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How Does the Kentucky Family Court Work?

The State of Kentucky operates a unified judicial system. The Court of Justice, as created by Section 109 of the Kentucky Constitution, is constituted of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, the Circuit Court, and the District Court. The Supreme Court may designate one or more of the Kentucky Circuit Court divisions as a Family Court division in a judicial circuit.

The division retains the general jurisdiction of the Circuit Court but has additional jurisdiction over certain cases. It has general jurisdiction with the Circuit Court over the following types of cases:

  • Child custody
  • Visitation
  • Dissolution of marriage
  • Equitable distribution of property in dissolution cases
  • Maintenance and support
  • Termination of parental rights
  • Adoption

The Family Court also shares jurisdiction over certain types of cases with the Kentucky District Courts. Also, the Kentucky Family Court has additional primary jurisdiction to hear and determine:

  • Domestic violence and abuse proceedings
  • Dependency, abuse, and neglect proceedings
  • Certain Juvenile status offenses
  • Paternity proceedings under the Uniform Act and the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act

Note, this additional jurisdiction given to the Family Court is to enable it to carry out its functions, which include:

  • Strengthening and preserving the integrity of the family as well as safeguarding marital and familial relationships
  • Protecting both children and adult family members from any form of domestic violence and abuse
  • Promoting the cordial settlement of disputes that arise between family members
  • Ensuring adequate remedy for children proven to be dependent, abused, or neglected, and for those children convicted as status offenders
  • Mitigating the potential harm to the spouses and children due to the process of the legal dissolution of marriage
  • Making adequate provision for the custody, care, and support of minor children of divorce and for those children who were born out of wedlock

In judicial circuits that have a Family Court, the position of domestic relations commissioner is terminated, and no commissioner is appointed to hear or determine any case within the family court’s jurisdiction. The Kentucky Family Court judges are elected from their respective judicial circuits on a nonpartisan basis. The judges hold office for a tenure of eight years. This tenure may be cut short if the judge is removed or retired.

A Family Court judge may be suspended without pay or retired for disability or removed for a good cause by a retirement commission. This commission comprises a Court of Appeals judge, a circuit judge, a district judge, one member of the State bar, and two regular persons appointed by the Governor. The retirement commission members remain in office for a term of four years and have all its actions reviewed by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

To be eligible to serve as a Kentucky Family Court judge, applicants must have a Circuit Judge’s qualifications. Therefore, the individual must:

  • Be a citizen of the United States.
  • Be a member of the State Bar in Kentucky.
  • Have been resident in the State for the past two years
  • Have been a licensed attorney for at least eight years

During the term of office, the Family Court judge is not to practice law, or run for a non-judicial elective office, or hold office in a political organization or party. In cases where there is a vacancy in a Kentucky Family Court judge’s office, the Governor appoints somebody to fill the vacancy. The Governor designates the temporary judge from a list of three names proposed by the appropriate judicial nominating commission.

If the Governor does not select the judge within sixty days, the Kentucky Supreme Court’s chief justice makes the designation from the same list. Each Kentucky judicial circuit has one judicial nominating commission. This commission comprises seven members, including the Supreme Court’s chief justice, two members of the bar appointed by other members, and four individuals appointed by the Governor.

The persons selected by the Governor must be two members of each of the two political parties of the State having the highest number of voters. The members of this nominating commission must be resident in the respective circuit. A person holding a public office or an office in a political organization party may not be appointed as a member. The Kentucky General Assembly fixes the tenure of office of the members.

A Family Court judge may be disqualified from sitting over a proceeding where the judge’s ability to be impartial is questionable. In such situations, the Chief Justice replaces the disqualified judge. This occurs in circumstances where:

  • The judge has a personal prejudice or bias as regards a party, or has personal knowledge of the facts in dispute, or has asserted an opinion on the merits of the proceeding.
  • In government service or private practice, the judge served as a lawyer or gave a legal opinion on the matter in controversy.
  • The judge has been a material witness as regards the matter in dispute.
  • The judge, spouse, or minor child living in the judge’s household has a proprietary or pecuniary interest in the subject matter in controversy or a party to the case.
  • The judge or spouse, or a third-degree relative of theirs, is a lawyer, director, officer, or trustee of one of the parties.
  • The judge has an interest that may be substantially affected by the results of the proceeding;

Note, since the Kentucky Family Court is a division of the Circuit Court, the Circuit Court’s Clerk is also the Clerk of the Family Court division. The Clerk has the power to hire and dismiss deputies and other employees of the Clerk of the court’s office. The Clerk and the deputies must all undergo a training course every two years.

In the training course, the clerks and deputy clerks acquire knowledge on domestic violence, its effects on adult and child victims, legal remedies for safety, lethality and risk issues, model protocols to address domestic violence, etc.

Interested persons may obtain Kentucky Family Court records from the Kentucky Court of Justice website. The site provides users with the option to search for a case by party, case number, or citation. If searching by case number, select the relevant county and provide the case number. On the other hand, if searching by citation, enter the year, control number, and type. Users looking up a case by a party must provide at least any of these combinations:

  • Last name and birth date
  • Last name and first name
  • Social Security number
  • DLN
  • County and case event range

The results that the page provides vary depending on the provided criteria. The records that match the information closely entered appear at the top of the page, while those that least fit the supplied parameters are at the bottom of the page. The search result page gives a summary of the Kentucky Family cases. This includes the parties’ names, the party type, case type, county where the case was held, personal identifiers, case number, next court event, and case title.

For a more comprehensive case record or a certified copy of a Kentucky Family Court record, visit the office of the Clerk of Court of the relevant county. To find the Court Clerk’s address and contact information, visit the Kentucky Court of Justice website and select the applicable county. Note, not all counties have family courts. To find out which counties have Family Courts, check the Kentucky Family Court sites.

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