Family Law glossary of common terms and definitions

The following definitions are intended to be helpful, BUT they are not intended to address every possible meaning of the term(s) contained in this glossary. If you do not understand a term, please do not hesitate to add it to your list of items to discuss with your family law lawyer at your next conference.

Affidavit—a written statement in which the facts stated are sworn or affirmed to be true.

Answer—written response by a respondent that states whether he or she admits (agrees with) or denies (disagrees with) the allegations in the petition or complaint. Any allegations not specifically denied are considered to be admitted.

Appeal—asking a higher court 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 or community or separate in community property states, but that distinction is for the court to determine if you and your spouse do not agree.

Bond—money paid to the clerk of court by one party in a case, to be held and paid to an enjoined party in the event that the first party causes loss or damage of property as a result of wrongfully enjoining the other party.

Certificate of Service—a document that must be filed with the court showing to whom copies of court papers are being sent.

Certified Copy—a copy of an order or final judgment, certified by the clerk of the circuit court to be an authentic copy.

Certified Mail—mail which requires the receiving party to sign as proof that they received it.

Child Support—money paid from one parent to the other for the benefit of their dependent or minor child(ren).

Clerk of the Court—official in whose office papers are filed, a case number is assigned, and case files are maintained. The clerk’s office usually is located in the county courthouse.

Community property—property owned in common by a husband and wife. Recognized in a number of western states, it generally includes all property acquired by the spouses after their marriage except property received by one spouse as a gift or inheritance. On divorce, the community property is divided between the spouses.

Constructive Service—notification of the other party by newspaper publication or posting of notice at designated places when the other party cannot be located for personal service. Constructive service may also be used when the other party lives in another state. Constructive service is also called “service by publication.” However, when constructive service is used, the relief the Court may grant is limited.

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.

Contingent Asset—an asset that you may receive or get later, such as income, tax refund, accrued vacation or sick leave, a bonus, or an inheritance.

Contingent Liability—a liability that you may owe later, such as payments for lawsuits, unpaid taxes, or debts that you have agreed or guaranteed to pay if someone else does not.

Counterpetition—a written request to the court for legal action, which is filed by a respondent after being served with a petition.

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.

Deputy Clerk—an employee of the office of the clerk of court, which is usually located in the county courthouse or a branch of the county courthouse.

Dissolution of Marriage—divorce; a court action to end a marriage.

Enjoined—prohibited by the court from doing a specific act.

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. DO NOT CALL THE JUDGE’S OFFICE DIRECTLY FOR ANYTHING NOR HAVE ANYONE CALL THE JUDGE’S OFFICE ON YOUR BEHALF. If you have something you need to tell the judge, notify your family law attorney who must ask for a hearing and give notice to the other party. If your spouse is representing himself or herself, he or she is called a pro se litigant. Pro se litigants sometimes abuse communication with the court as they are unfamiliar with how proceedings work. That does not give you, as a represented client, the permission to do the same.

Filing—delivering a petition, response, motion, or other pleading in a court case to the clerk of court’s office.

Filing Fee—an amount of money, set by law, that the petitioner must pay when filing a case.

Final Hearing—trial in your case.

Financial Affidavit—a sworn statement that contains information regarding your income, expenses, assets, and liabilities.

Final Judgment—a written document signed by a judge and recorded in the clerk of the circuit court’s office that contains the judge’s decision in your case.

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 magistrate or hearing officer) on a motion.

Joint Custody—an arrangement under which both parents have full parental rights and responsibilities for their child(ren), and the parents make major decisions affecting the welfare of the child(ren) jointly. Different jurisdictions use different terms for this concept, such as “shared parental responsibility” or “joint managing conservatorship” for example.

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 that 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.

Judicial Assistant—the judge’s personal staff assistant.

Liabilities—everything owed by you or your spouse, including mortgages, credit cards, or car loans.

Lump-Sum Alimony—money ordered to be paid by one spouse to another in a limited number of payments, often a single payment.

Mandatory Disclosure—items that must be disclosed by both parties.

Marital Asset—in non-community property states, generally, anything that you and/or your spouse acquired or received (by gift or purchase) during the marriage. For example, something you owned before your marriage may be nonmarital. An asset may only be determined to be marital by agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Marital Liability—in non-community property states, generally, any debt that you and/or your spouse incurred during the marriage. A debt may only be determined to be nonmarital by agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

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 change made by the court in an order or final judgment.

Motion—a request made to the court, other than a petition or complaint.

No Contact—a court order directing a party not to speak, call, send mail to, visit, or go near his or her spouse, ex-spouse, child(ren), or other family member.

Nonmarital Asset—generally, anything owned separately by you or your spouse. An asset may only be determined to be nonmarital by either agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Nonmarital Liability—generally, any debt that you or your spouse incurred before your marriage or since your separation. A debt may only be determined to be nonmarital by either agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Nonparty—a person who is not the petitioner or respondent in a court case.

Notary Public—a person authorized to witness signatures on court related forms.

Obligee—a person to whom money, such as child support or alimony, is owed.

Obligor—a person who is ordered by the court to pay money, such as child support or alimony.

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.

Parenting Course—a class that teaches parents how to help their child(ren) cope with divorce and other family issues.

Parenting Plan—a document created to govern the relationship between the parties relating to the decisions that must be made regarding the minor child. It contains a time-sharing schedule for the parents and child.

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.

Payor—an employer or other person who provides income to an obligor.

Permanent Alimony—spousal support ordered to be paid at a specified, periodic rate until modified by a court order, the death of either party, or the remarriage of the obligee, whichever occurs first.

Personal Service—when a summons and a copy of a petition (or other pleading) that has been filed with the court are delivered by a deputy sheriff or private process server to the other party.

Petition—a written request to the court for legal action, which begins a court case. In some jurisdictions, the term is “complaint.”

Petitioner—the person who files a petition that begins a court case.

Pleading—a formal written statement of exactly what a party wants the court to do in a lawsuit or court action.

Pro Se Litigant—a person who appears in court without the assistance of a lawyer.

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.

Respondent—the person who is served with a petition requesting some legal action against him or her.

Scientific Paternity Testing—a medical test to determine who is the father of a child.

Service—the delivery of legal documents to a party.

Separate property—in community property states, property owned entirely by one spouse. It generally includes property the spouse owned before the marriage and property the spouse acquired during the marriage by gift or inheritance to the spouse separately.

Sole Custody—a parenting arrangement under which the responsibility for the minor child(ren) is given to one parent by the court. Different states use different terms such as parental responsibility or managing conservatorship.

Spouse—a husband or wife.

Supplemental Petition—a petition that may be filed by either party after the judge has made a decision in a case and a final judgment or order has been entered. For example, a supplemental petition may be used to request that the court modify the previously entered final judgment or order.

Time-sharing or visitation schedule—a timetable that is included in the parenting plan that specifies the time, including overnights and holidays, that a minor child will spend with each parent.

Trial—the final hearing in a contested case.

Uncontested—any and all issues on which the parties are able to agree and that are part of a marital settlement agreement.