Divorce Terms

Menstuff® has compiled a list of divorce terms. Note that legal wording may vary by state.

Family Law Glossary of Terms:

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

Admission of Service: At dissolution, a paper signed by a party admitting that he or she received the Petition for dissolution.

Affidavit: A written statement made under oath, often as part of a divorce proceeding. In a divorce proceeding, Affidavits usually accompany motions and are used to avoid having to appear in court personally to testify.

Alimony: See Spousal maintenance.

Allegations: The claims or charges against the other person which are made in a lawsuit.

Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR): A phrase used to describe methods of resolving divorce disputes rather than going to court. Also sometimes referred to as “ADR” or “low conflict resolution”.

Annulment: A legal decree that makes a marriage null and void. Under Minnesota law, a legal annulment (which is different than a religious annulment) is extremely difficult to obtain and usually requires that one of the parties lacked the capacity to consent to the marriage.

Answer: A written response to a petition issued by the Respondent, usually accompanied bya counter petition setting forth the basisi for the petition and the relief that is sought by the Respondent.

Appeal: When one person disagrees with a decision made by a trial judge and asks the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court to review that decision. This is a formal legal proceeding.

Appellant: The person who brings the appeal.

Arbitration: An alternative in which parties agree to have a neutral person make decisions in matters relating to their case. The parties can stipulate to make the arbitrators decisions binding. Usually the decision cannot be appealed.

Arrearages: The difference between the amount of spousal maintenance or child support paid and the amount required by a court order.

Assignment: The transfer of a right or interest in property from one person to another.

Attorney of record: An attorney that is officially representing a party in a proceeding. An attorney of record is generally authorized to perform certain functions on behalf of a party, including receive service of papers.

Award: A decision by a court in a lawsuit to compensate a person in some fashion.

Attorney of record: The attorney that is officially reflected on the court documents and officially acknowledged by the other side as being the attorney who will represent a party. That attorney is given the authority to take certain action on behalf of a party, and to receive service on behalf of the party.

Brief: A written presentation of a party’s position.

Cause of Action: The legal theories or basis upon which a lawsuit is based.

Child (Minor Child): An individual under 18 years of age, an individual who is under 20 years of age and who is still attending high school, or a child who, by reason of physical or mental condition is incapable of self support.

Child Support: The amount of money that one parent pays to the other parent to help pay for the everyday needs of the children, including housing, food, and clothing.

Child Support Guidelines: The amount of child support to be paid under normal circumstances when one parent has primary physical custody, when one parent has primary physical custody, according to a schedule established by the State. To review the current Minnesota schedule, click here.

Civil Court: A court that presides over non-criminal matters.

Claim: A charge by one person against another.

Cohabitation: The act of living with someone, generally if sex is shared. In Minnesota cohabitation is not generally grounds for termination of spousal maintenance.

Collaborative Law: Collaborative law is a way of practicing law whereby the attorneys for both of the parties in a family dispute agree to assist them in resolving conflict using cooperative strategies rather than adversarial techniques and litigation. Early non-adversarial participation by the attorneys allows them to use attributes of good lawyering not greatly utilized in the usual adversarial proceedings, namely use of analysis and reasoning to solve problems, generation of options, and creation of a positive context for settlement.

Common Law Marriage: A marriage in which there has been no formal ceremony or marriage license. A judicially recognized marriage in some states but not allowed in Minnesota.

Contested Divorce: One party opposes the other because he or she disagrees with the other party on some of the issues of the divorce such as property, child custody, child support, spousal maintenance, assumption of debts, etc.

Consensual Special Magistrate: An alternative in which the parties choose to have a third person decide their case in the same manner as if a judge decided it. The decisions are binding and can be appealed.

Counter-Petition: A petition filed by the responding party, or respondent, stating the relief that they are seeking.

Court Services Evaluator: An individual who makes the child custody evaluation and who is appointed by a county court services agency.

Custodial Parent: When physical custody language is used, the parent who has physical custody of a child at any particular time.

Custody: The legal right and responsibility awarded by the Court for the care of the child. Under Minnesota law, there is recognition of legal custody and physical custody. In addition, a new statute allows the parties to avoid the use of custody language and to determine a parenting plan.

Custody Evaluation: A third party investigates the circumstances surrounding the custody of one or more children for purposes of recommending a custodial arrangement for the children.

Default alternative: An alternative that occurs by default if another alternative is put in its place. In divorce proceedings, a court trial is the default alternative.

Defendant: The person who defends against a lawsuit brought against him or her by another. The Defendant may also be called the Respondent.

Deposition: When a party or witness is asked questions under oath in the presence of a court reporter who prepares a transcript of the questions and the answers. A deposition is usually conducted in a lawyer’s office without a judge present. A court stenographer takes down everything that is said and later types it up in a transcript to be reviewed by the parties and their attorneys.


The process by which one party obtains information from the other party through things such as Interrogatories, Request for the Production of documents and depositions.

Dissolution of Marriage: The legal term used to describe a divorce. An action in which a party petitions the court to end the marital relationship.

Divorce: A legal judgment that severs the marriage of two people and restores them to the status of single persons. Also call a dissolution of marriage.

Divorce decree: The court order that grants the divorce and outlines the determination of the issues in the dissolution. Also referred to as a final decree or the Findings of Fact, Conclusion of Law, Order to Judgment and Judgment and Decree.

Emancipation: An act by which a parent relinquishes their right to custody and are relieved of their duty to support the child. Emancipation can occur when a child marries, is inducted into military service, by court order, or based upon the best interests of the child when the child reaches the appropriate age. Barring emancipation, a child in Minnesota is considered to be a minor until he or she reaches the age of 18 and graduates from high school, whichever is later. However, if a child attains the age of 20 and is not graduated from high school they are no longer a minor under our law.

Equitable Distribution: The division of property acquired during the marriage that may include marital debts.

Financial Neutral: A person with a financial background, usually a certified public accountant, who provides unbiased assistance to the parties and their attorneys for the purpose of reaching a resolution on disputed issues.

Formal Discovery: Information that is gathered through the use of formal methods such as submitting interrogatories, requests for the production of documents, or conducting depositions. This is in contrast to informal discovery in which the parties and/or their attorneys agree to voluntarily exchange whatever information is requested by letter or in some other informal fashion.

Guardian ad Litem: A person assigned to protect the specific interests of the children.

Grounds: Legally sufficient reasons why a person is entitled to a divorce. Almost all states today, including Minnesota, are no fault states in which it is not necessary to state grounds for a divorce. Under Minnesota law the standard for a divorce is that there is an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage relationship.

Hearing: Any proceeding before a court where testimony is given or arguments are heard.

Hold-harmless: A phrase used to describe an agreement by which one person agrees to assume full liability for an obligation and protect another from any loss or expense based on that obligation.

Interrogatory: Written questions asked by one party to the opposing party. The opposing party must answer the questions under oath.

Impasse: A point at which further progress does not seem possible.

Joint Legal Custody: A form of custody where both parents have equal rights and responsibilities, including the right to participate in major decisions determining the child’s up-bringing including education, health care, and religious training. In Minnesota law there is a presumption in favor of joint legal custody.

Joint Petition for dissolution: A petition in which both parties are petitioning for dissolution at the same time rather than having one petitioner and one respondent.

Joint Physical Custody: A form of custody of minor children in which the parents share the actual physical custody of the child. The time spent living with each individual parent is structured between the parties. Joint physical custody does not require that there be an equal sharing of time.

Joint property: Property that is held or titled in the name of more than one person.

Judgment: A ruling or court order.

Judgment and Decree: The document that actually grants the divorce and which generally identifies the ruling or agreement on other issues such as custody, child support, spousal maintenance, and property division.

Jurisdiction: The power or authority of a court to rule in a particular case. A court must have jurisdiction over both the subject matter of the case, and the people involved in the dispute, in order to have the authority to hear a case and make binding decisions.

Legal Custody: The right to determine the child’s upbringing including education, health care, and religious training.

Legal Separation: A court determination of rights and responsibilities of a husband and wife without dissolving the marriage.

Low conflict alternatives: Alternatives for dispute resolution that are designed to reduce conflict. Also referred to as non-adversarial alternatives.

Lump-sum alimony: Spousal support that is made in a single payment or is a fixed amount, but paid in specific installments.

Legal Consultant: Someone who consults with a client and provides legal advice and legal services but is not the client’s retained attorney.

Marital Property: All property acquired during the course of the marriage regardless of who owns it or who has title to it. Includes property such as houses, real estate, pensions, stocks, bonds, and household goods. Marital property does not generally include property that was acquired by either spouse prior to the marriage.

Marital Termination Agreement: Sometimes referred to as a stipulation. A complete agreement reached between the parties that spells out decisions made regarding all issues in an action for dissolution of marriage. These may include the issues of custody, child support, spousal maintenance, property, and debts.

Med/Arb: Short for “Mediation/Arbitration.” A mixture of mediation and arbitration in which the parties begin mediation and agree that, if the issues are not resolved through mediation, the mediator can act as an arbitrator and make binding decisions.

Mediation: A process in which an impartial third party facilitates and agreement between two or more persons.

Minor child: See Child.

Motion: A request that one party makes for some type of action or decision to be made by the Court.

Motion hearing: A hearing before a judge or referee in which the judge hears arguments but no testimony.

Multi-disciplinary team: A group of professionals from different areas of practice such as law, mental health, accountants, who are working together as a team to provide assistance to a client or clients.

Neutral: A general term used to describe any individual or expert who works in a neutral or unbiased capacity in an effort to help the parties resolve issues.

No-Fault Divorce: A type of divorce which may be granted without the necessity of showing that either spouse was guilty of some form of marital misconduct.

Non-adversarial alternative: General term used to describe alternatives to more traditional divorce process methods. They are designed to avoid court and other adversarial methods. Also referred to as low-conflict alternatives or alternate dispute resolution (ADR).

Non-custodial Parent: In a situation where one parent has primary physical custody, the other parent is deemed to be the non-custodial parent, since that parent does not have the children half of the time.

Non-marital property: Term used to describe separate property in some states that provide for the equitable distribution of property. Generally, non-marital property consists of property acquired prior to a marriage and property acquired by individual gift or inheritance either before or during a marriage.

Order: A court’s official ruling on some matter before it. Generally court order will be in writing and signed by the judge.

Order for Protection: An order issued in a domestic abuse action where one party is ordered to refrain from contact with another party.

Parental Consultant: A child psychologist who works with the parties as a consultant in an attempt to mediate issues of a case involving children. Where necessary, they may make binding decisions relating to parenting issues.

Parenting Time Expeditor: A neutral person who is asked to interpret, clarify and address issues that are not covered by a court order or to enforce an existing parenting plan agreement and order. A parenting plan expeditor can be used to resolve a single dispute or can stay working with the parents over a period of time.

Party: A person directly involved in a lawsuit; either a plaintiff/petitioner or a defendant/respondent.

Perjury: The act of lying under oath.

Petition: The title given to the first document filed in an action for divorce. The petition sets out the facts of the case and the allegations against the other spouse and requests that the court grant the divorce or dissolution. It also states, in very general terms, what the petitioner is requesting in relief from the court.

Petitioner: The person who files a divorce petition in court and initiates the divorce action. In some cases both parties can choose to become Co-petitioners.

Physical Custody: The determination of where the child will spend most of his or her time. Also said to have the care, custody and control of the daily activities of the child. Physical custody considers the routine daily care and control, and residence of the child.

Plaintiff: The person who initiates a lawsuit by filing a complaint with the court. The plaintiff is also called the Petitioner.

Pleading: Any formal written document filed with a court which requests action by the court. Includes complaints, petitions, answers to the complaint, responses to a petition, motions, etc.

Post dissolution proceedings: Term used to describe differences that arise between two divorced parties after the marriage is dissolved.

Prenuptial Agreement: A written contract entered into by a couple who intends to marry but want to establish, before the marriage, their rights in the event of death or divorce during marriage. Such a document generally limits a spouse’s rights to property, support, or inheritance upon divorce.

Primary Caretaker: The parent who provides the majority of the day-to-day care for a minor child.

Private judge: General term for any neutral party privately hired to render certain judgments at the request of both parties. See also: Arbitrator.

Pro Se: A party which is representing himself or herself in the proceedings.

Pretrial Conference: A pretrial conference is a meeting, usually in a courthouse setting, in which the parties and their attorneys meet for the purpose of trying to obtain a settlement. The conference is normally moderated by a judge or referee who is handling the matter. If the case cannot be settled and the matter gets set for trial, a pretrial order is issued.

QDRO: Qualified Domestic Relations Order. A separate order often used to divide a pension or a retirement plan owned by a spouse.

Request for the Production of Documents: A written request issued from one party to the other, asking that certain documents be produced to allow them to obtain information necessary for resolving divorce issues.

Residence: The place where a party has established a permanent home from which the party has no present intention of moving.

Response: The formal document filed by a respondent in answer to the allegations in a petition. This is also called an answer.

Retainer: A payment made to an attorney to secure his or her services. The retainer is placed in a trust account and, as the attorney works, the charges are deducted from the retainer until the money is used up. After the money is used up the attorney would usually bill on a weekly or monthly basis, or would ask for a new retainer.

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

Retained Attorney: An attorney who has entered into a retainer agreement with the client and has therefore become the client’s attorney of record

Retainer Agreement: A written agreement between an attorney and a client which describes the specific terms of their agreement in situations where the client is choosing to retain the attorney.

Referee: A judicial officer, essentially used in Ramsey and Hennepin counties, who presides in a manner of a judge, over a specific area such as family law. Decisions by the referee are subject to possible review by the judge.

Service of Process: The actual act of presenting the defendant or respondent in a lawsuit with a summons notifying him or her of the lawsuit. Also generally includes providing the defendant or respondent with a copy of the actual complaint or petition in the lawsuit. The service of process is done either personally or through the mail.

Settlement: An agreement that resolves certain disputed issues.

Settlement Agreement: The written version of a settlement that resolves certain issues. It is generally a valid contract.

Settlement Conference: Another name for a pre-hearing conference where the parties get together and attempt a settlement of all issues in their case.

Sole Custody: Also referred to as primary custody. When one parent has the primary decision making authority or has the children with them during most of the time. Contrasted with joint custody.

Spousal Maintenance: Payment of support for one spouse provided by the other spouse from the future income or earnings of the paying spouse. In Minnesota alimony is called “spousal maintenance” rather than “alimony” Spousal maintenance payments usually terminate upon the death of either spouse or the remarriage of the person receiving spousal maintenance. Payments received are usually taxable to the spouse who receives the maintenance, and deductible by the spouse who pays.

Stipulation: See Marital Termination Agreement.

Subpoena: A document which is served upon (delivered to) a persons who is not directly involved in a lawsuit, requesting that he or she appear in court to give testimony.

Summary Dissolution: An action for a dissolution of marriage in which matters can be simplified through a summary process allowed by Minnesota Statute.

Summons: A document which is served upon (delivered to) a person who is named as a defendant or respondent in a lawsuit. The summons notifies the person that the lawsuit has been filed against him or her and tells them that they have a certain time limit in which to file an answer or response in reply. The summons accompanies the Petition and tells the other party the following crucial facts: 1.) They have 30 days to submit an Answer to the Petition. 2.) That neither party may harass the other party during the divorce proceedings. 3.) That neither party may change insurance coverage during the divorce proceedings. 4.) That neither party may sell assets while the divorce is pending, (with certain noted exceptions). 5.) That both parties are encouraged to pursue mediation.

Temporary Agreement: An agreement on how to handle temporary issues until a marriage dissolution is finalized.

Temporary Order: An order by the court, which is only intended to last until the divorce is finalized.

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

Uncontested divorce: A divorce proceeding in which there is no dispute as to any of the legal issues involved. The lack of dispute may be because the other spouse is missing, refuses to participate in the proceeding, or agrees with the other spouse on all issues.

Visitation: The time that the non-custodial parent spends with the child during time when one parent is said to have primary or sole physical custody. In situations where custody language is not used, such as a parenting plan, different terms are used to describe access to the child.

Visitation Expeditor: See Parenting Time Expeditor.

Waiver: A written document that relinquishes a person’s rights.

Waiver of counsel: A document signed by a party waiving their right to have an attorney review and sign certain papers on their behalf.

Source: www.divorcechoice.com/basic.html   

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