Family Law

Learn how the law can help you with post-disaster issues such as child support and alimony, child custody and visitation, school enrollment, and protection from domestic violence.

Page last updated: 04/04/2023

What Is Family Law?

Family law refers to laws that apply to family-related situations. This can include issues such as:

  • Access to childhood education.
  • Adoption.
  • Alimony.
  • Child custody and visitation.
  • Child support.
  • Domestic violence and protection from abusers.
  • Marriage and divorce.

Family law also can involve court decisions that let someone:

  • Make decisions for adult relatives who can’t make decisions for themselves.
  • Take care of a child whose parents are unable to care for them.

Laws Specific to States and Territories

Each state and territory has its own system of laws and courts that handle most of these family-related issues. You may want to get legal advice about the laws in your area, and you might qualify to get this advice for free. Learn more about these laws and get free legal advice by: 

Preparing for a Disaster

Disasters can cause big changes that affect your legal arrangements. For example, you might have to change where you live and who you’re living with. This can also affect child custody, visitation, and education.

Laws and courts can help you deal with some of these issues. But there are steps you can take before a disaster strikes to be prepared in case you need a court’s help.

Storing Important Documents

Make copies of your important legal documents. Store the original documents somewhere safe. You can use a safe deposit box at your bank or a small fireproof, waterproof safe in your home. You also could safely store information online in the cloud so you can access your documents from anywhere with your password.

Important documents to copy and store include:

  • Driver’s licenses or other state-issued IDs.
  • Passports.
  • Social Security cards.
  • Green cards, residency cards, or work authorizations.
  • Naturalization or citizenship documents.
  • Birth certificates.
  • Marriage and death certificates.
  • Adoption papers.
  • Child custody documents.
  • Divorce decrees.
  • Protective orders (for victims of domestic or partner violence).
  • Your child’s individualized education program (IEP) or Section 504 plan.

For some of these legal documents, you may be able to get a copy from the attorney who represented you. The court that handled the legal issue may also have copies. Either one might be able to supply you with free copies.

Pre-Dispute Resolution

“Pre-dispute resolution” means creating a plan to deal with legal situations you think might happen. For example, parents in joint custody agreements might create a plan for taking care of their children if the kids need to leave their home. This situation could happen because of an approaching disaster, like a hurricane, or after a disaster due to damage to the home where the children live.

Planning ahead can make things easier and less stressful after a disaster. These plans could involve caretakers who are not parents, such as grandparents or trusted friends. Being prepared helps avoid personal disputes that could end up in court, making it easier for disaster survivors to recover.

Power of Attorney

A “power of attorney” (POA) is a legal document that gives someone the power to make decisions on behalf of another person. The person given the authority to make decisions is called the “agent” or “attorney in fact.” The person the agent is making decisions for is called the “principal.”
During disasters, a POA arrangement can help protect your money, property, and children if you become incapacitated. If you become incapacitated and have not created a POA, a friend or family member might have to ask a court to pick a legal guardian. (See our Court-Appointed Guardianship section.)

Some states and territories may have special rules and forms for giving someone else permission to make decisions for your children. Get legal advice to learn the laws and steps to take in your area. (See our Laws Specific to States and Territories section.)

The person you give a POA to doesn’t need to be a lawyer or financial expert. According to the American Bar Association, the best choice is someone you trust. Many people choose a family member.


A “will” is a legal document that spells out what should happen with your money, investments, property, and children under your care when you pass away. If you don’t have a will, family members and other relatives might disagree over what to do. A judge might even make the final decision.

It’s best to ask a lawyer to help you prepare a will. They know how to write a will that is clear about your wishes. A lawyer should also make sure your will is valid in all states and territories.

Family Law Issues After a Disaster

Replace Vital Documents

It’s best to have your important documents already. But if you don’t have them or lost them, get copies or replacements as soon as you can. You often need them if you go to court.

See our online guide on How To Replace Lost Documents.

Domestic Violence

If you were a victim of domestic violence before a disaster struck, you may already have a protective order from the court to keep your abuser away from you. It’s important to have this document with you. An abuser can be arrested and put in jail if they violate a protective order.

  • If you lost a protective order, contact the clerk in the court where you received the protective order. Ask for another copy. Having your protective order can help you if you need to contact the police.
  • If you relocated to a different state or territory because of a disaster, your protective order can probably still be enforced. If you have reason to believe an attacker is going to violate the order, call 911.

Child Custody

The effect of disasters can complicate joint custody agreements. For example, you and your children might temporarily have to live in a different place.

If a flood or other natural disaster seems likely, the parent who has the children at the time should make an honest effort to contact the other parent. The parents need to agree on a plan. Keep notes about any efforts you make. These notes should show the dates you tried to contact the other parent, if the other parent responded, how you communicated, and what was said or written.

Sometimes you cannot return your children to the other parent because of disaster-related conditions. If this happens, take pictures of these conditions so you can provide proof to a judge.

Child Support and Alimony

Sometimes a disaster can affect a person’s income and ability to pay child support and alimony. Other times, a person who is supposed to pay child support or alimony may use a disaster as an excuse to delay, stop, or lower their payments.

State and territory laws vary, but in general, you may be able to get help from the court if:

  • You know that the person who owes the alimony or child support is still getting paid for work, but they aren’t paying what the court ordered. You may be able to file a petition with the court to enforce the payment. In many states and territories, the person who fails to pay can be charged with a crime. Federal law allows for penalties too.
  • You aren’t able to work as much or at all because of a disaster. You may be able to ask the court to modify its order so you can pay a reduced amount for alimony or child support.


After a disaster, the children in your care might have to live somewhere else for a while because of damage to your home. You also might still be together but living in temporary housing in a different area. What does this mean for where your children go to school?

For some questions, you need to check the laws in your state or territory to get the answer. But federal law guarantees certain educational rights for children who are homeless or displaced by a disaster, no matter where they live in the country. These rights apply to children who live in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, hotels, and motels. They also apply to children who must temporarily live with other people because of a disaster.

Federal law gives students who are homeless or displaced the right to:

  • Go back to the school they attended before the disaster. The school district must provide the student with transportation to and from school if a parent or guardian asks for it.
  • Enroll immediately into the public school where they’re living. The school must accept this enrollment even if the student doesn’t have certain documentation like proof of residency or immunization records.
  • Challenge a school’s decision if the school decides the student should not be allowed to enroll. The student can keep attending school during the challenge process. Also, the school district must provide a written explanation of its objections to the student’s enrollment.
  • Receive free school meals.
  • Participate fully in the school’s activities. This includes after-school activities.
  • Receive transportation to their new school.
  • Continue special education services. The new school district must provide special education services similar to the services of the old district.

Although these laws are federal, you need to check your local laws too.

Court-Appointed Guardianship

Like a POA, court-appointed guardianship is a legal way for someone to make decisions for another person who can’t make decisions for themselves or manage their own health care. But there are very important differences.

For a POA, you pick who is allowed to make decisions for you. For a court-appointed guardianship, someone else asks a court to approve a decision-maker. The laws in your state or territory will give guidance on who is allowed to ask a court to appoint a guardian for a child or an adult.

  • Child guardianship. Courts may appoint a guardian when a child’s parents are unable to make decisions about their child’s well-being. For example, this might happen if the parents pass away and don’t have a will that says who should take care of the child. This can also happen if the parents can’t care for the child because of illness or injury.
  • Adult guardianship. Sometimes adults are unable to take care of themselves or make decisions. This could be because of a physical or mental disability. If that adult did not arrange to give someone POA, the court can appoint a guardian to make decisions about the adult’s medical care, housing, and finances.

Legal guardianship is assigned by a court, such as the family court. It’s assigned according to laws in your state or territory.