What a Unified Family Court System means for your divorce

An attorney works on her computer at her desk.

When people think about divorce, many imagine messy sagas filled with multiple court dates, extended periods of waiting, and overly confusing systems that parents must wade through before they get to the other side. For many families, that's the unfortunate reality. They're bounced between multiple judges to settle matters of custody, visitation, property division, child and spousal support, and more. 

But for over two decades, family law professionals across the United States have been advocating for Unified Family Court Systems (UFCs) in the hopes of giving families a different journey—one that supports them during a difficult time rather than wounding them further. 

What is a Unified Family Court System? 

According to the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) at the University of Baltimore School of Law, a Unified Family Court System "is a single court system with comprehensive subject-matter jurisdiction over all cases involving children and families." Or, in other words, a UFC is a court system that has the ability to oversee all matters related to children and families, including: 

  • child and spousal support
  • custody and visitation
  • divorces and annulments
  • domestic abuse and family violence
  • property divisions
  • orders of protection
  • guardianships

UFCs do not rely solely on judges and court appearances to solve legal matters. They also tend to devote significant resources to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) techniques, such as mediation.

But, just as importantly, UFCs also aim to provide support for non-legal matters as well. A UFC might provide services related to substance abuse, co-parenting education, anger management, and other emotional or personal needs. There are also often programs to help pro se litigants—those who are representing themselves—navigate family justice cases. This holistic approach to helping families has lead advocates to give UFCs the label of "therapeutic justice." 

Why do people advocate for Unified Family Court Systems?

Therapeutic justice involves taking a more compassionate approach to a case. It calls for gaining a better understanding of the needs of a family by all professionals involved to find a fitting resolution. To gain that understanding, it's vital that family law professionals, at every step of the way, have access to a family's history. 

In a non-unified court system, records can be scattered across systems, inaccessible to judges responsible for overseeing various parts of a family's journey. It's also possible that not knowing the previous judgments, courts may provide families with conflicting or confusing orders.

According to Robert Bell, former Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, a court's most basic goal is to solve a family's problem. But court's "can't do that if all [they're] doing is putting a bandage here, a bandage there, and [they] never see the whole picture."

Advocates argue that UFCs provide that whole picture by integrating all aspects of child and family cases under a single court. Many UFCs even aim to have the same judge and court staff assigned to a family for their entire divorce process. Being there from day 1, judges and court staff are better able to address a family's specific needs. That makes it easier to find solutions that support healthy familial relationships, prevent repeat visits to court, and protect the needs and best interests of children.

It's not only families who benefit from these goals. By preventing repeat visits and streamlining record-keeping, courts conserve valuable resources and time. With fewer court appearances, courts may also be able to address time-sensitive familial issues at a more efficient pace. 

What does a Unified Family Court System mean for your case? 

UFCs tend to better facilitate the needs of families of every demographic. Take one of the guiding principles for when the Supreme Court of Florida was establishing the state's UFC for example. They emphasized that, whenever possible, the UFC should empower families and their attorneys "to select processes for addressing issues in their cases that are compatible with the family's needs, financial circumstances, and legal requirements."

But even if UFCs tend to be more holistic and "family-friendly" in their approach, they are still part of a court system that can quickly become very complicated, and you'll likely need some help navigating the divorce process. As previously mentioned, if you are pro se, a UFC may have additional programs to guide you. Check with the court overseeing your case for resources for people representing themselves.

How OFW can help you prepare to interact with a Unified Family Court system

Just as it's simpler for a single court to handle all matters related to divorce and child custody, containing your communication to a single program can make it easier for the courts to assess your co-parenting needs. That's because when courts have access to accurate and complete information, they are better able to make effective rulings.

OFW® is built with tools to thoroughly document parent communication in regards to topics such as the family schedule, shared expenses and reimbursements, sharing vital information, and much more. These types of records can prove invaluable, especially if you and your co-parent must ever return to court to clarify your parenting arrangement.