Family Law Glossary

Below is a list of some terms used throughout various family law cases:

AB INITIO: Latin for "from the beginning." Some judgments entered can later be found void ab initio if entered incorrectly.

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

AFFIDAVIT: A written statement under oath. Divorce, paternity and other judgments can sometimes be entered with an affidavit or live testimony.

AGREEMENT: A verbal or written resolution of all disputed issues in a case.  Generally, in family law cases, an agreement is only enforceable if written

ANSWER: A written response to a petition or motion. An answer is typically required in response to all petitions.  In response to motions, answers are not always filed, but are in many cases.

ALIAS SUMMONS: Another summons when the original is not served on the respondent prior to expiration. A special process server (or private investigator) can often be used to serve an alias summons versus the sheriff.

ANNULMENT: A marriage can be dissolved in a legal proceeding in which the marriage is declared void ab initio, as if it never happened.  Annulments are available only under certain limited circumstances with fraud being the most common example.

APPEAL: A legal action where the losing party requests that a higher court of appeals review the decision. Appeals have to be filed timely and trial court decisions are usually only reversed if the trial court abused their discretion or misapplied the law. Contrary to common belief, you do not get a new trial at the appellate level.  They just review the decision of the trial court to determine whether the judgment was appropriate.

CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES: Each state has child support guidelines which must be followed in awarding child support. The guidelines are typically a formula. There are only a few circumstances when the court can award child support higher or lower than the guideline. Missouri uses the Form 14. Illinois looks at the net income of the non-custodial parent.

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. Only certain states recognize common law marriages. Missouri and Illinois do not recognize common law marriage.

CONTEMPT: Failure to follow a court order or judgment. One side can request that the court determine that the other side is in contempt and punish him them. However, if the party who violated the court order or judgment was unable to comply, they will not usually be found in contempt.

CORROBORATIVE WITNESS: A person who testifies for you and helps verify your testimony.

CUSTODY-SOLE & JOINT: 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 is the decision-making part: 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 interest of their children. The standard for custody is "best interest of the child".

DEFAULT: A party's failure to answer a petition in a timely manner may result in them being held in default. When this happens, the other party can obtain a default judgment to seek the relief they have requested. Any party who has been served should immediately obtain an attorney to ensure that they are not in default.  Note as well that default judgments that relate to child custody are generally disfavored and can be set aside for good cause and a meritorious defense.

DEPOSITION: The taking and recording of the testimony of a party or witness (lay or expert) under oath before a court reporter outside of the courtroom before trial.  Depositions are part of the normal pre-trial process in a divorce or family law matter.

DISCOVERY: A method for getting information from the other side or other people. Examples of discovery are interrogatories (written questions), requests for production (request for documents and evidence), requests for admissions (request to admit or deny matters) and depositions (questions which are usually in person and asked under oath).

DISSOLUTION: The legal end of a marriage also referred to as a divorce.

EXPERT TESTIMONY: Opinion testimony by an expert such as a doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, real estate appraiser, vocational expert, forensic accountant, business evaluator or other expert qualified to give expert testimony.

FILING: Filing your legal papers with the Clerk of the Court.

GUARDIAN AD LITEM: Attorney by the court appointed to represent a minor child. Guardian ad litems are to be appointed when abuse or neglect is alleged, but in other instances as well at the discretion of the court.

JUDGMENT: A court's final decision in a matter.

JURISDICTION: The authority of the court to hear a case. This is typically based on the residency of either the parties or children in a state.

LEGAL SEPARATION: When two parties enter a judgment of legal separation stipulating that they will be living apart and that orders need to be entered regarding payment of property of debts, custody of children and support. However, the parties still believe in this instance that the marriage is not irretrievably broke.

MAINTENANCE: A payment of support provided by one spouse formerly known as alimony or spousal support in most states.

PENDENTE LITE (PDL): Temporary arrangements for custody, child support, child visitation, maintenance and possession of the family home, etc., until a final disposition in a divorce proceeding. Pendente Lite motions are sometimes allowed in paternity proceedings as well regarding custody and child support.

PETITION: A legal paper that starts a case.

PRO SE: Representing yourself in court without a lawyer. This is never a good idea in a family law matter.

RESIDENTIAL PARENT: In joint physical custody cases, the court picks a residential parent for school and mailing purposes. This solely determines what school a child will attend and where mail will be sent. Residential parent is not be confused with sole physical custody.

SERVICE: Providing a copy of the papers being filed to the other side. Service typically takes place when the sheriff or a process server actually hands paperwork to the opposing party. In some rare instances, notice can be published.

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

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE: When the other spouse is not contesting the divorce and there are no issues for the court to decide about the children, money, or property because the parties have reached an agreement.

VENUE: The county where the case is heard. This is not to be confused with jurisdiction, which deals with the state where the case will be heard.

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

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