Anytime you have an interaction with the legal system, you experience a crash course in family law legal terms and terminology. Maybe you’ve read a lot of John Grisham books, watched a lot of Law and Order or other legal dramas.
Maybe you’re a little more familiar than the average citizen or maybe this is all very new to you. There really hasn’t been a family law edition of Law and Order and with that in mind, we thought it might be helpful to put together a primer of family law legal terms to help any first timers out there.
Here are 10 family law legal terms that that are important and most likely to be encountered in the course of a divorce proceeding:
- Petition: A written statement filed by the complainant, also known as the “plaintiff” starts a case. Also called the “initial pleading”. This document states the names of the parties, where, when, and by whom the parties were married, names and birthdates of children (if any), wife’s and husband’s names before marriage, length of residence in the county and state, the date of separation, grounds for divorce, a brief statement as to property, and the relief requested. You may know this as “filing for divorce” but the bottom line is that this sets the proceedings in motion and initiates divorce proceedings.
- Summons: Once divorce proceedings have been initiated, the other party needs to be informed. This is usually accomplished through issuing a summons. It is a notice to a defendant or respondent that an action against him or her was filed in the court issuing the summons and that a judgment will be taken against him or her if the defendant or respondent doesn’t answer the complaint or petition within a certain time. Don’t get your hopes up. They usually answer.
- Discovery: This refers to the gathering of information (facts, documents, or testimony) before a case goes to trial. Discovery is conducted in many ways, such as through depositions, interrogatories, or requests for admissions. It can also be done through independent investigation or by talking with the other side’s lawyer.
- Interrogatories: We assume after reading the definition of the previous term, you’ll want to know the meaning of the terms in the definition. These are written questions sent by one side in a case to an opposing side as part of pretrial discovery. The side that receives the interrogatories must answer them in writing under oath. You typically will work with your attorney to complete and answer these questions.
- Depositions: We’re guessing you’re familiar with this one but just in case you’re not, this is written or oral testimony given under oath in front of an authorized third person like a court reporter. Depositions take place outside of court. They allow the parties to get a record of a person’s testimony, or to get testimony from a witness that lives far away. They can help the lawyers prepare their court papers called “pleadings
- Injunction: This is a court order that says a defendant can’t perform, or must perform, a specific act.It is similar to “Enjoin” which means to order or require, specifically to order that something be stopped. Look at that, you got two for one with number six!
- Affidavit: You’ve probably heard this one before as well. It is a written statement that someone swears to under oath in front of someone that is legally authorized, such as a judge or notary public.
- Ex Parte: A latin term meaning, “from 1 side only.” An example is a request for order that is made without giving notice to the other side. In many courts, even ex parte requests for order require 24-hour notice to the other side except under unusual circumstances.
- Request For Order: An oral or written request that a party makes to the court for a ruling or an order on a particular point. There are many different kinds of requests for order. For example; a “request for order to set” asks the judge to set a date for a future trial. A “request for order to quash” asks the court to make something void or ineffective, such as to quash a subpoena.
- Judgment: A judgment legally binds both parties to hold to the terms of the divorce. The terms of the divorce cannot be modified by the spouses as stated in the judgment individually, collaboratively or through their lawyers. Each term is approved by the court and it possesses the authority to enforce them. If a spouse violates the terms of the judgment, the other spouse can returns to court to bring the issue before the judge. Judges impose penalties for violations, which include holding the violating spouse in civil contempt of court. Judges also order modifications due to violations. For instance, if one spouse continuously violates the terms set out in the judgment regarding parenting time, a judge can modify parenting time based on the best interests of the child.
There you go, our family law legal terms top 10 list. Obviously, this is just a small handful of terms you might encounter; these are just a few that you probably won’t be able to avoid and should have a passing familiarity with.