126 Divorce Terms and Definitions To Know

Divorce is a very technical proceeding. There are many legal terms likely to be bandied about by your attorney and the court throughout the case. We’ve simplified these terms to help you begin to navigate the process more easily.

  1. Addendum. Something added to a court document. 
  2. Add-on expenses. Expenses a parent is ordered to pay in addition to child support, such as education or medical expenses.
  3. Adjournment. A postponing of a court proceeding. 
  4. Adultery. Have sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse. This can be grounds for divorce. 
  5. Affidavit. A document in which a person swears something to be true. 
  6. Alimony. Also called spousal support, these are regular payments made to assist the non-moneyed spouse in becoming self-sufficient.
  7. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Non-court methods used to resolve a divorce, such as arbitration or mediation.
  8. Ancillary relief. Other things requested other than the dissolution of the marriage, such as alimony or child support. 
  9. Annulment. A legal determination that a marriage was never valid and did not legally exist.
  10. Answer. The response to a complaint. 
  11. Appeal. A request that a higher court review a court’s decision.
  12. Appearance. The act of being in court. 
  13. Arbitration. A type of alternative dispute resolution in which a neutral third-party hears the case and issues a binding decision.
  14. Arrearages. Past due payments for child or spousal support.
  15. Attorney. Legal representative in court. 
  16. Bailiff. Law enforcement official who provides security at the court. 
  17. Business valuation. The determination of the financial worth of a business.
  18. Child support. Payments made by one parent to the other to meet the financial needs of their child or children.
  19. Child support agency. A state government agency that collects and enforces child support. 
  20. Child support guidelines. State law about how child support amounts are calculated. 
  21. COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act). A law that allows a spouse to continue their health insurance through their spouse’s employer after a divorce. 
  22. COLA (cost of living adjustment). An adjustment made to child support to account for the increased costs of inflation as the years progress. 
  23. Collaborative law. A process in which the parties and their attorneys meet together to create an agreement resolving the divorce. Usually, the attorneys agree they will not go to trial. 
  24. Common law marriage. A marriage that is legally recognized to occur after a couple has lived together as spouses and held themselves out as married for a specific period of years. This is only considered legally valid in a few states. 
  25. Community property. A method of dividing marital assets used in some states, which assumes each party is entitled to 50 percent of the marital assets in a divorce. 
  26. Complaint. A court document that specifies everything the plaintiff is asking for in the divorce. 
  27. Contempt of court. A finding by the court that a party or attorney has violated an order of the court. 
  28. Contested divorce. A divorce in which both parties appear and initially do not agree about how to resolve the divorce. 
  29. Court clerk. The department that handles all the paperwork for the divorce court.
  30. Court reporter. The person who records everything said in the courtroom and transcribes it. 
  31. Cross-examination. Questioning by an attorney of the other side’s witness or client. 
  32. Custodial parent. The parent with whom the child lives most of the time. 
  33. Custody. Parents’ rights to their child.
  34. Decree. The court order that completes the divorce case and finalizes the divorce.
  35. Default judgment. An order issued by the court when only one party has appeared in the case. 
  36. Defendant. The spouse who did not initiate the divorce proceeding.
  37. Deferred compensation. Payment that will be made in the future, such as retirement accounts. 
  38. Deposition. An out-of-court procedure in which testimony is taken under oath for the purpose of discovery.
  39. Direct examination. Questioning by an attorney of their own client or witness on the witness stand. 
  40. Discovery. A process through which both parties to a divorce request and obtain information from each other.
  41. Dismissal. When a court rejects a case or a filing. 
  42. Dissolution. A divorce or legal end to a marriage.
  43. Divorce. A legal end to a marriage and the process that leads up to that point. 
  44. Domestic violence. Physical, emotional, mental, or financial abuse of one person in a close relationship with the other.
  45. Enjoin. A legal prohibition issued by the court. 
  46. Equitable distribution. A method of dividing marital assets in a divorce that relies on a determination of what would be fair but not necessarily equal. 
  47. Evidence. Facts and information presented to the court. 
  48. Exhibits. Documents or items entered into evidence in a divorce trial. 
  49. Ex parte communication. Communication between the court and one party without the other present. 
  50. Financial affidavit. A statement of the party’s financial situation, including assets, debts, and income. 
  51. Interrogatories. Written questions given to the other party as part of the discovery process. Answers must be returned in writing. 
  52. Grounds for divorce. The legal reason for the divorce. 
  53. Guardian ad litem. An attorney appointed by the court to represent the child in a custody case. 
  54. Hearing. A short trial to consider a particular issue, such as custody. 
  55. Hearsay. Testimony that is not allowed in court because the witness has no personal knowledge of the information. 
  56. In camera. A private meeting in the judge’s chambers. 
  57. Index number. The case number assigned to the case by the court. 
  58. Innocent spouse rule. An Internal Revenue Service rule that protects one spouse from another’s tax fraud.
  59. Joint custody. A determination by the court that the parents both have rights to their child. 
  60. Jurisdiction. The legal authority of a court to hear a case. 
  61. Lawyer. Legal representative in court. 
  62. Law Guardian. An attorney appointed by the court to represent the child in a custody case. 
  63. Legal custody. A determination by the court as to which parent(s) has the right to make important decisions for the child, such as health care and education. 
  64. Legal separation. When a couple lives apart under a separation agreement or decree. 
  65. Lump-sum alimony. Alimony that is paid in one single large payment. 
  66. Magistrate. A court officer who can hear some aspects of a case. 
  67. Maintenance. Also called alimony, these are regular payments made to assist the non-moneyed spouse in becoming self-sufficient.
  68. Marital property. Assets acquired during the course of a marriage. 
  69. Matrimonial referee. A court employee who may hear certain aspects of a divorce or family law case. 
  70. Mediation: An alternative dispute resolution method in which the parties to a divorce meet with a neutral third-party mediator who helps them make the decisions that will resolve their divorce case. 
  71. Modification. A change to a court order. 
  72. Motion. A request by one of the parties to a divorce that the judge considers or decides something. 
  73. No-fault divorce. Divorce in which the parties do not have to give a reason for or blame one spouse for the divorce. 
  74. Non-custodial parent. The parent who does not live with the child. 
  75. Notarization. Stamp and signature on a document by a notary who verifies the identity of people signing documents
  76. Notice of appeal. A document that must be filed within a certain time frame to have the right to appeal a court decision. 
  77. Notice of entry. A legal document that shows a judgment of divorce was recorded by the court clerk. 
  78. Oath. Promise to tell the truth in court. 
  79. Order. A directive made by the court to do something. 
  80. Order of protection. A court order directing one spouse to refrain from certain actions or behaviors regarding the other spouse. 
  81. Party. One of the spouses in a divorce case. 
  82. Parenting plan. The schedule for how the parents will share their time with the child. 
  83. Paternity test. A DNA test that determines biological parentage of a child.
  84. Pendente lite. Something happening before the case is resolved, such as alimony pendente lite, which are support payments made while the case is going on.
  85. Perjury. Lying under oath. 
  86. Petition. A legal document that is filed to start the divorce process. 
  87. Petitioner: The party who files the divorce papers. 
  88. Plaintiff: The party who files the divorce papers. 
  89. Physical custody. A determination by the court as to how the parents will share their time with their child. 
  90. Postnuptial agreement. A legal contract executed by spouses after they are married that determines how they will divide their assets if they divorce.
    Precedent. Previous decisions by courts in that state that apply to the current case. 
  91. Premarital name. The last name used by one of the spouses before they married. Usually, the divorce decree gives them the right to use that name again. 
  92. Prenuptial agreement. A legal contract executed by spouses before the marriage that determines how they will divide their assets if they divorce. 
  93. Pre-trial motion. A motion made before the court begins a trial, which may be for temporary relief. 
  94. Pro se. Representing yourself in court without an attorney. 
  95. Residency requirement. A state requirement that a person or couple spend a certain amount of time in a state before being permitted to file for divorce there. 
  96. Respondent. The spouse who did not file for divorce. 
  97. Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). A court order that divides retirement benefits as part of a divorce.
  98. Relocation. When one parent moves out of the area away from the other parent. 
  99. Relocation hearing. A hearing held to determine how the child’s time should be divided if one parent moves away. 
  100. Respondent. The party who does not begin the divorce case. 
  101. Restraining order. A court order directing one spouse to refrain from certain actions or behaviors with the other spouse. 
  102. Retainer. A fee paid to an attorney to employ them for representation. 
  103. Retainer agreement. A contract signed by a client and attorney with the terms of the agreement for legal representation explained. 
  104. Separate property. Assets that were owned by spouses before the marriage or received from gift, inheritance, or personal injury award during the marriage. 
  105. Separation agreement. A document that sets out the agreement of the spouses resolving their financial matters so they can live separately.
  106. Service. The legal requirement that the divorce papers be given to the defendant or respondent. 
  107. Settlement. A resolution to a divorce negotiated by the parties and/or their attorneys. 
  108. Settlement conference. A meeting with the parties, their attorneys, and a representative of the court in an attempt to resolve some or all of the issues in the case. 
  109. Shared custody. An arrangement in which the parents share time with their child. 
  110. Show cause. A court order directing someone to appear in court. 
  111. Spousal support. Also called alimony, these are regular payments made to assist the non-moneyed spouse in becoming self-sufficient.
  112. Standard of living: The type of lifestyle a person is accustomed to
  113. Stipulation. An agreement of the parties that is submitted to the court or read onto the record. 
  114. Statute of limitations. A law stating how long a person has to bring a legal action. 
  115. Subpoena. A legal document issued by a court or attorney directing someone to provide information or to appear in court. 
  116. Summons. A legal document telling someone they must appear in court. 
  117. Supervised visitation. A parent’s time with their child that must be held in the presence of a monitor. 
  118. Testimony. Statements made by witnesses in court. 
  119. Third party. Someone else other than the spouses required to testify or provide evidence in a divorce case. 
  120. Trial. The process in which the court hears evidence in the case. 
  121. Uncontested divorce. When one party files for the divorce and the other party does not answer or appear. 
  122. Venue. A legal question about which location of a court should hear a case. 
  123. Visitation. Time spent by the non-custodial parent with the child. 
  124. Waiver. Legal surrender of certain rights. 
  125. Wasteful dissipation of assets. Using marital assets up or being responsible for assets being lost. 
  126. Witness. Person who testifies in a divorce case. 


Naomi Schanfield

Naomi Schanfield concentrates on all aspects of matrimonial and family law, including, prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, divorce, equitable distribution, child custody and visitation, support matters, family offense disputes, and domestic violence.

To connect with Naomi: 212.682.6222 | Online

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