Definitions of Family Law Terms

As attorneys, we have lots of words. In family law, there are specific terms that carry specific meaning. It is easy to become confused by the amount of technical jargon used in family law cases. We have compiled this list of definitions of the most common family law terms. 

  • Affidavit - a written statement in which the facts stated are sworn or affirmed to be true.
  • Alimony - an allowance paid under a court order by one spouse to another
  • Answer - written response by a respondent that states whether he or she admits (agrees with) or denies (disagrees with) the allegations in the petition. Any allegations not specifically denied are considered to be admitted.
  • Appeal - asking a district court of appeal to review the decision in your case. There are strict procedural and time requirements for filing an appeal.
  • Asset - everything owned by you or your spouse, including property, cars, furniture, bank accounts, jewelry, life insurance policies, businesses, or retirement plans. An asset may be marital or nonmarital, but that distinction is for the court to determine if you and your spouse do not agree.
  • Case Management Conference - is part of the court procedure. It is a meeting between the judge and the parties 
  • Certificate of Service - a document that must be filed whenever a form you are using does not contain a statement for you to fill in showing to whom you are sending copies of the form.
  • Certified Copy - a copy of an order or final judgment, certified by the clerk of the Court to be an authentic copy.
  • Child -  a person who has not attained 18 years of age.
  • Child Support - money paid from one parent to the other for the benefit of their dependent or minor child(ren).
  • Complaint for divorce - a complaint for divorce initiates the divorce proceeding by identifying the parties; stating the grounds for divorce; stating all claims against the defendant; and requesting the court to grant a divorce, grant custody, divide property, and order support. All complaints must be filed with the court and served along with a summons
  • Community property - most property acquired during the marriage (except for gifts or inheritances); property acquired during the marriage is community and is owned jointly by both spouses and is divided upon divorce, annulment, or death. Joint ownership is automatically presumed by law in the absence of specific evidence that would point to a contrary conclusion for a particular piece of property
  • Contested Issues - any or all issues upon which the parties are unable to agree and which must be resolved by the judge at a hearing or trial.
  • Counterclaim - a written request to the court for legal action, which is filed by a respondent after being served with a petition.
  • Decree of divorce - establishes the new relations between the parties, including their duties and obligations relating to property that they own, support responsibilities of either or both of them, and provisions for any children
  • Default - a failure of a party to respond to the pleading of another party. This failure to respond may allow the court to decide the case without input from the party who did not appear or respond.
  • Dependent Child(ren) - child(ren) who depend on their parent(s) for support either because they are under the age of 18, they have a mental or physical disability that prevents them from supporting themselves, or they are in high school while between the ages of 18 and 19 and are performing in good faith with reasonable expectation of graduation before the age of 19.
  • Dissolution of Marriage - divorce; a court action to end a marriage. 
  • Divorce -the ending of a marriage by a legal process; a complete separation between two things. 
  • Ex Parte - communication with the judge by only one party. In order for a judge to speak with either party, the other party must have been properly notified and have an opportunity to be heard. If you have something you wish to tell the judge, you should ask for a hearing or file information in the clerk of court’s office, with certification that a copy was sent to the other party.
  • Filing Fee - an amount of money, set by law, that the petitioner must pay when filing a case
  • Financial Affidavit - a sworn statement that contains information regarding your income, expenses, assets, and liabilities. 
  • Guardian ad Litem - a neutral person who may be appointed by the court to evaluate or investigate your child’s situation, and file a report with the court about what is in the best interests of your child(ren).  Guardians do not “work for” either party. The guardian may interview the parties, visit their homes, visit the child(ren)’s school(s) and speak with teachers, or use other resources to make their recommendation.
  • Hearing - a legal proceeding before a judge or designated officer (general master or hearing officer) on a motion.
  • Home state -  The state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least 6 consecutive months, including any temporary absence from the state, immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding or  in the case of a child less than 6 months of age, the state in which the child lived from birth, including any temporary absence from the state, with a parent or a person acting as a parent.
  • Initial determination- the first child custody determination concerning a particular child. 
  • Joint Petition – a document filed with the Court wherein the parties jointly request the court to grant the divorce
  • Judge - an elected official who is responsible for deciding matters on which you and the other parties in your case are unable to agree. A judge is a neutral person who is responsible for ensuring that your case is resolved in a manner which is fair, equitable, and legal. A judge is prohibited by law from giving you or the other party any legal advice, recommendations, or other assistance, and may not talk to either party unless both parties are present, represented, or at a properly scheduled hearing.
  • Legal Custody - a type of child custody that grants a parent the right to make important, long-term decisions regarding their child or children.  This may include aspects of the child’s upbringing including: Education, medical and dental care, religious upbringing and financial decisions 
  • Lump Sum Alimony - money ordered to be paid by one spouse to another in a limited number of payments, often a single payment.
  • Mediator - a person who is trained and certified to assist parties in reaching an agreement before going to court. Mediators do not take either party’s side and are not allowed to give legal advice. They are only responsible for helping the parties reach an agreement and putting that agreement into writing. In some areas, mediation of certain family law cases may be required before going to court. 
  • Modification - a determination that changes, replaces, supersedes or is otherwise made after a previous  determination, whether or not it is made by the court that made the previous determination. 
  • Motion - a request made to the court, other than a petition. 
  • No Contact - a court order directing a party not speak to, call, send mail to, visit, or go near his or her spouse, ex-spouse, child(ren), or other family member. 
  • Order - a written decision signed by a judge and filed in the clerk of the circuit court’s office, that contains the judge’s decision on part of your case, usually on a motion.
  • Party - a person involved in a court case, either as a petitioner or respondent. 
  • Paternity Action - A lawsuit used to determine whether a designated individual is the father of a specific child or children. 
  • Personal Service - when a summons and a copy of a complaint (or other pleading) that has been filed with the court are delivered by a deputy sheriff or private process server to the other party. Personal service is required for all complaints in family court.
  • Physical custody -the physical care and supervision of a child. 
  • Pleading - a formal written statement of exactly what a party wants the court to do in a lawsuit or court action.
  • Rehabilitative Alimony - spousal support ordered to be paid for a limited period of time to allow one of the parties an opportunity to complete a plan of education or training, according to a rehabilitative plan accepted by the court, so that he or she may better support himself or herself. 
  • Specified Visitation - a parenting arrangement under which a specific schedule is established for the visitation and exchange of the child(ren). 
  • Supervised Visitation - a parenting arrangement under which visitation between a parent and his or her child(ren) is supervised by either a friend, family member, or a supervised visitation center. 
  • Trial - the final hearing in a contested case.
  • Uncontested - any and all issues on which the parties are able to agree and which are part of a marital settlement


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