New York State Family Court Vs. Supreme Court
When most people think of family law, they think of divorce cases. In New York, the Supreme Court—which is the general jurisdiction court—is the only court that can handle actual divorce cases. The Supreme Court is difficult and expensive for people to navigate; there are many procedures, lots of paperwork, and a $250 filing fee (at minimum). In addition, a request for judicial intervention must be filed in order to get a judge assigned to a case, which costs another couple hundred dollars.
As a result, the New York legislature developed the Family Court as a more user-friendly alternative; it was designed to be navigated without the help of a lawyer (although it is usually beneficial to hire a lawyer anyway), as there is less paperwork, no filing fees, and it offers an overall streamlined process.
Unlike the Supreme Court, which is a general court that handles all types of cases (e.g., personal injury, criminal, business disputes, matrimonial), Family Court is a specialized court of limited jurisdiction, meaning that only particular kinds of cases can be filed in Family Court. Family Court is tailored for families who are in crisis, but cannot grant parties a divorce, nor handle equitable distribution matters (i.e., the division of property and assets).
The Family Court does have the authority to handle custody, visitation, orders of protection, paternity, and child support issues between parties who are not married, or who are married but do not have a pending divorce case. If the parties are married and are getting a divorce, then these cases would be filed in the Supreme Court in conjunction with the divorce.
- Most final divorce judgments dictate that Family Court and the Supreme Court have concurrent jurisdiction over changes to child support or spousal support. This means that if one party wants to increase or reduce child support, or enforce a child support order after they have already received a divorce judgment, they would take those actions to either the Family Court or the Supreme Court (most people go through the Family Court for these matters).
Family Court can handle cases that aren’t typically handled by the Supreme Court, including child protective cases involving parents who have been accused of child abuse or neglect. In New York, these cases are filed by the Administration for Children Services (ACS) against the parents or caregivers who are legally responsible for the child; any criminal case that arises from neglect or abuse would be dealt with only by the Family Court.
Family Court also handles juvenile delinquency cases, which are criminal cases involving a minor who is under the age of 18 (in the past, it was under the age of 16). Once a person turns 18 years old, they are considered an adult and can be charged as one in Criminal Court; if they are charged with a felony, then the case would be held in the Supreme Court.
There is dual jurisdiction for adoption cases, as they are handled by the Family Court as well as the New York Surrogate’s Court, which is a division of the Supreme Court that handles estates, trusts, and guardianships.
If an order of protection is needed between parties who are not married, one can be sought in Family Court. In the past, an individual could only file for an order of protection through the Family Court if it was against someone with whom they were related by blood or had a child with. The legislature has expanded the jurisdiction to allow an individual to file for an order or protection through the Family Court against someone they are in an “intimate relationship” with, which could mean they are dating, or even against a friend.
About 10 years ago, the Integrated Domestic Violence (IDV) Court was established. The IDV is part of the Supreme Court that handles cases that are scattered in different courts. For example, one incident can lead to both an order of protection case in Family Court, and a simultaneous criminal case. There might also be a divorce case going on in the Supreme Court. The legislature established IDV Court as a way of having associated cases involving the same parties be heard by one judge.
It is not uncommon for there to be an overlap between the Family Court and Supreme Court. For instance, this would happen if one party files for custody, visitation, an order of protection, or child support in Family Court, and the other party (or even the same party) files for divorce in the Supreme Court. Under these circumstances, one person would make a motion to consolidate the cases into the divorce case, which would likely be granted for custody and visitation matters. Since orders of protection are considered priority cases and must be decided prior to matters of custody and visitation, they will often stay in the Family Court; the same is true for child support cases.
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