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Divroce Terms:

This list of family law terms and definitions will help you understand the documents partaining to your divorce proceedings. The definitions may vary slightly from state to state. Check you local jurisdiction.

  • Action - The legal term for lawsuit.
  • Affidavit - A written statement of facts made and executed by a lawyer under penalty of perjury.
  • Affirmation - A written statement of facts made and executed by a lawyer under penalty or perjury.
  • Affirmative Defense - Legal response to a spouse's pleadings, even if the allegations of the petition for dissolution of marriage (divorce) are true.
  • Alimony - Payment of support from one party to another, may include property division and attorney's fees. Also see maintenance.
  • Alimony Pendente Lite - A temporary order of court that provides support for one spouse and/or children while the divorce is in progress.
  • Allegation - Statement contained in a pleading or affidavit starting forth what the pleader intends to prove.
  • Annulment - The legal ending to an invalid marriage: according to law neither party was ever married, but all children born of the annulled marriage remain legitimate. Grounds for annulment vary from state to state.
  • Answer - The second pleading in an action for divorce, separation, or an annulment, which is served in response to the petition for divorce and which admits or denies the petitions allegations and may also make claims against the other party.
  • Appeal - The process whereby a higher court reviews the proceedings resulting in an order or judgement of a lower court and determines whether there was a reversible error.
  • Appearance - A respondent's formal method of telling the court whether he or she submits to the court's jurisdiction. Appearance can also refer to a party's physical presence at court.
  • Change of Venue - A change of the place where the case is to be tried.
  • Child Support - Support for a child (not taxable to the recipient or deductible to the payer spouse).
  • Claim - A charge from one spouse to another.
  • Common Law Marriage - A relationship between a man and a woman recognized by law in some states as a marriage, although no license or ceremony was involved. The termination of a common law takes place by a divorce.
  • Community Property - Generally, the property acquired during the marriage by the work efforts of both parties. Applies in those states known as community property states.
  • Contempt of Court - The willful and the intentional failure to comply with a court order, judgement, or decree by a party to the action, which may be punishable in variety of ways.
  • Contested Case Any case which the court must decide one or more issues on which the parties have not agreed.
  • Court Order - A written document issued by the court which only becomes effective when a judge signs it.
  • Cross-Examination - The questioning of a witness by the opposing party during a trial or a deposition, to test the truth of that testimony or to develop it.
  • Custody - The legal right and responsibility awarded by the court for the care, possession and rearing of the child.
  • Default or Default Judgement - An order or judgment granted by the court without hearing the other side because it failed to plead or submit papers within the time allowed or failed to appear at the hearing.
  • Defendant (Respondent) - The person (husband or wife ) who is sued for divorce.
  • Deposition - The testimony of a witness taken out of court under oath and in writing.
  • Direct Examination - The initial questioning of a witness by the lawyer who called him or her to the stand.
  • Disclosure, Discovery or Production of Documents - Procedures followed by a lawyer to determine the nature, scope and credibility of the opposing party's claim and his or her financial status.
  • Dissolution - The act of terminating a marriage; divorce does not include annulment.
  • Distribution Award - A payment ordered by the court.
  • Emancipation - The point where the child may be treated like an adult and in some states when the duty to support may terminate.
  • Equitable Distribution of Property - A system of distributing property in connection with a divorce or dissolution proceeding on the basis of variety of factors without regard to who holds title. Evidence: Documents, testimony or other demonstrative material offered to the court to prove or disprove allegations.
  • Ex Parte - An application for court relief without the presence of the other party. In some states the other party is present but is given very short notice of the application.
  • Grounds - In the eyes of the law (under stature), the reason for granting a divorce.
  • Guardian ad Item (GAL) - A lawyer appointed by the court to represent the children.
  • Hearing - Any proceeding before the court for the purpose of resolving disputed issues through testimony, offers of proof and argument.
  • Hold-harness - A situation where one spouse resumes liability for a debt or obligation and promises to protect the other from any loss or expense in connection with it.
  • Indemnification - The promise to reimburse another person in case of an anticipated loss; the same as hold-harmless.
  • Injunction - A court order forbidding someone from committing a particular act that is likely to cause injury or property loss to another party; the same as a restraining order.
  • Interrogatories - A series of written questions served on the opposing party to discover certain facts regarding the disputed issues in a matrimonial proceeding. The answers to interrogatories must be under oath and served within a prescribed period of time.
  • Joint Custody - The shared right and responsibility awarded by the court to both parents for possession, care and rearing of the children.
  • Joint Property - Property held in the name of more than one person.
  • Jurisdiction - The authority of the court to rule the issues relating to the parties, their children or their property.
  • Legal Separation - A judgement of the court or written agreement directing or authorizing the spouses to live separate and apart. A degree of separation does not dissolve a marriage and does not allow the parties to remarry.
  • Maintenance - Spousal support. See alimony.
  • Marital Property - Accumulated income and property acquired by the spouses, subject to certain exclusions in some states.
  • Marital Settlement Agreement - The parties' settlement reduced to a written or orally placed on the record in open court. May also be called a property settlement agreement.
  • Motion - A written application to the court for some particular relief such as temporary support, injunction, or attorney's or expert's fees.
  • Motion to Modify - A formal written request to the court to change a prior order regarding custody, child support, alimony, or any other order that the court may change by law.
  • Motion is Limine: (Latin: "at the threshold") is a motion made before the start of a trial requesting that the judge rule that certain evidence may, or may not, be introduced to the jury in a trial. This is done in judge's chambers, or in open court, but always out of hearing of the jury. If a question is to be decided in limine, it will be for the judge to decide. Usually it is used to shield the jury from possibly inadmissible and unfairly prejudicial evidence.
  • Motion to Vacate Premises - A request to the court, on the showing of good cause, ordering the spouse to leave the marital residence.
  • No-fault Divorce - When divorce is granted without the necessity of proving one of the parties of marital misconduct. Fault is marital misconduct that may be considered for some issues in some states.
  • Notice of Hearing (NOM)- A paper that is served on the opposing lawyer or other spouse listing the date and place of a hearing and the motions that will be heard by the court.
  • Order - The courts motion requiring the parties to do certain things or settling forth their rights and responsibilities. An order is reduced to writing, signed by the judge, and filed with the court.
  • Party - The person in a divorce action whose rights and/or interests are to be affected by the divorce.
  • Petition (complaint) - The first pleading in an action for divorce, separate maintenance, or annulment, serving forth the allegations on which the requested relief is based.
  • Petitioner (plaintiff) - The party who files the petition for divorce or any other petition.
  • Plaintiff - Petitioner.
  • Pleading - Formal written application to the court for relief and the written response for it. Pleadings include petitions, answers, counterclaims, replies and motions.
  • Privilege - The right of a spouse to make admissions to his or her spouse or a lawyer, member of the clergy, psychiatrist, doctor, or certified social worker that are not later admissible in evidence.
  • Pro Per - A litigant who is not represented by a lawyer (also "proper").
  • Relief - Whenever a party to a divorce proceeding asks the court to do: dissolve the marriage, award support, enforce a prior court order or decree, divide property, enjoin certain behavior, dismiss the complaint of the other party, and so on.
  • Reply - The pleading filed in answer to the allegations of a counter claim.
  • Report of referee with notice - The written document prepared by a referee. Or court-appointed officer, after a hearing and submitted to the parties (husband and wife) and the judge: it is not law and final in an order of the court but what is recommended to be an order of the court.
  • Respondent (Defendant) - The one who defends the divorce proceeding brought by another.
  • Request for production of documents - Documents and/or other information to be processed.
  • Rules of evidence - The rules that govern the presentation and admissibility of oral and documentary evidence at court hearings or depositions.
  • Separate property - Property that is not "marital property."
  • Setoff - A certain financial obligation of one spouse that is deducted from the debt or financial obligation of the other spouse. Settlement: The agreed resolution of disputed issues.
  • Show Cause - Written application to the court for some type of relief. Which is made on such notice to the other party as the court directs.
  • Stipulation - An agreement between the parties or their counsel.
  • Subpoena - A document served on a party or witness requiring appearance in court. Failure to comply with the subpoena could result in punishment by the court. A subpoena ducas tecum is a subpoena requesting documents.
  • Summons - A written notification that legal action has commenced. Requiring a response within a specified amount of time.
  • Temporary or pendente lite motions - Applications to the court for interim relief pending the final decree of divorce, separation or annulment. Typical temporary motions include motions for temporary maintenance, child support, attorney fees, costs, expert fees, custody, visitation, enforcement or modifications of prior temporary orders or request for exclusive possession. The court enters a pendente order after determining a motion. Motions are brought on by the service of a notice of motion or order to show cause, with affidavits.
  • Temporary restraining order - An order of the court prohibiting a party from doing something - for example, threatening, harassing or beating the other spouse and/or the children, selling personal property, taking money out of accounts, denying him or her a motor vehicle.
  • Testimony - Statements under oath by a witness in court or during a deposition.
  • Transcript - A typewritten record of testimony taken by a court reporter during a deposition.
  • Trial - A formal court hearing to decide disputed issues raised by the pleadings.
  • Vocational Evaluation:
  • Unconstituted divorce - A proceeding in which a person sued for divorce does not fight it or may have reached an agreement with the spouse during the divorce proceedings.


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Nothing on the Site should be construed as legal advice or used as a substitute for legal advice. The opinions stated in this site are based on personal experience.