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Divorce Law Glossary



If you're getting a divorce, or dealing with child custody issues, you will encounter some unfamiliar legal terms. To some extent, divorce laws have a language that is unique. Here are the definitions of words used commonly in divorce law.

Divorce Law Terminology

ABSOLUTE DIVORCE: the final ending of a marriage. Both parties are legally free to remarry.

AB INITIO: Latin for from the beginning.

ACTION: a lawsuit or proceeding in a court of law.

AFFIDAVIT: a written statement made under oath.

AGREEMENT: a verbal or written resolution of disputed issues.

ANSWER: the written response to a complaint, petition or motion.

ALIMONY: a payment of support provided by one spouse to the other (also known as MAINTENANCE or SPOUSAL SUPPORT). State divorce laws vary as to how alimony is calculated.  Learn more about alimony and spousal support during a divorce.

ALIAS SUMMONS: another summons when the original is not served on the defendant.

ANNULMENT: a marriage can be dissolved in a legal proceeding in which the marriage is declared void, as though it never took place. In the eyes of the law, the parties were never married. It is available only under certain limited circumstances.  Learn more about an annulment versus a divorce.

APPEAL: a legal action where the losing party requests that a higher court review the decision.

COLLUSION: an agreement between two or more persons where one of the parties brings false charges against the other. For example, in a divorce case, the husband and wife may agree to use adultery as the grounds for divorce to obtain a divorce more quickly, knowing full well that adultery was not committed. Collusion is illegal.

COMPLAINANT: the one who files the suit, also known as the PLAINTIFF.

COMMON LAW MARRIAGE: a common law marriage comes about when a man and woman who are free to marry agree to live together as husband and wife without the formal ceremony. To have a common law marriage, both spouses must have intended to be husband and wife. Not every state recognizes common law marriages.

COMPLAINT: called a BILL OF COMPLAINT. The legal paper that starts a case.

CONDONATION: the act of forgiving one's spouse who has committed an act of wrongdoing that would constitute grounds for divorce. Condonation generally is proven by living and cohabiting with the spouse after learning that the wrongdoing was committed. It often is used as a defense to a divorce.

CONTEMPT: failure to follow a court order. One side can request that the court determine the other side is in contempt and punish him or her.

CORROBORATIVE WITNESS: a person who testifies for you and backs up your story. If you are asking the court to grant a divorce, you must bring to the hearing a witness who can corroborate your grounds for divorce.

CUSTODY, SOLE & JOINT: refers to the legal arrangements specifying who a child will live with and how decisions about the child will be made. Custody has two parts: legal and physical. Legal custody refers to who has decision-making responsibilities; physical custody refers to where the child lives on a regular basis. Generally, the parent the child does not live with will be allowed to have regular visits with the child. Parents can make any custodial arrangement that is in the best interests of their children. The standard for custody is "best interests of the child."  Learn more about the difference between legal and physical child custody.

DEFAULT: a party's failure to answer a complaint, motion, or petition.

DEFENDANT: the person the case is brought against.

DISCOVERY: a way of getting information from the other side or other people. Examples of discovery are interrogatories (written questions) and depositions (questions which are usually in person and recorded).

DISSOLUTION: the legal end of a marriage.

FILING: giving the clerk of court your legal papers.

GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE: the legal basis for a divorce; the law sets out specific reasons for a divorce that have to be proven before the court can grant a divorce.

JUDGMENT: a court's decision.

JURISDICTION: the authority of the court to hear a case.

MARITAL PROPERTY: includes all property acquired during the marriage.

MASTER: hears cases like a judge. A master's decision is reviewed by a judge before becoming final.

MOTION: a request to the court.

PENDENTE LITE: temporary arrangements for custody, child support, child visitation, alimony, use and possession of the family home, etc., until a final hearing.

PETITION: a legal paper that starts a case.

PLAINTIFF: the person who started the case.

PRO SE or PROPER PERSON: representing yourself in court without an attorney.

RECONCILIATION: married people who get back together.

SERVICE: providing a copy of the papers being filed to the other side.

SPOUSE: husband or wife.

SUBPOENA: a form issued by the court requiring someone to appear in court and/or bring documents.

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE: when the defendant does not try to stop the divorce and there are no issues for the court to decide about the children, money or property.  Learn the differences between contested and uncontested divorce.

VENUE: the county where the case is heard.

WRIT OF SUMMONS: a form issued by the court directing a party to respond to a complaint, motion, or petition.

Have you encountered other legal words that have left you confused? You can look them up in an online legal dictionary.