Divorce- Legal Terminology and Definitions

By | December 8, 2017

The legal terminology can be confusing

Whether you’re the petitioner or defendant in a divorce, you will probably run across some legal terminology and not know what they mean. Don’t be caught off guard.


– A –

ACTION: a lawsuit or proceeding in a court of law.

AFFIDAVIT: a written statement signed under oath—also called a declaration.

AGREEMENT: a verbal or written resolution of disputed issues.

ALIMONY: a payment of financial support provided by one spouse to the other

ALIAS SUMMONS: another summons, used when the original is not served on the defendant.

ANNULMENT: a marriage may be dissolved in legal proceedings where the marriage is declared void, as though it never happened. The law sees them as never being married. Only under certain limited circumstances is it available.

APPEAL: a legal action whereupon the losing party asks a higher court to review the decision.

– B –

BEST INTERESTS of the CHILD: The legal standard that determines who gets custody of a child or children, visitation rights , and financial support

– C –

COLLUSION: an agreement between two or more people that one of the parties brings false charges against the other. A husband and wife may agree to use adultery as a ground in order to obtain a divorce quicker, knowing neither committed adultery. Collusion is illegal.

COMPLAINANT: the one who files the lawsuit—also called the petitioner or plaintiff.

COMMON LAW MARRIAGE: A man and woman, who are free to marry, agree to live together as husband and wife without a formal ceremony.

COMMUNITY PROPERTY: Divides marital property between spouses 50/50. Courts typically only divide property bought or acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage.

COMPLAINT: The legal paper that begins a case.

CONDONATION: the act of forgiving the spouse who has committed an act of wrongdoing that would constitute grounds for a divorce. Condonation usually is proven by living with the spouse after learning that the wrongdoing was committed. It is often used as a defense to a divorce.

CONTEMPT: failure to follow a court order— can include monetary fines and/or jail time.

CORROBORATIVE WITNESS: a person who testifies on your behalf to back up your version of the story. .

CUSTODIAL PARENT: the parent who has physical custody of the child or children of both parents.

CUSTODY-SOLE & JOINT: refers to the legal arrangements regarding who a child will live with and how decisions about the child will be made. There are two parts to custody: legal and physical. Legal custody refers to one parent’s right to make decisions about a child’s welfare, health, and safety. Physical custody refers to where the child will be living on a regular basis. Generally, the parent the child does not live with will be allowed to have regular visits with the child.

– D –

DEFAULT: after one party’s failure to answer a complaint, motion, or petition, the court may grant a plaintiff’s divorce via default then give the plaintiff everything he or she requested.

DISSOLUTION: the legal end of a marriage.

– E –

EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION: One method of dividing marital property between the two spouses. It is based on an equitable and fair division ( but not necessarily a 50/50 division). Most states practice this method. Courts usually divide property bought and/or acquired by at least one of the spouses during the marriage.

– F –

FAULT-BASED DIVORCE: divorce action where one spouse claims the other spouse’s wrongdoings caused the marriage to end—the burden of proof then lies on the “innocent” spouse to prove the wrongdoings took place.

FAULT GROUNDS: a spouse’s legal reason to sue for divorce, such as adultery or abuse.

– G –


– H –

HOME STATE: the state where a child or children of the marriage resided with a parent for at least six months prior to an action being filed in court for custody, support, or visitations.

– I –

INNOCENT SPOUSE RULES: IRS rules protecting a spouse from the other spouse’s tax entanglements.

IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: one of many legal grounds for no-fault divorces.

IRRETRIEVABLE BREAKDOWN: another legal grounds for no-fault divorces.


– J –

JUDGMENT: the court’s decision.

JURISDICTION: the authority of a court to hear a case.


– K –


– L –

LEGAL SEPARATION: a court order that allows spouses to live separately but remaining legally married.

– M –

MARITAL PROPERTY: includes all property acquired during the marriage by one or both spouses.

MASTER: hears cases just like a judge does—the master’s decision is then reviewed by a judge before eventually becoming final.

MOTION: a request (usually written) to the court.

– N –

NO-FAULT DIVORCE: a divorce that doesn’t require a spouse to prove misconduct of the other spouse before being entitled to a divorce.

NON-MARITAL PROPERTY: belongs to one spouse and won’t be included in any division of property—also called separate property

NOTICE: a formal legal process of informing one of the spouses about a legal action or proceeding involving that spouse.

– O –

ORDER: the court’s ruling or decision pertaining to a certain matter or legal issue. Most commonly a decision on a motion filed by one spouse.

– P –

PENDENTE LITE: temporary arrangements for dealing with specific issues related to divorce.—these orders will remain in place until the court issues a final order based on the parties’ agreement or after a hearing/trial.

PETITION: a legal paper that begins a case.

PETITIONER: the spouse who filed for divorce — the plaintiff.


PRO SE/PROPER PERSON: representing yourself in court without attorney counsel.

– Q –

QUALIFIED DOMESTIC RELATIONS ORDER (QDRO): a court order forcing one spouse to share their pension or retirement funds with the other spouse.

– R –

RESIDENCY REQUIREMENT: the amount of time a spouse must reside in a state or county before that spouse is allowed to file for divorce in that state or county.

– S –

SEPARATE PROPERTY: property or assets that were acquired before marriage that belong to only one spouse. Separate property usually isn’t included in the distribution or division.

SERVICE: providing a copy of the papers being filed to the other side either by hand delivery or another court-approved method of delivery

SUBPOENA: a form issued by the court ordering someone to appear in court and/or bring documents.

– T –

TEMPORARY SUPPORT: While the divorce is pending, one spouse makes payments to the other for financial support.

– U –

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE: the defendant agrees to the divorce and there are no issues for the court to decide about the children, money, or property.

– V –


– W –

WRIT OF SUMMONS: a form issued by the court that directs a party to respond to a motion,complaint, or petition.

– X –


– Y –


– Z –




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