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Family Law covers a variety of issues, including divorce, child support, marriage, prenuptial agreements, alimony, and adoption.

marriage: an overview

In the English common law tradition, from which our legal doctrines and concepts have developed, a marriage was a contract based upon a voluntary private agreement by a man and a woman to become husband and wife. Marriage was viewed as the basis of the family unit and vital to the preservation of morals and civilization. Traditionally, the husband had a duty to provide a safe house, pay for necessities such as food and clothing, and live in the house. The wife's obligations were maintaining a home, living in the home, having sexual relations with her husband, and rearing the couple's children. Today the underlying concept that marriage is a legal contract still remains but due to changes in society the legal obligations are not the same.

Marriage is chiefly regulated by the states. The Supreme Court has held that states are permitted to reasonably regulate the institution by prescribing who is allowed to marry, and how the marriage can be dissolved. Entering into a marriage changes the legal status of both parties and gives both husband and wife new rights and obligations. One power that the states do not have, however, is that of prohibiting marriage in the absence of a valid reason. For example, prohibiting interracial marriage is not allowed for lack of a valid reason and because it was deemed to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

All states limit people to one living husband or wife at a time and will not issue marriage licenses to anyone with a living spouse. Once an individual is married, the person must be legally released from the relationship by either death, divorce, or annulment before he or she may remarry. Other limitations on individuals include age and close relationship. Limitations that some but not all states prescribe are: the requirements of blood tests, good mental capacity, and being of opposite sex.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which, for federal purposes, defined marraige as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" (1 U.S.C. 7). DOMA further provided that "No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship" (28 U.S.C. 1738C). (See Law about... Conflicts of laws, Constitutional law)

Adoption: an overview

Adoption law is largely state law. The parent-child relationship established by adoption, however, may have direct consequences in areas of Federal law affected by family status such as Social Security. All 50 states have statutes governing adoption; the process by which a legal parent-child relationship is created between individuals not biologically parent and child. In some states, doctrines of "equitable adoption" allow courts to recognize adoptions when not all statutory procedures have been carried out.

Child Custody: an overview

In the case of divorce, generally, the court having jurisdiction of the divorce proceedings also determines who shall have custody of children from the marriage. (The authority to do so is considered part of the original jurisdiction of the court, and not as a new authority being conferred upon them.) Under the common statutory provision, the parents of a child born within a marriage are joint guardians of that child and the rights of both parents are equal--each parent has an equal right to the custody of the child when they separate.

Like other aspects of family law, most law in this field is state rather than Federal.

Children's Rights: an overview

A child is a person and not a subperson over whom the parent has an absolute possessory interest. The term "child" does not necessarily mean minor but can include adult children as well as adult nondependent children. Children are generally afforded the basic rights embodied by the Constitution. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment is said to apply to children, born within a marriage or not, but excludes children not yet born. There are both state and federal sources of child-rights law.

Divorce: an overview

There are two types of divorce-- absolute and limited. An absolute divorce, (also called a "divorce a vinculo matrimonii" is a judicial termination of a marriage based on marital misconduct or other statutory cause arising after the marriage ceremony. As a result of an absolute divorce both parties' status becomes single again.

Several jurisdictions' statutes authorize limited divorces, or "divorce a mensa et thoro." The consequences of limited divorces vary from state to state. Typically, a limited divorce is commonly referred to as a separation decree; the right to cohabitation is terminated but the marriage is undissolved and the status of the parties is not altered.

Many states have enacted what is called no-fault divorce statutes. This is a response to outdated common law divorce which required proof in a court of law by the divorcing party that the divorcee had done one of several enumerated things as sufficient grounds for the divorce. This entailed proving that the spouse had committed adultery, or some other unsavory act. No-fault divorce eliminates this potentially embarrassing and undesirable requirement by providing for the dissolution of a marriage on a finding that the relationship is no longer viable. It is hard to tell whether no-fault divorce statutes are the cause or an effect of the rising national divorce rate in America. Look to various state laws for divorce law information.


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