September 5

The Ultimate List of Divorce Terms for Nonlawyers


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dealing with divorce, divorce blog, divorce communication, divorce lawyer, divorce tips


Spiral notebook with "Words Have Power" written on it on wooden background, signifying that divorce terms are important.Going through a divorce is like taking a trip to another planet. It’s long, it’s scary, and when you get there you realize that nothing works the way you expected! You don’t even speak the language. The lawyers and judges are using divorce terms that are completely foreign to you. They might as well be speaking Chinese.

The problem, of course, is that, if you don’t understand what someone’s words mean, you can’t possibly understand what they’re saying. It also doesn’t help that not everyone uses the same divorce terminology.

What a lawyer in one state calls “Alimony Pendente Lite” a lawyer in another state will call “Temporary Spousal Support.”

When you try to look up the words you don’t know on the internet, you face yet another challenge: legal definitions tend to be written by lawyers. That means that even the definitions themselves tend to be complicated and confusing!

In an effort to try to clear things up a bit, I’ve compiled what is quite possibly the most comprehensive list of divorce terms on the internet. I also tried to write in plain English as much as I could. (If things are still confusing, though, please cut me a break. I am, after all, a lawyer!)

Just click on the letter below to see the divorce terms that start with that letter:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W.

(Just in case you’re wondering, I couldn’t find any common divorce terms that started with K, X, Y or Z!)

Hands holding up letters spelling "Legal Advice"Divorce Terms Beginning with “A”

Abandonment (Desertion):

Abandonment is when one spouse disappears for a certain period of time with no intention of returning. (The exact amount of time a spouse needs to be gone varies from state to state. But usually, a spouse needs to be gone for at least a year.) In the past, abandonment was grounds for divorce. Now that every state has no-fault divorce, “abandonment” isn’t such a big deal anymore.

Absent Parent:

An absent parent is one who isn’t around for his/her kids. An absent parent has little or no contact with his/her children. S/he is only minimally involved in their lives. A parent can be “absent” even if s/he is paying child support.

Adultery (Infidelity/Cheating):

The legal term “adultery” means cheating on your spouse. It happens when a married person has sexual intercourse with someone who is not their spouse. Adultery is usually grounds for divorce. (In the past, adultery was also a crime!) Now that every state has no-fault divorce, adultery isn’t as important as it used to be. However, in some states, a spouse who committed adultery can’t collect alimony/spousal support.

Adversarial Divorce: 

An adversarial divorce is a divorce in which the couple does NOT agree on everything.  An adversarial divorce is the opposite of an amicable divorce. Usually, the term “adversarial divorce” refers to a divorce where the couple is fighting big time.

Ab Initio:

This is a Latin phrase meaning “from the beginning.”

Action:

An “action” is another name for a lawsuit or court case.

Adjusted Gross Income (AGI):

This is an Internal Revenue Service term that describes a person’s gross income minus certain specific deductions. Your annual income taxes are based, not on the total amount of money you earn, but on your adjusted gross income

Affidavit:

This is a written statement of facts made under oath. Witnesses must swear that the facts they make in an affidavit are true. Generally, a notary public must attest that the witness’ signature is real.

Age of majority:

This is the age at which a young person legally becomes an adult. The age of majority varies from state to state. For example, in Illinois, the age of majority is 18. In New York state it’s 21. In California and Florida, it’s 18.

Agreement:

An agreement is a verbal or written resolution of issues.

Alias Summons: 

An alias summons is a replacement summons. A court may issue an alias summons when the original summons expired before it was served on the Defendant/Respondent.

Alimony (Maintenance/Spousal Support):

Alimony refers to the payments made by one person to his/her spouse or former spouse during and after a divorce. Usually, alimony payments are based upon income, with the spouse who makes more money paying the spouse who makes less. The two most important questions regarding alimony are: “How much?” and “How long?”

Alimony Pendente Lite (Temporary Maintenance/Temporary Spousal Support):

These are payments one spouse makes to the other to support that spouse while the divorce case is pending. These payments are made before the divorce is final.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR):

Historically, litigation (a/k/a fighting in court) was the only way to get a divorce. Every divorce process OTHER THAN litigation is an “alternative” to litigation. Mediation, Arbitration and Collaborative Divorce are the three main alternative dispute resolution processes in divorce.

Appearance:

In divorce terms, an “appearance” is a legal document that one party files in order to take part in a case. The document is literally a form that’s titled “Appearance.” When a Respondent or Defendant (or his/her lawyer) files an Appearance, s/he “appears” in court. By doing so, that party subjects him/herself to the jurisdiction of the court.

Arrearage:

An arrearage is an amount of money that is past due. In divorce terms, the word “arrearage” typically refers to a past due amount owed for child or spousal support. For example, if Spouse A is supposed to pay Spouse B $5,000 per month for support and Spouse A doesn’t make that payment for 6 months, Spouse A has a $30,000 arrearage that s/he owes to Spouse B.

Annulment:

An annulment ends a marriage and treats that marriage as if it never took place. A legal annulment has different requirements than a religious annulment. You can only get a legal annulment under certain very limited circumstances. Those circumstances vary from state to state.

Answer:

In divorce terms, an “Answer” is a written legal document. It usually refers to a written response to a complaint, petition, or motion.

Appeal:

An appeal is the process by which a higher court reviews the decision of a lower court. If the higher court determines that the lower court messed up, it can amend the lower court’s decision. It can also return the case to the lower court for a new trial.

Arbitration:

A divorce arbitration is similar to a trial, only it takes place outside of court. An arbitrator, not a judge, presides over the arbitration hearing. The arbitrator then decides the issues in the case. (NOTE: a judge still must sign off on the arbitrator’s order. Only a judge can divorce you.)

Attorney’s Fees:

The money you pay your divorce attorney. In some cases, you may also have to pay your spouse’s attorney’s fees.

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Divorce Terms Beginning with “B”

Best Interests of a Child (Best Interests Standard):

The “best interest of a child” is the standard the court uses to decide custody, parenting time, and other parenting issues. In the broadest sense, doing what’s in the “best interest of a child” means doing what is necessary to foster the child’s happiness, security, mental health, and emotional development. Typically, a judge has the discretion to determine what is “in the best interest of a child” in divorce and parentage cases.

Illustration depicting a set of cut out printed letters formed to arrange the words child custody.Divorce Terms Beginning with “C”

Case Management Conference:

This is a meeting between the Judge and all the attorneys in a case. The goal of a Case Management Conference is to:

  • Set a trial date;
  • Determine what needs to be done so that the trial can take place. (For example, parties need to exchange discovery, take depositions, and complete a lot of other steps before trial.); and
  • Set deadlines for getting everything done.

Change of Venue:

A change of venue typically means a change in courthouse (i.e. moving the case to a different location). In some states, a change of venue may also refer to a change of judge. (Although in other places a change of judge is just called: a change of judge.)

Child Representative:

In Illinois, a Child Representative refers to a lawyer who is appointed to represent child/ren whose parents are engaged in contentious litigation. A Child Representative is a cross between a guardian ad litem and a child’s attorney. In Illinois, a Child Representative is charged with advocating for what s/he believes is in the best interest of a child, based upon the facts and circumstances of the case. A Child Representative can be appointed in a divorce or a parentage case.

Child support:

This is money that one parent pays to another to support their child(ren). Child support is typically intended to cover child(ren)’s food, clothing, and shelter. It is usually (but not always) paid by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent

Child support guidelines:

Every state has guidelines outlining the way child support should be calculated, based on the parents’ income and the child(ren)’s needs. These guidelines vary from state to state. The reason that these calculations are called “guidelines” is that the court has the discretion to deviate from them based upon the facts and circumstances of a particular case. (NOTE: Most states have online child support calculators that can help you figure out how much child support you should pay or be paid.)

Children in Between Online (CIBO):

In most states, when parents divorce, they are required by law to take a parenting education course. Children in Between is one such online parenting education class. It is accepted by courts in many states. It is the online parenting education course that the Circuit Court of Cook County requires all parents to take if they are involved in divorce or parentage cases.

Civil Union:

A civil union is a legally recognized alternative to marriage typically used by LGBT couples. Partners in a civil union typically have similar rights and responsibilities as a married couple. Civil unions were typically used before the United States Supreme Court found that same-sex couples had the right to marry in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. Civil unions may not be recognized in all states. They also do not provide federal protections, benefits, or responsibilities to couples.

COBRA:

COBRA is an acronym for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. This is a federal law that requires an employer which provides group health insurance to allow a former dependent (e.g., a divorced spouse) to continue to get health insurance in the group plan for a set period of time. The divorced spouse has to pay the cost of the insurance, which includes not only the employee’s cost, but the employer’s cost as well.

COLA:

This is the acronym for Cost of Living Adjustment. It refers to a specific increase, typically in support, that will happen every year as the cost of living increases.

Collaborative Divorce:

Collaborative Divorce is a specific divorce process in which a couple agrees to resolve their divorce in a conference room rather than a courtroom. In Collaborative Divorce, both spouses have attorneys who were trained in the Collaborative Process. They may also have one or two divorce coaches, a child specialist, and a neutral financial professional as part of their divorce team. What makes a Collaborative Divorce different from every other kind of divorce is that at the beginning of the divorce process, everyone signs a written agreement that the couple will not take the matter to court. If either spouse does go to court, all of the divorce professionals, including the attorneys, must withdraw from the case. The couple then has to begin their divorce process in court with new divorce attorneys.

Commingling

In the context of divorce “commingling” refers to mixing marital and non-marital property together during a marriage. Commingling marital and non-marital property generally turns all the property into marital property.

Collusion:

Collusion is a secret or illegal conspiracy between two or more people. For example, before no-fault divorce existed, couples couldn’t get divorced unless one of them had done something that gave them “grounds” for divorce. (e.g. one of them committed adultery, or treated the other cruelly, etc.) Because of that, spouses would often collude with each other and testify in court that one of them had done something that would allow them to get a divorce, even when both of them knew that wasn’t true.

Common-Law Marriage:

Common-law marriage is a form of “marriage” that occurs when two people who never got legally married cohabit together for a certain period of time. Less than ten U.S. states recognize common-law marriage.  Illinois does not recognize common-law marriage. All Canadian provinces recognize common-law relationships.  But the rights and privileges of couples who were never married are different than those for couples who were legally married.

Community Property:

In a community property state, all income or property that was obtained during the marriage, except gifts and inheritances is “community property.” Community property is considered to be owned equally by both parties and is generally divided equally in a divorce. In the United States, only nine states and Puerto Rico are community property states.

Complainant (Plaintiff/Petitioner):

The complainant is the one who files a case in court. In a divorce case, the person who files the divorce petition may be called the Petitioner, the Plaintiff, or the Complainant.

Complaint (Petition):

This is the legal document filed in court to start the divorce process. In some states, it’s known as a petition.

Consolidation:

Consolidation is the joining of two cases involving the same parties and related issues. For example, if one couple has both a divorce or parentage case and a domestic violence case pending between them, the court may consolidate the cases so that it can resolve all issues at once.

Contempt of Court:

Contempt of Court is the willful failure to comply with a court order, judgment, or decree. If someone is found to be in contempt of court they may be punished by having to pay a fine or being thrown in jail (among other things).

Contested Divorce:

A contested divorce is any divorce where the parties don’t agree on all issues. If divorcing parties don’t agree on everything, their case will go to trial. Then the judge will decide the case for them.

Corroborative Witness:

A corroborative witness is a person who testifies in court and backs up someone else’s story.

Court Order:

A court order is a written instruction from the court. Court orders carry the weight of the law. They are not suggestions. Complying with court orders is mandatory. Anyone who knowingly violates a court order can be held in contempt of court.

Cross-Examination:

Cross-examination is the questioning of a witness presented by the opposing party at trial or at a deposition. The purpose of cross-examination is to test whether what the witness is saying is true.

Custodial Parent:

The custodial parent is the one who has primary residential custody of the child. The custodial parent usually has more than 50% of the time with the child in a year. In states, like Illinois, which no longer use the term “child custody,” the custodial parent is the parent who the divorce papers designate as the “residential custodian” for school or other purposes.

Custody:

There are two primary types of child custody in divorce: legal custody and residential custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make important decisions for their child(ren). If parents have the right to make decisions jointly for their child(ren), they have joint legal custody. If one parent can make decisions for the child(ren) on his/her own, that parent has sole legal custody. Residential custody refers to where the child lives most of the time. There is also physical custody, which simply refers to the person who has possession of the child at any given point in time. Some states (like Illinois) have abolished the term “custody.” Instead, parents are now deemed to have rights and responsibilities for their child(ren).

Divorce Terms Beginning with “D”

Decision Making:

This is a parent’s right to have input into and make important decisions about their children. These important decisions primarily involve the child’s education, medical care, religious upbringing, and (in some states) participation in extracurricular activities. In Illinois, a parent’s right to make decisions for their child has replaced the term “legal custody.” Strictly speaking, child custody in Illinois no longer exists.

Decree (Divorce Decree/Judgment):

A divorce decree is the final divorce judgment. It is the piece of paper that officially ends your marriage. Only a judge can sign a divorce decree.

Default:

A party is “in default” if s/he doesn’t answer a complaint, motion or petition in court. If one spouse totally refuses to participate in the divorce, after being served with a summons, the other spouse can get a divorce by default.

Defendant (Respondent):

The defendant is the person who has been sued. In a divorce case, the Defendant/Respondent is the person against whom a divorce complaint is filed.

Deferred Compensation Package:

This can mean two different things, depending on where you live. In some states, a “deferred compensation package” includes all retirement assets, such as pensions, 401K’s, IRA’s, and any kind of postponed income which was earned during the marriage. In other states (like Illinois) “deferred compensation” refers to a specific kind of income that one party has earned but has not yet been taxed on. A party can earn this kind of deferred compensation before, after or during a marriage.

Deposition:

A deposition is an oral question and answer session taken out of court under oath. Typically, a court reporter records a deposition. If requested, the court reporter can transcribe his/her notes into a written deposition transcript. If a witness later tires to change his/her testimony, a lawyer will use that witness’ deposition transcript to discredit him/her in court.

Direct Examination:

Direct examination is the initial questioning of a witness. When an attorney calls a witness to the stand and asks the witness questions, that’s “direct examination.” When the opposing lawyer questions the witness, that’s “cross-examination.”

Discovery:

In the U.S., “discovery” refers to the court process by which one party can discover information from another party or a third party. Discovery can include depositions, written interrogatories, notices to produce documents, and requests to admit facts.

Dismissal:

A dismissal ends a court case without a trial. A dismissal can be voluntary (i.e. someone voluntarily drops their case.) A judge can also dismiss a case for various legal reasons.

Dissolution of Marriage:

This is another word for “divorce.” A dissolution of marriage is the legal process of ending a marriage.

Divorce:

A divorce is the legal end of a marriage.

Docket:

The court’s calendar/schedule is called a “docket.”  Cases that are “on the docket” on a particular day are those which are set for some kind of court activity that day. That activity could be a hearing or the presentation of a motion. Or, it could be a status hearing, pretrial conference, or trial.

Domestic violence (Domestic abuse):

Domestic violence is violence that occurs between household members. It can be physical violence or stalking. It can also be threats of violence. Domestic abuse can occur inside the home, or at one person’s work.  Domestic violence can occur between spouses or between a spouse and children.

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Divorce Terms Beginning with “E”

Earning Capacity:

A person’s earning capacity is his/her ability to earn money. A person’s education, experience, age, etc., will all influence their earning capacity.

Emancipated:

A child is emancipated when s/he is no longer under his/her parents’ control. A child can become emancipated when s/he reaches the age of majority, marries, or enlists in the military. USually, parents must support their children until they are emancipated.

Equitable distribution:

Equitable distribution refers to the way in which marital assets are distributed. The word “equitable” means fair. It does not necessarily mean equal. Most U.S. states are “equitable distribution” states. The only states that are NOT equitable distribution states are those which are community property states.

Evidence:

“Evidence” is legal proof of something. Parties present evidence at hearings and trials. They may also present evidence to support a petition or motion. Oral testimony, written documents, and physical objects can all be “evidence.” They can all potentially be used in court. (That is, of course, assuming that they are relevant.)

Exhibits:

An exhibit is evidence that’s used in court. It can be a written document or report. Or, it can be a physical object. Exhibits can be attached to petitions or motions to support the arguments in the petition or motion.  They can also be presented as evidence at trial.

Ex Parte:

Ex parte is a Latin term that means “without a party.”  Courts don’t like ex parte hearings. They prefer to give both parties a chance to present their arguments on an issue. If one party isn’t present at a hearing, s/he can’t defend his/her position. Courts will only grant ex parte hearings in emergencies if a party can show that s/he would suffer irreparable harm if s/he notified the other party of the hearing in advance.  Hearings for Temporary Restraining Orders (TROs) and Orders of Protection can initially be ex parte hearings.

Expert Witness:

An expert witness is a professional whose testimony and/or reports help a judge reach a decision in a case. In divorce cases, typical expert witnesses are forensic accountants, business valuation experts, and child specialists.

Hand holding a piece to complete puzzle with the words "financial security"Divorce Terms Beginning with “F”

File/Filing:

To “file something in court” means to place a document in the official custody of the clerk of the court.

Financial Affidavit/Statement:

This is a standard court form used to collect financial data in a divorce. Typically, each state, or each court within a state, has its own financial affidavit or statement. The court requires parties in a contested divorce case to file financial affidavits. Both parties usually complete a Financial Affidavit with the help of their divorce attorney. (That is, of course, assuming they are using attorneys!) The party completing an affidavit must sign it under oath and attest to its accuracy and completeness.

Foundation:

In order to present evidence in court, the party offering the evidence must first “lay a proper foundation” for the evidence. Generally, this includes proving to the court that the piece of evidence is genuine, relevant, and authentic, among other things. A court will not consider evidence that lacks a proper legal foundation.

Divorce Terms Beginning with “G”

Gross Income:

Gross income is “total income” from all sources.  It is the income you get before you pay federal/state taxes, Medicare, Social Security, union dues, or make your retirement contributions.

Grounds for Divorce:

Grounds are the reasons for divorce.  Except for irreconcilable differences, the grounds for divorce are primarily fault-based. For example, mental cruelty, physical abuse, and adultery are all grounds for divorce. Today, all U.S. states and Canada have some form of no-fault divorce. In some states, like Illinois, the only ground for divorce is now irreconcilable differences.

Guardian Ad Litem:

This is a Latin term that means “a guardian for the lawsuit.”  A Guardian Ad Litem is a lawyer who the judge appoints to represent the interests of a person who is legally unable to do so, such as a child, a disabled person, or someone who is mentally incompetent. In a divorce case, a judge may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to represent your child(ren). S/he has the authority to conduct an investigation into what would be in the best interests of your child(ren).

Divorce Terms Beginning with “H”

Hearing:

A hearing is any proceeding before a judicial officer (i.e. a judge, magistrate or hearing officer).

Hearsay:

Hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Generally speaking, hearsay can’t be used in court.  It’s not admissible evidence. However, there are numerous exceptions to the hearsay rule. If you’re not a lawyer, figuring out what is or is not hearsay can be tricky.

Divorce Terms Beginning with “I”

Innocent Spouse Rules:

These are Internal Revenue Service rules that protect one spouse from the other spouse’s tax fraud or tax-related misconduct. For example, if both spouses signed joint income tax returns and one spouse lied about his/her income on the return, the spouse who didn’t lie can ask the IRS not to go after him/her for the back taxes, penalties, and interest due. Of course, if the “innocent” spouse KNEW his/her spouse was hiding income s/he is not so innocent, right?!

Interrogatories:

Interrogatories are a series of written questions that one party requires the other party to answer. These questions allow parties to discover relevant facts and information from another party in a lawsuit. The party who answers interrogatories must sign the answers under oath.

Irreconcilable Differences:

Irreconcilable differences are the standard no-fault ground for divorce. In divorce terms, having “irreconcilable differences” means that you and your spouse didn’t get along. (Yes. That’s really all it takes!) To prove irreconcilable differences you or your spouse may have to testify that your irreconcilable differences caused an irretrievable breakdown in your marriage. This is all legal jargon that means your marriage has broken down and can’t be fixed.

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Divorce Terms Beginning with “J”

Joint legal custody:

Joint legal custody exists when both parents have a right to make important decisions about their child’s welfare. Generally, these decisions involve education, healthcare, medical care and (in some states) extra-curricular activities.

Joint physical custody:

Joint physical custody exists when both parents equally share the physical care and custody of their child. It generally means the parents have 50/50 parenting time.

Judgment (Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage/Divorce Decree):

A Judgment is a final Court Order that disposes of all issues in a case. A Divorce Judgment is another name for a Divorce Decree. It is the final order of the trial court in a divorce case.

Jurisdiction: 

Jurisdiction refers to the power of a particular court has over the parties and subject matter of a lawsuit. When a court has jurisdiction over someone it has the power to make decisions that will bind that person.

Divorce Terms Beginning with “L”

Legal custody:

Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make important decisions for their child(ren). If parents have the right to make decisions jointly for their child(ren), they have joint legal custody. If one parent can make decisions for the child(ren) on his/her own, that parent has sole legal custody. In Illinois, the legislature has replaced the divorce term “legal custody” with parental decision-making rights/responsibilities.

Legal Separation:

A legal separation is a formal legal division of property for a married couple that wants to separate but not divorce. In a legal separation, the court can also enter orders regarding spousal support and determine responsibility for the couple’s children. The reason some people want a legal separation is because their religion doesn’t allow them to divorce, or they can’t get medical insurance if they’re divorced. A decree of legal separation does not dissolve the marriage. Legally separated spouses cannot remarry. Some states do not recognize legal separation.

Lis Pendens:

This is a Latin term. It means “during the pending lawsuit.” A lis pendens generally prohibits someone from transferring property that is involved in a lawsuit. Most divorces involve marital homes. So, in a divorce, the marital home is “property involved in a lawsuit.”  Very specific rules apply to Lis Pendens. If you have questions about lis pendens, ask your attorney.

Litigation:

Litigation means “going to court.” It is the process by which parties to a dispute can get their issues resolved by a judge. In divorce terms, “litigation” generally refers to a contested divorce case.

Lump-Sum Alimony (Lump Sum Spousal Support/Maintenance):

Lump-sum alimony is alimony that one party pays in lump-sums rather than on a monthly basis. A party can pay lump-sum alimony in one “lump.” Or s/he can pay it in several “lumps.”

Yellow document with the word "Mediation" with a red thumb tack above it.Divorce Terms Beginning with “M”

Maintenance (Alimony/Spousal Support): 

See “Alimony.”

Marital Property (Community Property):

There are only two kinds of property in divorce: marital property and non-marital property. (If you live in a community property state, then all of your property is either community property or separate property.) Generally, marital property is all property earned or acquired during a marriage. A valid prenuptial agreement can change whether property is considered to be marital or not. For example, if you and your spouse have a prenup that says that any business you create during your marriage will be separate property, then your business will be separate property. Without that kind of an agreement, a business you create during your marriage will probably be marital property.

Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA):

This is a written document that lays out the financial details of the parties’ divorce settlement. It typically addresses child support, children’s expenses, maintenance/alimony, the division of property and debt, taxes, and other financial details of the parties’ divorce.

Mediation:

Divorce mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that resolves divorce cases outside of court by helping the parties reach a mutual agreement. A trained mediator who is a neutral third party conducts a mediation. Sitting judges typically do not act as mediators.

Mediator:

A divorce mediator is a specially-trained, neutral, third-party intermediary. Mediators facilitate conversations between couples. Mediators help couples talk to each other so that they can reach agreements in their divorce.  In the family law context, mediators are often family law lawyers, divorce financial planners, or mental health professionals.

Mental Cruelty:

This is one of the fault-based grounds for divorce. What constitutes mental cruelty varies according to state law. If you want to use this ground for your divorce, it’s best to consult with a divorce lawyer near you.

Modification:

A modification is a written change in the divorce judgment. Parties can agree to modify a judgment. If both parties don’t agree, one party can petition the court to modify a judgment based on a substantial change in circumstances.

Motion:

A motion is a request for the court to do something. Parties can only file a motion in an existing case. A motion is never the first document that you will file to start a divorce or parentage case. A motion can be oral or written. There are numerous different kinds of motions a divorcing party can file. For example, there are discovery motions, motions to set parenting time, motions to establish temporary support, etc.

Motion to Modify:

A motion to modify is usually a request for the court to change a prior order. It may be a request to change residential or legal custody. It may be a request to change the child support or spousal support that currently exists. Or it may be a request to change any other prior order. Motions to modify can be made during or (in some circumstances) after a divorce decree has been entered.

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Divorce Terms Beginning with “N”

No-Fault Divorce:

No-fault divorce is exactly what it sounds like. It is divorce without fault. In a no-fault divorce, neither spouse has to prove the other was guilty of marital misconduct in order to get a divorce. Neither spouse has to give any specific reason for wanting a divorce. A divorce based upon irreconcilable differences is a no-fault divorce.

Noncustodial parent:

This is the parent who does not have residential custody of the child(ren). It is the parent whom the children don’t live with most of the time.

Non-marital property (Separate property):

Non-marital property is property that is not marital. Property that one spouse owned before s/he got married can be non-marital property. Property that one spouse received as a gift or inherited during the marriage can be non-marital. In community property states, non-marital property is called separate property. (NOTE: The way property is titled doesn’t usually matter. If you buy a house or a car with marital money, it doesn’t matter whether you only put it in your name. It’s still marital property.)

Notice:

In legal terms, “notice” is the formal legal process of informing one party about a legal action or a particular proceeding in a legal action involving that spouse. The rules relating to notice vary from court to court. But, in general, one spouse can’t ask the court to rule on motions unless that spouse gave the other spouse notice of the hearing. A “notice” is typically a written legal document that’s entitled: “Notice.”

Nuptial:

Nuptial comes from a Latin word that means pertaining to marriage. “Nuptials” usually refers to a wedding.

Divorce Terms Beginning with “O”

Opposing Party:

The opposing party is the party who opposes you in a court case. In a divorce or family law case, the opposing party is generally your spouse or the other parent of your kids.

Order:

An order is a ruling by the court.

Our Family Wizard (OFW):

Our Family Wizard is a popular co-parenting app that allows parents to share a common calendar, send messages, and deal with expenses for their kids. Parents can allow others (judges, lawyers, grandparents, care providers, therapists, child representatives) to SEE the messages and calendar.  Many judges require warring parents to use Our Family Wizard, or a similar co-parenting app, to communicate about their kids.

Fingers with faces on them showing divorced parents arguing, with sad child crying.Divorce Terms Beginning with “P”

Palimony:

Palimony is like alimony but it applies to people who were living together without being legally married. It is the support that one person pays to his/her partner when the couple splits. Not every state recognizes palimony.

Parenting Agreement:

A Parenting Agreement is a Parenting Plan that both parents voluntarily signed.

Parenting Coordinator:

A parenting coordinator is a specially appointed divorce professional who makes decisions about the children in high conflict divorce cases when their parents can’t agree. Parenting coordinators are not judges. Parents who disagree with a parenting coordinator’s decision may present their disagreement to the judge. But until the judge can hear their dispute, the parenting coordinator’s decision will stand. Parenting coordinators are not free.

Parenting Plan:

A Parenting Plan is a legal document that defines each parents’ rights and responsibilities regarding their children. A good Parenting Plan will contain a Parenting Schedule. That will determine when each parent gets to spend time with their kids. The Parenting Plan will also cover how the parents will handle various other parenting issues. Parenting plans can be fairly general or super specific, depending upon whether the parents get along. Parenting Plans are generally court orders.  Parties can only modify them by mutual agreement, or by going back to court.

Parental Responsibilities:

This is the Illinois term that replaced the divorce term “custody.” Illinois parents have various parental responsibilities when they divorce. They have parental decision-making responsibilities in the areas of health, education, religious upbringing, and extra-curricular activities. They also have parental responsibilities regarding parenting time.

Parenting Allocation Judgment (PAJ):

Illinois courts no longer use Parenting Agreements or Parenting Plans.  Instead, they use “Parenting Allocation Judgments.” These are court orders that allocate parents’ rights and responsibilities in divorce and parentage cases. A PAJ outlines which parent makes decisions for the children in which areas. It also contains a schedule for when each parent can spend time with their kids on any given day.

Parenting Time (Visitation):

This is the new term for visitation. In some places, this may also be called “custodial access time” or “access time.” No matter what you call it, it is the time you spend with your kids.

Paternity Test:

This is a scientific test done to prove the identity of a child’s biological father. It can be a blood test or saliva test.

Pendente Lite:

This is a Latin term for “during the pending litigation.” Pendente lite orders are temporary. They expire once the judge enters the final divorce decree.

Pendente Lite Orders (Temporary Orders/Interim Orders):

These are temporary Court Orders that require a party to do (or not do) something until the divorce is finalized. Pendente Lite or Temporary Orders can be used to secure child support, spousal support, custody, etc while a divorce case is pending in court. In some states, certain Pendente Lite Orders are automatic.

Perjury:

Perjury is lying while under oath.

Petition:

A Petition is a written court document that asks the court to do something. It’s similar to a Complaint.  It is often (but not always) the first document filed in a case.

Petition for Dissolution of Marriage:

The Petition for Dissolution of Marriage is the document that starts the process of divorce in court.  It lays out the basic facts that will give the court the power to grant the divorce.

Petition for Rule to Show Cause (Petition for Rule):

This is a Petition that asks the Court to enforce one of its Court Orders or a Court Judgment. It asks the court to force someone to do what the original Court Order said they were supposed to do.

Physical Custody:

Physical custody means that a child is in your physical possession. It also refers to the day-to-day rights and responsibilities associated with having your child in your care.

Petitioner (Plaintiff):

The Petitioner is the person who files a case or brings a Petition before the Court. In a divorce, the Petitioner is the person who starts the divorce.

Plaintiff:

See Petitioner.

Post-Trial Motions

A post-trial motion is any motion a party makes in a case after trial.

Postnuptial agreement:

A postnuptial agreement is similar to a prenuptial agreement, except that a couple signs it after they’re married. Postnuptial agreements must comply with very specific rules in order to be valid. If you think you want one, you NEED to talk to an attorney.

Precedent:

“Precedent” refers to higher court decisions that determine the law in a particular case. Every U.S. court must follow the binding decisions of the courts above it. What lawyers spend so much time arguing about is whether a particular higher court decision applies in their case or not.

Prenuptial Agreement/Marriage Contract/Prenup:

A prenuptial agreement is a written agreement that a couple enters into before marriage that governs their rights and responsibilities when their marriage ends. (NOTE: At the risk of sounding cynical, all marriages end. They either end in death or divorce. Prenups can govern what will happen in both of those instances.) Prenups can govern how a couple will divide their assets and liabilities when their marriage ends. Prenuptial agreements can also regulate spousal support. In Canada, prenuptial agreements are known as “Marriage Contracts.”

Pretrial Conference (Pretrial):

An informal meeting between judge and attorneys to try to decide one or more issues prior to going through a formal hearing. The judge often provides settlement recommendations to the lawyers in a pretrial conference. The parties to the case can either accept the judge’s recommendations and settle their case or reject them and go to trial. The judge’s recommendations are not binding unless accepted.

Pre-Trial Motions:

A pretrial motion is any motion either party makes at any time before trial.

Primary Residential Parent:

The primary residential parent is the parent with whom a child resides the majority of the time (i.e. more than 50% of the time). The primary residential parent is typically the custodial parent.

Privilege:

Privileged information in a legal context refers to certain information that isn’t subject to discovery or disclosure. Lawyers can’t ask questions about privileged information of a witness who is testifying. Privileges apply only in very specific contexts. For example, communication between a client and his/her attorney, communication made to clergy, and communication between a patient and his/her psychiatrist/therapist are all privileged communications.

Pro Se:

The term “pro se” is Latin for “in one’s own behalf.”  In the context of litigation, going “pro se” means representing yourself in your divorce without a lawyer.

Pro Se Divorce (In Propria Persona/Pro Per):

A pro se divorce is also known as a DIY divorce. When one or both parties choose not to hire a lawyer to represent them they are conducting a Pro Se Divorce. (NOTE: In some places, this is called In Propria Persona or Pro Per.) All of that is Latin for: this is a REALLY bad idea.  Try it at your own risk!

Prove-Up.

A prove-up is the final court hearing in an uncontested divorce case.  When a couple has settled are all of their divorce issues, they then have to present their agreement to the judge for approval. The judge will then grant the divorce (or not) and sign the Judgment (or not).

Divorce Terms Beginning with “Q”

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO):

A Qualified Domestic Relations Order is a specialized court order entered in a divorce case that allows a retirement plan administrator to divide the funds that one spouse holds in a retirement fund with his/her spouse in accordance with the terms of the Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage. A QDRO allows divorcing parties to transfer retirement benefits from one spouse’s retirement plan to another spouse’s retirement plan without causing an immediate tax consequence or penalty.

Qualified Illinois Domestic Relations Order (QILDRO):

A Qualified Illinois Domestic Relations Order is a Qualified Domestic Relations Order that applies to Illinois government-sponsored retirement plans.

Qualified Medical Child Support Order (QMSCO):

This is a specialized type of Court Order. It’s used in divorce and parentage cases to require a health insurance provider to cover children when the children’s parent is a participant in the plan.

Quid Pro Quo:

This a Latin term meaning, “to give one valuable thing for another.”

Quit Claim:

In the broadest sense to “quit claim” means to release or relinquish a legal claim or right to something. In the context of family law “quit claim” usually refers to a “Quit Claim Deed.” That is a document one spouse signs that releases all of their rights in a particular piece of real estate (e.g. the marital home.)

Gold letters spell "Respect" on the wall of a buildingDivorce Terms Beginning with “R”

Rebuttal:

When one party makes a motion or states an argument, the opposing party almost always gets a chance to reply or respond. The original party may sometimes also get a chance to refute or “rebut” what the responding party said.

Reconciliation:

Divorcing parties “reconcile” when they get back together and call off their divorce.  They may sign a formal reconciliation agreement, which is enforceable by the court. Or, they may just dismiss their divorce case.

Reconciliation Calendar:

A “Reconciliation Calendar” is a holding calendar for divorce cases in which the parties are trying to get back together. Sometimes, courts may put a divorce on hold for a certain period of time (usually 3 – 6 months). That gives a divorcing couple time to try to reconcile. Many courts don’t have a formal reconciliation calendar.  But they still will allow divorcing couples to put their divorce on hold for several months to see if they can reconcile. (NOTE: BOTH parties have to agree to reconcile before they can put their case on hold. If one person wants to reconcile, but the other person wants to divorce, they’re NOT going to reconcile!)

Reconsideration:

To reconsider means to consider something again. A Motion for Reconsideration asks the judge or magistrate to reconsider his/her ruling either based on new facts or because the judge applied the law incorrectly the first time. Strict deadlines and very specific court rules apply to Motions for Reconsideration. You can’t just file a Motion for Reconsideration because you disagree with the judge’s original ruling.

Relocation:

Relocation refers to the situation when one divorced or custodial parent wants to move with his/her children a certain distance away from the children’s other parent. In some states, the rules regarding relocation only apply if a parent moves outside of the state. In other states, moving a certain number of miles away with the kids may constitute “relocation,” regardless of whether a move is inside or outside of a state.  The law governing relocation varies from state to state.

Request for Production:

A Request for Production is a formal written request asking one party to produce specific documents. It is part of the discovery process. Requests for Production in family law cases often include requests for financial records or documents that may be useful as evidence at trial.

Residency Requirement:

A residency requirement refers to the length of time a spouse must live within a particular state or county before that spouse may file a divorce action in that state or county. Every state has a residency requirement. The length of time required to establish residency varies from state to state.

Residential Time (Parenting Time):

Residential time refers to the time that a child spends with a parent or custodian.  (See Visitation.)

Respondent (Defendant):

The party defending against a petition or complaint. The Respondent is the person who did NOT initially file for divorce.

Restraining Order:

A Restraining Order is a specific Court Order that prohibits one party from engaging in certain behavior or activities. In family law, courts often issue Restraining Orders to protect one party against domestic violence or to protect marital assets. For example, a court can issue a Restraining Order that prohibits one spouse from physically abusing or stalking the other spouse. It can also issue a Restraining Order to prevent one spouse from draining bank accounts or kidnapping the kids. In some jurisdictions, violating a “Domestic Restraining Order” is a criminal offense.

Retainer:

A retainer is the money a client pays to his/her lawyer in advance. It’s like a deposit. The lawyer holds the deposit and subtracts his/her fees from it as s/he earns them. A lawyer may also use the retainer to pay experts in the case.

Right of First Refusal (ROFR):

The right of first refusal is the obligation of the one parent to allow the other parent to babysit the kids before hiring a babysitter. Some states, like Illinois, require parents to deal with the right of first refusal in their divorce. Other states do not.

Rules of Evidence:

The rules of evidence govern what a court will admit as evidence at hearings, trials, and depositions.

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Divorce Terms Beginning with “S”

Separate Property:

Separate property is property that belongs to only one spouse. This could be premarital property. (NOTE: If you “commingled” your separate property with marital property, it may “lose” it’s separateness!)  Separate property also can be property that one spouse received as a gift. It can be property one spouse got as an inheritance. Or it can be property that was designated as separate property in a valid prenuptial agreement.

Separation Agreement:

This is a written agreement that spells out the specifics of a party’s divorce settlement. It is a written contract that divides property, defines spousal and child support, and spells out each party’s rights and responsibilities regarding their children. Not every state uses the term “Separation Agreement.” Some states, like Illinois, refer to a party’s settlement document in divorce as a “Marital Settlement Agreement.” Also, whether and under what circumstances a Separation Agreement or a Marital Settlement Agreement will be enforceable depends upon the law of that state.

Separation Date:

The separation date in a divorce or legal separation is the date when two spouses “separate” in the eyes of the law. The separation date varies from state to state. In some states, it is the date when one spouse physically moves out of the marital home. In other states it is the date one spouse files a Petition for Divorce or Legal Separation. Still other states consider the separation date as the date on which one spouse officially tells the other that they intend to file for divorce.

Service:

Service is the legal term for delivering court or legal documents to a particular party. State laws and court rules determine how service must be made. In some states, court documents must be personally served on a party. In other states, you can “serve” someone by mail, certified mail, or other means. To make things more confusing, some legal documents must be personally served, while others may be mailed. Typically, one party to a case can’t serve legal documents on the other party to the case. Only a Sheriff or some other authorized third party can “serve” the documents on the appropriate party.

Settlement conference:

A settlement conference is a meeting where both parties and their lawyers attempt to settle a case. Settlement conferences can be formal or informal. They can be held in court, or outside of court.

Split custody:

This is a form of custody where one parent has custody of one or more of their kids and the other parent has custody of the other kids. Courts do not generally favor split custody. Judges usually require special circumstances to exist before they will allow split custody to occur.

Spousal Support: 

SeeAlimony.” In Illinois, spousal support is the divorce term used for alimony.

Standard of Living:

This refers to how a family was living during their marriage. A court may take into account a couple’s “standard of living” when determining spousal support.

Status Hearing:

A status hearing is a court hearing where the parties tell the judge what’s going on in a case. In other words, the parties tell the judge “the status” of the case. Status hearings can be held even when nothing is going on in a case. Typically, a status hearing does not involve the presentation of evidence or arguments. If you have an attorney, s/he can usually attend a status hearing for you. You may not have to appear in person. (But, definitely ASK your attorney about that!)

Stipulation:

A stipulation is an agreement between parties in a divorce or their attorneys about a specific thing. Stipulations usually involve procedural matters. For example, attorneys may stipulate that the signatures on a document are authentic. Doing that saves them from having to prove the signatures are authentic. That, in turn, makes the trial flow more smoothly.

Subpoena:

A subpoena is a special court order that either:

  1. requires someone to appear in court or at a deposition as a witness; or
  2. requires someone to present documents or other evidence either in court or at the issuing lawyer’s office.

Subpoenas are generally directed toward those who are not involved in a lawsuit. If you want to get documents from a party to a lawsuit, you serve him/her with a Request for Production.

Summons:

A Summons is a written notification to the Defendant/Respondent that a court case has been filed against him or her. In divorce, a Summons notifies a spouse of his/her rights and obligations in responding to the Complaint for Divorce. If a Defendant/Respondent voluntarily files an Appearance in a case, then s/he does not need to be served with a Summons.

Upset man on the witness stand at his divorce court hearing while judge confers with lawyerDivorce Terms Beginning with “T”

Temporary Order (Pendente Lite/Interim Order):

A temporary order is an order from the court that resolves some issues in a case on a temporary basis. A temporary order typically remains in effect until the court enters a final order, or until it enters a new temporary order. In family law cases, temporary orders may resolve issues involving the use of property, paying of bills, paying attorney’s fees, paying temporary child or spousal support while a case is pending.

Temporary Support:

Temporary support may refer to either child support or spousal support paid while a divorce is pending.

Testimony:

When witnesses in a court hearing or deposition answer questions under oath, they are giving “testimony.”

Transcripts:

These are the written records of court proceedings or depositions. In the past, court reporters took shorthand notes of hearings and trials. If necessary, the court reporters would then transcribe their notes into a typewritten document – i.e. a transcript. Some courts now have replaced court reporters with electronic recording devices.

Trial:

A trial is the final hearing in a case. During a trial, the judge will hear all contested issues in the case. Both parties will provide the judge with evidence and witness testimony to support their positions.  The judge will hear all of the testimony and review all of the evidence and will ultimately issue a court opinion. That opinion will become the final Judgment of Divorce in that case. (NOTE: There are no jury trials in divorce. Either two spouses decide their issues themselves, or a judge decides the issues for them.)

Divorce Terms Beginning with “U”

Unconscionable:

This is a legal divorce term that means “beyond the bounds of reason.”

Uncontested Divorce:

An uncontested divorce is one in which neither spouse is fighting with the other spouse about anything. In an uncontested divorce, the parties agree to the divorce and agree about all issues involving their children, money, and property.

Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (UCCJEA):

This is a law that is designed to promote uniform jurisdiction and enforcement of interstate child custody proceedings. This law also tries to prevent parental kidnapping. Among other things, this law determines which law applies when children move between states. The UCCJEA has been enacted by approximately 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Divorce Terms Beginning with “V”

Valuation:

A valuation is an expert assessment of the value of certain property. For example, an accountant or business valuator may evaluate a business and provide a report to the parties in a divorce case regarding the value of that business. An appropriate expert may also provide valuations for other expensive, hard-to-value items like artwork and collectibles.

Venue:

Venue refers to the specific county within a state in which a case should be heard.

Visitation (Parenting Time):

See Parenting Time.

Divorce Terms Beginning with “W”

Waiver:

A waiver is a written legal document that gives up a right, claim, or privilege. For example, if you “waive” your right to spousal support, you can never ask your spouse to support you. Ever. Period.

Withdrawal:

To withdraw means to leave. In the context of a family law case, a “withdrawal” refers to the formal end of an attorney’s representation of one party in the divorce.

Witness:

A witness is a person who may have information regarding the issues in a court case. Witnesses may be subpoenaed to give testimony in court or at a deposition.

Witness List:

A witness list is a list of potential witnesses that a party may call to testify at a trial or court hearing.

Writ:

A writ is a specific kind of legal order directing someone to do (or not do) something. For example, a writ of garnishment may direct an employer to garnish a person’s wages to fulfill a financial obligation (like child support). A writ of habeas corpus may direct law enforcement officers to retrieve a child who is being held in violation of a court order.

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  • Thank you so much for this list. My husband notified me through his attorney’s email that he wanted a divorce. I was completely blind-sided. To complicate matters he is in another state 3000 miles away. I am now on my 3rd attorney and am wondering if she is doing anything. I took a better paying job in another state to which my husband had agreed to move. He then found excuses for not coming to visit much less move. I am having difficulty trying to protect myself.
    Having information that you provide is helping me to be proactive. So thank you for your free information. I am very grateful and appreciative to have access to it.

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