Family Court

Family court is a delegation of authority from the states’ superior courts, tasked with hearing matters specific to family law, such as divorce and child custody. First established in the U.S. in 1910, the purpose of family law court is to provide families specialized services and obtain the best possible results in family law matters. Each state has specific laws pertaining to family issues, but family law matters are typically presided over by a single judge, rather than a judge and jury. Most states also utilize mediation in family court proceedings, especially in matters of child custody, to help ensure decisions made are in the family’s and children’s best interests. To explore this concept, consider the following family court definition.

Definition of Family Court


  1. A court that convenes to hear matters related to domestic and familial relationships.


1910 as Domestic Relations Courts in the United States

Family Law

Family law is a body of statutes, rules and regulations, and court procedures that govern relationships within family units. The laws in each state vary, but they are all aimed at preventing emotional conflict or physical abuse for both adults and children. Family law matters can become quite complex, and often involve heightened emotions or serious conflicts that can have a lasting impact. For this reason, it is often recommended that the parties involved seek the help of an experienced family law attorney, or seek the help of a mediator or other professional skilled in alternative dispute resolution processes. Alternative dispute resolution processes are any processes other than courtroom hearings that are used to solve civil matters.

Types of Family Court Cases

All family court cases involve some type of relationship between two or more people, as well as the care and guardianship of children and adults who are unable to care for themselves. The cases heard by family law courts vary greatly, but the most common revolve around the termination of a marriage or romantic relationship, and child custody. Other types of family court cases revolve around:


When a married couple decides to end their relationship, they must go through the legal process of divorce, also referred to as “dissolution of marriage.” Each state has specific requirements that must be met before a couple can be divorced. These often include a residence requirement in which the couple must have resided in that state for a specified minimum period of time. Most states also require that the couple be separated for a minimum period of time before a divorce will be granted.

Some states allow “fault” divorces, in which one spouse alleges, and is required to prove, that the other spouse caused the failure of the relationship through some act, such as adultery or abuse. All states allow no-fault divorces in which it does not matter where either spouse engaged in wrongdoing.

Distribution of Marital Property

A primary sticking point in many divorces is the distribution of marital property. When the parties cannot agree as to who takes what, and how to divide up the bank accounts and debts, the task is left to the judge. The court’s goal in dividing marital assets is equitable distribution. This is not necessarily an even or equal distribution, but what is considered “fair,” in light of certain facts of the marriage and divorce. In a “fault” divorce, the innocent spouse may be awarded a larger share of assets. In a no-fault divorce, the court may allocate property based on which spouse is more financially sound.

Spousal Support

At some point in a divorce, the court is usually asked to make an order for alimony, also known as “spousal support.” Spousal support is intended to give the receiving spouse an opportunity to gain employment necessary to become self-supporting. It may also be ordered to enable the receiving spouse to maintain the same standard of living he or she was accustomed to before the relationship ended. Not all states award spousal support, but in those that do, the court often considers such issues as the length of the marriage, the reason for the divorce, and the financial state of each spouse, in determining the amount.

Child Custody

When a divorcing couple cannot reach an agreement as to where the children will live, a schedule of visitation with the other parent, and who will be responsible for making important decisions for the children, the court must decide for them. The court favors custody arrangements that give the parents equal legal and physical custody of the children, though its ultimate goal is to ensure the custody details are in the best interests of the child. Family court mediation is commonly used to determine how custody should be assigned.

Visitation refers to the amount of time and schedule during which the non-custodial parent will spend with the children. If the court determines that the non-custodial parent cannot be trusted to properly care for the children during visitation, he or she may be awarded only daytime visitation, or supervised visitation. This ensures the parent is able to spend time with the children, while protecting the children and ensuring they are cared for. In extreme cases, an unfit parent may be denied visitation, or the children may be removed to third party custody if both parents are unfit.

Child Support

The court deems it the responsibility of both parents to financially provide for their children. While each state has specific laws outlining how child support is to be calculated, it is common for the non-custodial parent to make support payments to the custodial parent to help cover the children’s basic living expenses. In determining the amount of child support to be paid, the court generally considers the amount of time the children spend with each parent, the incomes and expenses of both parents, and any special needs of the children.

In additional to periodic, usually monthly, child support payments, the parents are commonly ordered to split the costs of medical care, educational expenses, and childcare expenses. When a parent fails or refuses to make court-ordered child support payments, he or she may be found in contempt of court. This may lead to fines, loss or suspension of a driver’s license, loss of business or professional license, and even jail time.


Adoption is a legal process by which a person takes over the role of parent when one or both of the child’s biological parents have lost or given up their parental rights and responsibilities. When an individual or couple seeks to adopt a child, certain legal processes must be undertaken, and the adoption is finalized in family court. Once the adoption has been finalized, the adoptive parents become the child’s legal parents in every way.


Guardianship is a legal process in which a person is appointed to act on behalf of another person. Most often, it involves a minor child, but it can involve an incapacitated adult. The child or incapacitated adult requiring a guardian is referred to as the “ward.” A guardian is usually appointed to act on behalf of the ward for a specified period of time, or until the ward becomes able to care for himself. When appointing a guardian, the court considers whether the proposed guardian is physically and psychologically able to care for the ward, and what is in the ward’s best interests. Other considerations in a prospective guardian include his health, education, character, and income.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence takes place when one family member or member of the household commits an act of violence against another. This may be between two married people, domestic partners, siblings, or even roommates. Often times, domestic violence involves repetitive acts of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, but may be in the form of stalking or terrorizing a member of the household.

Domestic abuse may involve a serious crime, such as rape, but most often takes a lesser form such as pushing, punching, or slapping a partner or child. Regardless of the acts that take place, most states classify domestic abuse as a specific crime, since the offender is involved personally with the victim and has gained the victim’s trust. When hearing cases involving domestic violence, the court often imposes harsh sentences to protect the victims in the future.

Domestic Violence Restraining Order

Victims of domestic violence often live in fear that their abuser will strike again. In an attempt to alleviate this fear, and the possibility of violent reprisal, family courts have the authority to issue restraining orders specifically targeted at domestic violence. A Domestic Violence Restraining Order (“DVRO”) specifies conduct and prohibitions the offender must abide by. If the offender fails to comply with the DVRO, the victim may have him or her arrested. Common provisions of a DVRO include:

  • A specified distance the offender must remain from all parties listed in the order (usually 100 yards)
  • A prohibition against contacting any parties listed in the order in any manner, including by personal contact, telephone, and email
  • An order for the abuser to move out of the shared residence immediately
  • An order for the abuser to surrender all firearms to local law enforcement

In order to obtain a DVRO, the victim must file legal documents with the court in which the abuse is described and detailed. Police reports and witness statements may be attached. A temporary order is issued when the documents are filed, to protect the victim until a hearing is held at which the judge will determine whether to issue a permanent order.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Contempt – A deliberate act of disobedience, or disregard for public authority, such as a court.
  • Custody – The protective care of something, or someone.
  • Divorce – The legal termination of a marriage.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • Judicial Decision A decision made by a judge regarding the matter or case at hand.
  • JurisdictionThe legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.