Family Law

Words and Terms You Should Know: Divorce and Family Law

Learn more about basic divorce terms.
Updated: Apr 9th, 2015

Glossary of Family Law Terms


Select the first letter of the word from the list above to jump to appropriate section of the glossary.

- A -

ACTION: a lawsuit or proceeding in a court of law.

AFFIDAVIT: a written statement which is signed under oath—also called a declaration.

AGREEMENT: a verbal or written resolution of disputed issues.

ANSWER: the written response to a complaint, petition, or motion.

ALIMONY: a payment of financial support provided by one spouse to the other—also called spousal support and maintenance.

ALIAS SUMMONS: another summons, used when the original is not served on the defendant.

ANNULMENT: a marriage can be dissolved in a legal proceeding in which the marriage is declared void, as though it never took place. In the eyes of the law, the parties were never married. It is available only under certain limited circumstances.

APPEAL: a legal action where the losing party requests that a higher court review the decision.

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- B -

BEST INTERESTS of the CHILD: legal standard used to determine child custody, visitation, and support

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- C -

COLLUSION: an agreement between two or more persons that one of the parties brings false charges against the other. In a divorce case, the husband and wife may agree to use adultery as a ground in order to obtain a divorce more quickly, knowing full well that adultery was not committed. Collusion is illegal.

COMPLAINANT: the one who files the lawsuit—also called the petitioner or plaintiff.

COMMON LAW MARRIAGE: a common law marriage comes about when a man and woman who are free to marry agree to live together as husband and wife without the formal ceremony—to be common law married, both spouses must have intended to be husband and wife. Maryland does not recognize common law marriages.

COMMUNITY PROPERTY: a method of dividing marital property between spouses, which is based on an equal or 50/50 division. Courts will generally only divide property bought or acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage. The following states use the community property method of property division: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska has adopted a community property system, but couples must opt in for these laws to apply.

COMPLAINT: also called a "bill of complaint" or "petition" and is the legal paper that starts a case.

CONDONATION: the act of forgiving one's spouse who has committed an act of wrongdoing that would constitute a ground for divorce. Condonation generally is proven by living and cohabiting with the spouse after learning that the wrongdoing was committed. It is often is used as a defense to a divorce.

CONTEMPT: failure to follow a court order—one side can request that the court determine that the other side is in contempt and issue a punishment, which can include monetary fines, jail time, or both.

CORROBORATIVE WITNESS: a person who testifies for you and backs up your story. If you are asking the court to grant a divorce based on fault or separation, you may have to bring a witness to court, who can corroborate your grounds for divorce.

CUSTODIAL PARENT: the parent who has physical custody of the parents' child or children.

CUSTODY-SOLE & JOINT: refers to the legal arrangements for whom a child will live with and how decisions about the child will be made. Custody has two parts: legal and physical. Legal custody refers to a parent's right to make decisions about a child's health, safety, and welfare, and physical custody refers to where the child lives on a regular basis. Generally, the parent the child does not live with will be allowed to have regular visits with the child. Parents can make any custodial arrangement that is in the best interest of their children. The standard for deciding custody is what arrangement will be in the "best interest of the child."

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- D -

DEFAULT: after a party's failure to answer a complaint, motion, or petition, a court can grant a plaintiff's divorce via default and give the plaintiff everything he or she requested.

DEFENDANT: the person the case is brought against.

DISCOVERY: a way for getting information from the other side or other people. Examples of discovery are interrogatories (written questions) and depositions (questions which are usually in person and recorded).

DISSOLUTION: the legal end of a marriage.

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- E -

EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION: a method of dividing marital property between spouses, which is based on an equitable or fair division (not necessarily an equal or 50/50 division). Most states use this method. Courts will generally only divide property bought or acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage.

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- F -

FILING: giving the clerk of court your legal papers.

FAULT-BASED DIVORCE: divorce action where one spouse claims that the other spouse's marital misconduct caused the marriage to end—the "innocent" spouse will have to prove to a court that the alleged misconduct occurred.

FAULT GROUNDS: marital misconduct giving one spouse a legal reason to sue for divorce, such as abuse, abandonment, and adultery.

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- G -

GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE: the legal basis for a divorce; the law sets out specific reasons for a divorce which have to be proven before the court can grant a divorce.

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- H -

HOME STATE: the state where a child or children of the marriage lived with a parent for at least six months before a child custody, support, or visitation action was filed in court.

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- I -

INNOCENT SPOUSE RULES: IRS rules that protect one spouse from the other spouse's tax fraud or other tax-related misconduct.

IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES the legal grounds for no-fault divorces.

IRRETRIEVABLE BREAKDOWN: the legal grounds for no-fault divorces.

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- J -

JUDGMENT: a court's decision.

JURISDICTION: the authority of the court to hear a case.

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- L -

LEGAL SEPARATION: a court order allowing spouses to live separate and apart while remaining legally married.

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- M -

MAINTENANCE: also called spousal support and alimony, this is one spouse's financial support payment to the other

MARITAL PROPERTY: includes all property acquired during the marriage.

MASTER: hears cases like a judge—a master's decision is reviewed by a judge before becoming final.

MOTION: a request (usually made in writing) to the court.

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- N -

NON-CUSTODIAL PARENT: the spouse who doesn't have physical custody of the spouses' child or children.

NO-FAULT DIVORCE: a divorce that doesn't require one spouse to prove the other spouse's fault or misconduct before being entitled to a divorce.

NON-MARITAL PROPERTY: property that belongs to only one spouse and won't be included in any division of property—also called separate property

NOTICE: the formal legal process of informing one spouse about a legal action or proceeding involving that spouse.

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- O -

ORDER: a court's ruling or decision on a certain matter or legal issue, usually a decision on a motion filed by one spouse.

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- P -

PATERNITY TEST: proving the identity of a child's biological father through scientific methods.

PENDENTE LITE: temporary arrangements for dealing with certain divorce-related issues, such as custody, child support, child visitation, alimony, and use and possession of the family—these orders will remain in place until the court issues a final order based on the parties' agreement or after a hearing/trial.

PETITION: a legal paper that starts a case.

PETITIONER: the spouse who filed the divorce petition—also called the plaintiff.

PLAINTIFF: the person who started the case—also called the plaintiff.

PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT: a contract signed by the spouses before the marriage setting out each spouse's rights to property and assets in the case of a divorce.

PRO SE/PROPER PERSON: representing yourself in court without an attorney.

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- Q -

QUALIFIED DOMESTIC RELATIONS ORDER (QDRO): a court order giving one spouse a share of the other spouse's pension or retirement funds.

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- R -

RECONCILIATION: when spouses get back together after they separated or started the divorce process.

RESIDENCY REQUIREMENT: the amount of time a spouse must live within a state or county before that spouse may file a divorce action in that state or county.

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- S -

SEPARATE PROPERTY: property or assets that belong to only one spouse, which were acquired before marriage, or through a gift or inheritance--separate property usually won't be included in the property distribution or division.

SERVICE: providing a copy of the papers being filed to the other side via hand delivery or another court-approved method of delivery

SPOUSAL SUPPORT: one spouse's payment to the other for financial support—also called alimony or maintenance.

SPOUSE: husband or wife.

SUBPOENA: a form issued by the court requiring someone to appear in court and/or bring documents.

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- T -

TEMPORARY SUPPORT: payments made by one spouse to the other for financial support while the divorce action is pending.

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- U -

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE: when the defendant agrees to the divorce and there are no issues for the court to decide about the children, money, or property.

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- V -

VENUE: the county where the case is heard.

VISITATION: the non-custodial parent's right to spend time with the spouse's child or children.

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- W -

WRIT OF SUMMONS: a form issued by the court directing a party to respond to a complaint, motion, or petition.

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