Family Law Glossary
ACTION/CAUSE OF ACTION: The legal term for what people commonly call a lawsuit.
AGREEMENT: A verbal or written resolution of disputed issues incorporated into a judgement, court order, or decree.
ALIMONY/SPOUSAL SUPPORT: Court ordered payments intended to support an ex-spouse following divorce.
ALIMONY IN GROSS: Spousal support that is paid in one single payment or as a fixed total paid over a number of installments. Also called lump sum alimony.
ALLEGATION: A statement of claimed fact contained in a complaint that proclaims what the pleader intends to prove.
ALTERNATE PAYEE: The spouse receiving retirement benefits as a result of being married to the individual who was employed and participated in the retirement plan.
APPEAL: The process by which a higher court reviews the ruling of a lower court to determine if there was an error in the initial judgment.
BIFURCATION - The process of dividing a case into two parts before trial.
CHANGE OF VENUE: A change of judges or locations requested by one party who feels they will not receive a fair trial in the original location.
CLAIM: A charge by one spouse leveled against the other.
COMMUNITY PROPERTY: In general, this means assets and income, regardless of title holder, acquired during the course of a marriage. This also usually excludes inheritance or gifts.
CONTEMPT OF COURT: The willful disobeying of a court order, judgment, or decree. Also, any act that interferes with court proceedings. Punishable by fines or imprisonment.
CONTESTED CASE: Any situation where the court decides on issues the parties don’t agree on. Until an agreement is reached, all cases are considered contested.
COUNT: A statement of facts that constitutes the plaintiff’s case. A pleading may contain multiple counts, which may or may not be tried together.
COURT ORDER: The written ruling of the court.
CROSS EXAMINATION: When the opposing party questions a witness during a trial or deposition in order to test the truth of a testimony or develop it further.
DECLARATION: A written, notarized statement of facts made under oath.
DECREE/JUDGMENT: The final ruling of the court on an action for divorce, legal separation, or annulment.
DEFAULT ORDER/DEFAULT JUDGMENT: A court order given without the opposing party’s side being heard because they fail to respond to an action or fail to appear in court.
DEPOSITION: Written witness testimony that is taken under oath outside of court.
DIRECT EXAMINATION: When the attorney who calls a witness to the stand initially questions them.
DISCOVERY: The process attorneys follow to determine the credibility, nature, and scope of the opposition’s claim. This includes collecting statements, documents, and other evidence.
EMANCIPATION: When a minor child comes of age. In most states, this happens upon turning 18, getting married, finding full-time employment, or joining the armed services. Emancipation can terminate a parent’s duty to provide support unless other legal issues come into play.
EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION: A method of dividing assets and property acquired during a marriage based on what is equitable and fair.
EVIDENCE: Documents, records, testimony, and other material presented to the court during a case in order to prove or disprove claims and allegations.
EX PARTE: A decision rendered by a judge without requiring all parties to be present.
FOUNDATION: The evidence that must be presented before asking certain questions or offering documentary evidence on trial.
GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE - The legal circumstances that must be proved before a divorce can be granted. California is a “No-Fault” state and only requires a statement that the parties have irreconcilable differences.
HEARING: Any proceeding before the court where testimony is given or arguments are made for the purpose of resolving disputes.
HOLD-HARMLESS: When one party assumes the liability for an obligation or debt and accepts responsibility for any associated losses or expenses.
IMPEACHMENT: The act of proving that a witness is lying.
INJUNCTION: A court order forbidding one party from an act that may result in physical injury, mental harm, or the loss of property of the other.
INTERLOCUTORY DECREE: A judgment that does not become final until a certain amount of time has passed.
INTERROGATORIES: Written questions served to an opposing party, answered under oath, and filed with in a specific time-frame.
JOINT PROPERTY: Assets and earnings that are held in the name of multiple people.
JURISDICTION: The authority of a court to rule upon the issues at hand as they relate to the spouses, their children, and their property.
LEGAL SEPARATION: An arrangement where a married couple lives apart but the marriage remains technically intact. This can include provisions for child support, child support, and even spousal maintenance.
MARITAL PROPERTY: The accumulated income and assets acquired during the course of a marriage and subject to division by the court during divorce.
MISTRIAL: When a trial is terminated before completion as a result of an error that renders the whole trial invalid. After a mistrial, the case must be tried again from the starting point.
MOTION: A written or verbal appeal to the court for a specific type of relief. This is often temporary child or spousal support, an injunction, or the cost of attorney’s fees.
NO-FAULT DIVORCE: This means neither spouse must prove the other is to blame for the end of the marriage. All that’s required to dissolve a marriage is for one spouse to want to, there’s no necessity to show marital misconduct.
NON-MARITAL PROPERTY/SEPARATE PROPERTY: This covers assets and property owned before a marriage or acquired as a gift or inheritance.
ORDER: The court’s ruling on a particular dispute that requires each party to do certain things and sets out their rights and responsibilities. This written document can be signed by the judge and filed without requiring a hearing.
ORDER OF PROTECTION: Courts issue these injunctive protections to shield abused, exploited, harassed, and threatened individuals, their children, and their property. They can be filed in civil or criminal court and violations can be prosecuted as crimes or as contempt.
PARENS PATRIAE: This policy gives the government power to intervene and assume jurisdiction over any minor children living within their borders. This happens most often in cases of abusive or negligent parents or guardians.
PERSONAL JURISDICTION: The power of the court to order a spouse to do a particular thing, such as pay alimony or child support.
PETITION: The initial pleading that asks for divorce, legal separation, annulment, or other goals. Written and filed by one spouse, it starts the legal proceedings.
PETITIONER/Plaintiff: The party who files the lawsuit.
PLAN PARTICIPANT - The employed spouse who participates in the retirement benefits plan that is subject to division by a Qualified Domestic Relations Order upon divorce.
PLEADING: The formal written application to the court for relief. These include complaints, answers, responses, petitions, motions, and counter pleadings.
PRIVILEGE - The right of a spouse to make admissions to their lawyer/attorney, a clergy person, or psychiatrist that are not later admissible into evidence.
QDRO: A Qualified Domestic Relations Order provides means to divide retirement benefits between spouses in cases of divorce and separation.
QMCSO: A Qualified Medical Child Support Order requires group health insurance companies to provide coverage for children of insured parents going through divorce or separation.
REBUTTAL: Introducing evidence in a trial in response to earlier actions.
RESPONDENT: The party who defends against a lawsuit.
RESPONSE: The pleading the respondent files as an answer to the allegations laid out in a petition.
RULES OF EVIDENCE: These govern how evidence is presented in a case and what evidence is admissible.
SETOFF: A financial obligation or debt of one party the court deducts from that of the other.
SETTLEMENT: The ultimate resolution of the disputed matters in a case.
SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT: The settlement laid out as a written document.
STATUS QUO: Leaving things as they are with no change or modification. This can refer to anything from visitation schedules to support orders and property rights.
STIPULATION: An agreement between parties and their counsel. This often refers to procedural elements of a case.
SUBPOENA: This document, served by the party calling for the action to the respondent, requires the recipient to appear at a hearing or deposition and provide testimony. Failure to comply can result in punishment from the court.
SUMMONS: This is a written notice to the respondent that action has been taken against them. It requires the recipient to respond to the complaint within a specific time-frame.
TEMPORARY MOTIONS: The application to the court for interim relief during the legal process of divorce, separation, or annulment. These typically include motions for spousal support, child support, custody, visitation, or enforcement, among others.
TESTIMONY: Statements made under oath by witnesses during a court hearing or deposition.
TRIAL: A formal court hearing to resolve disputed issues set forth in a pleading.
VACATED - When a court order, judgment, or decree is somehow defective, it is vacated- that is, eliminated- and either a substitute order is entered or a new hearing is granted, which will ultimately result in a new order, judgment, or decree.
WITHOUT PREJUDICE - Orders, judgments, and decrees that are entered without prejudice can be modified at a later tie without the necessity of proving a material change in circumstances justifying the medication. Orders are normally entered without prejudice by agreement rather than as a result of a court hearing.