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Divorce Dictionary

Whether you are hiring a divorce lawyer or filing your own divorce papers, it is critically important that you understand the most common divorce terms and legal jargon used by family court judges and divorce attorneys. If you don’t understand what they mean, you are literally opening up a Pandora's box. 


Adultery: This term refers to sexual intercourse by a married person outside of the marriage. In some areas this may also be grounds for divorce or adversely affect the offender's case.

Alimony: Also called Maintenance or Spousal Support. A regular support payment by one divorced spouse to the other

Annulment: A court declaration stating that a legal marriage never existed

Attorney at Law: A state-licensed advocate who is hired to prepare, manage and try a case in court.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): A process of negotiation, mediation and arbitration, in lieu of a trial, as a way to resolve issues pertaining to a judgment of divorce.

Case Information Statement (CIS): A financial document specifying the details of your respective incomes, expenses, assets, and debts.


Certification: An "under oath" certification document signed by the Plaintiff or Defendant giving relevant facts to be considered in Divorce filing, motion or trial.

Child Support: Money paid by one ex-spouse to another toward their child’s expenses.


Child Support Chart: Method used in some legal jurisdictions to establish a basis for determining child support. These charts take into account the gross incomes of both parents, less special adjustments (such as support paid for children of previous marriage), and a figure for the amount of money (usually stated as a monthly sum) that will be required to be spent for the child. The court has the authority to deviate from the formula, as it deems necessary in each case.

COBRA: a federal law giving an employee and his/her covered dependents or spouse the right to continue group health coverage on a self-paid basis if eligibility for employer-sponsored group medical and dental insurance is lost through loss of employment or through divorce. COBRA eligibility is usually for 18 or 36 months after the event.


Common Law Marriage: A marriage without a license or ceremony in which the couple cohabitated for a minimum number of years (varies from state to state).


COLA: Cost of Living Adjustment.


Contested: Any issue on which the petitioner and respondent cannot agree, which must then be decided by the court.

Custodial Parent: The parent who has physical custody of the child.


Default: Failure to respond in the prescribed manner within a given period of time. The Respondent in a Petition for Dissolution is said to be in default if he or she failed to respond within a set period of time, usually 35 days after the date of service.

Deferred Compensation Package: This includes all retirement assets, such as pension, 401K's, IRA's, and any variety of saving or postponed income which has been earned during the marriage.


Deposition: Part of the discovery or information-exchanging process of a legal proceeding, in which the attorney representing your spouse asks you questions, you answer with your attorney present, and a transcript of the proceedings is prepared.

Docket: The court's calendar schedule.

Discovery: The legal procedures used to gather all the facts necessary to settle a case or to prepare the case for trial. Pretrial disclosure of pertinent facts and documents, including financial figures, by one or both parties.

Dissolution of Marriage: The legal separation of a married couple so that each one may be free to marry again.


Divorce: The legal termination of a marriage relationship.


Domestic Violence: Condition where physical abuse or threats of abuse is occurring between members of the same household.


Emancipation: The point at which children become financially independent, or reach the age of 18 or 21, depending on the wording of a state's laws.


Equitable Distribution: A fair division of the assets acquired during your marriage.  It definitely does not necessarily mean 50/50.

Interrogatories: A formal or written question that must be answered under the direction of the court.

Inventory and Appraisement: A list of jointly owned property along with the current value of each one.

Joint Legal Custody: An agreement in which a divorced couple share the rights and responsibilities of making major decisions about their child’s life. Situation in which both parents continue to make joint decisions for their child's education, medical care, religious training, camp, and other day to day matters.

Joint Physical Custody: The shared right to have a child live with one or the other parent at different times of the week or year. A situation wherein the child spends time sleeping in both parents' homes.

Judgment of Divorce: A legal document following a settlement or trial that grants a divorce and states the court’s decisions with regard to alimony, support, custody, visitation rights, and equitable distribution.


Maintenance: Also called Alimony or child support payments

Marital Settlement Agreement: An out-of-court agreement that resolves all issues surrounding a divorce.


Mediation: A non-adversarial process in which a dispute is resolved between two or more parties through discussion and compromise toward agreement with the aid of a neutral party, or Mediator. In Divorce Mediation, the Mediator works with the divorcing spouses.

Motion to Modify: A motion put before the court requesting that changes be made in physical or legal custody, or in child support payments, thus modifying the existing arrangement.

Motions: Written or verbal appeals to the court for some sort of temporary relief, such as maintenance, child support, attorney's fees, etc..

Non-Custodial Parent: The parent with whom the child is not physically living.

No-Fault Divorce: A divorce granted with the mutual agreement of two spouses, or when one spouse has left the marriage for a certain period of time (varies by state) .A divorce in which neither party has been accused of or found guilty of any misconduct.


Non-Marital Property: Property that belongs exclusively to either the husband or the wife and, as such, cannot be divided between the two.


Parenting Time aka Visitation:  The right of the non-custodial parent to spend quality time with his or her child.


Pre-Trial Motion aka PDL Motion: pen dente lite (Latin), or pending in the litigation. Any motion filed before the Petition is presented in court. Cannot be filed until at least 30 days after the Respondent is served with notice of intention to divorce. See Motions.

Petition for Dissolution of Marriage: The wording used in some states for the legal Petition for Divorce.

Petitioner aka Plaintiff: he spouse who files for divorce.


Pro Se: A person who does not hire a divorce lawyer and appears for himself/herself in court.


QDRO: (Pronounced "kwah-dro"). A Qualified Domestic Relations Order is a court order declaring that one spouse shall be entitled to a portion of the other spouse's pension as a part of the marital assets.


Request for Production aka Notice to produce: Part of the Discovery process in which one attorney asks for the other side to produce documents they deem necessary to the case, such as financial documents.

Respondent aka Defendant: The spouse whom the Petitioner is seeking to divorce.

Retainer: The fee paid to an attorney or other professional for their services, sometimes representing advance payment for anticipated future services.


Restraining order: An order issued by the court requiring a spouse to refrain from doing something like contacting his or her spouse, often issued in conjunction with domestic violence or custody disputes.


Separation: The absence of one spouse from the household before a divorce.

Separation Agreement: A temporary agreement with regard to support, child custody and property for the period between the onset of separation and the granting of a divorce.


Service aka Serving: The act of serving the respondent with legal papers, such as the Notice of Petition for Dissolution or Divorce papers.  These papers are usually presented to the respondent either by mail, or in person by a County Sheriff's Deputy or Process Server.

Subpoena: A legal summons requiring that one appear in court as a witness to give testimony.


Trial: The formal legal process in which the court (judge) receives evidence and testimony to enable him or her to decide in a dispute between two parties.


Uncontested: When all issues have been resolved in a manner acceptable to both parties, the divorce is said to be Uncontested.

Visitation: see Parenting Time.




Divorce Court Attorneys provides free articles, sound bytes, opinions and information related to divorce. We cover virtually every aspect from, legal and financial to psychological and emotional.

Be advised, the information provided by Divorce Court Attorneys is general information related to divorce. Since every divorce is inherently different, for specific advice, we strongly admonish you to consult with a qualified divorce lawyer. Our website is in no shape, form or fashion designed to violate any local regulations or state laws regarding the practice of law. Remember, legal information is not legal advice.