Family Law

Words and Terms You Should Know: Divorce and Family Law

Glossary of Family Law Terms


Select the first letter of the word from the list above to jump to appropriate section of the glossary.

- A -

ABSOLUTE DIVORCE: the final ending of a marriage. Both parties are legally free to remarry.

AB INITIO: Latin for "from the beginning."

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

AFFIDAVIT: a written statement under oath.

AGREEMENT: a verbal or written resolution of disputed issues.

ANSWER: the written response to a complaint, petition, or motion.

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

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

ANNULMENT: a marriage can be dissolved in a legal proceeding in which the marriage is declared void, as though it never took place. In the eyes of the law, the parties were never married. It is available only under certain limited circumstances.

APPEAL: a legal action where the losing party requests that a higher court review the decision.

Back to Top

- B -

BEST INTERESTS of the CHILD: Legal standard used to determine child custody, visitation and support

Back to Top

- C -

COLLUSION: an agreement between two or more persons that one of the parties brings false charges against the other. In a divorce case, the husband and wife may agree to use adultery as a ground in order to obtain a divorce more quickly, knowing full well that adultery was not committed. Collusion is illegal.

COMPLAINANT: the one who files the suit, same as "plaintiff."

COMMON LAW MARRIAGE: a common law marriage comes about when a man and woman who are free to marry agree to live together as husband and wife without the formal ceremony. to be common law married, both spouses must have intended to be husband and wife. Maryland does not recognize common law marriages.

COMPLAINT: called a Bill of Complaint. the legal paper that starts a case.

CONDONATION: the act of forgiving one's spouse who has committed an act of wrongdoing that would constitute a ground for divorce. Condonation generally is proven by living and cohabiting with the spouse after learning that the wrongdoing was committed. It often is used as a defense to a divorce.

CONTEMPT: failure to follow a court order. One side can request that the court determine that the other side is in contempt and punish him or her.

CORROBORATIVE WITNESS: a person who testifies for you and backs up your story. If you are asking the court to grant a divorce, you must bring to the hearing a witness who can corroborate your grounds for divorce.

CUSTODIAL PARENT: the spouse who has physical custody of the spouses' child or children.

CUSTODY-SOLE & JOINT: refers to the legal arrangements for whom a child will live with and how decisions about the child will be made. Custody has two parts: legal and physical. Legal custody is the decision-making part: physical custody refers to where the child lives on a regular basis. Generally, the parent the child does not live with will be allowed to have regular visits with the child. Parents can make any custodial arrangement that is in the best interest of their children. The standard for custody is "best interest of the child".

Back to Top

- D -

DEFAULT: a party's failure to answer a complaint, motion, or petition.

DEFENDANT: the person the case is brought against.

DISCOVERY: a way for getting information from the other side or other people. Examples of discovery are interrogatories (written questions) and depositions (questions which are usually in person and recorded).

DISSOLUTION: the legal end of a marriage.

Back to Top

- E -

EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION: The division of property between the spouses, and usually only that property bought or acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage.

Back to Top

- F -

FILING: giving the clerk of Court your legal papers.

FAULT-BASED DIVORCE: divorce action where misconduct by one spouse is needed before a marriage may be ended.

FAULT GROUNDS: marital misconduct giving one spouse a legal reason to sue for divorce, such as abuse, abandonment and adultery.

Back to Top

- G -

GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE: the legal basis for a divorce; the law sets out specific reasons for a divorce which have to be proven before the court can grant a divorce.

Back to Top

- H -

HOME STATE: the state where a child or children of the marriage lived with a parent for at least six months before a child custody, support or visitation action was filed in court.

Back to Top

- I -

INNOCENT SPOUSE RULES: IRS rules that protect one spouse from the other spouse's tax fraud or other tax-related misconduct.

IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES the legal grounds for no-fault divorces.

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

Back to Top


- J -

JUDGMENT: a court's decision.

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

Back to Top

- K -


Back to Top

- L -

LEGAL SEPARATION: a court order allowing spouses to live separate and apart while remaining legally married.

Back to Top

- M -

MAINTENANCE: one spouse's payment to the other for financial support; the same as alimony or spousal support.

MARITAL PROPERTY: includes all property acquired during the marriage.

MASTER: hears cases like a judge. A master's decision is reviewed by a judge before becoming final.

MOTION: a request to the court.

Back to Top

- N -

NON-CUSTODIAL PARENT: the spouse who doesn't have physical custody of the spouses' child or children.

NO-FAULT DIVORCE: a divorce that doesn't require one spouse to prove the other spouse's fault or misconduct before being entitled to a divorce.

NON-MARITAL PROPERTY: property that belongs to only one spouse and won't be included in any equitable distribution of property.

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

Back to Top

- O -

ORDER: a court's ruling or decision on a certain matter or legal issue, usually a decision on a motion filed by one spouse.

Back to Top

- P -

PATERNITY TEST: proving the identity of a child's biological father through scientific methods.

PENDENTE LITE: temporary arrangements for custody, child support, child visitation, alimony, us and possession of the family home, etc., until a final hearing.

PETITION: a legal paper that starts a case.

PETITIONER: the spouse who filed the divorce petition; same as "plaintiff."

PLAINTIFF: the person who started the case.

PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT: a contract signed by the spouses before the marriage setting out each spouse's rights to property and assets in the case of a divorce.

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

Back to Top

- Q -

QUALIFIED DOMESTIC RELATIONS ORDER (QDRO): a court order giving one spouse a share of the other spouse's pension or retirement funds.

Back to Top

- R -

RECONCILIATION: married people getting back together.

RESIDENCY REQUIREMENT: the amount of time a spouse must live within a state or county before that spouse may file a divorce action in that state or county.

Back to Top

- S -

SEPARATE PROPERTY: property or assets that belong to one spouse and usually won't be included in the property distribution or division.

SERVICE: providing a copy of the papers being filed to the other side.

SPOUSAL SUPPORT: one spouse's payment to the other for financial support; the same as alimony or maintenance.

SPOUSE: husband or wife.

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

Back to Top

- T -

TEMPORARY SUPPORT: payments made by one spouse to the other for financial support while the divorce action is pending.

Back to Top

- U -

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE: when the defendant is not going to try to stop the divorce and there are no issues for the court to decide about the children, money, or property.

Back to Top

- V -

VENUE: the county where the case is heard.

VISITATION: the non-custodial parent's right to spend time with the spouse's child or children.

Back to Top

- W -

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

Back to Top

- X -


Back to Top

- Y -


Back to Top

- Z -


Back to Top

Get Professional Help

Find a Divorce lawyer
Practice Area:
Zip Code:
How It Works
  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys
This article was verified by:
Ashley Nicole Larmour | March 18, 2015
102 East Main Street, Suite 7
(859) 813-5614 View Profile
This article was verified by:
Kourosh Arami, Esq. | April 23, 2015
53 West Jackson Boulevard, Suite 1633
Have a divorce question?
Get answers from local attorneys.
It's free and easy.
Ask a Lawyer

Talk to a Divorce attorney

We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you