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What Is Family Law and What Does It Cover?

5 min read
Nov 10, 2023

The term “family law” applies to any legal situation that involves familial relationships. This could include custody, prenuptial agreements and even adoption or foster care. Family lawyers play a crucial role in these cases by mediating and advocating for their client’s best interests.

The family law system can also overlap with other areas of law, such as immigration or estate planning. So, what does family law include? We’ll dive into both common and potentially surprising applications of family law and examine where a family law attorney may help navigate its complexities.

Common types of family law

Some of the most standard areas of family law matters are divorce, separation, custody, child support and adoption or foster cases. Each of these areas has its own intricacies, emotional weight and lasting consequences for both the adults and children involved. Here’s how a family lawyer may help in these situations.

Divorce or separation

Family lawyers will walk those involved through the entire divorce process, from filing a divorce petition to arranging the settlement. Settlements in a divorce case can include marital property division, alimony, child custody and child support.

Since not all divorces are straightforward, having a legal professional to help negotiate on your behalf can be helpful. Each spouse will have their own lawyer to advocate for them. 

Child custody

Child custody issues can expand beyond the scope of divorce. In some circumstances, a grandparent or older sibling may file for custody of a child to remove them from a dangerous home situation. No matter the circumstances, child custody falls under family law.

If a parent, guardian or other party filing for custody can come to an agreement that’s best for the child, the court will usually grant it. But if they can’t, the court will step in and decide. Courts determine child custody cases based on what’s best for the child and where they’ll be safest and best cared for. They’ll also help outline joint custody and visitation rights.

Child support

Child support refers to the money that one or both parents owe for the care of their child and is typically paid to the parent or guardian who has custody of the child. States have their own guidelines for determining who owes what,2 and a family lawyer can help advocate for a fair child support sum.

Adoption and foster care

Adding to a family through adoption or fostering can be exciting, but there are legal complexities involved. From participating in background checks and home visits to formally getting approved, potential adoptive parents will likely go through family court for the entire process. Adopting or fostering can become more complex if the child’s birth parents become involved.

A family law attorney often has connections with reputable adoption agencies and can help support healthy communication between both parties. They’ll walk you through getting your paperwork and home in order and negotiating what’s best for the child.

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Other types of family law

Here are a few other areas covered by family law that may surprise you:

  • Prenuptial/postnuptial agreements: Prenups and postnups can help protect parties in the event of a divorce. Couples create them to outline who owns what during a split. 
  • Emancipation: This is when a minor wants to be legally free from their parent’s or guardian’s authority. The minor (under age 18) needs to be able to support themselves financially in order to gain emancipation.
  • LGBTQIA+ family law: This area of the law includes advocating for name changes,  parental rights, civil unions and more.
  • Estate planning: Covering everything from dividing an estate to making sure enough money is left to care for children or a surviving spouse, this area of family law especially comes into play when guardianship becomes a concern.
  • Immigration: Family law and immigration law can overlap when it comes to marriage or divorce between a couple and one person’s citizenship depends on the other’s citizenship status. It can also help grant children citizenship or work out issues with child protection and custody, especially when only one parent is a legal citizen.
  • Restraining orders: If a restraining order is filed against any member of a family – whether for domestic violence, harassment or another issue – it’s considered a family law case.

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1 “Marital settlement agreement,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, 2022

2 “Who Pays for Child Support?” Talking Parents, July 2022


The information presented in this article is not legal advice and should not be relied upon or construed as legal advice. It is not permissible for MetLife or its employees or agents to give legal advice. The information in this article is for general informational purposes only and does not purport to be complete or to cover every situation. You must consult with your own legal advisors to determine how these laws will affect you.