Family law governs issues such as marriage, divorce, spousal support, child custody, and child support. Constitutional questions sometimes arise, such as the fundamental right to marry and to make parenting decisions. Other sources of family law include statutes, such as state laws prescribing procedures for marriage and divorce, and case law. Below is an outline of key cases in family law with links to the full text of virtually every case, provided free by Justia.
Family may describe individuals related by blood, marriage, or adoption. In addition, family may sometimes describe individuals who treat each other like family, regardless of whether they are related in the traditional sense.
In re B.L.V.B. 一 It is unreasonable and unnecessary to terminate a natural mother's parental rights if her children are adopted by a person to whom she is not married.
Braschi v. Stahl Assocs. Co. 一 The surviving partner in a same-sex relationship is considered family for the purpose of interpreting a New York law prohibiting the eviction of a surviving spouse or family member.
Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas 一 A city ordinance restricting land use to one or more related people or not more than two unrelated people does not violate the Due Process Clause or the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Marriage confers certain rights and benefits not afforded to unmarried people in areas such as property, health care, and tax law. The right to marry is a fundamental right, although it may be restricted in some ways. State laws generally prescribe marriage definitions and requirements.
Loving v. Virginia 一 State laws banning marriage between individuals of different races violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Zablocki v. Redhail 一 While a state’s interest in protecting child welfare is valid, prohibiting a parent from getting married because they have outstanding child support obligations is not sufficiently tailored to accomplish that interest.
Turner v. Safley 一 An inmate’s right to marry may not be infringed when the regulation is not reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest, such as safety and security.
Michael H. v. Gerald D. 一 An individual outside a marriage does not have a constitutional right to challenge the paternity of a child born into that marriage.
Singh v. Singh 一 A statute prohibiting marriage between related individuals may extend to those related by half-blood.
Catalano v. Catalano 一 A marriage contrary to public policy in one’s domicile may be invalid even if it is valid where it was performed.
Back v. Back 一 A marriage between a man and his ex-wife’s daughter may be valid because the relationship of stepfather and stepdaughter that existed through marriage was terminated upon the termination of that marriage.
Moe v. Dinkins 一 A state law requiring that a minor obtain parental consent before marriage does not violate the Constitution because it is rationally related to a legitimate state interest of preventing unstable marriages and protecting parental rights.
Bronson v. Swensen 一 A state law prohibiting polygamy does not violate the Constitution because there is a compelling state interest to protect monogamous marriage.
Reynolds v. U.S. 一 It is not a valid defense to a crime, such as polygamy, to cite a religious belief or religiously imposed duty.
Sanderson v. Tryon 一 Polygamy alone is not a sufficient basis to deny a parent custody of their children.
Rappaport v. Katz 一 Federal courts should not supervise the marriage forms and procedures of a city clerk’s office.
Lester v. Lester 一 A marriage procured by coercion or fraud may be annulled, but an antenuptial agreement purporting to invalidate a marriage is unenforceable.
In re Marriage of Johnston 一 A marriage procured by fraud may only be annulled when the fraud goes to the essence of the marital relationship.
In re Estate of Love 一 A common law marriage may exist when the parties are able to contract, they agree to live together as husband and wife, and they consummate the agreement.
M.T. v. J.T. 一 A marriage’s validity may be based on the sex of the individuals at the time of the marriage, and an individual may be female at the time of the marriage if they had successfully undergone sex reassignment surgery.
Same-Sex Marriage and Relationships
Same-sex relationships have not always received the same treatment under the law as opposite-sex relationships. Not all states recognized a same-sex couple’s right to marry until the 2015 Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges.
Baker v. Nelson 一 A state statute only authorizing marriage between two people of the opposite sex does not offend the Constitution.
Baker v. State 一 Under the Vermont Constitution, same-sex couples are entitled to benefits and protections equal to those of opposite-sex couples.
Bowers v. Hardwick 一 The Fourteenth Amendment does not prevent a state from criminalizing private sexual conduct involving same-sex couples (overruled by Lawrence v. Texas).
Lawrence v. Texas 一 A Texas law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between individuals of the same sex violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Wilson v. Ake 一 The Defense of Marriage Act and a state statute declining to recognize same-sex marriages are constitutionally valid.
U.S. v. Windsor 一 The federal government cannot define the terms “marriage” and “spouse” in a way that excludes married same-sex couples from the benefits and protections that married opposite-sex couples receive. The Court thus struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Obergefell v. Hodges 一 Under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, all states must license a marriage between two people of the same sex and recognize such a marriage if it was lawfully licensed and performed in another state.
Models of Marriage and Gender Roles
While marriage may be somewhat defined by the traditional roles that each spouse is expected to assume, definitions and subsequent restrictions based on stereotypical gender and marriage norms have been challenged and sometimes invalidated.
Graham v. Graham 一 A private agreement between married individuals or individuals about to be married that attempts to change the essential obligations of the marriage is contrary to public policy and unenforceable.
McGuire v. McGuire 一 A spouse cannot sue for support payments when they are not separated or living apart from their spouse.
Orr v. Orr 一 State statutes that require only one sex to pay alimony are unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
Edwardson v. Edwardson 一 Parties may contract before marriage regarding maintenance or disposition of property upon divorce so long as there has been full disclosure, and the agreement is not unconscionable.
Simeone v. Simeone 一 Prenuptial agreements should be evaluated based on the same concepts as contract law generally. An agreement will be enforceable if the parties entered into it after full disclosure, even if it is not reasonable or was not understood by both parties.
McCourtney v. Imprimis Technology, Inc. 一 A mother may not be disqualified from unemployment benefits if she was terminated for persistent absences due to her sick child but was an otherwise good employee who made good faith efforts to find a babysitter.
Knussman v. Maryland 一 A state may violate the Equal Protection Clause when it denies primary caregiver status under the Family and Medical Leave Act to a father on the basis of generalizations about typical gender roles.
Vaughn v. Lawrenceburg Power System 一 An employer’s policy that an employee must quit if they marry a coworker is not an unconstitutional interference with the right to marry.
Jones v. Jones 一 An attorney may not be disqualified from representing someone merely because their spouse is the legal counsel for an adverse party.
Griswold v. Connecticut 一 A right to privacy can be inferred from several amendments in the Bill of Rights, and this right prevents states from prohibiting the use of contraception by married couples.
Eisenstadt v. Baird 一 Unmarried people have the right to use contraception, based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the more nebulous constitutional right to privacy.
Domestic violence is violent behavior that happens within a home, often between partners. An individual may obtain an order of protection against domestic violence in civil court to prevent a family or household member or certain other individuals from continuing to perpetrate such violence against them.
People v. Humphrey 一 Evidence of battered woman syndrome may be relevant as to the objective reasonableness of the defendant’s belief in the need to defend themselves when evaluating whether they were acting in self-defense.
Regina v. Malott 一 It is not necessary for a defendant to conform to the stereotypes associated with an individual with battered woman syndrome to assert a valid claim of self-defense.
Giovine v. Giovine 一 A wife diagnosed with battered woman syndrome may sue her spouse in tort for continuous acts of battering outside the statute of limitations if there is expert testimony that she was caused to have an inability to take action to improve or alter the situation unilaterally.
Mitchell v. Mitchell 一 The basis for an injunction for protection against domestic violence must be an objectively reasonable fear of imminent danger of domestic violence. A text message conversation that vaguely implies the distant possibility of violence without an overt act does not rise to the level of a reasonable fear of imminent danger.
C.O. v. M.M. 一 Due process requires that a defendant in a hearing to continue a temporary abuse prevention order be given the opportunity to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.
Divorce and the Constitution
Divorce is the process by which a court grants the dissolution of a marriage, which may implicate certain constitutional protections.
Boddie v. Connecticut 一 Due process requires that divorce should be accessible to indigent individuals who cannot pay court fees but are seeking a divorce in good faith.
Sosna v. Iowa 一 Durational residency requirements for divorce are constitutional.
Aflalo v. Aflalo 一 A court may not order a divorcing party to provide a get for a Jewish divorce because this would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Traditionally, states required an individual seeking a divorce to allege fault on the part of their spouse. Some states continue to allow parties to pursue a fault divorce. Common fault grounds include cruelty, adultery, and abandonment.
Benscoter v. Benscoter 一 To obtain a divorce on the ground of indignities to the person, a plaintiff must establish a continuing course of misconduct, rather than sporadic actions.
Hughes v. Hughes 一 A divorce may be granted for mental cruelty even if the couple reconciled at one point.
Arnoult v. Arnoult 一 Circumstantial evidence may be enough to prove adultery because of the private nature of the act.
Crosby v. Crosby 一 A state law requiring a wife to move where her husband moves or effectively be denied alimony because of fault is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
Rankin v. Rankin 一 To obtain a divorce on the ground of indignities to the person, the evidence must clearly show that the plaintiff was an injured and innocent spouse. If both spouses are equally at fault, they cannot obtain a divorce on this basis.
Robbins v. Robbins 一 Consent may be a valid defense to a divorce based on adultery if one spouse manifests a desire or willingness that the other commit adultery. However, is not enough that a spouse allows their spouse to go through with an adulterous act so that they may collect evidence of it.
Fonger v. Fonger 一 An individual may not obtain a divorce based on adultery if they have deliberately induced their spouse to commit the act.
Anonymous v. Anonymous 一 If insanity is used as a defense to a divorce action, the defendant must prove insanity by a preponderance of the evidence.
Twyman v. Twyman 一 A claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress may be brought in conjunction with a fault-based divorce, but the court may not consider the same conduct while dividing the marital estate if it would result in double recovery.
Every state now offers no-fault divorce, which encourages collaboration between the parties rather than confrontation. While a no-fault divorce does not require that either spouse accuse the other of any wrongdoing, some states require that spouses live apart for a certain period of time before they may obtain a no-fault divorce.
In re Marriage of Kenik 一 Spouses who live separately but in the same house may still be living separate and apart for the purpose of obtaining a no-fault divorce when a no-fault divorce statute requires spouses to live separate and apart continuously for two years.
Massar v. Massar 一 A marital agreement under which one spouse agrees to move out of the home in exchange for the other’s promise that they will only seek a no-fault divorce may be enforced so long as it is fair and equitable under the circumstances of the particular case.
Diosdado v. Diosdado 一 A marital agreement that guarantees $50,000 in liquidated damages on top of a divorce settlement award if a spouse cheats is unenforceable because imposing a penalty for fault is contrary to the public policy applicable to a no-fault divorce.
There are two types of child custody: legal custody and physical custody. When a parent has legal custody, they have the ability to make important decisions about the child’s life, such as those involving medical care, religious activity, and schooling. When a parent has physical custody, the child will physically live with that parent some or all of the time. Courts usually favor awarding parents joint custody.
In re Marriage of Carney 一 In awarding custody, courts should favor neither mothers nor fathers but instead focus on the best interests of the child. A parent’s physical handicap is not prima facie evidence of unfitness to parent. Furthermore, a change in custody should only be made if there has been a substantial change of circumstances.
Hollon v. Hollon 一 The best interests of the child are determined by weighing the following factors: the age, health, and sex of the child; who the primary caretaker of the child was before the separation; the parenting skills, willingness, and capacity of each parent; each parent’s employment status and responsibilities; the physical health, mental health, and age of each parent; the emotional ties between the child and each parent; the moral fitness of each parent; the home, school, and community record of the child; the child’s preference (if they are old enough); the stability of the home environment and employment of each parent; and any other factors relevant to the parent-child relationship. Furthermore, a parent’s alleged sexual activity is not a sufficient ground for determining child custody.
Palmore v. Sidoti 一 It is impermissible to consider race in determining child custody under the Equal Protection Clause.
Jones v. Jones 一 While race may not be the decisive factor in a child custody dispute, it may be considered in the context of each parent’s ability to expose the child to their ethnic heritage.
Kendall v. Kendall 一 A court may limit a child’s exposure to a parent’s religious beliefs if there is sufficient evidence that it will cause substantial harm to the child.
McMillen v. McMillen 一 The express wishes of the child are not controlling in a child custody determination, but they may be considered as part of an analysis of the best interests of the child.
Schult v. Schult 一 An attorney for a child in a custody dispute may take a position contrary to that of the child’s guardian ad litem.
Pusey v. Pusey 一 The “tender years presumption,” giving preference to mothers over fathers in custody decisions, is not constitutional because it discriminates against fathers on the basis of sex and relies on outdated stereotypes.
Garska v. McCoy 一 A young child’s best interest is presumptively satisfied by awarding custody to the primary caretaker, regardless of sex, so long as the primary caretaker is a fit parent.
Squires v. Squires 一 A court should not decline to award joint custody solely because of present hostility between the parents.
Young v. Hector 一 A primary residential custody award should attempt to preserve the caretaking roles of each parent that have already been established.
Hassenstab v. Hassenstab 一 The party seeking to modify a child custody order bears the burden of showing that a material change in circumstances has occurred to justify a change in child custody. A parent’s sexual activity may not be considered a change in circumstances that would justify a custody modification unless there is evidence that the child was exposed to or adversely affected by such activity.
Wetch v. Wetch 一 In deciding whether to modify a custody arrangement, a court may consider all the relevant facts, including conduct predating a previous judgment on the matter if the previous judgment was entered without a considered fact-finding by the court.
Baures v. Lewis 一 A custodial parent who wishes to move with the child must have a good faith reason for the move and show that the move will not be harmful to the child’s best interests.
Eldridge v. Eldridge 一 A court may limit or eliminate visitation if there is evidence that it would harm the child.
Zummo v. Zummo 一 A court may restrict a parent’s ability to expose their child to religious activity during periods of custody or visitation only if there is evidence of a substantial risk of harm to the child.
Troxel v. Granville 一 A state statute allowing third parties to petition for visitation over a custodial parent’s objection violates a parent’s fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment to make decisions regarding the care, custody, and control of their children.
Kinnard v. Kinnard 一 A stepparent may obtain custody or visitation of a stepchild if not awarding custody or visitation would be detrimental to the child.
Quinn v. Mouw-Quinn 一 A stepparent may be awarded visitation of a stepchild if not awarding visitation would be devastating to the child and their siblings.
Stanley v. Illinois 一 A state law that assumes that unwed fathers are unfit parents violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.
Lehr v. Robertson 一 An unwed father is not entitled to substantial protection of his parental rights under the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses merely because he is the child’s biological father. Instead, an unwed father must demonstrate that he is fully committed to his parental responsibilities by participating in the child’s upbringing.
V.C. v. M.J.B. 一 A third party who can demonstrate that they stand in the shoes of a parent to a child, sometimes known as a psychological parent, need not prove unfitness of the natural parent to obtain custody. Furthermore, a psychological parent may be awarded visitation when it is in the best interests of the child.
Chaddick v. Monopoli 一 A trial court has the discretion to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether another state has exercised jurisdiction in substantial conformity with the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act during a child custody dispute.
Thompson v. Thompson 一 There is no implied cause of action under the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act to contest the validity of conflicting state court custody orders.
Ohlander v. Larson 一 When two civil actions are filed under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in disparate courts because of the child’s removal from the court of first jurisdiction, the court of first jurisdiction should grant the plaintiff's request to voluntarily dismiss the action when there is no legal prejudice to the defendant.
Wolf v. Wolf 一 A court may award a primary custodian punitive damages for tortious interference with custody.
U.S. v. Amer 一 The International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act is not unconstitutionally vague, and disallowing a defendant from using the affirmative defenses found in the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction may be permissible when the country to which the children have been removed is not a signatory to the Convention. Furthermore, a court may order the defendant to return the children as a special condition of supervised release.
Farmer v. Farmer 一 A court may not interfere with a parent’s visitation rights on the basis of their failure to pay child support.
Kulko v. Superior Ct. of California 一 A state court cannot exercise jurisdiction over a domiciliary of another state when they have insufficient minimum contacts with the forum state. The mere act of sending a child to the forum state is not a sufficient minimum contact.
States generally adhere to one of two systems for dividing property between spouses: equitable distribution or community property. In equitable distribution states, the focus is on dividing marital property equitably but not necessarily equally. In community property states, property acquired during the marriage is usually marital property to be divided equally.
Innerbichler v. Innerbichler 一 A post-marriage increase in the value of a business owned by one spouse may be fairly considered marital property.
Ferguson v. Ferguson 一 A court may order the equitable distribution of property accumulated through joint contributions, both financial and non-financial, regardless of title.
Postema v. Postema 一 A law degree may be a marital asset when it is a result of a concerted family effort, and the supporting spouse should be compensated for their sacrifice.
Elkus v. Elkus 一 If an increase in a spouse’s career success was a result of a concerted family effort, the supporting spouse should be compensated equitably.
Siegel v. Siegel 一 One spouse may be wholly responsible for their dissipation of funds, such as gambling losses, that occurred before the divorce but after the marriage was irreparably fractured.
Laing v. Laing 一 If marital assets include an unvested pension, the court may reserve jurisdiction to divide the pension once it vests.
Niroo v. Niroo 一 Anticipated renewal commissions on insurance policies sold during the marriage may be marital property because they became a contractually established right during the marriage, even if they accrue after dissolution.
Marvin v. Marvin 一 Non-marital partners may bring claims for property division based on valid express or implied contracts.
Norton v. Hoyt 一 For a non-marital partner to recover for an alleged promise by the other to divorce their spouse, marry the partner, and support them for life, the promise must be clear and unambiguous, and the partner must have reasonably and justifiably relied on the promise to their detriment. Agreements believed to be in derogation of marriage, such as agreements to support a non-marital partner in an adulterous relationship, are against public policy and cannot be enforced.
Spousal Support / Alimony
Courts sometimes award spousal support (also known as alimony) in conjunction with a divorce. Courts tend to favor spousal support awards that will terminate when the receiving ex-spouse gets back on their feet, but spousal support may be awarded for reasons unrelated to financial need. Permanent spousal support is usually only awarded after fairly long marriages when the receiving ex-spouse is not likely to be able to find gainful employment.
In re Marriage of Wilson 一 A court may terminate spousal support even when the receiving ex-spouse is permanently disabled, especially when the length of the marriage was short, and there are no minor children.
Clapp v. Clapp 一 In awarding alimony, a court may consider the fact that one spouse reduced their earning capacity to contribute to the marriage as a homemaker and enable the other to increase their earning capacity.
Graham v. Graham 一 In certain cases, such as when the receiving ex-spouse’s contribution was at least partially responsible for the paying ex-spouse’s increase in income, a court may increase alimony payments when the paying ex-spouse’s ability to pay increases, but the receiving ex-spouse’s needs have not increased.
D’Ascanio v. D’Ascanio 一 A court must enforce and may not deviate from the terms of an alimony agreement set up by the parties and approved by the court.
Vanderbilt v. Vanderbilt 一 An alimony decision made without personal jurisdiction over the spouse potentially receiving the alimony is invalid and not subject to the Full Faith and Credit Clause.
Courts may order parents who do not regularly live with their children and are not their primary caregivers to pay child support. Child support payments are usually determined by child support guidelines, but judges may deviate from the guidelines if applying them would be inequitable.
Schmidt v. Schmidt 一 A court may not deviate from child support guidelines without a factual finding that supports the deviation.
In re Marriage of Bush 一 A court may deviate from child support guidelines when the application of the guidelines would result in an excessive award.
Solomon v. Findley 一 A provision in a joint petition for dissolution of marriage dictating that a parent will pay for the post-secondary education of the child after they reach the age of majority should be enforced by a contract action because the divorce court only maintains jurisdiction to enforce child support provisions until the child reaches the age of majority.
Curtis v. Kline 一 A state law requiring separated, divorced, or unmarried parents to pay for the educational costs of a child even after they reach the age of majority violates the Equal Protection Clause.
Ainsworth v. Ainsworth 一 A court may deviate from child support guidelines when the award would be inequitable because of the paying parent’s expenses associated with supporting a new stepchild.
Little v. Little 一 If a parent’s income is reduced voluntarily, rather than for a reasonable cause, the court may impute income to that parent up to their full earning capacity when calculating a child support obligation. If a reduction in child support due to a voluntary reduction in income would place the child in financial peril, the reduction should not be allowed. If the reduction will not place the child in financial peril, the court should consider the overall reasonableness of the parent’s voluntary decision.
Bender v. Bender 一 Courts should apply a balancing test to determine whether to impute income to calculate child support obligations when a paying parent voluntarily leaves their job to stay home and care for another child.
Miller v. Miller 一 A stepparent who divorces a stepchild’s natural parent may be obligated to pay child support based on equitable estoppel.
Johnson v. Louis 一 A state statute providing that children of divorced parents but not children of unmarried parents may receive support for post-secondary education does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.
Eunique v. Powell 一 An individual may be denied a passport if they are in arrears on their child support payments.
State v. Oakley 一 A probation condition prohibiting an individual convicted of a felony for refusing to pay child support for multiple children from having any more children unless they can support all of their children is constitutional.
Hicks v. Feiock 一 If a determinate sentence imposed in connection with contempt proceedings for failure to pay child support may be purged if the individual pays their arrearages, it is civil in nature, and thus a statute placing the burden of persuasion on the alleged contemnor is constitutional.
U.S. v. Bongiorno 一 The Child Support Recovery Act, making a willful failure to pay past-due child support for a child in another state a federal crime, does not violate the Commerce Clause.
Child Support Enforcement Division of Alaska v. Brenckle 一 A state may have personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant to enforce a child support order under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act when the child is a resident of the forum state, and the defendant has resided with the child in the forum state.
While parties may ask a court to decide the terms of their divorce, they are free to enter into a settlement agreement to determine things such as property division, child custody, and spousal and child support.
Duffy v. Duffy 一 A separation agreement in the form of a letter signed by both parties may be enforced as a contract so long as there is no evidence of fraud, duress, concealment, or overreaching. Furthermore, whether a court may modify a child support provision in a separation agreement depends on whether it was merged into the court’s judgment or incorporated by reference.
Toni v. Toni 一 A settlement agreement that divests the court of jurisdiction to modify spousal support may be enforceable.
Sidden v. Mailman 一 Separation agreements may be rescinded on the grounds of lack of mental capacity, mistake, fraud, duress, or undue influence. Separation agreements are also unenforceable if their terms are unconscionable.
Kelley v. Kelley 一 A court may always modify the terms of a child support agreement because parents cannot contract away their child’s right to support.
Kelm v. Kelm 一 Child custody and visitation matters may not be resolved through arbitration.
Crupi v. Crupi 一 An agreement reached through mediation will only be set aside when there is fraud, misrepresentation in discovery, or coercion.
This outline has been compiled by the Justia team for solely educational purposes and should not be treated as an independent source of legal authority or a summary of the current state of the law. Students should use this outline as a supplement rather than a substitute for course-specific outlines.