SMART GIRLFRIENDS GUIDE™ to Divorce - Glossary for Family Court

By Star Young

When going through a divorce you may not need to learn how to speak Latin but you will need to learn the terms and references often used in court and legal documents.  If at anytime you do not know or understand a term, you should have your attorney clarify its meaning and how it pertains to you.   

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 to determine if it was correct.

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

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 is usually 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". 

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

JUDGMENT: a court's decision.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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. Your attorney should file immediately for the interim support. 

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 a lawyer.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

Star Young is an entrepreneur and Fortune 500 award winning executive.  Ms.Young is a certified excellence coach and a trained facilitator of Edward Deming Continuous Improvement.  In addition, she has been a talent for CBS syndicated programming, as well as a co- founder of the Beauty Spot and author of Smart Girlfriends Guide series.