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, submit your international child support questions through this online form.

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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 explains why it's important to report any name changes for you or your dependents before you file your next tax return. 
  • U.S. Passport
    If you have a U.S. passport, report your name change as soon as possible to get an updated passport. 
  • Certificate of Naturalization
    If you have a certificate of naturalization or of citizenship issued by 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 vehicles 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 government offices, 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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Power of Attorney

Power of Attorney

A power of attorney document is a legal form that can be used to choose a person you trust to make decisions for you when you can’t. The two most common types of power of attorney documents are for health care and for financial decisions.

Health Care or Medical Power of Attorney

Depending on where you live, this might also be called a health care or medical advance directive or health care proxy.

  • A medical power of attorney or medical advanced directive allows you to both specify your wishes for treatment and appoint a trusted person to make decisions about your medical care when you are unable to do so.

  • A living will is not the same as a medical power of attorney. A living will spells out your wishes for life-extending and emergency medical treatments for medical professionals. They must follow this directive and cannot make decisions for you.

  • Learn more about living wills and medical power of attorney and find a glossary of terms from Medicare.

What documentation do I need?

You will need a form that you can get from your state health department or agency on aging. This legal document will indicate who is allowed to make medical decisions for you if you cannot.

When is this document required?

You’ll choose someone to make medical decisions for you as part of your advance health care planning. You may also choose to set up a medical power of attorney if you are:

  • Chronically or terminally ill

  • Likely to become unable to make your own decisions, as in Alzheimer's care 

  • Expecting a major surgery or giving birth

  • Undergoing any medical procedure that will leave you incapacitated

  • Concerned about your mental or behavioral health treatment.

Depending on your state, your spouse may be able to make decisions for you if you do not have a health care power of attorney, proxy, or advance directive. The custodial parent makes decisions for minor children unless an advanced directive or custody agreement says otherwise.  

Do I need a lawyer?

You are not required to have a lawyer and can complete all of your paperwork on your own. A lawyer will have expertise in doing this more quickly and helping you make the right choices. Some states require this form to be notarized.

Can I revoke or change it?

You can change your advance directive as long as you are considered to be of sound mind.

What is the role of the individual I’ve chosen?

The individual you’ve chosen will be able to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them because of illness or injury. Make sure they understand and agree to follow your wishes. Their decisions for you may include:

  • The use of dialysis

  • Using artificial breathing machines (ventilators)

  • Using artificial nutrition (tube feeding) or artificial hydration (intravenous fluids)

  • Mental crisis treatment such as hospitalization, medications, therapy, and emergency interventions

  • The use of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and other extreme measures

  • End of life comfort care

  • End-of-life spiritual or religious care

  • Organ or tissue donation

How is this handled internationally?

Contact the Department of State for assistance with international advanced directive or power of attorney concerns.

Financial Power of Attorney

What documentation do I need?

You will need to complete a power of attorney form, available from a lawyer or a legal aid office. You can choose how much power to give this person and which of your affairs they can settle.

When is this document required?

You may want to choose someone who can make financial and legal decisions for you and your property when you are unable to due to travel or illness. Be sure this person is trustworthy and capable of handling your affairs. Some reasons you may want to choose a person to act for you include:

  • Deploying overseas in the military

  • Working outside of the U.S.

  • Going to an overseas post in the foreign service

  • Traveling outside the U.S. for an extended period of time

  • Planning for future illness or injury

  • Chronic or terminal illness

  • Inability to guarantee your future mental capacity, as with Alzheimer's disease

  • Undergoing a major medical procedure that will leave you incapacitated

Do I need a lawyer?

You are not required to have a lawyer, but setting up power of attorney can be a complex process. A lawyer will have expertise in doing this more quickly, explaining the requirements, and explaining your choices so you can be sure your power of attorney is set up exactly the way that you want.

Some states will require your form to be reviewed by a lawyer or notarized.

Can I revoke or change it?

You can revoke or change the terms of a power of attorney document at any time as long as you are of sound mind. Review your power of attorney documents regularly to be sure they’re up-to-date.

What is the role of the individual I’ve chosen?

The person named in a power of attorney to act on your behalf is commonly referred to as your "agent." Your power of attorney document may give this person the ability to:

  • Make financial decisions on your behalf

  • Write checks or withdraw money from your account

  • Open lines of credit on your behalf

  • Sell or transfer your property and possessions

  • Settle your debts or enter into new debts on your behalf

  • Go to court or make legal decisions on your behalf

  • Make gifts of money, property, or valuables on your behalf

  • File your tax returns

In most states, you can specify exactly what your agent can and cannot do while acting on your behalf. Your agent may need the notarized, signed official document present to act on your behalf in financial and legal matters.

How is this handled internationally?

Contact the Department of State for assistance with international power of attorney concerns. Your documents may require authentication certificates.

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Trusts

A trust (or trust fund) is a legal entity that allows a person (the grantor, donor, or settlor) to transfer assets to another person or organization (the trustee). Once the grantor establishes the trust, the trustee controls and manages the assets for the grantor or for another beneficiary—someone who will ultimately benefit from the trust. To help you decide if a trust is right for you, first consult a licensed attorney experienced with estate planning and trust matters. 

Reasons to Set Up a Trust

Some common reasons for setting up a trust include:

  • Providing for minor children or family members who are inexperienced or unable to handle financial matters
  • Arranging for management of personal assets, if you become unable to handle them yourself
  • Avoiding probate and immediately transferring assets to beneficiaries upon death
  • Reducing estate taxes and providing liquid assets to help pay for them
  • The terms of a will are public while the terms of a trust are not, so privacy makes a trust an appealing option.

Types of Trusts

Trusts can be living (inter vivos) or after-death (testamentary). A living trust is one that a grantor sets up while still alive and an after-death trust is usually established by a will after one’s death. Living trusts can be irrevocable (can’t be changed) or revocable (can be changed), although revocable trusts don’t get the same tax shelter benefits as irrevocable ones do. 

The most common type of trust is the revocable living trust. If there’s a specific purpose in mind for the trust, dozens of different options exist (charitable trusts, bypass trusts, spendthrift trusts, and life insurance trusts). Two types of trusts can help pay for long-term care services:

  • Charitable Remainder Trusts - This trust allows you to use your own assets to pay for long-term care services while contributing to a charity of your choice and reducing your tax burden at the same time. You can set up the trust so that you receive payments from the trust to pay for long-term care services while you are alive.
  • Medicaid Disability Trusts - These trusts are limited to persons with disabilities who are under age 65 and qualify for public benefits. Parents, grandparents, and legal guardians often set up these trusts to benefit people with disabilities and a non-profit organization manages the assets. This is the only kind of trust that is exempt from rules regarding trusts and Medicaid eligibility.

Trust Scams and Fraud

If someone approaches you to set up a trust, be careful. Before signing any papers to create a living trust, will, or other kind of trust, make sure to explore all options and shop around to compare services. Some other tips to avoid trust scams and fraud include:

  • Avoid high-pressure sales tactics and high-speed sales pitches.
  • Stay away from salespeople who give the impression that specific organizations and recognized brands back or sell the trust.
  • Research and get information about local probate laws from the Clerk or Register of Wills.
  • If someone tries to sell a living trust to you, ask if they are an attorney. Some states restrict the sale of living trusts to licensed attorneys.
  • If you buy a trust in your home or in another location that is not the seller's permanent place of business, remember you have the right to take advantage of the Cooling Off Rule and cancel the transaction within three business days. 

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How to Close Accounts and Cancel Benefits After Someone Dies

Losing a loved one can be overwhelming for you and your family. At such a difficult time, it can be hard to think about settling affairs. But taking care of the paperwork soon after the funeral can help protect your loved one’s estate from financial and identity theft.

Use this guide for contacting government agencies, companies, and organizations about your loved one’s death. Each may ask you for different information. You’ll need the person’s Social Security number and a photocopy or a certified copy of the death certificate to close or transfer accounts.

Governmental

  • Social Security and Medicare - When you’re making final arrangements for your loved one, you can give their Social Security number to the funeral director. They will submit the information to the Social Security Administration (SSA). This step stops future benefit payments. You’ll need to return any SSA payments that arrive after the person’s death. Mail the check back or contact the bank if the payment is by direct deposit. You can also contact SSA to find out about any survivor benefits.
  • IRS personal income tax filing - If the person died before filing their individual income tax return due in April, someone will have to do it for them. You may also need to file a final tax return for the year of their death in the next tax season. Learn how to file a deceased person’s tax return.
  •  U.S. Passport - To avoid identity theft, you can mail the person’s passport to the State Department along with a letter asking them to cancel it. Include a certified copy of the death certificate and let them know if you want the canceled passport sent back to you as a keepsake or destroyed.
  • Motor vehicles office - Contact the state motor vehicles office to cancel their records, return disabled parking placards, and find out about returning their license or ID card. If the person had a vehicle, ask about transferring the title to the appropriate person.
  • Social services and benefits programs - If the person was receiving SNAP (food stamps), TANF (welfare), or rental assistance, contact the state social services office to cancel benefit payments.
  • Property tax records - If the person owned a home, check with the town, city, or county tax office about the deed and any property taxes that are due.
  • Veterans benefits - In addition to contacting the VA about burial benefits and asking about survivor benefits, notify these other VA departments if the person was
  • Board of Elections - Contact the local BOE where the person lived to remove the person's name from the voter registration list to avoid voter fraud.

Financial

  • Credit reporting agencies - Send a letter with a certified copy of the death certificate to one of the three big credit reporting agencies. They will share the information with the other two agencies. Include the person’s name, address, and Social Security number and your name and contact information. Six to eight weeks after the funeral, ask for a credit report for the person to check for possible identity theft.
  • Bank - Check the person's bank for a signature card to find out who can access the account. Find out about checking and savings accounts, loans, bank credit cards, investments, and whether there is a safety deposit box. Also, check for any direct deposits. You may have to wait until after the estate is settled and all outstanding bills have been paid to close the account.
  • Automatic payments- Review the bank statement and credit cards for any autopay accounts. These could include mortgage, home equity loan, utilities, memberships, or student loans. You may need to call each company to cancel. Also, if you wait to stop any future auto payments, it may be difficult to get reimbursed for payments that went out after the person died.
  • Credit cards - If you are a spouse, the cards may be joint accounts. Call the companies and let them know that one of the card holders has died. Otherwise, cancel all cards to stop anyone from using them in the future, and to stop any accumulating interest or recurring payments.
  • Life insurance - If the person was still employed, there may be a policy through work. Contact the human resource department to help you. Also ask about canceling other types of insurance the person may have had through work such as health, dental, or vision.  
  • Mortgage - A bank or lender may foreclose on the home if payments don’t continue. Contact the lender right away to let them know about the death, find out how to continue payments, and how to transfer the mortgage to an heir.
  • Pensions - Check for private and government plans at current or former workplaces. Also, contact investment or financial advisors.
  • Other Insurance Policies - There may be other plans such as pet or renter’s insurance. Check the cancellation clause and the bank statement for any auto payments.
  • Prescription Plan - Medicare Part D is the prescription plan that people sign up for separately. Check to see if SSA canceled the plan. Also, check with the drug store to stop any automatic refills. This prevents someone from fraudulently picking up any medications.

Utilities and Communications

  • Stop mail delivery and forward mail - Contact the local post office to redirect the person’s mail. This prevents an overflowing mailbox that would tip off thieves to an empty home. It also prevents identity thieves from stealing mail offering new credit cards.
  • Home utilities - If you are the spouse, call to transfer the account to your name. If you are selling the person’s home, you may want to keep gas, heating oil, or electric on during the process. Check the bank statement for auto payments you may have to cancel or transfer.
  • Cable/internet and cell/home phone - Depending on the provider, payments may be bundled into one bill. Call the provider to cancel or transfer the contract. You will need the person’s phone number and Social Security number.
  • Mobile apps - App subscriptions are usually paid by credit card. Contact customer support for the mobile device’s operating system app store. You may need the person’s email, password, and a certified copy of the death certificate.

Subscriptions, Memberships, and Groups

Look in the person’s wallet for any membership cards. Check their mail for renewals, and bank or credit card statements for recurring payments. In some cases, these organizations have the person’s credit card number. Canceling the account can help avoid any fraudulent use. You may or may not need a copy of the death certificate to cancel.

  • Magazines and newspapers - Call customer service to cancel online service or stop home delivery.
  • Entertainment accounts - Check for online movie, sports, music, or gaming subscriptions.
  • Auto club or roadside assistance - Check inside the vehicle for any paperwork.
  • Warehouse clubs, buying services, meal kits, health clubs, airline or hotel memberships, monthly subscription boxes, or dating website memberships - If it’s a national company, call customer service. For internet club accounts, you may need the password to end the membership online.
  • Affinity groups including organizations for seniors, veterans, or local business owners - In some cases, these groups may want to plan a future memorial service.
  • Religious organization/house of worship - Check for any monthly offering or commitment payments from the checking account or credit card.
  • Charities - Check for any monthly or annual donation payments from the checking account or credit card.
  • Union dues - Labor organization dues are typically paid by payroll deduction. Speak to the HR department of the employer and ask who contacts the union.
  • Unclaimed money - There may be money from a forgotten credit union account or unknown insurance policy. Contact the companies to prevent fraud.

Here are some helpful tips as you move through this process:

  • As you’re making arrangements with the funeral director, consider ordering multiple certified copies of the death certificate. The cost varies by state. You’ll typically need certified copies for canceling government benefits and identification, for credit cards and bank or investment accounts, and for transferring real estate or vehicles. Utilities and other companies may just need a photocopy. In most cases, the funeral home provides this service only to immediate family members and the executor of the estate. If you need more certified copies later, contact your county or city.
  • Learn from the Federal Trade Commission what to do about the debts of a person who has died. Find out who is obligated to pay and what to do if debt collectors call.
  • Shred the person’s old credit or membership cards once you get a notification that the accounts were canceled.
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Last Updated: September 27, 2018