What Is Family Law? Definition and Examples


Family law is the legal discipline that focuses on matters involving family relationships, such as divorce, child custody, and alimony. Governed by specific statutes, the majority of these cases are adjudicated in specialized family courts. While judges aim to settle disputes in this area, most cases resolve without a final contested hearing.


Divorce and separation are central issues in family law, along with asset division, child custody, and financial support such as alimony and child support. Adoption and paternity are also commonly addressed.

Usually, one party initiates the legal proceedings, such as when a spouse files for divorce or a parent seeks custody. The opposing party is then given an opportunity to respond.

The legal process can be costly and time-consuming, so reaching an agreement outside of court is often preferable. Agreements can usually be made at any stage. Judges often encourage and facilitate parties to engage in formal mediation.

When a court ruling is necessary, judges have discretion in their decisions. They may consider factors like protection orders from other courts. They are also aware of the potential for false allegations.

Purpose of the Family Court

The primary aim of the Family Court is to provide a structured legal setting for resolving disputes related to family matters, such as divorce, child custody, and financial support.

While fairness is an overarching principle in decision-making, the court places a particular emphasis on the welfare of children when they are involved. The process is designed to lead parties toward equitable and fair resolutions.

In cases concerning parenting, the best interest of the child is the central consideration. Decisions aim to create the most stable and nurturing environment for the child, taking into account factors like financial stability, emotional support, and any potential for abuse or neglect.

The court process can be both costly and emotionally taxing, making it generally undesirable for extended disputes. As parties move through the proceedings, they often begin to anticipate the likely outcome, which encourages them to reach agreements without requiring a final court ruling. In this way, the court process itself can serve as a catalyst for parties to negotiate and settle matters amicably.

Related: How Much Does a Child Custody Court Case Cost?


Here’s a quick run-down of six key areas you’re likely to encounter in family law proceedings. From the complexities of divorce to the responsibilities of child support, get a snapshot of what each entails, along with fictional scenarios to bring them to life.

Female family lawyers meeting

1. Divorce

Divorce is the legal dissolution of a marriage, terminating the marital contract between two individuals. It often involves matters such as asset division, spousal support, and child custody.

Example: Sarah and Mark have been married for 10 years but have decided to separate. They hire lawyers to help divide their assets, including the family home and retirement accounts, and to settle on appropriate spousal support for Sarah.

2. Spousal support (alimony)

Spousal support, or alimony, involves financial payments made by one spouse to the other after the dissolution of their marriage. This is separate from any child support and is intended to help the lesser-earning spouse maintain a similar lifestyle to that enjoyed during the marriage.

Example: After Lisa and Steve divorced, the court ordered Steve to pay Lisa monthly alimony to help her adjust to single life, especially since she had been a homemaker during their marriage.

3. Child custody

Child custody deals with the legal and practical relationship between a parent and child, including the right to make decisions on the child’s behalf and the duty to care for the child.

Example: After Maria and Tim split up, they went to court to determine who would get primary custody of their son, Jack. The judge awarded Maria primary custody and Tim received visitation rights.

4. Child support

Child support is a financial commitment made by one parent to the other for the expenses involved in raising a child. This usually follows the breakup of a relationship or a divorce where children are involved.

Example: After Jenny and Tom divorced, Tom was required to pay monthly child support to help Jenny cover the costs of raising their two children, such as schooling, healthcare, and daily expenses.

5. Paternity

Paternity law deals with the legal recognition of a child’s biological father, often for the purposes of custody, visitation, and child support.

Example: Karen had a child named Max but was not married to Max’s biological father, Dave. Dave filed a paternity action to legally establish himself as Max’s father, thereby gaining rights to visitation and sharing responsibilities for child support.

6. Adoption

Adoption is the legal process by which an adult becomes the legal parent of a child who is not biologically their own. This permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities from the biological parents to the adoptive parents.

Example: Emily and John could not have children biologically, so they decided to adopt a baby girl named Anna, completing all legal procedures to become her lawful parents.

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