Family courts in Arizona and elsewhere deal with some of the most sensitive and intensely personal legal matters—those involving families. But are family courts and divorce courts the same? While family courtrooms are filled with divorce proceedings, and divorce-related disputes are the number one type of cases heard in family courts, there are no separate divorce courts. All family court matters, including divorces, are heard in family court. The priority of family courts in all cases is to decide matters in the best interests of the children in the case.
Divorce proceedings occur in family courts, but family courtrooms and family court judges also handle other types of family law cases. These include far more positive cases on the court’s dockets including marriages and adoptions. Family court cases include the following sensitive family legal matters.
When couples decide to join their lives or create families, a family court takes care of the legal aspects of the union while they focus on the emotional aspects. Couples come to family court to obtain a marriage license, become married through a civil service, or enter a domestic partnership. Same-sex partners in Arizona enjoy the same rights and services in family court proceedings for marriages and domestic partnerships as heterosexual couples.
Some spouses choose to remain legally married while living apart. This may be a temporary legal arrangement putting orders in place for child custody, child support, and spousal support while spouses live apart as they decide to divorce or reconcile. It may be a part of a longer divorce process. Some spouses remain legally separated but married indefinitely for religious reasons, healthcare benefits, tax benefits, or business purposes.
Child custody cases come to family court as part of a divorce proceeding or separate from divorce. Non-married parents who share a biological child often require a court to determine paternity and parental rights and then issue child custody and visitation orders.
Sometimes child custody cases come back to court long after the finalization of the divorce when one parent seeks a modification of existing child custody orders.
Family courts believe all parents have an obligation to financially support their children. Child support orders determine the child support obligation from one parent to another. Typically, the higher-earning parent pays the lower-earner in shared equal custody cases, or the parent who has the lesser number of overnight custody days pays child support to the parent with the greater number of overnights.
Family courts also consider requests for spousal support (alimony). Typically these requests are temporary and orders remain in place for a limited time, or until a lower-earning or non-earning spouse takes steps to become self-sufficient.
Spousal support is not granted automatically in every divorce but the court considers many factors including the length of the marriage and whether or not one spouse sacrificed career and education goals to support the career goals of the other spouse or to raise the children.
Family courts also finalize child adoption cases through public or private adoption agencies, independent adoptions, and stepparent adoptions. Family courts conduct investigations to make all adoption decisions in the best interests of the child.
Family courts also offer many services such as court clerk services, self-help legal services, name change services, divorce mediation, and protection orders for domestic violence cases.