Understanding Definitions In Divorce Cases
This section defines law terms commonly used in divorce and family law. Entries have been simplified for the benefit of nonlawyers and is not intended as a substitute for legal advice.
Abandonment — This term is applied when one married spouse leaves the marital home. In some cases, this may be grounds for divorce or may reflect adversely upon the spouse who moves.
Adultery — This term refers to sexual intercourse by a married person outside of the marriage. In some cases, this may also be grounds for divorce or may adversely affect the offender’s case.
Affidavit — Sworn statement in writing, usually made under oath or on affirmation before a magistrate or officer (often a notary public).
Alimony — Financial payments made to help support a spouse or former spouse during separation or following divorce. Also called spousal support or spousal maintenance.
Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) — Methods of resolving legal disputes without going to trial, in a less adversarial manner, such as through arbitration or mediation.
Arrearage — The amount of money that is past due for child or spousal support.
Child support — Money that a noncustodial parent pays to the custodial parent for their child(ren)’s support.
Child support guidelines — Guidelines established by statute or rule in each jurisdiction that set forth the manner in which child support must be calculated, generally based on the income of the parents and the needs of the children.
Child support method — Method used in some legal jurisdictions to establish a base for determining child support. Takes into account the gross incomes of both parents, less special adjustments (such as support paid for children of previous marriage), and a figure for the amount of money (usually stated as a monthly sum) that will be required to be spent for the child. The court has the authority to deviate from the formula as it deems necessary in each case.
COBRA — The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) is a federal law giving you and your covered dependents the right to continue group health coverage on a self-paid basis if eligibility for employer-sponsored group medical and dental insurance is lost through loss of employment or through divorce. COBRA eligibility is usually for 18 to 36 months after the event.
COLA — Cost-of-living adjustment.
Contempt of court — The deliberate failure to comply with the orders or directives of the court.
Contested — Any issue on which the petitioner and respondent cannot agree, which must then be decided by the court.
Custody — Having rights to your child. Custody can be either legal, which means that you have the right to make important decisions about your child’s welfare, or physical, which means that the child lives with and is raised by you.
Custodial parent — The parent who has physical custody of the child.
Deferred compensation package — This includes all retirement assets, such as pension, 401Ks, IRAs and any variety of saving or postponed income, which has been earned during the marriage.
Default — Failure to respond in the prescribed manner within a given period of time. The respondent in a petition for dissolution is said to be in default if he or she failed to respond within a set period of time, usually 30 days after the date of service.
Decree — The court’s written order or decision finalizing the divorce, often issued in conjunction with the court’s judgment.
Default — Failing to answer a petition or complaint for divorce. Failing to file an answer or appear in court as required can result in the court awarding everything requested by the filing spouse.
Defendant — The person against whom legal papers are filed, also sometimes referred to as the respondent.
Deposition — Part of the discovery or information-exchanging process of a legal proceeding, in which the attorney for the other party asks you questions, you answer with your attorney present and a transcript of the proceedings is prepared.
Discovery — The information-exchanging process of a legal proceeding, including serving and answering interrogatories and requests for production of documents, and taking depositions.
Dissolution — Another word for divorce, which is the legal termination of a marriage relationship.
Divorce — The legal termination of a marriage relationship.
Docket — The court’s calendar schedule.
Domestic violence — Physical abuse or threats of abuse occurring between members of the same household.
Emancipation — The point at which children become financially independent, or reach the age of 18 or 21, depending on the wording of a state’s laws.
Equitable distribution — A division of property that is fair in view of all of the circumstances. Equitable does not necessarily mean equal.
Ex parte — On or from one side or party only, sometimes used in reference to the absence of the opposing party.
Grounds — The basis for action or complaint, as in grounds for divorce.
Hearing — A court session in which testimony or arguments are offered by attorneys or involved parties for the purpose of resolving a legal dispute.
Interrogatories — Written questions served by the opposing party that must be answered in writing as part of the discovery process.
Joint legal custody — The sharing, by both parents, of the right to make important decisions about a child’s welfare.
Joint physical custody — The sharing, by both parents, of the actual physical care and custody of a child.
Legal custody — The right to make important decisions about the raising of your child, on issues such as health care, religious upbringing, education, etc.
Lump-sum alimony — Alimony (aka spousal support, maintenance) money is given in a single lump-sum payment.
Maintenance — Also called alimony or spousal support.
Marital property — Generally, all property acquired during the marriage.
Mediation — A nonadversarial process in which two or more parties work through discussion and compromise toward agreement with the aid of a neutral party, or mediator. In divorce mediation, the mediator works with the divorcing spouses. A form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
Motion to modify — A motion put before the court requesting that changes be made in physical or legal custody, or in child support payments, thus modifying the existing arrangement.
Motions — Written or verbal appeals to the court for some sort of temporary relief, such as maintenance, child support, attorney’s fees, etc.
No-fault divorce — A divorce in which neither party has been accused of or found guilty of any misconduct.
Noncustodial parent — The parent who does not have physical custody of the child(ren).
Nonmarital property — Generally, property owned by either spouse prior to marriage or acquired by them individually, such as by gift or inheritance, during the marriage.
Physical custody — The day-to-day rights and responsibilities associated with having your child in your home and being responsible for his or her care.
Petition for dissolution — The wording used in some states for the legal petition for divorce.
Petitioner — Often, the person who initiates divorce or marriage dissolution proceedings, also called the plaintiff.
Plaintiff — The person who initiates legal proceedings, often called the petitioner in family law matters.
Premarital agreement — An agreement entered into before marriage that sets forth each party’s rights and responsibilities should the marriage terminate by death or divorce. Also called a prenuptial agreement.
Qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) — Pronounced “kwah-dro,” an order issued by the court to divide retirement benefits.
Quit claim — To release or relinquish legal claim, or a document relinquishing claim, as in a quit claim to the deed to the marital house.
Rebuttal — The act of rebutting or contradicting in a legal suit.
Request for production — Part of the discovery process in which one attorney asks for the other side to produce documents they deem necessary to the case, such as financial documents.
Respondent — The person who answers a petition in a legal proceeding, sometimes also referred to as the defendant.
Restraining order — An order issued by the court requiring the subject of the order to refrain from doing something, often issued in conjunction with domestic violence or custody disputes.
Retainer — The fee paid to an attorney or another professional for their services, sometimes representing advance payment for anticipated future services.
Service — The act of serving the respondent with legal papers, such as the notice of petition for dissolution.
Settlement conference — A meeting at which the parties and their lawyers attempt to settle the case before trial, often ordered by the court.
Split custody — A form of custody (generally not looked upon favorably) in which some or one of the parties’ children is/are in the custody of one parent and the remaining child(ren) is/are in the custody of the other parent.
Spousal support or maintenance — Financial payments made to help support a spouse or former spouse during separation or following divorce. Also called alimony.
Stipulation — An agreement entered into by the divorcing spouses that settles the issues between them and is often entered into the court’s final order or judgment and decree.
Subpoena — A legal summons requiring that one appear in court as a witness to give testimony.
Summons — Written notice to appear in court either as a defendant or a witness.
Uncontested — When all issues have been resolved in a manner acceptable to both parties, the divorce is said to be uncontested.
Visitation — The time that a noncustodial parent spends with his or her child(ren).
Waiver — The legal document with which one relinquishes a known right, claim or privilege.
Source: Divorce Transitions