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Family law covers all legal matters pertaining to family, including civil unions, marriages, divorces, adoption, prenuptial agreements, child custody, and property settlements. Although family courts in the United States hear cases dealing with people of varied social and economic classes, they are overloaded with cases concerning those who are disadvantaged. The courts, notorious for lacking resources, have been criticized for not being beneficial to those they attempt to help, especially since the most contentious family law issues are often child custody and visitation rights.
Historically, in the United States, family law was based on European feudalism. Marriage, as defined by law before the beginning of the 20th century, enabled the husband to become the owner of the wife property’s as well as her legal guardian, despite property laws that gave women more rights regarding property ownership. By 1900, all states, with the exception of South Carolina, allowed for judicial divorces instead of legislative divorces, which required more time to process.
In the 1970s, family law was redefined rapidly, as it had become a part of the wider national debate regarding family values, gender bias, and morality. The areas of family law that experienced the most changes were divorce, child custody, and child support. By 1987, all states had adopted no-fault divorces, which make dissolving a marriage a relatively easy process. This has incensed some who advocate traditional family values, because it appears to encourage couples to resort to divorces rather than to address the reasons for discord in their relationships.
Child custody had been traditionally awarded to mothers from the onset of the 20th century, but as the father's role in the family evolved, laws changed to allow fathers custody, and eventually, the concept of joint custody was created. In joint custody, both parents share the responsibility of taking care of the child. Court decisions do not always make both parents happy. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA) was enacted by states in the US because it was previously possible for a parent who was unhappy with a family court ruling in one state to kidnap the child in order to receive a more favorable decision in a different state. The UCCJA did not prove to be effective, so Congress passed the 1980 Parental Kidnapping Act at the same time the United States adopted the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which has served to enhance the effectiveness of family law. The federal government now governs parental kidnapping cases, and the convention allows for the protection of custodial rights even beyond national borders.
The Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement Support Act (URESA) is an example of how the federal government has become more aggressive in collecting custodial support, because parents who are not receiving the required support are more likely to apply for welfare support. URESA allows for a person seeking custodial support from someone living in another state to sue for payment in his or her state of residency.
Family law is an increasingly important area of legal studies, with many law schools offering numerous elective courses on the subject and the bar exam testing knowledge of this area of law. Furthermore, family law is evolving as the national debate surrounding family continues. One notable change is how family law has been broadened to encompass couples who do not choose to marry.