Glossary of Legal Terms

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50/50 Custody (or Equal Custody)

This is not a technical term. The term “custody” is no longer used in many areas, but parents may refer to a “50/50” or “equal custody” arrangement related to decision-making and physical custody. Most people stating “50/50” mean equal time (182.5 days per year). Professionals (for example, attorneys, custody evaluators, mediators, and judges) generally refer to this arrangement as “parental responsibility” or “decision making” and “visitation” or “shared physical custody.”


See domestic violence.


A proceeding in a court of law. Can also be called case, suit, or lawsuit.


Someone who helps and supports another person. An advocate will “take sides” and promote his or her client’s views or interests.


A written statement of fact signed and sworn to before a person having authority to administer an oath.


A complete understanding between both parties. You can agree on one issue or many. If you reach an agreement with the other side on all issues, you can ask the judge for a hearing to make your agreement an Order.

Alienation (or Parental Alienation)

Any situation where one parent deliberately damages, and in some cases destroys, the previously healthy loving relationship between the child and the child’s other parent, usually during divorce or a custody dispute.


The money allowance one spouse must pay another by order of court during or after a divorce action.


The assertions, declarations, or statements made in a pleading stating what the party expects to prove.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

ADR is the common name for the different ways of settling a disagreement outside the courtroom. ADR includes mediation, arbitration, early neutral evaluations, parenting coordination, and settlement conference.


The voiding of an act, such as a marriage.


The process by which a case is brought from one court to a higher court for the case to be reviewed.


A neutral third party called an arbitrator hears arguments, reviews evidence and make a decision. This is different from mediation where the parties, not the mediator, make the decisions.


A person with special education and training in the field of law who is licensed to practice law in the region where they practice. An attorney is the only person who is allowed to give you legal advice.

Best Interest of the Child

In deciding custody or parenting time and parenting responsibilities, the court must consider only those facts that directly affect the well-being of the child.

Central Governmental Depository

The office of the clerk of court that is responsible for collecting and disbursing court-ordered alimony and child support payments. The depository keeps payment records and files judgments if support is not paid.

Child support

The financial obligation that both parents have to their child(ren). Each region has a formula or means to determine how much money is paid from one parent to the other for the benefit of their dependent or minor child(ren).

Clerk of the Court

An officer of a court whose principal duty is to maintain court records.

Collaborative Law

An alternative way to settle disputes in which both parties hire specially trained attorneys who work to help them respectfully resolve their conflicts outside of court. The participants agree to work together to seek a solution that works for both parties. If the dispute can’t be resolved through the collaborative process, or if one of the parties threatens to go to court, then the collaborative law process ends and neither lawyer can continue to work on the case.


Information that shall not be disclosed except under named conditions.


Disregarding or disobeying a court order. It is a very serious thing to be held in contempt of court.


The rights and responsibilities between parents for their child(ren). The custody and visitation or parenting plan must describe the legal custody and physical custody that is in the child(ren)’s best interests. Also see Parental Responsibility, Parenting Time, and Time-Sharing.

Custody and Visitation (or Parenting Plan)

The plan describing how the parents will be involved in their child(ren)’s life, recognizing that children of different ages have different needs and that the plan will also change if one or both of the parents move. A parenting plan usually describes the child(ren)’s schedule and describes which parent will make decisions about various things in the child(ren)’s life.

Custody Evaluator

A court appointed expert who is educated, experienced and trained in child development and the effects of divorce or separation on children. The custody evaluator (or investigator) assesses a family and recommends to the judge a parenting plan that is in the best interests of the children.



Dependent Child(ren)

Children who depend on their parent(s) for support either because they are under the age of 18, they have a mental or physical disability that prevents them from supporting themselves, or they are in high school while between the ages of 18 and 19.


Testimony taken under oath outside the courtroom concerning the facts and circumstances surrounding an incident, recorded by a court reporter. The deposition may be introduced as evidence in court.


A pre-trial procedure that allows each party to get written or oral information from the other party.

Dissolution of Marriage

Divorce; a court action to end a marriage.


The ending of a marriage by a court order. Also see Dissolution of Marriage.


The order in which the court will hear cases. The list often is posted outside the courtroom with cases listed by the petitioner’s name in civil court and the defendant’s name in criminal court.

Domestic Violence or Abuse

Violence or abuse is a pattern of behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, often including the threat or actual use of violence. Abuse of family members can take many forms, including emotional abuse, economic abuse, sexual abuse, using children, threats, intimidation, isolation, and a variety of other behaviors used to maintain fear, intimidation and power. In most areas, you can get a Domestic Violence Protective Order (or No Contact Order) if you have a “household” relationship with the other party and he/she committed a crime of domestic violence against you, such as assault, burglary, criminal trespass, criminal mischief, terroristic threatening, violating a domestic violence order, or harassment.

Early Neutral Evaluation

Early neutral evaluation provides parties in a dispute with an early and frank evaluation of the merits of their case by an objective, neutral evaluator. The evaluator is not a decision-maker.


Information provided to the court by the parties during the course of a case to assist in the decision making process. This can include testimony, documents and other materials.

Ex Parte

Communication with the judge by only one party. If you have something you wish to tell the judge, you should ask for a hearing or file information in the clerk of court’s office, with certification that a copy was sent to the other party.

Family/Household Member

Spouses, former spouses, persons related by blood or marriage, persons who are presently residing together as if a family or who have resided together in the past as if a family, and persons who are parents of a child in common regardless of whether they have been married. With the exception of persons who have a child in common, the family or household members must be currently residing or have in the past resided together in the same single dwelling unit.


Delivering a petition, response, motion, or other pleading in a court case to the clerk of court’s office.

Final Hearing

Trial in your case.

Final Judgment

A written document signed by a judge that contains the judge’s decision in your case.

Financial Affidavit

A sworn statement that contains information regarding your income, expenses, assets, and liabilities.


The court’s decision.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL)

An attorney or special advocate appointed by the court to investigate your child’s situation, and file a report with the court about what is in the best interest of your child(ren). Guards do not “work for” either party. The guard may interview the parties, visit their homes, visit the child(ren)’s school(s) and speak with teachers, or use other resources to make their recommendation.


A legal proceeding before a judge or designated officer on a motion. The judge may hear evidence and make a decision about an issue in your case.

In Camera

Literally means “in chambers.” A hearing or discussion with the judge in the privacy of his or her office.


Writ or order by a court prohibiting a specific action from being carried out by a person. A preliminary injunction is granted until a full hearing can be held to determine if it should be made permanent.

Joint Custody

See shared physical custody.

Joint Legal Custody

Both parents hare the responsibility for making the major life decisions affecting the child’s welfare, such as where the child(ren) go(es) to the doctor or goes to school. The alternative to shared legal custody is sole legal custody. There is also physical custody. See parenting plans for more information.


An elected or government appointed official who is responsible for deciding matters on which you and the other parties in your case are unable to agree. A judge is a neutral person who is responsible for ensuring that your case is resolved in a manner which is faire, equitable, and legal.


A final determination by a court of the rights and claims of the parties in an action.

Judicial Assistant (JA)

The judge’s personal staff assistant.

Legal Custody

The right and obligation to make major life decisions such as where the child goes to school or which doctors he or she sees. There are two types of legal custody: joint legal custody and sole legal custody.

Mediation-Arbitration (Med-Arb)

Mediation-Arbitration is a combination of mediation and arbitration. Parties work to come up with their own agreements, but give a neutral third party the authority to make a decision if mediation is not successful. In some areas, a Med-Arb model of Parenting Coordination is used instead of the Integrated Model of Parenting Coordination. See Parenting Coordination, Integrated Model.


A person who is trained and certified to assist parties in reaching an agreement before going to court. Mediators do not take either party’s side and are not allowed to give legal advice.


To change an existing court order because of a change in circumstances.


An oral or written request for an action made by a party before, during, or after a trial, upon which a court issues a ruling or order.

No Contact Order

A court order directing a party not to speak to, call, send mail to, visit, or go near his or her spouse, ex-spouse, child(ren), or other family member. Also see Protective Order.


A written order to appear in court at a certain time and place.


A solemn affirmation to tell the truth.


A command or direction given by a judge. An order can be in writing or spoken. Violating a court order is very serious and can result in being held in contempt or sanctioned in other ways.

Parenting Coordination, Integrated Model

The Integrated Model of Parenting Coordination is a hybrid psychological-legal model that incorporates knowledge and skills from the legal, mental health, and mediation professions. It is an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process for parents (separated, divorced or never married) who are unable to resolve parenting disputes with a goal of helping parents resolve their conflicts without harm to their child(ren).

Parenting Plan (Custody and Visitation Plan)

A document that describes how parents will be involved with and make decisions regarding their minor child(ren). The plan contains a time-sharing schedule for the parents and child(ren). The issues concerning the minor child(ren) may include, but are not limited to, the child(ren)’s education, health care, and physical, social, and emotional well-being. In creating the plan, all circumstances between the parties, including the parties’ historic relationship, domestic violence, and other factors are taken into consideration. The parenting plan is developed and agreed to by the parents and approved by a court or, if the parents cannot agree, set by the court.


A person involved in a court case, either as a petitioner or respondent.

Paternity Testing

A medical test to determine who is the father of a child.


A person who starts a case by submitting a petition or written request to the court for legal action. In family cases, the terms petitioner and respondent are used.

Physical Custody

The right of a parent to have the child(ren) live in their home. There are generally two types of physical custody arrangements: primary physical custody and shared physical custody.


Formal written allegations by the parties in a lawsuit of their respective claims and defenses; pleadings are filed with the court.

Primary Physical Custody (or Primary Residence)

The home in which the child(ren) spends most of his/her time. This is a technical term that should be applied only after the parents have decided on what the best overall schedule, or parenting plan, is for their child(ren).

Privileged Communication

Statements and conversations made under circumstances of assured confidentiality that must not be disclosed except under certain conditions.

Pro Bono

Literally “for the good”; when an attorney represents the party for free.

Pro Se Litigant

A person who appears in court without the assistance of a lawyer.

Protective Order

A court order which is meant to protect a person from another person. Also see No Contact Order.

Reasonable Visitation

This is not a technical term, but often refers to a specific schedule for contact between a parent and child(ren) that is designed to encourage a close and continuing relationship with due regard for education commitments of child(ren), any health or social factors of the child(ren), business and personal commitments of both parents, and home arrangements of both parents. See Shared (or Joint) Physical Custody and Shared (or Joint) Parental Responsibility.


A copy of the pleadings, exhibits, orders, or decrees filed in a case in the trial court and a transcript of the testimony taken in the case.


The person who responds to the petitioner. If you did not file the petition to start a court case, and you are named in the case, you are the respondent. In family matters, the terms petitioner and respondent are used.

Rotating Custody

This is not a technical term, but is often used to refer to a parental time-sharing plan in which the child(ren) live with each parent approximately one-half of the time. This term generally refers to physical custody of child(ren) after divorce, which is alternated between the mother and father at specific periods of time, as determined by the court. See also Joint Legal Custody, Shared Parental Responsibility, Shared Physical Custody, 50/50 Time-Sharing, and Parenting Plans for more information.


The delivery or communication of a legal document in a suit to the opposite party.


The termination of a civil case before trial by the agreement between the parties.

Settlement Conference (in some areas called a Case Management or Status Conference)

A settlement conference is a meeting with a judge before trial to explore ways to settle your issues. The meeting includes both parties and your lawyers (if you have them). The judge’s role is to try to help you reach an agreement, but is not a decision-maker.

Shared Parental Responsibility

A court-ordered relationship in which both parents retain full parental rights and responsibilities with respect to their child and in which both parents confer with each other so that major decisions affecting the welfare of the child will be determined jointly. Also see Joint Legal Custody.

Shared Physical Custody

The technical term for when the child(ren) live(s) with each parent. The amount of time a child may live with each parent may vary widely depending on the best interest of the child(ren) and the laws in a particular area. See parenting plans for more information.

Sole Legal Custody (or Sole Parental Responsibility)

One parent is give the legal authority to make the major life decisions affecting the child’s welfare, such as where the child(ren) goes to the doctor or goes to school. If the parents do not agree on a decision about the child(ren), the parent with sole legal custody has the right to make the final decision. The alternative to sole legal custody is joint legal custody.

Statutes (Laws)

Laws made by the legislature, as opposed to case law or unwritten common laws.


A written order issued by the court requiring an individual to come and talk under oath in court. Subpoenas can also require a person to bring to court specific documents or other items.

Supervised Visitation

A parenting arrangement under which visitation between a parent and his or her child(ren) is supervised by either a friend, family member, or a supervised visitation center.

Temporary Order (or Interim Order)

A temporary order is any order made in a case for the final order is made. These are generally short-term decisions by the judge about child support, child custody, visitation, possession of the family home, attorney fees, spousal support or the payment of debts until a final court order can be issued.


Any statement made by a witness under oath in a legal proceeding.

Time-Sharing Schedule

A timetable included in the parenting plan that specifies the time, including overnights and holidays, that a minor child will spend with each parent. If developed and agreed to by the parents of a minor child, the court must approve it. If the parents cannot agree, the court will establish the schedule. See Visitation also.


Formal court proceeding at which evidence is heard and the case is decided.

Visitation (Time-Sharing Schedule)

The right of a parent and child to contact and visit one another when the child is residing or visiting with the other parent. The law presumes that it is in the best interests of the child(ren) to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents so that both parents can maintain a good relationship with the child(ren). The schedule for visitation will be set out in the parenting or custody and visitation plan. See parenting plans for more information.


The voluntary giving up of a privilege or right.

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