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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.