About a week ago, after hanging up the phone with my 17-year-old, I realized that I probably needed a lawyer. However, I had no idea what kind of lawyer I needed to find. So I got on the computer, called a few numbers, and was finally told I needed someone who specializes in family law. But what exactly is family law?
Family law is an area of law that focuses on anything to do with members of a family, such as marriage, divorce, child custody, adoptions, and more. It can also be referred to as matrimonial law or the law of domestic relations. Family law is considered a civil case –– a case that involves some type of conflict between people or institutions. Family lawyers have chosen the family law area of concentration and possess a wide range of skills in order to negotiate any situation you may encounter.
What are the Types of Family Law?
There are many types of cases covered in family law but the most common cases that are seen in courts every day are:
- Marriage Dissolution – this can involve divorce or annulment. The court can also grant a legal separation and give orders concerning property, child custody, and alimony.
- Paternity and Child Custody – the court determines the paternity of a child so that it is legally and permanently established, and then they determine custody, visitation schedules, and child support.
- Protection Orders Against Domestic Violence – victims of domestic violence request the family court to issue a restraining order against their abuser. This order sets certain conditions that prevent the abuser from harassing or abusing the victim again.
- Name Changes – a child or adult can legally change their name. I did this many years ago but had no idea I was dealing with family court.
- Guardianship – family court helps decide who will be responsible for a child or adult who isn’t legally able to make their own decisions. The appointed guardian will make medical, financial, and personal decisions for the family member.
- Termination of Parental Rights and Adoptions – if parents can no longer care for their child because of abuse, neglect, or illness, the court can terminate their rights as a parent. The child can then be adopted by someone else or appointed a legal guardian.
- Juvenile Matters – covers issues like abuse and neglect and any situation where a minor is accused of engaging in illegal behavior.
- Emancipation and Approval of Underage Marriages – involves a minor requesting the court’s approval to be treated as a legal-aged adult and no longer under the authority of their parents.
As a former foster parent and an adoptive mom, I have dealt with many of the situations listed above. Yet I never knew they were considered family law.
While fostering older children with serious struggles, I have had some children bring up the idea of emancipation and I even had a request to be allowed to marry. As I searched out what family law was, I discovered that even though a family attorney needs to be well-versed in all aspects of family law, some choose to specialize in a particular arena such as adoption, emancipation, and even international custody law.
Related: What are the Types of Civil Law?
What Skills does a Family Attorney Need to be Successful?
Because family lawyers deal with so many components to a case that can also be highly emotional, they must develop different skills to do their job effectively.
First, they need to have good litigation and negotiation skills. Litigation refers to the entire process of contesting and resolving disputes between two parties. With negotiation, the family lawyer needs to be able to help both parties come to an agreement where all members are satisfied with the results.
They also need to have good time-management skills. They must know how to effectively prioritize their schedule as there are often many interruptions throughout the day when dealing with emotionally stressed-out family members desperate for help. They could be dealing with a dad about to lose his child or a wife who is trying to escape a violent husband. For this reason, it is also good to possess counseling skills.
Another skill they need to have knowledge about is accounting and financial matters. These situations usually come up in court when discussing things like wills, reviewing property and assets, and helping with estate planning.
What Should you Look for When Choosing a Family Lawyer?
If you’re looking to hire a family attorney, it is important to make sure you choose the right person to represent you and your family. You want someone you can trust, who seems to really listen to your situation and take what you say seriously.
I have been in a few potentially dangerous situations that didn’t involve a lawyer but a state professional, and they seemed to downplay the seriousness of the problem. If you are trying to keep an abusive spouse from your children or some other serious concern, you want to be sure you are heard and believed. Your lawyer is your partner in the case, and you are a team. Make sure you can fully trust and rely on the person fighting on your behalf.
Before Retaining a Lawyer, Ask Questions
The person you are hiring is representing your family and your life. For this reason, it is a good idea to write out a list of questions before you meet with your prospective attorney and watch and listen to the responses you get. If you don’t feel comfortable with this person, search out another. Always trust your instincts.
Here is a partial list of questions you may want to ask.
- What do you think about my case? Do you think we can win?
- How much do I pay to retain you as my lawyer?
- How much do you charge per hour, and what does that include?
- Will there be any extra charges such as travel expenses or making copies?
- How long have you been practicing this type of law, and are you a certified “family law specialist?”
- How long do you think it will take to resolve my case?
- How long do you take to return phone calls?
- Will anyone else be working on my case with you? If so, can I meet them? Will I be charged for the time I spend with them?
- What other costs could be involved, and how will you charge me for those extra services? (sometimes other professionals may be needed as consultants such as physicians and psychologists, private investigators, or forensic accountants.)
As you can see, family law encompasses a wide range of situations, some of which you wouldn’t even assume fall under the umbrella of family law. Below I’ve listed four cases that are anything but typical. You don’t usually hear of situations like these. But as society progresses, laws and circumstances change. A family lawyer needs to be up to date with the changing times.
Four Custody Cases that Represent the Changing Times
- In 2015, attorney Susan Bender handled a custody dispute involving four parents who wanted custody of a child they shared. One member of the gay couple donated his sperm to another member of the lesbian couple with the intent of passing the child between the two families. This arrangement lasted only nine months and then fell apart, leaving all parties desiring custody.
- In 2008 there was a custody case that involved a couple from New Zealand who named their little girl “Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii.” Yep. That was the poor child’s name. As she grew, she called herself “K” to avoid being teased by peers. The judge settled the custody issue by removing the child from both parents and allowing her to choose another name that wouldn’t embarrass her forever.
- This custody case involved murder. In 1991, John Kushing wanted to divorce his wife, Kristine. Distraught over the impending divorce, Kristine shot and killed their two daughters and then attempted suicide. She was found not guilty and remanded to a mental facility, and John, moving on with his life, remarried. He and his new wife had two sons. However, this marriage didn’t last, and so the couple divorced and divided the boys between the two of them, each sharing custody of both boys, but one lived with the mother and the other with John.
Eventually, Kristine (the first wife) was released from the mental hospital, and she and John got back together. This case ended up in family court when John’s second ex-wife sued for full custody of both boys because she did not want them living with a child murderer. However, the judge ruled in favor of John and Kristine.
- Another strange case involving custody concerned three children who sided with their mother, alleging that she was a victim of domestic abuse by their father. However, this Michigan judge didn’t believe them. So she continually urged the kids to bond with him, but they refused.
Finally, the judge ordered the children to have lunch with their father, and when they defied her orders, she held them in contempt of court and ordered them to be remanded in juvenile detention.
After reading the cases above, you can see how complicated family law can be. If you have a problem that you believe fits into any of the types of family law listed in this post, hopefully, you have obtained enough knowledge to find the right attorney for your case.
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.