Family Law Definitions

To understand legal terminology in a family law case, Cordell & Cordell provides descriptions of the common legal terms you may encounter. Note that terms may vary among states.

Affidavit:

A written statement of facts that are made under oath and that must be witnessed and signed by a notary or other official authorized to administer oaths.

Answer or Response:

The formal response for a divorce, separation, or annulment petition. The response or answer contains the admission or denial of the allegations made by the Petitioner or against the Petitioner.

Arrearages:

Amount of support determined by the court or administrative process that was due and has not been paid.

Child Custody:

Deals with the living arrangements and the legal decision making concerning the child.

Child Support:

The money a parent pays to another parent to help pay for the needs of the child.

Child Support Guidelines:

A series of mathematical formulas that help derive the proper amount of child support that should be awarded.

Child Support Worksheet:

A court form devised to calculate the child support guidelines.

Condonation:

When misconduct of a spouse is no longer grounds of divorce due to the act of forgiveness.

Contempt of Court:

Any deliberate failure to comply with the legal process, including the disruption of the court.

Counter-Petition:

A statement of the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage issued by the Respondent. It will be different than that of the Petitioner.

Custodial Parent:

The parent a child normally lives with, and the one who makes legal decisions concerning the child. There are several different types of custody arrangements.

Custody:

The legal right and responsibility to raise a minor child and to make decisions.

Default Order or Judgment:

An order or judgment made based on only the Petitioner’s complaint due to no response or presence of the Respondent.

Deposition:

The testimony of a witness under oath outside of court and reduced to writing. It is also used to question the opposing party.

Discovery:

Procedures used to gather information that pertains to the credibility of the opposing party’s case.

Dissolution of Marriage:

A legal judgment that severs a marriage relationship and returns each person to single status.

Emancipation:

The point at which a minor comes of age. The age is typically 18 or 21.

Ex Parte:

Court relief that is sought in absence of opposing party.

Expert Witness:

A professional used to help a judge reach a decision. Experts can include appraisers, counselors, evaluators, and accountants.

Garnishment:

A support enforcement technique in which the support payment is automatically deducted from the supporter’s paycheck and delivered to the spouse.

Guardian ad Litem:

An adult, usually appointed by the court, who represents the nonlegal interest of a minor child in a divorce. He or she is a trained social worker, attorney, counselor, or other professional.

Hearing:

A proceeding taking place before a court where testimony is given and arguments are heard.

Injunction:

Court order preventing someone from doing a particular act that is likely to cause physical, mental injury, or property loss of another individual.

Interrogatories:

A group of questions served upon the opposing party to gain knowledge pertaining to the issues in the matrimonial proceedings.

Legal Custody:

The authority of one parent or both parents to make legal decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of the child.

Legal Separation:

A court decree regulating the rights and responsibilities of a married couple living apart.

Maintenance:

Temporary or permanent financial support paid to one spouse from the other, either in one lump sum or installments.  Also known as “alimony” or “spousal support.”

Mediation:

A non-adversarial divorce procedure where the spouses are assisted in reaching a settlement by a neutral third party that is trained in the divorce process.

Modification:

An order changing the terms of another order.

Motion to Modify:

A written request of the court to change a previous order regarding child custody, support, alimony, or other divorce-related decisions.

No-Fault Divorce:

Type of divorce in which neither party needs to prove there was any kind of marital misconduct.

Notice of Hearing:

Notice regarding a preliminary, temporary, or other hearing that may involve child custody, support, or maintenance/alimony.

Order:

A court’s specific ruling on a disputed issue.

Parenting Schedule:

A list of dates stating times each parent may see each child.

Petition or Complaint:

The title given to the first document filed in pursuit of a divorce.

Petitioner:

Person initiating a lawsuit in family law cases.  Also known as a “plaintiff.”

Physical Custody:

It is in reference to the parent with whom the child resides. Depending upon arrangements, it may be joint or sole custody.

Pro Se:

When a spouse represents themselves in court without an attorney.

Process Server:

Person appointed to serve summons, subpoenas, or other process on a party.

Recrimination:

Charge made by an accused person against the accuser. In some jurisdictions, a defendant may recriminate in order to rely on the plaintiff’s misconduct as the defendant’s grounds for divorce.

Request for Production:

Part of the Discovery process. One attorney asks that the other side produce financial documents he or she feels are necessary for the case.

Respondent:

Also known as “defendant,” the party who is sued and must respond to a filed petition.

Subpoena:

A document delivered to a person who is not directly involved in the action filed but is needed for testimony.

Summons:

A written notification to the Respondent that an action has been filed against him or her.

Temporary Order:

Order of the court that only applies while the divorce is pending. They are generally terminated when the divorce is finalized.

Trial:

A former court hearing to decide the disputed issues filed in the complaint or summons.

Visitation:

The right of a parent who does not have physical custody to see his or her child.

Writ of Execution:

A court order authorizing the seizure of an asset of a non-custodial parent who owes past-due child support. The order usually authorizes the seizure of assets up to the total amount of past-due child support owed under the judgment. It is also known as a levy.