Glossary of Divorce Terms

This glossary of divorce terminology was put together to help you educate yourself and better understand the divorce process. Knowing some of the basic terminology involved in divorce helps orient you as you go through the process of divorce.

A

Action – A lawsuit or proceeding in a court of law.

Affidavit – A written statement signed under oath.

Alimony – Court ordered payment of support provided by one spouse to the other.

Arbitration – A formal process in which the dispute is referred to a neutral third party. The spouses must agree in advance to accept the arbitrator’s decision.

C

Child Custody – The court’s determination of who will be the child’s primary care giver and make decisions for the child. Physical custody determines where the child will live and legal custody determines who will make decisions for the child’s welfare.

Child Support – Court ordered regular payments made by a non-custodial parent to the custodial parent to help cover the child’s expenses.

Collaborative Divorce – Proceeding in which each spouse contracts a lawyer, and together the spouses and their lawyers negotiate a settlement.

Complaint (Petition) for Divorce – A request for divorce which is filed with the court.

Contested Divorce – An adversarial divorce proceeding in which the spouses cannot agree on a separation agreement.

Custodial Parent – The parent who has physical custody of the child. This parent lives with the child and is in charge of making the day to day parenting decisions.

D

Defendant – The spouse against whom the case is brought.

Deposition – A form of discovery that consists of oral questioning outside the courtroom.

Discovery – Obtaining information from the other spouse or from others.

E

Emancipation – Termination of child support payments when the child reaches a certain age.

F

Fault Divorce – A divorce in which the plaintiff alleges misconduct of the other spouse as grounds for the complaint.

Filing – Presenting the complaint with the court, thus initiating the divorce proceeding.

G

Grounds for Divorce – Behaviors which constitute legal reason for the state to grant a divorce. All states vary in their law, In Massachusetts for example, these are: adultery, cruel and abusive treatment, utter desertion, long-term incarceration, gross and confirmed habits of intoxication, non-support, impotency, irretrievable breakdown of the marriage (no-fault)

Guardian ad Litem (G.A.L.)-  A person, usually a lawyer or a mental health professional, appointed by the Court to conduct an investigation and issue a recommendation on child custody and visitation.

I

Income Assignment – Arrangement in which child support is deducted from the parent’s paycheck and sent it to the DOR, which in turn sends it on to the custodial parent.

Interrogatory – A form of discovery which consists of questions which the other side must answer in writing.

J

Joint Legal Custody – Arrangement in which the decision-making responsibility is shared by both parents.

Joint Physical Custody – Arrangement in which children spend considerable periods of time, perhaps several weeks or months of each year, alternately with each parent.

L

Legal Custody – The legal right to makes major decisions about issues such as education, health, medical care, emotional development, and religion.

Litigation – Legal action in which each spouse’s lawyer argues their client’s case before a judge when the couple cannot resolve the issues amicably.

M

Mediation – An informal, voluntary process in which a trained professional helps the couple develop a separation agreement without going to court.

Motion – A written request made to the Court by an attorney, for example, a request to postpone a court date.

N

No-fault Divorce – A divorce in which no misconduct is alleged, but rather an “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage.

Non-Custodial Parent – The parent who does not have physical custody of the child, but is usually assigned visiting rights.

P

Physical Custody – Legal right of an adult to live with the child as the primary caregiver.

Plaintiff – The person who starts the case by filing the complaint or petition for divorce.

Pretrial Conference – A meeting of all parties and counsel with the trial judge, sometimes held in the judge’s chambers.

R

Restraining Order – A temporary court order prohibiting a party from certain activities. Restraining orders often are issued to protect assets and to protect against domestic violence.

S

Service – The legal process of informing the other side that a complaint or motion has been filed and providing them with a copy of the papers.

Subpoena – A court order requiring someone to appear in court or deliver documents.

Summons – The court’s official notice to the defendant that he or she must respond to a complaint.

Supervised Visitation – Visits of the child with the non-custodial parent conducted under the supervision of a responsible adult in order to assure the child’s safety or well being.

T

Trial – A formal proceeding before a judge in which each party’s attorney presents his or her case, supported by testimony from witnesses or other evidence.

U

Uncontested Divorce – A divorce proceeding in which the spouses agree to all matters and submit their settlement to the court for approval.

V

Visitation – The right of the non-custodial parent to spend time with the child. This may mean that the child spends several hours, weekends or some vacation time with that parent.