What Is Family Law?

By Claire Gillespie

Updated April 18, 2018

Hands of contractual parties, a woman and a man, signing a contract


Divorce, alimony and child custody are areas of family law you probably know about – or read about whenever a celebrity goes through a bitter marriage split. But family law covers a lot more. Some family law attorneys specialize in adoption and guardianship, paternity, juvenile delinquency and child neglect. Sometimes a family law attorney represents victims or perpetrators of domestic violence in civil proceedings or defends clients accused of domestic violence in criminal cases.

What Is Considered a Family by Law?

According to the United States Census Bureau, a family is two or more people – one of whom is the householder – living together and related by birth, marriage or adoption. A family "group" is any two or more people, which doesn't have to include a householder, living together and related by birth, marriage or adoption. (The U.S Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015.) However, parties to family law matters do not necessarily have to live together. For example, a noncustodial parent is a party to a child support enforcement case despite not living with the child.

What Is Family Law Practice?

Family law practice concerns legal issues involving family relationships, such as paternity, adoption, divorce, child support and child custody. Family law attorneys may specialize in particular areas of family law, such as adoption or emancipation. Emancipation is the legal way for a child to become an adult before age 18, which means her parents no longer have custody or control. State laws govern the rules and procedures for family law matters.

What Is the Family Law Act?

The Family Law Act of 1969, now part of the California Family Code, was landmark legislation in California. On September 4, 1969, the state's then-governor, Ronald Reagan, signed this Act into law, abolishing fault grounds for divorce and replacing the state's divorce process with a no-fault system. Every other U.S. state eventually followed in California's footsteps, although it took some longer than others. New York was the last state to adopt a no-fault divorce system in 2010.

Fault grounds for divorce meant that one spouse essentially sued the other on the basis of cruelty, adultery or abandonment. A divorce was not granted unless these grounds were alleged and subsequently proved. Under the no-fault divorce system, if one spouse wants a divorce there is little the other spouse can do to prevent it.


Family law covers all legal issues involving family relationships, such as adoption, divorce, child custody and emancipation.