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State laws often affect individuals and businesses even more so than federal law. The most common form of federal law that affects the average person will be federal income tax laws, regulated through the IRS. However, most other types of legal problems people face will be regulated by state law.
Typically, the state of a person’s residence will control what laws apply. However, if a person travels to another state and an incident arises, the state laws of where the incident took place will likely apply.
Each state has a fair amount of freedom to establish its own laws regarding an array of legal topics. State-specific laws may affect a variety of different cases, including the following:
Family Law – Family law is almost always governed by state-specific laws, including the laws of marriage, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony and property division. Family law can become complex when a spouse or child moves to another state and the question arises regarding what state has jurisdiction.
Criminal Law – Most criminal charges are brought under state law (although the federal government does have its own set of criminal laws.) This includes capital crimes (typically murder, kidnapping, rape and arson) as well as felonies and misdemeanors.
Traffic Accidents – Though many states require victims to prove fault in a car accident, a few states have no fault systems, meaning that fault is not important in a car accident and each driver’s insurance company pays for damages their policy holders endure. Many state-specific laws can affect fault and criminal punishment in car wreck cases. Some states do not outlaw cell phone use while driving, for example. State laws also establish the minimum amount of insurance a resident of that state must have, which is why all drivers should get uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage.
Personal Injury – Many states differ when it comes to personal injury law. States set their own statutes of limitations regarding how long a person has to file civil suits. Further, different states have different damages that are available, and some states have caps on the amount of damages victims can collect from personal injury or medical malpractice cases.
Business Law – Most businesses laws, including incorporation, business torts and breach of contract issues fall under state-specific laws. However, businesses can incorporate in different states, and may generally be sued in any state where they conduct business.
Employment Law – States experience a great deal of leeway with the laws that affect employees and their employers. Most, but not all states are at-will employment states, meaning employees may be fired or leave a job at will, with very little notice and no reason other than an illegal one. States also greatly vary in terms of the rights they grant to employees, and each state develops a specific labor code to inform employees and business owners about their rights.
Estate Planning and Tax – The federal government has an estate and gift tax, but state law regarding exemptions to property makes estate planning state-specific, as well. Some states set up their own estate or inheritance taxes in addition to the federal tax laws.
Bankruptcy – While the Bankruptcy Code is federal law, state law also comes into play. The most important state law in bankruptcy is the state exemptions, which allow bankruptcy filers to exempt a certain amount of real estate, assets and property from the bankruptcy estate. Some states have very generous exemptions; others, less so.
If you have concerns about state laws, you should talk to an attorney who focuses on the practice area in which you have the specific legal issue.