The Divorce Terms Dictionary

Dictionary of Divorce Terms

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

  • A

  • Abandonment - Also called desertion, abandonment generally means that a person has given up the right to something without any intention of reclaiming it. Regarding property, a person typically abandons it by leaving it to waste away without caring for it, paying for it, or visiting it. Regarding family abandonment, a person abandons his or her children and spouse by leaving them without paying support, without looking after or caring for their needs, and without any intention of returning.

  • Absent Parent - This term refers to a parent who has little or no contact with the children and is only minimally involved in the children’s lives, regardless of whether or not that parent pays child support.

  • Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) - A term used by the Internal Revenue Service that describes a person’s gross income minus particular deductions (such as alimony, business expenses, etc.) so as to properly calculated his or her yearly taxes. This is different from a person’s “net income,” which is often calculated for child support purposes and allows for different deductions from a person’s gross income (including federal/state taxes, Medicare payments, Social Security payments, union dues, retirement contributions, and maintenance paid to the other spouse).

  • Affidavit - A written statement made under oath and signed before a notary public, who is responsible for ensuring the correct identity of the person signing the affidavit (usually by reviewing the person’s driver’s license or passport). Affidavits are most often used to provide the court with a person’s written testimony as to the events he or she witnessed.

  • Alimony - Also called “maintenance” or “spousal support,” it is the financial support payments made by one spouse to the other. These payments are generally made on a monthly basis, although they can be made in a lump sum, and they can last for just a few months or for a person’s lifetime.

  • Alimony Pendente

    Describes a pretrial order of spousal support to be paid by one spouse to the other while a case is pending.

  • Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR)

    A process used in most cases, and required by most courts, to give the parties a chance to settle their case before trial. The term generally includes both “mediation” and “arbitration.” Mediation is where the parties sit with an agreed-upon mediator (a person trained to help people reach a compromise) and discuss various compromises in order to see if they can settle their case. Arbitration is where the parties submit their dispute to an agreed-upon person (usually a lawyer or ex-judge/court commissioner with family law experience) who will decide their dispute and issue a written decision.

  • Annulment

    Also called a “declaration of invalidity,” this is a lawsuit or legal action that results in the court’s judgment that a marriage never existed on the grounds that the marriage is not, or never was, legally valid.

  • Appeal

    A legal procedure in which the losing party of a divorce asks that a higher court re-evaluate the decision of the lower court.

  • Arbitration

    A legally binding, non-judicial procedure in which a neutral third party acts as a private judge and makes judgment on a case. Both parties must abide by the arbitrator’s decision, although there are some limited abilities to have the decision reviewed by a court.

  • B

  • None at this time

  • C

  • Change of Venue

    A request to transfer the case to a different court for reasons of convenience.

  • Chart Child Support Method

    The method used to establish a base for determining child support. It takes into account the gross incomes of both parents (minus special deductions for taxes, union dues, and retirement contributions) as well as the number of children and their ages.

  • COLA

    Cost of living adjustment.

  • Collaborative Law

    A means of settling disputes without litigation. Both parties and their collaborative attorneys agree in writing at the beginning not to take the matter to court, and if they do take the matter to court or are otherwise unable to reach an agreement, they will dismiss their attorneys and find new attorneys to represent them. The parties also typically agree to a series of four-way meetings and deadlines for disclosing information (including financial documents) to the other party.

  • Community Property

    All income or property that was obtained during the marriage, except gifts and inheritances. Community property is considered to be owned equally by both parties and is to be divided justly and equitably in a divorce.

  • Consolidation

    The joining of two cases involving the same parties and related issues. In a divorce or custody case, domestic violence protection order cases between the parties are often consolidated with the divorce so the court can resolve all issues at once.

  • Contested Divorce

    Any divorce in which the parties do not agree on all issues regarding the division of assets and debts, child custody, spousal support, and child support.

  • Custodial Parent

    Usually refers to the parent, either the mother or father, who has primary custody of the child (generally speaking, more than 50% of the time with the child in a year).

  • Custody

    Custody may refer to legal custody or physical custody. Legal custody relates to the ability to make decisions regarding a minor’s education, religious teachings, medical care, and other issues. Physical custody relates to the possession of a minor. A third-party custodian is a person who is not a parent of the minor who has physical and legal custody of the child.

  • D

  • Default

    A respondent is in default if he or she does not respond to the other party’s “petition” or “complaint” requesting relief (such as divorce, custody, modification of a custody or child support order, etc.) within a given time frame. Once a person is held in “default,” the court will sign off on the other party’s proposed paperwork and will give that party what he or she has requested of the court.

  • Deferred Compensation Package

    Includes savings or postponed income, such as retirement assets, pensions, 401(k)s and IRAs that have been earned during the marriage.

  • Deposition

    Used to question the opposing spouse or another possible witness in a court case (including a divorce) and gather information about that person’s knowledge, a deposition is the formal testimony of a witness made out-of-court and under oath and recorded by a stenographer.

  • Discovery

    The legal process of obtaining important information, such as financial statements, during a divorce or other court case. Spouses use it to gather information from each other or from other sources such as employers and banks. Discovery can also be used after divorce to collect relevant facts about a person’s current income and expenses as necessary to adjust child support and maintenance.

  • E

  • Emancipation

    Depending on the state’s laws, emancipation is the age at which a minor becomes financially independent, typically 18 or 21. In terms of child support, it refers to the point at which the parties are no longer required by the court (with the exception of the payment for postsecondary or college expenses) to provide basic support for the child.

  • Ex-Parte

    The act of approaching the court for relief without notice to the other party. This is typically reserved for emergencies only when giving notice of the request to the other party would cause some irreparable harm.

  • F

  • Full Legal Custody

    A legal arrangement in which one parent has sole decision-making regarding a minor’s education, religious teachings, medical care, and other issues. If a parent has full custody, that parent does not need to consult with the other parent to make important decisions regarding the child.

  • G

  • Guardian Ad Litem

    A person who is appointed as an advocate for a child in a custody and parenting time proceeding. A guardian ad litem will use his or her judgment to advocate for the child’s best interest, regardless of the personal opinion of the child and the position of the parent’s involved in the case.

  • H

  • None at this time

  • I

  • Interrogatories

    A part of the discovery process, interrogatories are formal, written questions served on the opposing party that must be answered fully and under oath.

  • J

  • Joint

    A shorthand for shared. Examples include joint assets, joint debt, joint tenants and joint custody.

  • Joint Legal Custody

    A legal arrangement in which parents have joint decision making power regarding a minor child’s education, religious teachings, medical care, and other issues. Joint custody requires the parents to consult with each other and attempt to reach agreement before making important decisions regarding the child. In some jurisdictions, like Washington, this is the default legal arrangement when parents split up. In contrast, Oregon will only award joint legal custody if the parents expressly agree to that arrangement. In both Oregon and Washington, the ability of parents to have joint legal custody is not controlled by the amount of parenting time either parent has with a child.

  • Joint Physical Custody

    A lay description of a parenting plan where a child’s spends roughly equal time in both parents’ homes. (Contrast with Physical Custody, below.)

  • K

  • None at this time

  • L

  • Legal Separation

    A legal action, leading to a judgment or decree of legal separation, that is similar to a divorce or dissolution of marriage suit, but a legal separation does not terminate the parties’ marital status. In a legal separation action a court can order the same relief to the parties as in a divorce including, a division of the parties’ assets, responsibility for the parties’ liabilities, spousal support, child custody, parenting time rights, child support, or other relief available in a divorce or dissolution of marriage.

  • Litigation

    The process of using the civil courts and their procedural rules to bring a dispute to a resolution before a judge or other fact finder. Typically lawyers refer to litigation as the process used to prepare to have a contested divorce case, rather than resolving a legal action through negotiation or mediation. Litigation includes the act of filing a civil action—a divorce, for example—serving the opposing party, requiring the opposing party to file a “response”, using the civil “discovery rules” to investigate and develop facts in the case, and preparing the case to be heard.

  • Lump-Sum Alimony

    When alimony (also called spousal support or maintenance) is paid in a single or multiple lump-sums rather than on a monthly basis.

  • M

  • Maintenance

    Another name for spousal support or alimony in Washington, and a specific type of spousal support, meant to maintain the supported spouse “in a manner not overly disproportionate to that enjoyed during the marriage” for either a fixed or indefinite period of time in Oregon.

  • Mediation

    A method of resolving legal disputes using an impartial legal profession—a mediator— who is trained the process of helping parties reach an agreement or settlement. Mediation often has confidentiality rules and, because the mediator is neutral, any agreement the parties reach is voluntary.

  • Mediator

    A person trained to help people involved in a legal or other dispute engage in constructive settlement negotiations by acting as a neutral third party intermediary. In the family law context mediators are often family law lawyers or mental health professionals with knowledge of child development as related to custody and parenting time issues.

  • Motion to Modify

    A motion to modify is a written request made to the court, served on the opposing party, asking for changes to an existing decree or judgment regarding child support, child custody, parenting time or spousal support. A motion to modify cannot be used to alter a court’s prior decision regarding the division of assets or liabilities.

  • N

  • No-Fault Divorce

    Historically, courts would not permit people to divorce unless one spouse could prove wrongdoing, such as abandonment or infidelity, on the part of the other spouse. Starting in the early 1970′s state legislatures began to eliminate the fault requirement and permit parties to divorce if one party made an allegation that the marriage relationship was damaged beyond repair. Non-Custodial Parent: The parent who is not granted “legal custody” of a child in a custody dispute with the child’s other parent. The non-custodial parent may have substantial, perhaps even equal, and may make day-to-day decisions regarding his or her child during parenting time, but the custodial parent has the final authority to make important decisions regarding the child’s education, medical care, religious training, and major activities.

  • O

  • Opposing Party

    The opposing party is the other party in your family law action, such as your spouse or the other parent of your child(ren).

  • P

  • Parenting Plan

    A parenting plan is a court’s order defining each parents’ rights to spend time with minor children (see parenting time, below) and responsibilities regarding a variety of aspects of parenting minor children. Parenting plans may be very general, usually for parents who do not have difficulty sharing time with and taking responsibility for their children, or exceptionally detailed to avoid disputes between parents who are unable to agree on anything.

  • Parenting Time

    Often referred to as visitation, parenting time is the time children spend with their respective parents following the break-up of the family. If a court awards custody of a child to one parent over, it is common for the parent without custody (the non-custodial parent) to have less parenting time than the custodial parent.

  • Parenting Time Coordinator

    In some jurisdictions the parties may agree or a court may order a legal or mental health professional to serve as a parenting time coordinator to help resolve parenting time disputes between the parents of a minor child. Typically a parenting time coordinator would be a family law attorney or a psychologist or social worker with expertise in child development issues.

  • Petition for Dissolution of Marriage (or other legally recognized relationship)

    A divorce action or an action dissolving some other legally recognized relationship, such as a registered Domestic Partnership, a meretricious relationship or common law domestic partnership.

  • Petitioner

    The title given to the spouse who files a legal action in a family law case. The petitioner is asking the court for some kind of legal relief including: a divorce; to establish paternity of a minor child; to establish custody, parenting time and child support, or a legal separation. The person first designated as the “petitioner” in any family law case between two people remains the petitioner in any subsequent motion to modify (see above) even if the other party, the “respondent” (see below) files the motion to modify.

  • Physical Custody

    A lay description of a parenting plan where a child spends all of his or her time in one parent’s home.

  • Prenuptial Agreement

    Also called a premarital agreement, is contract between persons who intend to marry that defines the respective parties' rights to and responsibilities if they subsequently divorce. These agreements usually serve to limit a spouse’s right to premarital property, the proceeds of premarital property, spousal support or maintenance, and inheritance in the event of divorce. A prenuptial agreement will not impact issues regarding child custody, parenting time, or child support.

  • Pre-Trial Motions

    In any lawsuit a pretrial motion is a motion made before a judge hears the evidence and merits of the lawsuit, usually to attack the allegations of the pleadings, to seek temporary relief, or to seek orders controlling the procedures to be followed by the parties and their attorneys.

  • Primary Residential Parent

    The primary residential parent is the parent with whom a child resides the majority of the time (generally speaking, more than 50% of the time with the child in a year). The custodial parent is typically the primary residential parent.

  • Q

  • QDRO

    A Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) is typically a court order granting one spouse an interest in the other spouse’s retirement account as part of the distribution of assets following a divorce or legal separation. A QDRO can provide for an interest in a pension plan or another type of retirement account, such as a 401(k) account. A QDRO must be reviewed and approved by the retirement plan in order to be qualified. A QDRO may also direct payment for child support or spousal support under certain circumstances.

  • Quasi-Community Property

    Quasi-Community Property is non-community property that is treated as if it were community property.

  • Quit Claim Deed

    A quit claim deed is a document that transfers the legal claim or title to real property (for example, land), such as a quit claim deed transferring the interest in a home from two individuals or a marital community to one spouse.

  • R

  • Real Estate Excise Tax Affidavit

    A real estate excise tax affidavit is a document which records or documents the sale or transfer of property with the Department of Revenue or state taxing authority so that proper taxes may be charged. Property transfers resulting from a divorce or legal separation may be exempt from property tax charges but typically must still be reported.

  • Reconsideration

    A motion for reconsideration asks the judge or other court official who issued an order to reconsider his or her ruling based on new facts, because the judge applied the law incorrectly, or based on other issues specifically allowed in court rules or law. There are typically strict deadlines for filing a motion for reconsideration.

  • Relocation

    A relocation case addresses a parent’s move with a child after a parenting plan or schedule has been ordered by the court. State law determines when a relocation action may be filed to approve or disallow a move with the child.

  • Reply

    When a party files a motion asking the court to order specific relief or action, the other person files a response to the motion. After receiving the response to the motion, the person who originally filed the motion may file a reply answering the claims made in the response.

  • Request for Production

    Requests for Production are part of the discovery process. A Request for Production is a formal request sent to the other party asking that party to produce specific documents. Requests for Production often include requests for financial records or documents that may be useful as evidence.

  • Residential Time

    Residential time refers to the time that a minor spends with a parent or custodian. A parenting plan or parenting schedule may be referred to as a residential schedule because it sets out the residential time a minor will spend with each party. (See also Visitation.)Respondent

    The respondent is the person who did not initially file the case, or in other words the person who will respond to the initial claims the defendant, or the spouse whom the petitioner is wanting to divorce.

  • Response

    Response typically refers to the formal Response to the Petition for Dissolution, Legal Separation, or other legal relief. The responding party answers the claims made in the Petition and may request that the court order specific relief as part of the Response. If a party files a motion, the other person will also file a response to the motion.

  • Restraining Order

    A restraining order restrains a party from taking a specific action. A restraining order could restrain a party from having contact with or harassing the other party. A restraining order could also restrain a party from getting rid of property, taking out loans against property, or changing insurance policies. Restraining orders may be addressed as part of a temporary order.

  • Retainer

    A fee paid to an attorney in advance in anticipation of a need for future services, as in a divorce. The attorney will bill against the retainer for work performed.

  • Retirement Order

    A retirement order is an order directing the division of a retirement account. Some retirement orders are “Qualified”. (See QDRO for more information.)

  • Revision

    A motion for revision asks a judge to hear an issue previously heard by a court commissioner or other lower judicial officer. The judge decides the motion for revision after reviewing the same documents and facts presented in the original motion. There are typically strict deadlines for filing a motion for revision.

  • S

  • Separation Contract

    A Separation Contract is a binding contract signed by both parties which divides property, determines spousal maintenance, and resolves other issues as part of an ongoing or anticipated divorce or legal separation. A Separation Contract may not need to be filed in the court file, which can allow the parties to keep some information private. Parties may agree to resolve parenting and child support issues as part of a Separation Contract, but the court may not be obligated to approve the parenting and child support agreement.

  • Separation Date

    The date of separation for divorces or a legal separation occurs when one spouse (or both) decides that the marriage is over and takes some actions to show this, such as moving out of the house. The separation date varies from state to state. In some states, it is the date when one spouse physically relocates from the marital place of residence. Others define it as the date in which the petition for divorce or legal separation is filed in a court of law. Still others consider the separation date as the date on which one spouse officially tells the other that they intend to file for divorce.

  • Service

    Service is the legal term for delivery of court or legal documents to a party. Laws and court rules determine how service must be made. Some laws or court rules require that specific documents be personally delivered to a party, while others may allow delivery by mail or other methods. Typically, the parties to the case cannot be the person who serves a document to the other party. The court may not hear a request if the other party has not been served with the request before asking the court to decide the issue.

  • Settlement Conference

    A settlement conference is a formal meeting for the parties, and their attorneys if they have attorneys, to discuss possible settlement of their case. A judge or other neutral person usually also participates to facilitate the discussion. Many courts require the parties to participate in a settlement conference or mediation before their case goes to trial.

  • Spousal Support

    Spousal Support may also be called alimony or spousal maintenance. Spousal support is support ordered by the court to be paid from one spouse to the other as part of a divorce or legal separation.

  • Statement of Evidence

    A Statement of Evidence is a document provided to the judge before trial listing the evidence exhibits that a party intends to use at trial. The statement of evidence is an organizational tool and serves as a record of evidence presented and admitted in the court file after trial. Often both parties will need to communicate with each other to list the exhibits both intend to use in one joint statement of evidence for the court.

  • Subpoena

    A subpoena is a legal document delivered to a person requiring him or her to perform a specific action, such as appear in court at a certain day and time as a witness to give testimony, appear to provide testimony as part of a deposition, or to produce specific documents ( subpoena duces tecum). Subpoena Duces Tecum

    A subpoena duces tecum is a legal document directing a person to produce specific documents or papers at a certain time.

  • Summons

    A summons is written notification to the defendant or respondent to appear in court or respond to a case because an action has been filed against him or her.

  • T

  • Temporary Order

    A temporary order is an order from the court that resolves some issues in a case on a temporary basis. A temporary order typically remains in effect until final orders are signed by agreement or after trial, or until a new temporary order is signed. Issues resolved in temporary orders may include use of property, parenting issues, bill payment, temporary child support, or temporary spousal support.

  • Trial

    A trial is the final hearing in a case. At trial, the judge hears and reviews evidence and argument from both sides. The judge decides the final outcome of the case at the end of the trial.

  • Trial Setting

    A trial setting is a date when the court selects a future trial date.

  • U

  • Uncontested Divorce

    An uncontested divorce is a divorce proceeding in which there are no disputes and all issues are resolved in a way that is acceptable to both spouses without any involvement from the court, mediation, or ongoing settlement discussions. In an uncontested divorce, both spouses sign agreed final orders.

  • V

  • Valuation

    A valuation is an assessment of value of property that is typically provided by an expert. For example, an accountant may evaluate a business as part of a divorce or legal separation to provide a valuation of that business.

  • Venue

    Venue is the location of the court where a case is decided, such as the county where the courthouse is located. The venue of a case is typically the court located in the county where one or both of the parties live.

  • Visitation

    The time a minor spends with the party who is not the primary residential parent may be referred to visitation.

  • W

  • Waiver

    A waiver is a written legal document that relinquishes an individual’s known right, claim, or privilege.

  • Withdrawal

    A withdrawal is an attorney’s formal withdrawal from representing a party in a case.

  • Witness

    A witness is a person who may have information regarding the issues in a court case.

  • Witness List

    A witness list is a list of potential witnesses a party may call to testify at trial in support of that party’s position or claims.

  • Writ

    A writ is a legal order directing someone who is not a party to the case to act. For example, a writ of garnishment may direct an employer to garnish a person’s wages to fulfill a financial obligation, or a writ of habeas corpus may direct law enforcement to retrieve a child who is being held in violation of a court order.

  • X

  • None at this time

  • Y

  • None at this time

  • Z

  • None at this time

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