Glossary of Terms - Family Law

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 non-custodial 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.

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.

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.

Domestic violence

Physical abuse or threats of abuse occurring between members of the same household.

Equitable distribution

A division of property that is fair in view of all of the circumstances. Equitable does not necessarily mean equal.

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.

Marital property

Generally, all property acquired during the marriage.

Mediation

A form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for resolving legal disputes without going to trial, by the use of a trained and impartial third party who attempts to bring the parties together in mutual agreement.

Non-custodial parent

The parent who does not have physical custody of the child(ren).

Non-marital 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 and upbringing.

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.

Prenuptial 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 premarital agreement.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)

Pronounced “kwah-dro,” an order issued by the court to divide retirement benefits.

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.

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.

Visitation

The time that a noncustodial parent spends with his or her child(ren).

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