It is important to know what kind of law you want to practice. The areas of law are endless, there are numerous claims to be brought and an infinite source of clientele. And unfortunately, you only get three years in law school to figure out what you might be good at and will actually like to practice! You also have to meet certain requirements to graduate and there are classes law students take to help prepare you for the bar exam. So what is law student supposed to do?
Most law schools require you to take certain “basic” courses in your 1L year but allow you to choose your schedule in your 2L and 3L years. Thus, you can choose electives that interest you, find out what kind of law suits your fancy, and get your feet wet in specific types of law. One of these upperclassmen classes is domestic relations or family law. I took this course in my last semester of law school and learned a lot in the class. My course focused mainly on Michigan law, however we did discuss majority law as well. Here is a quick overview of this course so you have a general understanding of family law before you take it.
Domestic Relations/Family Law in General
This course can be called domestic relations or family law (or some combination of the two) depending on your school’s preferences. The content for this class can vary depending on what state your law school is located and what other courses your law school offers. In general, domestic relations/family law is simply a course that focuses on the rights and responsibilities of a family in the eyes of the law. Thus, most courses focus on what defines a family, what protections the law offers when one is in a family, and what are the consequences of breaking up a family. Courses usually look into two kinds of family relationships: spouse to spouse and parent to child. Some professors articulate the policy side of the course and focus on issues that plague the domestic relations/family law world. Also, family law and/or domestic relations is a topic that is covered on the essay portion of some bar exams, including in Michigan. Because of this, many law schools offer domestic relations or family law as a course and highly recommend taking it.
Society tends to uphold the institution of marriage to a very high standard. By entering a marriage, you are establishing a domestic relationship and receive certain benefits from the state (e.g. tax benefits). As such, entering a marriage is a very important occasion. In order to officially enter into a marriage, you must fulfill the formal requirements of a wedding (license, solemnization), you must agree to the marriage, and you must have the capacity to agree. Most states require certain formal requirements to enter into a marriage which include requiring a couple apply for a marriage license prior to the wedding and have the wedding properly solemnized by an authorized person (e.g. minister). Both parties must also agree to the marriage, meaning they intend to enter into a marriage (as opposed to doing it for a joke). Both parties must also have the capacity to agree to the marriage. This means they need to be of a certain age (or have their parents approval) and they have the mental capacity to agree (meaning they understand what it means to be in a marriage).
Unfortunately, many marriages end, which brings up the very important topic of divorce. Traditionally, states looked to who is “at-fault” in the divorce based on adultery, cruelty, desertion, and other grounds. However, all states now have some sort of no-fault divorce system. Typically, a state requires a finding that the marriage is “irretrievably broken” or there was a “irremediable breakdown” or the couple has “irreconcilable differences.” However, some states require an express or implied agreement to separate plus mutual intent not to resume the marriage. Other states require that the couple must live “separate and apart” for a statutory period before the divorce is official. At divorce, there are three types of financial awards given to the parties: spousal support, property division, and child support. Spousal support provides financial support for a spouse who may be economically dependent by imposing a financial obligation on the other spouse (e.g. lump sum, periodically, etc). Division of property is the process by which property is divided into separate and marital property, and there is a division that is either equal or equitable (depending on the state). Child support can also be granted if the spouses have children in common and rely on the other for support for that child.
Another hot topic for domestic relations is child custody. There are two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody means the right to make important long-term decisions about a child’s education, religion, medical care, and other matters of major significance to the child’s life and welfare. Physical custody entails the day-to-day physical and mental care, along with the right to make day-to-day decisions on behalf of the child’s life and welfare. Each state has different means of determining child custody. In Michigan, the courts look to what is in “the best interests of the child” and look to the statute for specific guidance in order to determine what parent gets custody and what kind of custody is granted.
This is a quick overview of family law, so some professors or law schools may organize the course differently and the specific substantive law may change depending on your state. However, this snapshot should give you a general understanding on what to expect from a domestic relations or family law class. Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to successfully navigate through this upperclassmen course!
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