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Legal Glossary - Family Law Terminology

Breach of Promise, violation of an agreement to marry. The agreement of a man and a woman to marry is considered in the law as a simple contract and is governed as such. It requires no particular legal formality and does not have to be in writing. A marriage contract made by a minor who has reached the age of consent is voidable if the minor so chooses. The remedy for a breach of promise is an action by the other party for damages, but such actions are very rare in the United States today. Statutes in individual states can prohibit breach of promise actions; about one-third of the states have such statutes.

Child Abuse, intentional acts that result in physical or emotional harm to children. The term child abuse covers a wide range of behavior, from actual physical assault by parents or other adult caretakers to neglect of a child’s basic needs. Child abuse is also sometimes called child maltreatment.

Child Support, financial contribution paid by a noncustodial or absentee parent to a custodial parent toward the expenses of raising his or her children.

Community Property, in law, possessions held jointly by a married couple. Except for inheritances or gifts to either spouse, all property acquired by the husband or wife during the marriage is usually considered community property. This includes money, real estate, household furnishings, investment securities, automobiles, and other types of consumer goods that people have accumulated together. Property owned prior to the marriage and any income from such property remains separate and apart. Contractual agreements may also be made by the couple to allow them to maintain individual property.

In the past, marital property laws were biased in favor of the husband, who usually held title to the couple's major assets. In English common law, wives were unable to hold and dispose of property until about 1850, when various statutes were passed to protect the rights of married women.

At present the concept of community property is recognized under the laws of many states in the United States. In those states it is used to determine the division of possessions when a marriage ends in separation or divorce. Its purpose is to provide fair and equitable treatment for both parties.

Conjugal Rights, in law, the rights of a husband or wife to the companionship, society, service, and affection of his or her spouse. For any unlawful invasion of these rights by a third party, the injured spouse may have a legal claim against the wrongdoer. In some states of the U.S., a person who alienates the affections of one spouse may be liable to the other spouse for damages; today such suits are rarely initiated. Alienation of affections is no longer grounds for legal action in several states, including New York.

The courts in the United States have declared that they have no jurisdiction to compel cohabitation where one party to the marital relation withdraws from the society of the other without justifiable cause, or to enforce a restitution of conjugal rights that are withheld. In certain states, marital rape has been prosecuted in criminal actions. In England, an ancient action, known as a suit for the restriction of conjugal rights, may still be initiated, but its only consequence is to provide the plaintiff grounds for a judicial decree of separation from the defendant. Refusal to cohabit is valid grounds for separation, annulment, or divorce in many U.S. states.

Desertion (law), in the law of domestic relations, abandonment or renunciation of marital relations and obligations by either spouse, with intent not to resume relations, and without the consent or wrongful conduct of the other. In most of the U.S., willful desertion is a legal cause for divorce. Following desertion, the period of time necessary before proceedings can be instituted varies from one to five years. In some states, a husband's continued financial support of the wife whom he has willfully abandoned is no bar to an action for divorce on her part.

Family Law, specialized area of legal practice dealing with rights and duties among husbands, wives, and children.

Foster Care, temporary care of children by substitute parents. Foster care is supervised by governmental or charitable agencies. It is used to protect children from unhealthy or unsafe home situations or to provide care when natural parents are unavailable. Foster care is different from adoptive care, where children become permanent members of a family.

Separation, in the law of domestic relations, either a separation agreement, that is, a contract entered into between husband and wife by which they agree to live apart; or a judicial separation, a court decree that separates the parties to the marriage and provides for their living apart. Separation does not dissolve the marriage relationship. A separation agreement contains provisions for the custody and support of minor children, as well as for the division of property between the parties.

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