Our firm focuses primarily on the practice areas of family law and estate planning, but often non-lawyers will ask “what is ‘family law’ anyway?” It encompasses a broad spectrum of practice areas from divorce to custody and everything in between.
The most frequent type of family law case is divorce, in which married people seek to divide assets and liabilities and determine custody, visitation, and support of minor children. Some cases are contested, meaning the case has to be heard and decided by a judge, while others are uncontested, meaning the parties are able to work out an agreement without court intervention.
If a case is uncontested, it can be finalized relatively quickly once the separation period requirement is met. Parties with no minor children who sign a separation agreement must be separated for 6 months prior to filing for divorce. Parties with minor children must be separated for 1 year prior to filing for divorce.
In very rare situations, married couples may be eligible for an annulment rather than a divorce. In order to be eligible for an annulment, a spouse must be able to prove one of the following legal grounds: bigamy, incest, incompetence, fraud, impotence, underage, felony, duress, sham marriage, or pregnancy by another person within 10 months of the marriage. Because the grounds are so limited, most marriages are terminated by divorce rather than annulment.
Child Custody & Visitation
In cases where parties have children together but are not married, they can petition the court to set custody and visitation arrangements for the minor children. Custody determinations will include legal custody, meaning who can make legal decisions regarding the child, as well as physical custody, meaning where the child lives the majority of the time. Custody and visitation cases can be modified in the future when there is a material change in circumstances.
A visitation matter will determine where, when, and for how long the child spends time with each parent. In most circumstances where parents live close to one another, the child will spend time with each parent during the week. If parents live further apart, the court may order more visitation time be spent during breaks from school rather than on a weekly basis. Part of the visitation order should include how transportation will be accommodated and who is responsible for payment of any travel costs.
Child support can be set in a divorce matter, or in a case where the parties were not married, it can be determined in the juvenile and domestic relations court as a separate matter. Even if parties have an agreement regarding child support, the court will usually apply the statutory guidelines for support.
In some cases, there is a good reason to deviate from the guideline amount of child support. If a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, for example, the court may order a higher amount of support than would be paid under the guidelines. If one parent moves far away and visitation will require air travel, the court can consider the costs of accommodating visitation into a deviation from the support guidelines.
If a child’s parentage is in question or has not yet been determined, the court will order genetic testing to determine paternity. Opening a paternity matter enables the parties to petition for other related matters, such as custody, visitation, and child support. Once paternity is determined, both parents have an equal right to the child unless and until the court makes a custody order.
In some situations, parties may not have a ground for divorce yet, but are in need of financial support. They can petition for spousal support through the juvenile court, or make a suit for separate maintenance in the circuit court. Both of these matters can be determined without a divorce case and without making any other determination regarding division of the parties’ assets or liabilities.
Some spouses prefer to avoid filing for divorce for religious reasons. In such a situation, they can still petition and enforce a court order for support from their spouse.
Parties can make agreements prior to marriage that determine the legal rights between them. These agreements can include terms for how the parties may pursue a divorce, what remedies may be sought, and limitations on financial awards. If a spouse has substantial pre-marital assets, a separate business interest, or other property, it’s advisable to have a prenuptial agreement in place. A prenuptial agreement can also modify each spouse’s right to inherit from the other and will often be drafted alongside other estate planning documents.
Melone Hatley, P.C. is a family and estate firm serving Virginia Beach and Northern Virginia. Our philosophy is to provide all of our clients with the highest quality legal representation, innovative legal solutions, and unsurpassed dedication to customer service. Through our high standards, we strive to be a trusted resource to our clients.
We know from experience that a successful attorney-client relationship depends on our ability to understand your needs and objectives. For more information about estate planning, contact our Reston office today at 703.995.9900 or Virginia Beach at 757.296.0580 or visit our website: www.MeloneLawPC.com.