The Legal Business of MotherhoodBeing a mother involves more than celebrating Mother’s Day with flowers. A mother is an every-day role, and in honor of this job we’ll take a look at the legalities associated with motherhood. We live in a society where families take on many shapes, and love comes from many sources. But being a mother (or a parent) involves some serious legal responsibilities.

As a family law attorney (an attorney that handles divorces, child custody and child support issues), I’ll set the stage by mentioning that the courts require a mother to provide for a child financially. Let me address some interesting points:

Defining “The Mother”

There’s a presumption within a marriage that the husband and wife are father and mother.

Alternatively, the state will look to names on a birth certificate or to whether the father has agreed to paternity through a Declaration of Paternity. Or, the state can establish paternity (either stipulated to by the parents, or ordered via DNA testing).

Here are some other things you may not have known, about the legal business of motherhood!

Land of Equality
California will hold both parents equally financially responsible. As a mother (or as a parent) you are making decisions on the educational, religious and medical needs of your child. If there’s a divorce, these decisions are still shared equally. It’s called legal custody, and it is extremely difficult for any one parent to obtain sole legal custody. The type we hear about more often when referencing custody is physical custody. This is the time that each parent spends with the children.

How Old are you Now?

The financial responsibility ends when a child turns 18 (or 19 if the child is still a full time high school student). That brings up an interesting point about college tuition. In California no parent is obligated to pay for college. Although it is important to note that laws differ from state to state on this issue.

Motherly Advice?
I’m a mother, and I take my work personally. A decade ago, after three years of Peace Corps work with families and children in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, I returned home to begin my career, eager to put my law degree to use. My time in Tonga gave me a most attitude-adjusting experience: I saw my island decimated in the wake of a cyclone. Residents had no food, no homes, no electricity, no water, and yet nobody’s life really changed. It gave me a renewed set of values. I chose family law in order to make a difference, and interact with people as opposed to documents. I’ve been able to set my priorities and allow time for a personal life and a family of my own.

I see the issues associated with children and divorce—or for that matter, any traumatic or emotional experience—every day. I would caution all mothers, whether of infants, teenagers or adults, that every action you take throughout this process will have an effect on your children. Every time you encourage your children to go have dinner with their father it has a positive effect on the father’s relationship with the children and the father’s relationship with you. Every time you prevent a visit, or make your ill will known, it will have an effect on your children, which will have an effect on your relationship with your child. It decreases your ability to co-parent, a task you will perform for the rest of your life. Though you’re having marital strife, you will want to focus on, and look forward to your child’s life… a graduation, a wedding, a grandchild. Be conscious of your decisions.

It’s easier in theory than in practice, I know. I’ve seen families do it the right way, and families that do it the wrong way. I’m grounded by my own children, and believe I see the issues differently – not just as an attorney, but as a parent. If your child is lucky enough to have both parents, use them.

Elizabeth Brown has been a member of the California bar since 2001, and limits her practice exclusively to family law. After law school, while fellow graduates lobbied for powerful (and paid) careers, Brown entered the Peace Corps and worked in the Kingdom of Tonga advocating for youth through grassroots projects and grant writing. As a volunteer she embraced the culture and traditions of Tonga, learned the language, and assisted in building relationships in the community.

Brown’s work in California and across the globe in the South Pacific taught her that there are many solutions for a problem. She enjoys finding innovative solutions that best fit a client’s style. Though successful representing clients in a traditional court, Brown also succeeds through alternative dispute resolution models such as four way meetings, the use of special masters, and private judging.

Brown can be reached at


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