Family law encompasses marriage, adoption, divorce, custody, death, and estate planning. Laws on these topics vary from state to state.
Most states define marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman to become husband and wife. The traditional way to marry is to get a marriage license from a state-authorized official, then participate in a formal civil or religious wedding ceremony.
The grounds for divorce depend on the state, and may be based on no-fault or fault. A no-fault divorce is available in some form in all 50 states; many states also have fault-based grounds as an additional option. A no-fault divorce is one in which neither the husband nor the wife officially blames the other for the breakdown of the marriage. Common bases for no-fault divorce are "irreconcilable differences," "irretrievable breakdown" or "incompatibility." Another common basis for no-fault divorce is that the parties have lived separately for a certain period of time with the intent that the separation be permanent. The list of grounds for a fault-based divorce may include: adultery, physical cruelty, mental cruelty, attempted murder, desertion, habitual drunkenness, use of addictive drugs, insanity, impotency, and infection of one’s spouse with venereal disease.
If the parents cannot agree on custody of their child, the courts decide custody based on "the best interests of the child." Determining the child’s best interests involves many factors, no one of which is the most important factor. All 50 states have adopted child support guidelines. Some states use tables that indicate a support amount for different ranges of income, similar to tax tables. Although some states base support on the payor’s income, many states use an income shares model, which is based on the income of both parents.
Adoption is the process by which a legal parent-child relationship is created between individuals not biologically parent and child. In most cases, adopted children may inherit on an equal basis with biological children under state laws of distribution upon death of a parent. In some states, doctrines of "equitable adoption" allow courts to recognize adoptions when not all statutory procedures have been carried out.