Divorce Glossary

Divorce can be a confusing process. It is a legal process with its own terms and special meanings. The following is a divorce glossary of terms and phrases to help you navigate the process.


Affidavit. A written statement that is sworn to be accurate by the person making the statement in front of a court official or notary public.

Alimony. A court order for financial payments made to help support a spouse or former spouse during separation or following divorce. It may be permanent or only for a set period of time or paid in a lump sum. Also called spousal support or spousal maintenance.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Methods of resolving legal disputes without going to trial, in a less confrontational manner, such as through arbitration or mediation.

Annulment. A legal declaration that a marriage was never valid, the couple was never married, and they do not need a divorce. Reasons for annulment may include being under the age of consent, bigamy, being unable to consent because of intoxication, mental illness, or developmental disorder, or being lied to or forced to marry.

Arrearage. The amount of money that is past due for support payments, either child or spousal support. A court action may be needed to order payment. The paying spouse may be held in contempt of court.

Child support. Money that a non-custodial parent pays to the custodial parent for their minor child(ren)'s care and support.

Child support guidelines. Guidelines established by state law that dictate how child support must be calculated. Generally, it is based on the income of the parents and the needs of the children.

Child custody. Having rights to your child. Custody can be either legal, which means that you have the right to make important decisions about your child's welfare, or physical, which means that the child lives with and is raised by you.

Cohabitation. The term for when a romantic couple lives together but is not married.

Contested divorce. A divorce in which the couple does not agree on the terms, such as child custody, division of property and assets, or financial support.

Community property. Property, assets, and debts that a married couple owns jointly and equally. Not every state recognizes community property.

Decree. The court's written order or decision finalizing the divorce, often issued in conjunction with the court's judgment. This is a legal document that gives you the details of your divorce.

Default. Failing to answer a petition or complaint for divorce. Failing to file an answer or appear in court as required can result in the court awarding everything requested by the filing spouse.

Defendant. The person against whom legal papers are filed. Sometimes referred to as the respondent in a divorce case.

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

Discovery. The information-exchanging process during legal proceedings, including serving and answering interrogatories and requests for production of documents, and taking depositions.

Dissolution. A legal term that is another word for divorce, which is the legal termination of a marriage relationship.

Divorce. A legal action that terminates a marriage relationship.

Domestic violence. Physical abuse or threats of abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological manipulation, and financial abuse occurring between members of the same household. Sometimes called “intimate partner abuse." If you are experiencing domestic violence or you feel unsafe with your partner, please seek help. Victims are most at risk when they are pregnant or are leaving the relationship. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Equitable distribution. A division of property that is fair in view of all of the circumstances. Equitable does not necessarily mean equal.

Ex parte. An order, ruling, or judgment by the court is made with only one party being present. An example of this may be an emergency protection or restraining order.

Fault divorce. When one spouse files for divorce because the other spouse has done something that warrants the end of the marriage. Reasons may include adultery, abandonment, abuse or cruelty, or impotence. Fault divorces are rare, and the respondent spouse can defend themselves from the accusations in court.

Guardian ad litem (GAL). A legal representative appointed by the family court to protect the best interest of minor children. Often a GAL is appointed when allegations of abuse or neglect are made during a divorce or other legal proceedings.

Interrogatories. Written questions that are served by the opposing party that must be answered in a written statement as part of the discovery process.

Joint legal custody. The sharing, by both parents, of the right to make important decisions about a child's welfare.

Joint physical custody. The sharing, by both parents, of the actual physical care and custody of a child.

Legal advice. Guidance given by an attorney to a client about the client's legal rights and the law around their case. Legal advice can only be given by an attorney to a client.

Legal custody. The right to make important decisions about the raising of your child on issues such as health care, religious upbringing, education, etc.

Marital property. Generally, all property acquired during the marriage.

Mediation. A form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for resolving legal disputes without going to trial, by the use of a trained and impartial third party who attempts to bring the parties together in mutual agreement.

No-fault divorce. A petitioner does not have to prove the other spouse did anything wrong when ending their marriage. A divorce is filed because of “irreconcilable differences", or the marriage is said to be “irretrievably broken." This is the most common type of divorce.

Non-custodial parent. The parent who does not have physical custody of the child(ren).

Non-marital property. Generally, property owned by either spouse prior to marriage or acquired by them individually, such as by gift or inheritance, during the marriage.

Petitioner. Often, the person who initiates divorce or marriage dissolution proceedings. Also called the plaintiff in court proceedings.

Physical custody. The day-to-day rights and responsibilities associated with having your child in your home and being responsible for his or her care and upbringing.

Plaintiff. The person who initiates legal proceedings, often called the petitioner in family law matters.

Premarital agreement. An agreement entered into before marriage that sets forth each party's rights and responsibilities should the marriage terminate by death or divorce. Also called a prenuptial agreement.

Prenuptial agreement. An agreement entered into before marriage that sets out each party's rights and responsibilities should the marriage end by death or divorce. Also called a premarital agreement.

Property division. The dividing up of community property from the marriage. The couple may decide on how to divide the property or the judge will make a decision on how to fairly divide the property between the couple. Property division does not have to be an equal division. One spouse may be given more than the other.

Pro se. Representing oneself in court. Not having an attorney represent you.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). Often pronounced "kwah-dro," an order issued by the court to divide retirement benefits.

Respondent. The person who answers a petition in a legal proceeding. Sometimes also referred to as the defendant.

Restraining order. An order issued by the court requiring the subject of the order to refrain from doing something, often issued in conjunction with domestic violence or custody disputes.

Separate property. Property that a spouse owned before the marriage or was given to that spouse only and not the couple during the marriage. This does not have to be actual property.

Separation agreement. Prior to or instead of a divorce, a legal contract is made to address support, custody, property, and other legal issues. It can be incorporated into a divorce.

Service of process. Legally notifying a defendant or respondent about a judicial proceeding. A process server or Sheriff's office will hand the paperwork to the person or lay them in their general area. Often simply called serving or being served. The receiving party may sign a waiver of service.

Settlement conference. A meeting at which the parties and their lawyers attempt to settle the case before trial, often ordered by the court.

Sole custody. When one parent is granted both legal and physical custody of the minor children

Split custody. A form of custody (generally not looked upon favorably) in which some or one of the parties' children is/are in the custody of one parent, and the remaining child(ren) is/are in the custody of the other parent.

Spousal support or maintenance. Financial payments made to help support a spouse or former spouse during separation or following divorce. Also called alimony.

Stipulation. An agreement entered into by the divorcing spouses that settles the issues between them and is often entered into the court's final order or judgment and decree.

Subpoena. A court order for you to appear in court or to produce certain documents or other evidence. Refusing to follow the subpoena will leave you open to contempt of court charges, fines, or even jail time.

Uncontested divorce. A divorce where the parties agree on all the terms.

Visitation. The time that a noncustodial parent spends with his or her child(ren). Sometimes known as access.

The Divorce Glossary Can Help You, But It's No Substitute for Legal Counsel

The divorce glossary will help you to understand the key terminology that goes along with divorce proceedings, but you may need more help than that. Whether you're just beginning the divorce process or are further along, legal representation can make all the difference. Contact a divorce lawyer in your area, who will be able to give you the legal advice you need and advocate on your behalf should you need to go to court.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You may not need an attorney for a simple divorce with uncontested issues
  • Legal advice is critical to protect your interests in a contested divorce
  • Divorce lawyers can help secure fair custody/visitation, support, and property division

An attorney is a skilled advocate during negotiations and court proceedings. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Divorce is an ideal time to review your beneficiary designations on life insurance, bank accounts, and retirement accounts. You need to change your estate planning forms to reflect any new choices about your personal representative and beneficiaries. You can change your power of attorney if you named your ex-spouse as your agent. Also, change your health care directive to remove them from making your health care decisions.

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