Many people assume that family lawyers, or family law attorneys, are simply divorce lawyers. While divorce practice is a significant part of a family law attorney’s work, that work encompasses much more. Family law attorneys handle legal matters that arise between people who have a familial relationship or whose legal concerns are connected to family relationships. This includes divorce and the related areas of custody, parenting time, child support, spousal support, and property division.
Though less common than divorce, family law attorneys also handle annulments, which have the legal effect of nullifying an entire marriage, making it as if it never happened. Annulments are allowed only in certain narrow circumstances under Michigan law. They also handle what are commonly referred to as legal separations, but in Michigan are called actions for separate maintenance. In a separate maintenance action in Michigan, the husband and wife divide all their property just as they would in a divorce. However, they are still legally married and cannot marry other people. People who choose to file for separate maintenance may do so for religious reasons or to stay on a spouse’s health insurance (though some health insurance plans now treat an award of separate maintenance as a reason to terminate coverage, just as divorce does).
Even before marriage, a couple may enlist the services of family law attorneys to prepare a prenuptial agreement. During a marriage, a family law attorney can prepare a similar agreement, which is then called a postnuptial agreement. While in many family law matters, the attorney’s role is to help resolve a conflict between family members, these agreements are used to prevent or minimize potential future conflict.
Family Law: Beyond Divorce and Separation
Much of family law has to do with the relationship between spouses, but it addresses other relationships as well. They may, under certain circumstances, represent grandparents who are requesting visitation with their grandchildren. Paternity actions are also the province of family law attorneys, and may be brought by either men or women. For those who are not parents, but would like to be, family law attorneys can help with adoption. Because the options in this area are many, a family law attorney can review options such as private adoption, agency adoption, international adoption, adoption from foster care, and more.
As technology advances, so do options for would-be parents. With assisted reproductive technology (ART) playing a role in the growth of many families, family law attorneys may represent prospective parents, surrogates, or egg donors. Because agreements related to ART do not have a long legal history, family law attorneys are critical to helping the parties establish and understand their rights and responsibilities.
While family formation is one of the more positive things that family law attorneys get to deal with, they also are available to help people going through darker times. Family law attorneys advocate for parties to domestic violence matters, including personal protection orders. In these situations, the balance of power is often unequal, and it is important for parties, victims in particular, to have someone to speak up for their rights.
Do I Really Need a Family Law Attorney?
There are some family law matters that you may be able to resolve without the help of an attorney, but you should be very cautious about doing so for three reasons. First, a good family law attorney not only helps resolve conflict, he or she can often help prevent it from escalating. If you try to resolve a dispute yourself, you may find that because you and the other party are so emotionally invested in the situation, you make the conflict worse and end up needing to pay a lawyer more in the end to fix it.
Second, if the other party to a dispute has an attorney and you don’t, you are at an immediate disadvantage. Not only does the other party have someone to advocate for them, but their advocate likely has years of legal knowledge and experience with the local courts you can’t hope to duplicate.
Third, even if you and the other party to a family law case are able to reach agreement, without the help of an experienced attorney, you may not fully understand what you’re agreeing to, or what rights you’re giving up by your agreement. For example, agreeing to a seemingly simple line in a divorce judgment like, “the parties agree that spousal support will be non-modifiable” could cost you tens of thousands of dollars over time.
If you have a Michigan divorce or other family law matter in your future, talk to an experienced Oakland County divorce attorney to learn more about the best way to approach the process. Attorney Jim Hubbert has handled many Michigan divorces and makes it a priority to help his clients reach their goals in divorce with as little stress as possible.