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Divorce Legal Lingo

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

The legal language of divorce can be overwhelming. I have put together some of the terms you are bound to come across in your journey though the legal/court aspect of your divorce.


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

Alimony (Spousal Support). Financial payments made to help support a spouse or former spouse during separation or following divorce.

Alimony pendente lite. A temporary or of court that provides support for one spouse and/or children while the divorce is in progress.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Methods of resolving legal disputes without going to trial, in a less adversarial manner, such as through arbitration.

Arrearage. The amount of money that is past due for child or spousal support.


Child Support. Money that a non-custodial parent pays to the custodial parent for their child(ren)’s support.

Child Support Guidelines. Guidelines established by a statute or rule in each jurisdiction that set forth the manner in which child support must be calculated generally based on the income of the parent, time shared with each parent and the needs of the children.

Collaborative Divorce. (also called “collaborative law”) is another approach to handling your divorce or legal separation.In a collaborative divorce process, you and your spouse or domestic partner negotiate an agreement with professional help. You each hire specially trained collaborative lawyers who advise and assist you in negotiating the settlement agreement.

You meet separately with your own lawyer. The lawyers and both clients also meet together regularly. Sometimes you and your spouse or domestic partner can bring in other people, like child custody specialists or accountants, to help you settle your case without having to go in front of a judge in a contested case.For a collaborative divorce, both spouses or domestic partners and their lawyers usually sign a contract that says they agree they will not go to court. If the parties cannot reach a settlement and end up having to go to court, the lawyers agree to withdraw from the case. If that happens, you will have to get a new lawyer or represent yourself.

Community Property. Generally, property acquired during a marriage as a result of the parties’ work and effort. Applied in states known as community-property states.

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

Cooperative Divorce. In a Cooperative Divorce, parties do commit to working together in a reasonable way to negotiate and reach a mutual agreement. Alongside their attorneys, divorcing spouses seek to work in a way that minimizes conflict, toward a settlement that will be acceptable to both parties. The primary difference is that in Cooperative Divorce, the door is left open that they may proceed to litigation if it becomes necessary. Neither party is prevented from filing for litigation to resolve challenges that may arise. Proponents of Cooperative Divorce suggest that you are best suited to leave this option available to you. The goal will still be to avoid litigation and resolve your case through peaceful negotiation and mediation, but if things don't go quite as you had hoped, your attorney can continue represent you through the next stages of the process.

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

Custody. Having rights to your child. Custody can be either legal, meaning decisions can be made about your child’s welfare, or physical, which means the the child lives with and is raised by you.


Decree. The court’s written order or decision finalizing the divorce often issued in conjunction with the court’s judgement.

Default or Default judgement. Failing to answer a petition or complaint for divorce. Failing to file an answer or appear in court as required can result in the court awarding everything requested by the filing spouse.

Defendant. The person against whom legal papers are filed, also sometimes referred to as the Respondent.

Deposition. Part of the discovery or information-exchanging process of a legal proceeding, in which the attorney for the other party asks questions, you answer under oath with your attorney present, and a transcript of the proceedings is prepared.

Discovery. The information-exchanging process of a legal proceeding, including serving and answering interrogatories and requests for production of documents, and taking depositions.

Dissolution. Another word for divorce, which is the legal termination of a marriage relationship and does not include annulment.

Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO). The courts issue DVROs to protect people against abuse or violence from a family member or significant other residing in the same household. That might include a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, or the other parent of a child.


Emancipation. The point at which a child may be treated as an adult and in some states when the duty to support may teriminate.

Equitable Distribution of Property. A distribution of property that is fair in view of all of the circumstances. Equitable does not necessarily mean equal and is based on a variety of factors without regard to who holds title.

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.


Guardian ad litem (GAL). A lawyer or mental health professional appointed by the court to represent the children.


Hearing. Any proceeding before the court for the purpose of resolving disputed issues through presentation of testimony, offers of proof, and argument.

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 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 answer to interrogatories must be under oath and served within a prescribed time.


Joint Legal Custody. The shared right and responsibility of both parents awarded by the court to make important decisions about the children’s welfare.

Joint Physical Custody. The sharing, by both parents, of the actual physical care and custody of the children.

Jurisdiction. The authority of the court to rule on the issues relating to the parties, their children, or their property.


Legal Separation. A court judgment or written agreement directing or authorizing spouses to live separate and apart. A decree of separation does not dissolve the marriage or allow the parties to remarry but may resolve all financial claims.


Marital Property. Generally, all income and property acquired during the marriage. Also known as community property.

Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA). 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 or separation agreement.

Maintenance. Spousal support. See also alimony.

Mediation. A form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for resolving legal disputes without going to trial, by the use of a trained and impartial third party who attempts to bring the parties together in mutual 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 party’s 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.


No-fault Divorce. When divorce is granted without a party having to prove the other party’s marital mis-conduct. “Fault” is marital misconduct that may be considered for some issues in some states.

Non-marital property. Generally, property owned by either spouse prior to marriage or acquired by them individually, such as by gift or inheritance, during the marriage. Also known as Individual Property.

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 courts ruling on a motion requiring the parties to do certain things or setting forth their rights and responsibilities. And order is reduced to writing, signed by the judge, and filed with the court.


Party. The person in a divorce action whose rights or interests will be affected by the divorce.

Petitioner. The party who initiates or files the petition for divorce or any other petition.

Prenuptial Agreement. And agreement entered into before marriage that sets forth each parties rights and responsibilities should the marriage terminate by death or divorce. Also called a pre-marital agreement.

Privilege. The right of a person to make statements to his or her spouse or lawyer, member of the clergy, psychiatrist, Dr., or certified social worker that are not later admissible in evidence.

Pro se. A litigant who is not represented by a lawyer.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). Pronounced “kwah-dro,” an order issued by the court to divide retirement benefits.


Respondent. The person who answers a petition in a legal proceeding, sometimes also referred to as the defendant.

Request for Orders (RFO). A request for order, or RFO, is the act of formally asking a judge to make orders in a legal matter. If the judge issues the requested orders the orders become enforceable by the court's contempt power.

Request for Production of Documents. A Series of written requests served on the other party seeking the production of documents, such as financial records. Responses must be provided within a fixed time.


Separate Property. Property that is not "marital property” that belongs only to one spouse. Usually property that was acquired before the marriage or inheritance.

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.

Settlement Conference. A meeting at which the parties and their lawyers attempt to settle the case before trial, often ordered by the court. Sometimes referred to as a Voluntary Settlement Conference or VSC.

Split Custody. A form of custody, generally not looked upon favorably, in which some or one of the parties children is in the custody of one parent and the remaining children are in the custody of the other parent.

Spousal Support ( Maintenance or Alimony). Financial payments made to help support a spouse or former spouse during separation or following divorce.

Stipulation. And agreement entered into by the divorcing spouses that settles the issues between them and is often entered into the courts final order a judgment and decree.

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 as a subpoena requesting documents.

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


Temporary or pendent lite motions. Applications to the court for interim relief pending the final decree of divorce, separation, or annulment. Typical temporary motions for temporary maintenance, child support, attorneys fees, costs, expert fees, custody, visitation, enforcement, or modifications of prior temporary orders, or requests for exclusive possession. The court enters a pendent lite order after determining a motion.

Temporary restraining orders (TRO) are short-term pre-trial temporaryinjunctions. To obtain a TRO, a party must convince the judge that he or she will suffer immediate irreparable injury unless the order is issued.

Transcript. A type written record of testimony taken by a court reporter during a deposition or court.


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

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