Family law consists of a body of statutes and case precedents that govern the legal responsibilities between individuals who share a domestic connection. These cases usually involve parties who are related by blood or marriage, but family law can affect those in more distant or casual relationships as well. Due to the emotionally-charged nature of most family law cases, litigants are strongly advised to retain legal counsel.
The vast majority of family law proceedings come about as a result of the termination of a marriage or romantic relationship. Family law attorneys help their clients file for separation or divorce, alimony, and child custody, visitation, and support. Spouses married a short time may seek an annulment, and special rights may exist between same-sex couples. The division of property at the end of a marriage is also a common issue in family law cases.
Divorce in America is governed by the laws of the individual state in which it occurs. Divorce, also known as “dissolution of marriage,” is a legal process in which a judge or other authority legally terminates a marriage, restoring them to the status of being single and permitting them to marry other individuals. Divorce proceedings also include matters of spousal support, child custody, child support, distribution of property and division of debt. Divorce laws vary from state to state.
While divorcing spouses once were required to show a reason for the dissolution of the marriage by assigning fault to one of the parties (like adultery, sterility, abandonment, insanity, or imprisonment), every state now allows for “no fault” divorces (usually on the basis of “irreconcilable differences”). Nevertheless, many states still allow their courts to take into account the behavior of the parties when dividing property and debts, evaluating child custody issues, and determining child and spousal support. Similarly, some states require a period of separation prior to divorce (some also require therapy), and this has led to the creation of another category of relationship called “separation.”
In cases involving children, states have a significant public interest in ensuring that the children are adequately provided for, and that they are in the custody of a parent or guardian who will provide a stable and supportive home environment. All states now require parents to file a parenting plan or to decide on custody and visitation, either by reaching a written agreement or in a court hearing, when they legally separate or divorce.
Child support law deals with the legal obligation of non-custodial parents to contribute financially to the rearing of their children. These laws are enacted at the state level. However, because a child support order remains in effect until a child reaches the age of majority (or even longer in some instances), administration of the order can become a multi-jurisdictional issue as parents and children relocate. Determinations of child support are usually incorporated into family law cases that also cover matters such as divorce, separation, paternity, custody, and visitation. Like other family law decrees, support determinations are subject to modification when appropriate.
The obligation to pay child support is considered to be independent of any other rights or responsibilities of the non-custodial parent. For example, it is quite common for a court to decide questions of child support and visitation at the same time, and the judge’s decisions on the two issues may appear in the same order. This may lead a non-custodial parent to believe that the duty to pay support and the right to visitation are mutually dependent. They are not. Even if the custodial parent wrongfully denies visitation, support must still be paid. Withholding child support for any reason can lead to contempt of court and a host of other serious consequences.
Obtaining a Child Support Decree
Requesting child support is a relatively straightforward process. If a family law case has already been opened, the parent entitled to support can simply file a petition for support with the court. A similar filing may be submitted in a new case, although special notice rules apply for initiating the case to ensure the court can lawfully assert jurisdiction over the other parent. In some cases, the non-custodial parent may be the one to request a child support order, as that parent will need to demonstrate that he or she is actively paying support before the court will grant requests pertaining to custody or visitation.
State statutes provide specific guidelines for calculating child support. To simplify the process, most states have published worksheets that allow parties to enter income and expense information to arrive at a “presumptive” monthly payment amount. This figure is said to be presumptive because it is possible to deviate upward or downward based on unique circumstances. If the parties can agree on the final amount, then a stipulated order can be submitted for the court’s approval. If the parties cannot agree, it will be necessary to hold a hearing for the judge to decide the matter.
From a tax perspective, child support payments are a neutral event. The custodial parent need not declare the payments as income, and the non-custodial parent cannot deduct them as an expense. Payments are made to the court or a state child support agency. Parents who are obligated to pay support should refuse requests for direct payment by the recipient parent. There are numerous cases in which a parent did not receive credit for child support paid directly to the other parent. Moreover, despite the fact that the money ends up going to the custodial parent, support is meant to benefit the child. Informal agreements between the parents excusing missed payments will not be recognized.
Modification of Existing Decrees
It is extremely common for child support orders to be modified from time to time to reflect changes in the living circumstances of the parties. As the child grows up, either parent may experience a sudden increase or decrease in income. The child may develop special interests or needs that result in additional expenses. If nothing else, periodic adjustments to child support will be necessary to keep up with inflation and ordinary increases in the cost of living. These and other factors can justify a modification of the support order, but the party requesting the change has the burden of proving that the changed circumstances meet the applicable legal standard in that jurisdiction.
Child Support Enforcement
In an ideal world every non-custodial parent would pay child support voluntarily. Of course this does not always happen, and it is often necessary to take steps to enforce a support order through the court system, a local government agency, or a private attorney. Child support orders are like other types of civil judgments. They can be collected by garnishing the non-custodial parent’s wages, seizing bank accounts and other personal property, or placing a lien on real estate. Special laws also allow past support to be collected from income tax refunds. Delinquent parents may also face suspension of driving privileges, passports, and professional licenses. In severe cases, a judge may decide to impose jail time as a penalty for non-payment.
Child custody refers to the legal obligation and right a parent or guardian has to care for, make decisions for, supervise, educate and control a minor child for whom he/she is responsible. The issue of child custody may arise in any of the following situations: when a married couple with a minor child of the marriage seeks a divorce; when two unmarried parents of a minor child cannot come to an agreement about custody outside of court; when a parent or legal guardian is found to be unfit or dangerous for the child’s well-being by a court or state agency; and when either or both parents are absent or deceased. Custody is not limited to the child’s parent, but can also be awarded to other family members, to a foster parent or group home, or to other organizations or institutions.
There are two main categories for child custody, legal and physical, which are then also assigned as either sole or joint. Legal custody deals more with the rights and responsibilities of a parent as opposed to where the child resides. It allocates who can make decisions about major issues in the child’s life, such as education, medical and healthcare decisions and the child’s overall welfare. An award of joint legal custody makes it necessary for the responsible parties to communicate and work with one another to share in these decisions. Physical custody addresses where the child will reside and for how long, and who will have the day to day responsibility and right to make necessary decisions regarding the child’s daily activities and well being. When joint physical custody is awarded, the child will spend time residing with both parents and/or guardians. This does not mean that the time must be divided equally; rather it might be an arrangement explicitly spelled out by the parties or based on stated guidelines and shared payment of costs for raising the child.
All states have adopted the policy that child custody arrangements and awards must be based upon the best interest of the child. Although the factors considered for determining this may vary from state to state. When the parents/guardians can get along and agree to it, the court may award joint physical and/or joint legal custody. Generally, when one parent/guardian is granted sole physical custody, the other parent/guardian will be awarded visitation, which includes weekends, some holidays and vacation time and other occasions, as applicable. Courts reserve the right to modify custody arrangements when the circumstances call for it.
Adoption law provides a means for parents to voluntarily assume the legal rights and responsibilities of a child not born to them. Following an adoption, all legal ties between the child and the birth parents are permanently severed. The new adoptive parents and the child are treated just like a natural family in the eyes of the law. The adoptive parents decide important matters involving medical treatment, education, and religion, as well as ordinary day-to-day issues that arise in the child’s life. Adopted children can inherit from their new parents the same as natural offspring. Some jurisdictions even provide for the issuance of an amended birth certificate displaying the new parents’ names.
Benefits of Hiring an Attorney
If you believe you have a right to collect support on behalf of your child, hiring an attorney will allow you to avoid dealing with the other parent directly. It will also help ensure your child receives as much money as possible without delay. Contact The Nwofia Law Firm now to start the process.
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