Glossary of Divorce Terms

Glossary of Terms

Absolute Divorce: The absolute ending of a marriage, leaving both parties free to remarry.

Action: The legal term for lawsuit.

Adversarial Divorce: When a couple cannot come to an agreement about the terms of their divorce.

Affidavit: A written statement of facts made under oath and signed before a notary public.

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Alternative Dispute Resolution (A.D.R.): Settlement techniques used to resolve a case without a trial.

Agreement: A transcribed or written resolution of the disputed issues when the parties have resolved issues in the case. Sometimes called a Stipulation.

Alimony: Payment of support from one party to another; in some states may include property division and attorney’s fees. See also Maintenance.

Annulment: The legal ending of 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.

Answers: The second pleading in a divorce, separation, or announcement, 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. Sometimes called a response.

Appearance: A respondent’s formal method of telling the court that he o she submits to the court’s jurisdiction. Appearance also can refer to a party’s physical presence in court.

Arrearages: The difference between the amount of spousal or child support paid, if any, and the amount required under court order.

Assets: Cash, property, investments, goodwill, and other items of value (as defined by state law) that appear on a balance sheet indicating the net worth of an individual or a business.

Asset Inventory: Collection of financial data that includes information on assets and liabilities.

Best Interest Of The Child: A discretionary legal standard used by judges when making decisions about custody, visitation, and support for a child when the parents are divorcing.

Child Support: The amount of money paid by a noncustodial parent to the custodial parent (not taxable to the recipient or deductible to the payor) for a child’s day today expenses and other special needs. Each state is required by Congress to have written child support guidelines and enforcement procedures.

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Collaborative Divorce: A team approach to divorce in which divorcing couples obtain professional help from specialist in the legal, financial, and mental health field; when needed, additional professionals (including child/parenting experts) may be called in to help a couple settle their case.

Common-Law-Marriage: A relationship between a man and a woman, recognized as a marriage in some states, although no license or ceremony was involved. A divorce is required to terminate a common law marriage.

Contempt Of Court: The willful an intentional failure to comply with a court order, judgment, or decree by a party to the action, which may be punishable in a variety of ways.

Contested Case: Any case in which the court must decide one or more disputed issues.

Court Orders: A written document issued by a court, which becomes effective only when signed by a judge.

Cross-Examination: The questioning of a witness by the opposing party during a trial or at a deposition, to test the truth of that testimony or to develop it.

Custody: The legal right and responsibility awarded by a court for the care, possession, and rearing of a child. Distinctions are sometimes made between legal custody, which relates to decision-making responsibility, and physical custody, which relates to residence or physical access.

Default Or Default Judgment: An order or judgment granted by a court without hearing the other side because that side failed to submit papers within the time allowed

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.

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Disclosure, Discover, Or Production Of Documents: Procedures followed by lawyers 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.

Divorce Coaching: A flexible, goal oriented process designed to support, motivate, and guide people going through divorce to help them make the best possible decisions for their future, based on their particular interest needs and concerns.

Domestic Violence: The willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.

Emancipation: The point at which a child may be treated as 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 a variety of factors without regard to who holds title. Equitable means fair; does not necessarily mean equal.

Evidence: Documents, testimony, or other demonstrative material offer to the court to prove or disprove allegations.

Ex Parte: An application for court relief made without the other party being present. In some states the other party is present but has been given very short notice of the application.

Financial Affidavit: A key document used to collect financial data; in some states, it may be known as a “financial statement” and may use a standard form. This document becomes part of the record of documents that are filed with the court. Included in the financial affidavit are all income and deductions from income, all living expenses, all assets, and all liabilities.

Grounds For Divorce: reasons for seeking a divorce, such as incompatibility, mental cruelty, physical abuse, or adultery. While some states allow fault grounds for divorce, all states have some form of no-fault divorce.

Guardian Ad Litem (GAL): A person appointed by a judge to prosecute or defend a case for a person legally unable to do so, such as a minor child.

Hearing: Any proceeding before a judicial officer.

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Hold Harmless: A situation in which one spouse assumes liability for a debt or other obligation and promises to protect the other spouse 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.

Interest-Based Bargaining: A method of negotiation used in mediation. It starts with each party educating the other party about their interest. Ideally, the parties will work together until they find solutions that allow both parties to meet their needs.

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 the prescribed time.

Joint Custody: The shared right and responsibility of both parents awarded by the court 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 on issues relating to the parties, their children, or their property.

Legal Separation: Court ruling on division of property, spousal support, and responsibility to children when a couple wishes to separate but not divorce. A legal separation is most often desired for religious or medical reasons. A decree of legal separation does not dissolve the marriage and does not allow the parties to remarry.

Litigation: The process by which a civil case settles parties rights.

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Maintenance: Spousal support. See also alimony.

Marital Property: Accumulated income and property acquired by spouses, subject to certain exclusions in some states.

Marital Settlement Agreement: The parties’ settlement is reduced to a written document or orally placed on the record in open court. This agreement also may be called a property settlement agreement for separation agreement.

Mediation: A non-adversarial process in which a husband and wife are assisted in reaching their own terms of divorce by a neutral third-party trained in divorce matters. The mediator has no power to make or enforce decisions.

Motion: A written application to the court for some particular relief, such as temporary support, injunction, or attorney’s or expert’ fees.

No-Fault Divorce: A marriage dissolution system whereby divorce is granted without the necessity of proving one of the parties guilty of marital misconduct.

Notice Of Hearing: A paper that is served on the opposing lawyer or spouse listing the date and place of a hearing and the motion or motions that will be heard by the court.

Order: The court’s ruling on a motion requiring the parties to do certain things or setting 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 or interest will be affected by the divorce.

Petition (Complaint): A written application for particular relief from the court (The first pleading). In some jurisdictions complaint for divorce is entitled “petition for dissolution.”

Petitioner (Plaintiff): The party who files the petition for divorce or any other petition.

Order: A ruling by the court.

Plaintiff: The petitioner.

Pleading: Formal written application to the court for relief and the written response to it. Pleadings include petitions, answers, counter-claims, replies, and motions.

Pro Se: A litigant who is not represented by a lawyer (also “pro per”).

Perjury: The act of lying while under oath.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO): A court ruling earmarking a portion of a person’s retirement or pension fund payments to be paid to his/her ex-spouse as part of a division of marital assets.

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Relief: Whatever a party to a divorce proceeding asked the court to do: dissolve the marriage, award support, enforce a prior court order or decree, divide property, and enjoin certain behavior, dismiss the complaint of the other party, and so on.

Reply: The pleading filed in answer to the allegations of a counterclaim.

Respondent (Defendant): The one who defends the divorce proceeding brought by another.

Retainer: Money paid by the client to the lawyer or expert witness to obtain a commitment from the lawyer or expert witness to handle the client’s case. A retainer can be a deposit against which the lawyer or expert witness charges fees as they are earned.

Request For Production Of Documents: A series of written request served on the other party seeking the production of documents, such as financial records. Responses must be provided within a fixed time.

Rules Of Evidence: he rules that govern the presentation and admissibility of oral and documentary evidence at court hearings or depositions.

Separate Property: Property that is no marital property” but belongs only to one spouse.

Separation: The court grants a legal separation. It grants the parties a partial divorce. They must live apart but the marriage is not dissolved until a divorce is granted. The parties can’t remarry under a Separation.

Separation Agreement: The legal document listing provisions for peace between couples regarding such things as division of property, spousal support, and responsibility for children of the marriage.

Set Off: A debt or 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.


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 duces tecum is a subpoena requesting documents.

Summons: A written notification that legal action has been commenced, requiring a response within a specified time period.

Temporary Or Pondente Lite Motions: Applications to the court for interim relief pending the final decree of divorce, separation, or an element. Typical temporary motions include motions for temporary maintenance, child support, attorney’s fees, costs, expert fees, custody, visitation, enforcement, or modification of prior temporary orders, or request for exclusive possession. The court enters a pendent lite order after determining a motion.

Temporary Orders: Orders granting relief between the filing of the lawsuit and the judgment.

Temporary Restraining Orders (TRO): An order of the court prohibiting a party from doing something – for example, threatening, harassing, or beating the other spouse or the children, selling personal property, withdrawing money from accounts, denying access to 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 or court hearing.

Trial: A formal court hearing to decide disputed issues raised by the pleadings.

Uncontested Divorce: A divorce proceeding in which the parties have reached an agreement on all issues.

Venue: The County in which the case is heard.

Writ Of Summons: A form issued by the court directing a party to respond to a complaint, motion, or petition.