resource guide
divorce dictionary

Click on the term you want defined, or just scroll the list, below, alphabetically.

Abandonment
The departure of one spouse from the marital home without the consent of the other spouse. In some states, this may constitute grounds for divorce.

Action
A lawsuit. In matrimonial matters, it is usually a lawsuit for a divorce, an annulment or a legal separation. Adultery: Engaging in sexual relations with someone other than one's spouse. In some states, this may constitute grounds for divorce.

Affidavit
A sworn statement of facts. Affidavits usually accompany motions and are used to avoid having to appear in court personally to testify.

Alimony/Maintenance
Payments made by one spouse to the other to assist with the support of the recipient spouse. Payments will usually terminate upon the earlier of the death of either spouse, the remarriage of the recipient spouse or a date decided by a judge or agreed upon by the husband and wife. Payments received are usually taxable to the recipient spouse and tax deductible by the paying spouse.

Appeal
Payments made by one spouse to the other to assist with the support of the recipient spouse. Payments will usually terminate upon the earlier of the death of either spouse, the remarriage of the recipient spouse or a date decided by a judge or agreed upon by the husband and wife. Payments received are usually taxable to the recipient spouse and tax deductible by the paying spouse.

Appellant
The person who brings the appeal.

Billing Rate
The rate at which an attorney bills a client for work performed. Many attorneys will bill on a hourly basis, charging a certain amount of money per hour. Some attorneys will bill per project, regardless of how much or little time it takes to do the work.

Brief
A written presentation of a party's position. Lawyers most often submit briefs to argue appeals.

Child Support
A sum of money to be paid by one parent to the other to assist with the support of the couple's children. Child support is sometimes paid directly to a third party, such as a college, or a health care provider, rather than to a parent. In some jurisdictions, child support is paid to a state support collection unit which in turn pays it to the recipient spouse. Child support usually terminates upon a child's emancipation.

Cohabitation
The act of living with someone. In some states, cohabitation may be grounds for the termination of support. In addition, some husbands and wives may agree when settling their case that cohabitation for a period of time (such as six months on a substantially continuous basis) will cause support to be terminated. However, cohabitation is usually difficult to prove.

Constructive Abandonment
The refusal of one spouse to engage in sexual relations with the other. In some states, this may constitute grounds for divorce.

Community Property State
A state where nearly all property acquired during the marriage is considered to belong equally to both parties.

Contempt
The act of deliberately violating a court order. Nonpayment of support when a spouse has the means to pay such support frequently gives rise to contempt adjudications in divorce cases.

Cross-examination
The act of being questioned by the attorney representing the person on whose behalf the witness is not testifying.

Decision
The judge's reasoning for why he or she directed something to be done or not done. Decisions usually accompany orders. Findings of fact and conclusions of law are the same as a decision.

Defendant
The person who defends the lawsuit.

Deposition
Answering questions under oath. In matrimonial matters, a deposition will usually center around a party's finances and will be conducted in a lawyer's office or in the courthouse but a judge will not be present. In some jurisdictions, the grounds for divorce may also be the subject of the deposition. A stenographer takes down everything that is said and later types it up for review by the parties and their attorneys.

Direct Examination
The act of being questioned, under oath, by the attorney representing the person on whose behalf the witness is testifying.

Discovery
The formal investigation of both parties by the opposing attorneys prior to a trial to obtain information necessary to prepare a case.

Emancipation
When a minor child reaches the legal age of adulthood, and parents are no longer obligated to provide financial support.

Equitable Distribution
A legal principle where the parties to a divorce are required to divide their assets fairly.

Forensics
The term sometimes used when a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health professional is appointed to interview the parents and their children and make a recommendation to the Court as to who would be the better custodial parent. The mental health expert may also interview child caretakers, grandparents, teachers and anyone else who has frequent contact with the children.

Garnishment
A mechanism whereby support is sent by the paying spouse's employer directly to the recipient spouse and is deducted from the paying spouse's paycheck.

Grounds
The legally sufficient reasons why a person is entitled to a divorce. While many states are "no fault" states, where no grounds need be asserted other than incompatibility or irreconcilable differences, other states require the plaintiff to prove grounds, such as adultery, abandonment or mental cruelty.

Interrogatories
A series of questions which must be answered under oath usually designed to ascertain a person's financial holdings and means of earning income.

Joint Custody
Sharing of raising children despite a divorce. Joint custody can mean the children will live with one parent most of the time, but both parents will make major decisions. It can also mean the children will divide their time equally between the two parents' homes.

Judgment of Divorce
The written document which states that a husband and wife are divorced. In some states, this may be called a decree of dissolution. Typically lawyers draft the Judgment of Divorce for the judge to review and sign.

Law Guardian
A lawyer, usually selected by the judge, assigned to represent the children of the divorcing parents.

Marital Property
In general, property a husband and wife acquire during the marriage. Such property may also be called joint property. In some jurisdictions, inheritances, disability awards and gifts received from a third party (i.e. not the spouse) are not considered marital or joint property, even if a spouse received them during the marriage. Other exceptions may exist as well.

Motion
A request made of a judge at a time while an action is pending or at trial. Motions can be made in writing for the court to consider, or orally, such as at trial. In matrimonial cases, motions are typically made for temporary support, temporary custody, visitation rights, or to enjoin someone from taking money or property.

Noncustodial Parent
The parent with whom the children do not live and who has little or no input in decisions to be made concerning the children.

Order
A ruling by a judge, orally or in writing, directing someone to do or refrain from doing something.

Order of Protection
An order directing someone to do or refrain from doing something. Typically, one spouse is directed to refrain from harassing the other. Violation of an Order of Protection can result in arrest and imprisonment. cases.

Perjury
The act of lying under oath.

Petitioner
The person who first goes to court to file a request, or petition for some kind of relief.

Plaintiff
The person who starts a lawsuit.

Postnuptial or Separation Agreement
A written contract entered into by a husband and wife which sets forth all of their present and future rights in view of their impending divorce.

Precedent
The use of previous decisions in cases factually similar to the case before a judge in order for the judge to decide how to adjudicate the present case.

Prenuptial Agreement
A written contract entered into by a couple who intend to marry but want to establish, before marriage, their rights in the event of a death or divorce during marriage. The validity of such agreements depends upon state law.

Record
All the testimony and exhibits upon which a judge based his or her decision. When a party appeals a decision, it is necessary to compile all of the papers and transcripts of testimony which the lower court used to decide the case and to present that information to the higher court.

Respondent
The person who has to defend, or object to the appeal. This can also be a person who objects to or defends against a petition.

Retainer
A payment made to an attorney to secure his or her services. As the attorney works, charges are deducted from the retainer until the money is used up. At that time, the attorney will bill on a weekly or monthly basis, or will ask for a new retainer.

Retainer Agreement
A contract signed by an attorney and client setting forth the billing arrangement to be instituted between the lawyer and the client.

Separate Property
Property a spouse acquires before the marriage, and after an action for divorce has begun. In some jurisdictions, inheritance, disability awards and gifts received during the marriage by one party are considered separate property. Other exceptions may exist as well.

Sole Custody
One parent having the unilateral right to make decisions concerning the children without having to consult with the other parent. Even in situations where sole custody exists, the other parent may have to be consulted before major expenses, such as college or health care, for which that parent may be responsible, are incurred.

Transcript
The written presentation of testimony given at trial or in a deposition.



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