How to Become a Family Counselor


Published June 20, 2024

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Counselor speaking to family Credit: NoSystem images / E+ / Getty Images

Family counselors assess and treat various issues and mental health conditions, focusing on relationships. They work with clients of all ages and group sizes, including couples, close friends, and parents and their children. Family counselors must meet rigid state licensing requirements since they play such a critical role in the mental health field.

Discover how to become a family counselor, including the state licensure process, job duties, and career opportunities.

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What Is a Family Counselor?

Family counselors, also called family therapists, are licensed mental health professionals who help families improve communication, understanding, and support. These specialists diagnose conditions and disorders, develop treatment plans, and apply therapeutic techniques to assist diverse clients and situations.

Family counselors must meet strict licensure requirements to practice in all states. These include completing a graduate program accredited by The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), clinical experiences, and examinations. They also require compassion, perception, communication, interpersonal, and time management skills.

Once licensed, family counselors can practice in family service facilities, healthcare offices, mental health centers, or other outpatient care centers. They work with different family groups, including couples and close friends, law enforcement, social workers, and other treatment professionals.


  • Assess Clients: Family counselors assess and diagnose client needs and disorders through interviews, discussions, observations, and psychological tests.
  • Counsel and Support Clients: Therapists communicate with families about their challenges and provide advice, mentorship, and encouragement.
  • Develop Treatment Plans: They create systematic approaches to managing harmful behaviors and fixing family problems.
  • Collaborate with Other Professionals: They lean on other professionals for insight or to arrange additional services.


How to Become a Family Counselor

Every state has its own unique licensure requirements, but the education, experience, and examinations required for a family counselor license usually take up to 10 years to complete.

Here are some of the most common steps:

  1. 1

    Complete a Family Counseling Internship

    Internships allow you to apply your new knowledge and skills in a clinical setting. You'll work with clients in a supervised environment for hundreds of hours, helping you prepare for the profession and demonstrate to state licensing bodies that you have the appropriate experience.

    Internship requirements vary by state and credential, but programs accredited by COAMFTE require a minimum of 300 clinical hours of direct client contact, including at least 100 hours involving family members and 100 hours of clinical supervision.

  2. 2

    Earn a Master's Degree in Family Counseling

    Each state requires prospective family counselors to earn a master's in family counseling or a related field at minimum prior to licensure. While some states accept other program types, COAMFTE-accredited programs meet national and state examinations and state licensure requirements nationwide.

    Most counseling master's programs require a bachelor's degree for admission, but some also require specific social sciences course prerequisites.

  3. 3

    Complete Post-Master's Supervised Experience

    After you earn your master's degree, you need to complete a minimum of one year post-master's experience to demonstrate your readiness for independent practice. While under supervision, you can apply the theories and skills you've learned, find your counseling style, and build confidence.

    Each state's professional experience requirements range between 1,000-4,000 hours and may include direct client contact, supervised, and family counseling hours. In some states, you need a provisional license or limited permit to practice under supervision and acquire the necessary experience.

  4. 4

    Apply for Counseling Licensure with Your State Board

    Once you meet the pre-exam requirements for becoming a family counselor, you must apply for the licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT) credential with your state board. The state board will review your application and determine your eligibility for the national or state family therapist exam. The state board will then wait to receive your exam scores and licensing fees before it grants your LMFT licensure.

  5. 5

    Pass the MFT Exam

    When your state board approves your pre-exam application, it issues an eligibility test letter and an exam approval code. This allows you to take the examination in marital and family therapy developed by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) and administered by the Professional Testing Corporation. The four-hour national exam includes 180 multiple-choice questions and covers all core areas of the practice.

    In California, you need to take California's LMFT clinical exam instead of the national exam.

Family Counselor Licensure

Despite the different requirements for family counselor licensure, all states follow a similar process.

For one, they all accept COAMFTE-accredited master's degrees, making these programs the industry standard for family counseling education. All states also require supervised clinical experience hours, though the exact number of hours and specific experience requirements vary. Except for California, which uses a state exam, all states also accept the MFT national exam as the final licensure requirement.

Here's a quick rundown of the typical LMFT requirements:

Licensure renewal requirements vary by state, but you typically need to renew the credential every two years and complete between 30-40 continuing education hours during this period.

Family Counselor Outlook and Salaries

The overall outlook is strong, but salary and job growth specifics vary by location. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 15% growth for marriage and family therapists between 2022 and 2032, 12 percentage points higher than the average growth for all occupations.

According to the BLS, the national average annual salary for family counselors is $68,730 as of May 2023. In the highest-paying states, New Jersey, Maryland, Utah, Virginia, and Alaska, salaries range between $74,420 and $92,120.

As integrated care becomes more prevalent, family therapists who specialize in areas like substance use or mental health disorders might improve their employability and earning potential. Other advancement opportunities include opening up your own practice or managing a medical services facility.

Annual Salaries for Marriage and Family Therapists by Percentile
Annual Salary Percentile Annual Salary
10% $39,090
25% $45,250
Median (50%) $58,510
75% $78,440
100% $104,710
Source: BLS, 2023

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Family Counselor

What is the job of a family counselor?

A family counselor's job may include assessing, diagnosing, and counseling family groups. They provide clients with guidance, support, and treatment plans to help them resolve and manage issues.

Family counselors help clients within a family system better understand and improve their conditions and relationships. They offer family members counseling and treatments to open lines of communication and manage mental health disorders.

Family counseling may not suit everyone because of the time and effort required to earn licensure, and the difficult situations family counselors must deal with. Earning licensure can take a great deal of time, money, and effort. As a family counselor, you may encounter sensitive information and difficult situations.

As a practice, family counseling may lack the personalization of individual counseling, which can create pushback from participants and bring conflicts into the open.

Family counseling differs from individual counseling, primarily by its focus and the sessions' participants. Family counseling takes place within a family context, tackling issues affecting the entire family system. As a result, family counseling sessions often involve multiple family members.

Conversely, individual counseling sessions usually take place one-on-one and deal with one individual's issues at a time.

Page last reviewed on June 5, 2024

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