Learn More: Family Law
The laws relating to families have changed dramatically since the 1970s as judges and legislators have reexamined and redefined the legal issues involved in divorces, child custody disputes, child support, domestic violence, and other family law matters. Family law has become entangled in national debates over family structure, gender bias, and morality. Few legal areas are as emotionally charged as family law, primarily for the litigants, but also for the lawyers and judges involved in the cases and even the public at large. Despite the changes already made by courts and legislatures, family law remains a contentious and ever-changing area of law, which will continue to evolve as families and society evolve.
Divorce, or dissolution of marriage as some states call it, is no longer fault-based and has become easier to obtain. Whereas not too long ago one spouse had to accuse the other of some grave misdeed, such as adultery, cruelty, alcoholism, or drug addiction, divorce is now available on the basis of incompatibility, irreconcilable differences, or an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage relationship. The division of marital property has also changed in recent years, so that now each spouse is given a more equitable share of the property upon divorce. One change that demonstrates this phenomenon is the recognition of the homemaker spouse's contributions to the accumulation of marital property. For example, whereas once the husband who developed and grew his own business while his "nonworking" wife stayed home would walk away from the marriage with all of the business assets, courts now award a significant portion of the business assets to the wife, who enabled that business growth by taking care of the home and children, and by entertaining business clients and associates. On the other hand, homemaker spouses are not considered as dependent as they once were, and as a result alimony, if awarded at all, is now often temporary, with the thought that after a period of "rehabilitation" these spouses can become self-sufficient.
Issues like child custody, too, have evolved in the courts as cultural and societal attitudes have changed. Mothers may have been favored in many custody disputes of the past, but now fathers are given much more consideration than in the past. Custody battles, while always difficult and emotional, have become even more complicated as reproductive technology has increased the ways in which people can become parents. Family law lawyers and judges are faced with new, difficult, and sensitive questions such as who gets custody of fertilized embryos when a couple that was involved in infertility/assisted-reproduction treatments separates. Surrogate parenting, too, presents heart-wrenching custody issues when the surrogate fails to abide by the surrogacy contract or wants visitation with the child. Equally difficult issues can arise when sperm or egg donors make some claim to their genetic offspring. These issues involve questions relating not only to custody laws, but also to those involving adoption, children's rights, and paternity. And as technology advances, the law will be presented with an even greater challenge to keep pace.
Another major change in family law in recent years is the recognition that many family disputes can be resolved more expediently and in a less acrimonious manner than through the traditional litigation process. In divorce and child custody cases in particular, the adversarial process has increased tensions between the parties that do not abate even when the process is complete. As a result, many states have begun to explore other, non-adversarial alternatives, such as mandatory mediation, which can save time and money and preserve relationships to the extent possible.
Family law lawyers can provide valuable counsel and objective representation in what can be emotionally charged situations. Their experience may focus on a particular area, or may include several or even all of the following family law issues.
This publication and the information included in it are not intended to serve as a substitute for consultation with an attorney. Specific legal issues, concerns and conditions always require the advice of appropriate legal professionals.
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