Divorce Glossary 2

Divorce and Family Law Legal Terminology

Wondering what “default”, “defendant” and “respondent” mean? Here’s a helpful list of commonly-used terminology when dealing with a divorce.

Abandonment – Often used in “at-fault” divorce cases, abandonment refers to one spouse physically leaving the home and is commonly consider grounds for a divorce.

Adultery – A term used when one spouse has an extramarital affair. It is commonly used as grounds for divorce, especially in “at-fault” divorce cases.

Alimony – A set amount of money paid from one spouse to another to help the lesser-earning spouse maintain a certain standard of living. Alimony is most common in situations where one spouse makes considerably more than the other. Also referred to as “spousal support”.

Alternative Dispute Resolution – A variety of alternative methods of resolving disputes regarding property division, alimony and the like. Examples include mediation and arbitration.

Arbitration – A method of “alternative dispute resolution” where a neutral third-party is employed to help spouses settle divorce-related issues such as property division, spousal support and custody issues. In arbitration, the third-party “arbitrator” is typically granted some level of authority to resolve issues and the arbitration agreement is usually binding.

Arrearage – Any past due amount of child support or spousal support (alimony).

At-Fault Divorce – A type of divorce where one spouse alleges bad behavior by the other in the hopes that it will affect the property distribution and/or alimony award in the divorce.

Child Support – A set amount of money paid by the non-custodial parent to help support their children after a divorce. The money is paid through a state agency to the custodial parent.

Community Property – Typically any property acquired after marriage. This can include the house you bought, cars, furniture, artwork, collectibles and even income that was earned during the marriage.

Contest – A means of disagreeing on a particular issue. For example, if your spouse requests sole custody of your children and you don’t agree, you can “contest” the custody request.

Custodial Parent – The parent who has primary custody of the child, also sometimes referred to as the “managing conservator”.

Custody – This refers to your rights regarding your child. There are two different types of custody – legal and physical – and there are also different variations of custody – sole and joint. Legal custody refers to your right as a parent to make decisions about your child’s health, well-being and education. Physical custody refers to your right as a parent to have the child living in your home.

Default – A party is in “default” when they fail to do as the court as ordered, i.e., answering a petition, appearing in court for a hearing or providing certain documents.

Defendant – The party against whom an action is filed. In divorce cases, this person is typically referred to as the “respondent”.

Deposition – A fact-finding process where one party is asked questions by the other party’s attorney and the entire event is recorded by a transcriptionist. A deposition is admissible as evidence in court so the person being deposed is encourage to have their attorney present for the event as well. Depositions are part of the “discovery” process.

Discovery – Once a suit has been filed, both parties seek to obtain information from the other to help prove their case. This entire process is known as “discovery” and can employ several methods of information-gathering including depositions and interrogatories.

Dissolution – Meaning “to end” or “dissolve”. Often used interchangeably with the word “divorce” as in “dissolution of marriage”.

Divorce – Ending the marriage through legal means while both parties are still alive.

Equitable Distribution – A “fair” distribution of property in a divorce proceeding as determined by the judge, the parties or both.

Hearing – A formal session in court used to present testimony, evidence and/or arguments, requests and motions by counsel.

Interrogatories – A list of questions served upon one party by another that must be answered in writing. Interrogatories are part of the discovery process and are considered admissible in court as evidence.

Joint Custody – An arrangement where parents share custody of a child, be it legal, physical or both.

Legal Custody – The right to make decisions regarding your child’s health, well-being, education and upbringing. May be shared between the two parents (joint legal custody) or it may reside with only one of the parents (sole legal custody).

Lump-Sum Alimony Alimony paid in one lump sum instead of periodic payments over time.

Marital Property – Property that was acquired after the marriage. (also see: community property)

Mediation – Similar to “arbitration” in that a neutral third-party is hired to help resolve issues regarding a divorce. The difference is that a mediator typically does not have any real authority and mediation is non-binding. The mediator can merely make recommendations that the parties may or may not agree to.

Motion – A legal document requesting an issue be addressed by the court.

No-Fault Divorce – A divorce where blame is not an issue. Property is then divided in an equitable manner.

Non-Custodial Parent – The parent who does not have primary custody, also sometimes referred to as the “possessory conservator”.

Non-Marital Property – Property that was not acquired during the marriage such as property owned by one spouse prior to the marriage. In many states, non-marital property can also refer to inheritances, personal injury awards and workers compensation even if they were acquired during the marriage. (Also See: separate property).

Order – A legal document containing the court’s ruling on a particular set of issues.

Physical Custody – The right to have your child reside in your home on a day-to-day basis.

Petitioner – The person who initiates a legal action, also known as the “plaintiff”.

Plaintiff – The person who initiates a legal action. In divorce cases and other family court matters, this person is often referred to as the “petitioner”.

Prenuptial Agreement – Also referred to as a “premarital agreement”, this is a legal document that dictates how property and debt will be split should the parties decide to divorce at some future time.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) – A court order to divide retirement benefits in a divorce proceeding.

Request for Production – A discovery method where one party requests the other party to produce specific documents such as financial statements, etc. Responses to Requests for Production are considered to be admissible in court as evidence.

Respondent – The person against whom an action is filed. In criminal cases, this person is referred to as the “defendant”.

Restraining Order – A court order that requires a party to abstain from something to another party, such as calling, visiting or coming within 500 feet of the complaining party. A restraining order is typically used in domestic violence cases where one party fears for their safety.

Spousal Support – Also called “alimony” and “spousal maintenance”, this term refers to money paid to one spouse by another to help the lesser-earning spouse maintain a certain standard of living. Spousal support is most common in situations where one spouse makes considerably more than the other.

Summons – Written notice to appear in court.

Visitation – Times designated by the court that a non-custodial parent can spend with his or her children. Visitation can consist of certain hours during the day, weekends, holidays and even weeks and months at a time.


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