New York has two family law court systems and this guide is written to assist New Yorkers in deciding which one to select. Neither system requires a lawyer but most families find the use of a lawyer helpful.
Supreme Court (A county court)
This court is used for obtaining a divorce decree. Users can opt to settle all issues in this court or to take such issues as support and custody and visitation to family court (see below). This court requires a filing fee, and the filing of a Complaint or Answer. After or before the divorce decree, most families who have substantial assets such as mutual real estate, or major bank accounts and investments, use this Court. It is important to keep in mind that normally the court will expect the users of this system to pay substantial fees for evaluators, financial analysts, social workers, etc. The court will require the filing of information related to family members as well as a financial profile. One judge is assigned to the entire case, and can issue orders as to distribution of assets, child support, custody and visitation. In some cases the court may appoint a mediator to see if disputes can be resolved more quickly. This court can issue a judgnment for divorce and a martial settlement decree.
Family Court (usually a municipal court)
After obtaining a divorce or for parents who are not married, this court can deal with certain remaining issues. It does not require a filing fee, and is best for families with average or below average financial assets. This court is managed by a judge and/or a support magistrate and/or a referee (both are lawyers with special authority). The court has two different services: support and custody. In both cases one parent files a petition and the other a response and are designated petitioner and respondent. One problem with this court is that in a larger jurisdiction it is swamped with applicants and there are long delays in obtaining final orders, although there is usually a temporary child support order placed quickly.
The support court is ususally managed by a magistrate who has the authority to evaluate finances, and issue orders for child support. Orders are sent to the NY enforcement bureau. Ignoring these orders can lead to incarceration or the suspension of state-issued licenses. The orders can be sent to state authorities outside of the jurisdiction of NY where they can be enforced. Payment is normally made by a wage garnishment.
Orders can also include a division of sharing expenses such as to education and medical expenses. The court can also designate which parent obtains health insurance for the children.
Custody and Visitation
The custody court is usually managed by a referee. This court handles custody and visitation. Usually the court may appoint a social worker evaluator to visit the home and a mental health professional to evaluate the family. The court also appoints a lawyer as the law guardian for any minor children and this lawyer represents the child's interest in court. Usually there are no fees for any of these professional services.
In certain circumstances this court can decide on a guardian or foster parent appointment as well as vistation from non parents. This court can also evaluate allegations of abuse and neglect and determine if either or both parents cannot have access to the child(ren) or only supervised visits with the child(ren).
Since there are two court systems in NY, there is always the problem that contradictory orders can be issued. Some parents also secure orders from other states to deliberately confuse the process. Keep in mind: the most recent order from the state where the children live is normally the one in force, but that is subject to an
appeal to a NY court. Also, in general a Supreme Court Order overrides a Family Court, but it
is important that you send the Supreme Order to the family court Magistrate and/or the Referee.
Do not believe that the new overriding order has been automatically sent to them.