Family Law Terminology
Action: A lawsuit or proceeding in a court of law.
Advocate: A lawyer who speaks on behalf of their client in a court setting.
Affidavit: A declaration of facts written down and sworn to by the declarant before an officer authorized to administer oaths, such as a notary public. Affidavits may be used as evidence in legal proceedings, such as divorce, custody and support cases.
Agreement: A verbal or written resolution of disputed issues.
Answer: The written response to a complaint, petition, or motion.
Alimony: A payment of financial support provided by one spouse to the other during separation and after divorce or legal separation. This is now generally called spousal support or maintenance. For divorces finalized after January 1, 2019, these payments are non-deductible to the payor and not considered taxable income to the recipient on federal income tax returns.
Alternative Dispute Resolution: These are processes used to resolve legal disputes outside of the traditional litigation system. Some examples are Collaborative law and mediation
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.
Appeal: A legal action where the losing party requests that a higher court review the decision.
Arrearage: Money that is due and unpaid for court-ordered child support or alimony.
Best Interests of the Child: A legal standard used to determine child custody, visitation, and support
Blended Family: A family that includes the combined families of spouses or partners with children from earlier marriages or relationships.
Child Support Guidelines: A schedule of payments and guidelines for calculating child support created by the state that shows how much child support is to be paid. It is based upon the income levels of the parents. The guidelines typically use a set formula and only in special circumstances will the court award child support higher or lower than the guidelines.
Collaborative Law: A formal process, using attorneys and neutral professionals who support the couple to resolve issues in family law matters outside of the court system. If the parties later decide to use the court system to resolve their issues, the collaborative attorneys may not be involved in the litigation and the parties must hire new attorneys.
Complainant: The one who files the lawsuit—also called the petitioner or 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 be common law married, both spouses must have intended to be husband and wife. Maryland does not recognize common law marriages.
Community Property: A method of dividing marital property between spouses, which is based on an equal or 50/50 division. Courts will generally only divide property bought or acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage. The following states use the community property method of property division: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska has adopted a community property system, but couples must opt in for these laws to apply.
Contempt of Court: A court determination that a person has failed to follow a court order and is subject to be punished by monetary fines, jail time, or both.
Contested Divorce: A divorce case in which the spouses cannot come to an agreement on one or more issues in order to conclusively terminate their marriage. In this case, the court will adjudicate their dispute. Contested divorces requiring resolution include sensitive topics such as custody, support and property division.
Custodial Parent: The parent who has physical custody of the parents' child or children.
Child Custody: This refers to the legal arrangements for whom 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 a parent's right to make decisions about a child's health, safety, and welfare. Physical custody refers to where the child will live 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 interest of their children. The standard for deciding custody is what arrangement will be in the "best interest of the child."
Decision Making: This is the right of a parent to have input into and make decisions about children in defined areas of the child’s life such as education, medical treatment and religious upbringing.
Decree of Dissolution: A court order that terminates the marriage. It is also sometimes called a Final Divorce Order.
Default: After a party's failure to answer a complaint, motion, or petition, a court can grant a plaintiff's divorce via default and give the plaintiff everything he or she requested.
Defendant: The person the case is brought against.
Deposition: A legal process where a person, under oath, answers questions pertaining to the legal matter. The questions can be asked by another party to the divorce or by an attorney, and it can take place outside a courtroom. The questions and answers are recorded or transcribed by a court reporter and can be entered into the court record.
Discovery: The formal exchange of information between people in a lawsuit. Examples of discovery are interrogatories (written questions), depositions (oral questions and answers) and the providing of records and documents.
Dissolution: The legal end of a marriage.
Equitable Distribution: A method of dividing marital property between spouses, which is based on an equitable or fair division (not necessarily an equal or 50/50 division). Most states use this method. Courts will generally only divide property bought or acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage.
Guardian Ad Litem: A person, usually a lawyer, appointed by the court to appear in a lawsuit on behalf of an incompetent or minor party, to protect that party’s interest. In divorce cases, a guardian Ad litem is often appointed in a child custody case to represent the child’s best interests.
Grounds For Divorce: The legal basis for a divorce; the law sets out specific reasons for a divorce which have to be proven before the court can grant a divorce.
Hardship: A condition that makes it onerous or impossible for a child-support obligor to make the required child-support payment.
Home State: The state where a child or children of the marriage lived with a parent for at least six months before a child custody, support, or visitation action was filed in court.
Innocent Spouse Rules: IRS rules that can protect one spouse from the other spouse's tax fraud or other tax-related misconduct.
Interrogatories: Written questions served by one party on another party, which must be answered in writing as part of the Discovery process.
Irreconcilable Differences: The legal grounds for no-fault divorces. In most States, including Oregon and Washington, irreconcilable differences are the only grounds allowed foe divorce.
Judgment: A court’s final determination of the rights and obligations of the parties in a case. In divorces, a judgment includes a decree and any other order that is subject to being appealed by either party.
Joint Legal Custody: The sharing of parental decisions about care, control, education, health, religion and primary residence of the minor child.
Jurisdiction: The authority of the court to hear a case.
Legal Separation: A court order allowing spouses to live separate and apart while remaining legally married.
Liability: The state of being legally obligated or accountable; legal responsibility to another or to society, enforceable by civil remedy or criminal punishment. In divorce cases, a spouse who is ordered to pay a marital debt can be held liable to the other spouse for failing to do so.
Kinship: Relationship by blood, marriage or adoption.
Maintenance: Also called spousal support and alimony, this is one spouse's financial support payment to the other
Marital Property: Under Oregon & Washington law, marital property is property acquired or is a direct result of the labor and investments of the parties during the marriage and is subject to equitable division. Equitable division does not mean marital property is divided equally, it is divided in manner that results in a fair or equitable result for each spouse.
Mediation: A method of non-binding dispute resolution involving a neutral third party who tries to help the disputing parties reach a mutually agreeable solution.
Motion: A request, usually made in writing, to the court. An example would be a motion to hold an ex-spouse in contempt for failure to pay required child or spousal support.
Non-Custodial Parent: The spouse who doesn't have physical custody of the spouses' child or children.
No-Fault Divorce: A divorce that does not require one spouse to prove the other spouse's fault or misconduct before being entitled to a divorce. Most States, including Oregon and Washington are no-fault States.
Non-Marital Property: Property acquired by one spouse prior to the marriage or property acquired by a spouse intended not to be considered marital property and not generally subject to equal division. However, in Oregon and Washington, non-marital property can be divided if the court decides it is fair and just to do so.
Notice: The formal legal process of informing one spouse, through their attorney if they have one, about a legal action or proceeding involving that spouse.
Order: A court's ruling or decision on a certain matter or legal issue, usually a decision on a motion filed by one spouse.
Parenting Plan: A plan for allocating custodial responsibility and decision-making authority on behalf of a child and resolving subsequent disputes between parents. The document also states the times the children will be with each parent and can also go through who will have what parenting tasks.
Paternity Test: Proving the identity of a child's biological father through scientific methods.
Pendente Lite: Temporary arrangements for dealing with certain divorce-related issues, such as custody, child support, child visitation, alimony, and use and possession of the family—these orders will remain in place until the court issues a final order based on the parties' agreement or after a hearing/trial.
Petition: A legal paper that starts a case.
Petitioner: Petitioner: This is the person who first files the paperwork for a legal separation or divorce.
Plaintiff: The person who started the case—also called the plaintiff.
Prenuptial / Premarital Agreement: An agreement signed before marriage defining how property will be divided, what alimony will be paid, and sets forth how other rights and responsibilities will be handled should the marriage end in divorce.
Pro Se / Proper : A person representing themselves in court without an attorney.
Property Division: The legal dividing property rights and obligations between spouses during the process of a divorce. Property division may be agreed upon between the spouses through a property settlement, or it may be decided in court during the judicial process of divorce.
Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO): A court order giving one spouse a share of the other spouse's pension or retirement funds.
Reconsolidation: When spouses get back together after they have separated or started a divorce process.
Residency Requirement: The amount of time a spouse must live within a state or county before that spouse may file a divorce action in that state or county.
Respondent: The person who must file an answer a petition in a family law proceeding.
Response: The written and filed answer a petition in a family law proceeding.
Restraining Order: A court order prohibiting a person from engaging in a defined behavior, such as removing funds from accounts or going to the home of a spouse who has filed a dissolution action.
Separate Property: (See NON-MARITAL PROPERTY)
Service: Providing a copy of the papers being filed to the other side via hand delivery or another court-approved method of delivery
Settlement Conference: A mediation at which the parties, sometimes with their lawyers, attempt to settle a legal matter or case without trial.
Spousal Support: One spouse's payment to the other for financial support—also called alimony or maintenance.
Spouse: The husband or wife of another person.
Stipulation: A legal agreement signed by both parties or their attorneys about some issue in a pending case, which settles that issue and is incorporated into a court order signed by a judge.
Subpoena: An order issued by the court requiring someone to appear in court to testify and/or bring documents.
Temporary Support: Payments made by one spouse to the other for financial support while the divorce action is pending.
Trust: The right, enforceable solely in equity, to the beneficial enjoyment of property to which another person holds the legal title; a property interest held by one person (the trustee) at the request of another (the trustor) for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary).
Uncontested Divorce: Sometimes referred to as a simple divorce, an uncontested divorce occurs when the couple agrees on all issues required to conclusively and effectively terminate their marriage, leaving nothing that is disputed or unresolved. This type of agreement is not equated necessarily with an amicable divorce, however. Instead, the agreement means that all disputed items raised between the couple were settled out of court and short of the requirement of judicial adjudication. VENUE: the county where the case is heard.
Visitation: The noncustodial parent’s court-ordered right to spending time with a child who is living with another person, usually the custodial parent. The non-custodial parent's right to spend time with the spouse's child or children.
Wage Withholding: The withholding of a certain percentage or amount of an obligor’s earnings for satisfaction of judgments for child support and alimony.
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