What’s the Difference Between Civil Court and Family Court? Staff Profile Picture
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Civil court aims to allow a person to pursue financial compensation for the damages they suffered as a result of another person's wrongful actions, while family court seeks to resolve family issues involving marriage and/or children. The National Census Bureau reports that in 2021, the average divorce rate was 6.9 out of every 1,000 women in the United States. While that number is lower than in years past, there is still a large percentage of the population that is operating under some form of a divorce settlement or child custodial agreement. The information below provides details of the main differences between civil and family courts, such as their objectives, cases handled, and procedures. Follow along to gain a better understanding of what happens in family court and how an attorney may advocate for you as you navigate changing family dynamics. 

Differences in Objectives

Civil law cases are intended to resolve disputes between an individual (or organization) that has had their rights violated and the party that violated their rights. These cases allow the wronged party to pursue compensation for their losses from contract breaches, damage to property, or car accidents, for example. In civil court, the wronged party will try to prove to a judge that there was a breach of contract (implied or physical) and that the defendant is liable for the damages that occurred as a result of that breach. 

While the primary objective of civil court is to determine fault and then issue penalization to the at-fault party, family court is intended to respectfully resolve legal issues to find a solution that prioritizes the best interest of the family. For example, in child custody cases, though it may feel like punishment to the parent who is not awarded custody, the judge’s ruling is intended to be the best legal outcome that supports the child. Ultimately, family court seeks a fair ruling that upholds and respects all parties’ rights while protecting the well-being of children and vulnerable individuals. 

As we will discuss further below, there are no jurors in family court. Legal cases are set before a judge who will hear both parties’ testaments and issue a ruling. This is often done in public courts, except for California, where families can hire private judges and resolve disputes in an isolated location. 

Differences in Court Procedures

Since the overall objectives of civil and family courts differ, so do their court proceedings. In the beginning, both types of proceedings start in the same way. In family court, one party will file a petition in court and then must notify the other party. Similarly, in civil court, a complaint is filed, and the defendant is notified. In both cases, the party that did not file the paperwork will need to acknowledge or respond to the notice. From this point, the two procedures start to differ.

Civil court proceedings:

  • Discovery stage is where both parties separately investigate the case and begin to put together their arguments. While information is shared and requested between parties, they are building a case against each other. 

  • Pre-Trial stage is where the evidence and witnesses are in order. Motions are filed to dismiss the case, or settlement discussions are had. 

  • The Trial Stage speaks for itself. Both sides are presented in front of the judge, who decides on a resolution for the case. 

  • In the post-trial stage, either of the parties may appeal to the judge to reconsider their decision. The winning party will work to collect the awarded damages. 

Family court proceedings:

  • The two parties will meet and may work together to draft a parenting plan or divorce settlement to present to the court. If there is no dispute, the courts typically accept the documents as a foundation for the court order. If the parties cannot come to an agreement, they may schedule a hearing in court to resolve their dispute. 

  • At the hearing, both parties will present their side, and the judge will make a ruling. The ruling is then collected into a legally binding court order. 

How Different Types of Cases Are Handled

Civil court cases

Tort cases stem from a wrongful action that causes injury to someone’s property, reputation, or physical injury to their person. The plaintiff (the person who filed the lawsuit) claims compensation for the losses they suffered as a result of the tort. Some examples of tort cases are car accidents, battery, medical malpractice, and defamation or fraud.  

A Breach of Contract case occurs when a person fails to fulfill some term of a contract (written or verbal) without a legitimate legal excuse. Contract breach could be a failure to complete a job, not paying for completed work, or delivering a performance below the agreed-upon standard. 

Landlord-Tenant claims are also resolved in civil court. Common cases in this category are eviction litigation or a tenant suing for the return of their security deposit. 

Family court cases

Marriage Dissolution in all forms can be handled at family court. Marriages can be dissolved by divorce or annulment. Judges can also grant separation where assets are divided, but legally, the marriage remains intact. 

Child Custody cases where unmarried parents ask the courts to grant legal custody, physical custody, visitation schedules, and child support. 

Guardianship cases determine who will be responsible for the medical, personal, and financial decisions of a child or adult who is unable to care for themself. 

Termination of Parental Rights and Adoptions are both handled in family court. Parents accused of abuse, neglect, or abandonment may have their parental rights terminated. Judges can also grant legal parental status through adoption.

Emancipation. It is granted in family courts for minors who wish to be legally free from their parents.  

Protection Orders Against Domestic Violence can be granted to survivors in order to keep their abuser away. 

The Role of a Family Lawyer

A family lawyer will perform all of the basic legal procedures that a civil attorney would, such as filing paperwork, gathering evidence, and advocating for their client. However, while a civil attorney is working to prove fault or innocence against the other party, in family court, lawyers are there to focus on negotiation and mediation. Not only do family lawyers provide legal support, but they will often provide personal and emotional support for their clients as they navigate difficult familial situations. Let’s take a few of the cases from above and break down what the role of the family lawyer would be. 

Divorce or marriage dissolution

Navigating the emotional distress that comes with divorce is difficult enough without all of the added stress that comes with the legal process. Family lawyers help their clients to navigate all financial and personal matters while providing a strong, logical defense uninterrupted by the emotions the clients might feel towards each other. This can look like making a plan to divide assets and debts, negotiating child custody agreements, and representing their client in mediation hearings. 

Child custody & child support

A family attorney who specializes in child custody or support cases will advise their clients on how to build a case that supports their ideal childcare plan, whether that is gathering evidence to support financial requests or supporting victims who are trying to keep their children out of dangerous situations.

How To Find a Good Family Attorney

Hiring a family attorney allows you to focus on the changing dynamics of your home while your attorney makes sure you are well-represented and up-to-date in your legal process. Expertise is here to help you find a family lawyer that you can rely on. First, if you would like a bit more information on the hiring process, check out our article on How to Hire a Family Lawyer, where we discuss the different steps to finding an attorney and some tips for navigating law firm sites. Expertise has a directory of attorneys that we have put through our extensive vetting process in order to guarantee their experience and qualifications. Lastly, if you are looking to save time and energy without sacrificing quality, let our concierge team scour the best options for you in your area by calling 848-BookPro (848-266-5776).

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