Family Legal Issues

Learn about common family legal issues.

Adoption and Foster Care

Learn About Adoption and Foster Care

Adoption is the creation of a new, permanent relationship between an adoptive parent and child. Once this happens, there is no legal difference between a child who is adopted and a child who is born into a family.

Foster care is a form of “out-of-home” care. Children in out-of-home care may live in relatives' homes, non-family related foster homes, treatment foster homes, or group or residential care.

How to Become an Adoptive or Foster Family

These programs can help you learn more about adoption and foster parenting:

Emotional and Health Aspects of Adoption and Foster Care

Adoption Resources from MedlinePlus - find links to adoption and foster care resources from a medical perspective to help you, your foster or adopted child, and your other children adapt to change

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Child Support Enforcement

Learn About Child Support

Child support is the monthly monetary payment a court orders a child’s noncustodial parent to pay the parent with primary custody. This helps take care of the child’s needs on a daily basis, from food and housing to clothing and medical needs.

Any parent or person with custody of a child who needs help to establish a child support order from court or to collect support payments can apply through their state for child support services. People who have received assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and federally assisted foster care programs are automatically referred for child support services.

How to Get Child Support

To get help with child support, follow these steps:

  1. Contact your state or local child support office.
  2. Gather documents you’ll need to present with your application.
  3. Complete an application from your state.
  4. If you cannot resolve your child support issue with your local office, this information from the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) can help you learn how to resolve your problem.

Problems with Noncustodial Parent

In most cases, issues such as non-payment are handled at the state and local level, not by the federal government. If you know the location of a noncustodial parent who may be behind in his or her payments,  reach out to the state where the child support case is active.

Child Support Enforcement Abroad

If you have questions about child support payments from or to someone in a foreign country, search the Office of Child Support Enforcement's international resources to see if there is a state or national agreement to provide child support services with the country in question. If you need further help, email your international child support questions to

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Divorce Decrees and Certificates

A divorce decree is an official document from the court that grants the termination of a marriage. It includes specific details of the divorce.

A divorce certificate is issued by a state vital records office. It shows that a divorce occurred but does not state all of the same information as a divorce decree. You can save time and money by determining which document you need before making your request.

U.S. Divorces

Get a Copy of a Divorce Decree

Contact the "county clerk's office" or "clerk of the court" for the county or city in which the divorce was granted.

Get a Copy of a Divorce Certificate

Contact the state vital records office in which the divorce was granted.

Overseas Divorces

If the divorce occurred outside the U.S. and you are in the U.S., contact the appropriate country's embassy or nearest consulate to find out how to get a copy of the divorce decree.

United States law does not require U.S. citizens to register a foreign divorce decree at an embassy. But if the foreign country in which your divorce took place is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Authentication of Documents, you may bring your divorce decree to a U.S. Embassy or consulate to have it certified.

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Report a Name Change

You can change your name legally by marriage, divorce, a court proceeding, or other means.  To change your name in a court, you should check with a local court on the county level to determine the procedures.  You can also hire a lawyer to help you with the procedure.

Once you have changed your name, you need to report the change to the federal government.

  • Social Security Card
    Notify the Social Security Administration (SSA).  Find out what documents you need to get a new card and how to change your name in their files.  
  • Tax Information
    The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) takes name changes from the Social Security Administration and has information about the need to report changes for taxpayers and their dependents. 
  • U.S. Passport
    If you have a U.S. passport, report your name change as soon as possible to order a new passport.
  • Certificate of Naturalization
    If you have a certificate of naturalization or of citizenship issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, file an N-565 form to have a replacement issued.  
  • Driver’s License or State-Issued ID
    Notify your state's motor vehicle department to update your driver’s license or state-issued ID.
  • Postal Service
    Report your name change to the local post office that delivers your mail.  
  • For Federal Employees
    If you are a federal government employee, report your name change to your agency's office of human resources.  If you're an annuitant receiving pay from a federal agency, you should report the name change to that agency.  

Consider where else your name is on file.  Examples include other state or local government offices, banks or other financial institutions, credit-card companies, and private employers.   

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Creating a Will

A written will is a practical first step in estate planning. It makes your intentions clear about:

  • Any inheritance you leave for your loved ones 
  • Guardianship for your minor children or other dependents
  • Any charitable donations that you would like made
  • How you want your property, money, assets, and other valuables distributed after you die
  • If you do not have a will when you die, your estate will be handled in probate court, and your property could be distributed differently from what you would like.


When writing your will, remember:

  • In most states, you must be 18 or older to create a will.
  • To be valid, a will must be written when you are of sound judgment and have adequate mental capacity.
  • The document must clearly state that it is your will. You must name an executor of your will, who will ensure that your estate is distributed according to your wishes.
  • It is not necessary to notarize or record your will, but doing so can safeguard any claims that it is invalid.
  • For your will to be valid, it must be signed in the presence of at least two witnesses.
  • A financial will and testament will always supersede a last will and testament when bestowing financial assets.
  • Some states have community property laws that entitle your surviving legal spouse to keep at least half of your assets after you die, no matter what percentage of your assets you leave them in your will. 
  • International wills may be subject to other laws.


It may help to get legal advice when writing a will, particularly when it comes to understanding all of the rules of will execution, estate disposition, guardianship, trusts, beneficiaries, and the inheritance process in your state.

Choose an Executor

An executor is the person who is responsible for settling the estate after your death. In most states, any person over the age of 18 who has not been convicted of a felony can be named executor of a will. Fees for the execution of a will vary according to its complexity.

Duties of an executor include:

  • Taking inventory of property and belongings
  • Appraising and distributing assets
  • Paying taxes
  • Settling debts owed by the deceased


Most importantly, the executor is legally obligated to act in the interests of the deceased, following the wishes stated in the will. It can be helpful to consult an attorney to help with the probate process or offer legal guidance.

Beneficiaries and Inheritance

As you write your will, you need to decide who your beneficiaries will be. These are the people or organizations that you want to inherit your money, property, assets, and other valuables.

Primary beneficiaries are your first choice to receive your assets. You should also consider choosing secondary or contingent beneficiaries. If a primary beneficiary dies before you or does not meet a condition such as age for inheritance, the secondary beneficiary will receive your assets.

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Last Updated: September 15, 2017

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