contact with the child for years, doesn’t pay child support, and doesn’t bother to write or phone, then it could be assumed by the court that the father has given up his rights. 

In some cases, the biological father doesn’t know about the child. In this case, he can show up later once he is made aware and try to establish paternity in order to gain custody or visitation. In any of these situations, it can be very helpful to speak with an experienced family law attorney. 

Same-sex marriage

Family law also deals with issues and rights pertaining to same-sex marriages in some circumstances, especially when children are involved. For example, if a same-sex couple is legally married and they want to adopt a child, the rules may vary based on where they attempt to adopt the child from. Some states allow adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples and the agency won’t allow them to adopt children, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal in every state in the US. In this case, legal representation can assist in the adoption. It might be possible for one partner to adopt the child alone and become the primary parent, while the other partner can’t legally adopt the child right away.


As mentioned, there are many adoption issues that could cause a person to seek help from a family law attorney, including the following: 

  1. A step-parent trying to adopt a child that their new spouse has from a previous marriage;

  2. A single parent trying to adopt a child;

  3. The death of a family member occurs, and they leave custody of their children to another member of their family who decides they wish to legally adopt the child. 

There are many other situations where adoption might be sought, but these are some common issues that an experienced family law attorney can assist with.


People who decide to place their children for adoption will likely have legal representation of their own, depending on the terms of the adoption. For example, some people want an open adoption where they retain visitation rights as the biological parent. Others may not want visitation rights, but they’d like to receive updates from the adoptive parents on how the child is progressing. Others want a closed adoption, where the adoptive parents and the biological parents never have contact with each other, and the biological parents never have contact with the child.These are matters that can be decided in family court. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of custody can I get?

Parents (or grandparents, adoptive parents, etc) can be awarded partial custody, full custody, supervised visitations, unsupervised visitations, or even no visitation or custody at all.

If we adopted a child, but the father had his rights taken away and now wants custody, do we need to give it to him?

This issue is very fact-specific and will vary based on which state you are in. This is something you should contact an experienced family law attorney to discuss.

If I am at fault after a divorce, but we have a prenup, do I still get my assets?

The terms of the prenup should hold up, but this is something to discuss with an attorney as well. 

Is family law state or federal?

There are federal laws and there are state laws. The federal laws have to be enforced by every state, and any additional state laws thereafter apply to each specific state.