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One of the questions we often hear in our office is “What do family lawyers do?” Family law lawyers are often referred to as divorce attorneys, and divorce is a big part of our practice. But there are many ways a family law attorney can help you. Let’s take a look at some of the services family lawyers provide to their clients, some of which might surprise you.
Family law attorneys are best known for helping clients through divorce. But there is a lot of variation in the way family lawyers do that, and even the way one attorney or law firm customizes divorce services for their clients. Some clients want an adviser and advocate at every stage of the process, an experienced lawyer to take care of all the legal details so they don’t have to worry. Others want to handle their divorce on their own as much as possible, and may just need limited-scope representation such as review of a settlement agreement.
If you do need a divorce and are trying to choose a divorce attorney, it’s important to find one who is a good fit for your needs and your values.
Some of what family lawyers do involves helping clients make their parent-child relationships legal. A non-biological parent in a same-sex couple, or a stepparent, may be a true parent in every way that matters. But unless steps are taken to legally formalize that relationship, both parent and child can miss out on important rights and benefits.
Adoption gives a child the legal right to financial support from the adoptive parent and affords the adoptive parent the rights of any legal parent. In the event the parents should divorce, having the status of a legal parent also gives the adoptive parent the right to parenting time with the child. Simply knowing that their relationship is legally recognized can provide a sense of security and stability for both parent and child.
One important thing family lawyers do is to help establish paternity when the father of a child is not married to the child’s mother. (The law presumes that when a pregnant woman is married, her husband is the father of the child.)
Fatherhood is often a biological relationship, but it is also a legal one. Establishing paternity creates certain legal rights between a father and child, including the right to inherit from one another, the right for the child to receive support from the father, and the right of the father and child to have parenting time with one another. Establishing paternity can also foster and strengthen the relationship between father and child, which enriches both of their lives.
Going to court isn’t the only way to settle a dispute, and where families are concerned, it is often not the best way. Resolving disputes in court, also known as litigation, often feels like a zero-sum game. If one person “wins,” the other “loses,” and much of the time both parties are convinced that the other party has won and they have lost. But even if the outcome of a trial is favorable, when the litigants are family members, the process can destroy relationships.
That’s a problem when the parties to a dispute are former spouses who need to co-parent together, or siblings who were once close but are now estranged. Family mediation can help family members resolve disputes in a more dignified respectful way that looks for the “win-win” and preserves relationships. Often, family mediation is used in divorce and custody matters, but it can be used to deal with any dispute between family members.
Not all family law attorneys offer estate planning services, but many do. It makes a great deal of sense, if you think about it. One of the times it is most important to update your estate plan is when you have gone through a major life transition, such as a marriage, the birth of a child, or divorce. When you have just worked with a family lawyer to establish parentage of your child or end your marriage, it is convenient to be able to make an estate plan with them. Your family lawyer already has a deep understanding of your family configuration and needs.
Similarly, when it comes time to administer the estate of a loved one who has passed away, it is comforting and reassuring to be able to work with an attorney who knows you and your family and who prepared the estate plan for the estate that now needs to be settled through probate.
In short, family lawyers do a lot for their clients, but they can’t do everything. However, one of the benefits of having a family lawyer that you know and trust is that they usually have a network of attorneys and other professionals that they know and trust. Getting a referral from your longtime family lawyer gives you confidence in the attorney to whom you are referred, whether you need that person to help you ink a business deal or to help with a traffic ticket or property dispute.
A small, but important, part of what family law lawyers do is help ensure their clients get the legal help they need, even if they themselves cannot provide it. If you have questions about what family lawyers do for their clients, please contact Mundahl Law at 763-575-7930 to schedule a consultation.