New Mexico Legal Aid

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Free legal aid in New Mexico



Family Law and Disasters

What Is Family Law?

Family law refers to laws that apply to family-related situations. This can include issues such as:

  • Access to childhood education
  • Adoption
  • Alimony
  • Child custody and visitation.
    Child support
  • Domestic violence and protection from abusers
  • Marriage and divorce

Family law can also involve court decisions that let someone:

  • Make decisions for adult relatives who can’t make decisions for themselves
  • Take care of a child whose parents are unable to care for them

Preparing for a Disaster

Disasters can cause big changes that affect your legal arrangements

  • You might have to change where you live and who you’re living with.
  • Can also affect child custody, visitation, and education.
  • Make copies of your important legal documents.
  • Store the original documents somewhere safe, such as:
    • A safe deposit box at your bank;
    • A small fireproof, waterproof safe in your home.
    • Online in the cloud so you can access your documents from anywhere with your password.
  • Important documents to copy and store:
    • Driver’s licenses or other state-issued IDs.
    • Passports
    • Social Security cards.
    • Green cards, residency cards, or work authorizations.
    • Naturalization or citizenship documents.
    • Birth certificates.
    • Marriage and death certificates.
    • Adoption papers.
    • Child custody documents.
    • Divorce decrees.
    • Protective orders (for victims of domestic or partner violence).
    • Your child’s individualized education program (IEP) or Section 504 plan.

For some of these legal documents, you may be able to get a copy from the attorney who represented you or from the court that handled the legal issue.

  • “Pre-dispute resolution” means:
    • Creating a plan to deal with legal situations you think might happen.
      • Parents in joint custody agreements might create a plan for taking care of their children if the kids need to leave their home.
        • because of an approaching disaster, like a hurricane, or after a disaster due to damage to the home where the children live.
      • Planning ahead can make things easier and less stressful after a disaster.
        • Plans could involve caretakers who are not parents, such as grandparents or trusted friends.
        • Helps avoid personal disputes that could end up in court, making it easier for disaster survivors to recover.
  • A “Power of Attorney” (POA) is a legal document that gives someone the power to make decisions on behalf of another person.
    • During disasters, a POA arrangement can help protect your money, property, and children if you become incapacitated (unable to make decisions for yourself).
      • If you become incapacitated and have not created a POA, a friend or family member might have to ask a court to pick a legal guardian for you. (See the Court-Appointed Guardianship section.)
    • The person you give a POA to doesn’t need to be a lawyer or financial expert.
      • The best choice is someone you trust. Many people choose a family member.
  • A “will” is a legal document that spells out what should happen with your money, investments, property, and children under your care when you pass away.
    • If you don’t have a will, family members and other relatives might disagree over what to do. A judge might even make the final decision.
  • It’s best to ask a lawyer to help you prepare a will.
    • They know how to write a will that is clear about your wishes.
    • A lawyer should also make sure your will is valid in all states and territories.

Family Law Issues After a Disaster

  • If you don’t have– or if you lost – your important documents, get copies or replacements as soon as you can.
  • If you were a victim of domestic violence before a disaster struck, you may already have a protective order from the court to keep your abuser away from you.
    • It’s important to have this document with you.
      • An abuser can be arrested and put in jail if they violate a protective order.
    • If you lost a protective order, contact the clerk in the court where you received the protective order.
      • Ask for another copy.
      • Having your protective order can help you if you need to contact the police.
    • If you relocated to a different state or territory because of a disaster:
      • Your protective order can probably still be enforced.
      • If you have reason to believe an attacker is going to violate the order, call 911.
  • Disasters can complicate joint custody agreements.
    • You and your children might temporarily have to live in a different place.
  • If a flood or other natural disaster seems likely:
    • The parent who has the children at the time should make an honest effort to contact the other parent.
      • The parents need to agree on a plan.
      • Keep notes about any efforts you make.
        • These notes should show the dates you tried to contact the other parent, if the other parent responded, how you communicated, and what was said or written.
      • If you cannot return your children to the other parent because of disaster-related conditions:
        • Take pictures of these conditions so you can provide proof to a judge.
  • A disaster might affect a person’s income and ability to pay child support and alimony.
  • A person who is supposed to pay child support or alimony may use a disaster as an excuse to delay, stop, or lower their payments.
  • You may be able to get help from the court if:
  • You know that the person who owes the alimony or child support is still getting paid for work, but they aren’t paying what the court ordered.
    • You may be able to file a petition with the court to enforce the payment.
      • In many states and territories, and under federal law, the person who fails to pay can be charged with a crime.
    • You aren’t able to work as much or at all because of a disaster.
      • You may be able to ask the court to modify its order so you can pay a reduced amount for alimony or child support.
  • After a disaster, the children in your care might have to live somewhere else for a while because of damage to your home. You also might still be together but living in temporary housing in a different area. What does this mean for where your children go to school?
    • Federal law guarantees certain educational rights for children who are homeless or displaced by a disaster, no matter where they live in the country.
      • These rights apply to children who live in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, hotels, and motels. They also apply to children who must temporarily live with other people because of a disaster.
      • Federal law gives students who are homeless or displaced the right to:
    • Go back to the school they attended before the disaster.
      • The school district must provide the student with transportation to and from school if a parent or guardian asks for it.
    • Enroll immediately into the public school where they’re living.
      • The school must accept this enrollment even if the student doesn’t have certain documentation like proof of residency or immunization records.
    • Challenge a school’s decision if the school decides the student should not be allowed to enroll.
      • The student can keep attending school during the challenge process.
      • The school district must provide a written explanation of its objections to the student’s enrollment.
      • Receive free school meals.
    • Participate fully in the school’s activities.
      • This includes after-school activities.
    • Receive transportation to their new school.
    • Continue special education services.
      • The new school district must provide special education services similar to the services of the old district.
  • Like a Power of Attorney, court-appointed guardianship is a legal way for someone to make decisions for another person who can’t make decisions for themselves or manage their own health care.
    • But there are very important differences:

Power of Attorney

Court-Appointed Guardianship

You pick who you is allowed to make decisions for you.

Someone else picks someone to make decisions for you – and asks a court to approve the choice

  • Legal guardianship is assigned by a court, such as the family court.


  • Child guardianship.
    • Courts may appoint a guardian when a child’s parents are unable to make decisions about their child’s well-being.
      • This might happen if the parents pass away and don’t have a will that says who should take care of the child.
      • This can also happen if the parents can’t care for the child because of illness or injury.
  • Adult guardianship.
    • Sometimes adults are unable to take care of themselves or make decisions.
      • This could be because of a physical or mental disability.
        • If that adult did not arrange to give someone POA, the court can appoint a guardian to make decisions about the adult’s medical care, housing, and finances.

How to reach us

If you’re facing a disaster-related legal issue, we’re here to assist you. Here’s how you can contact us:

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