Common Family Law Terms

“Divorce” is a popular term used to describe the legal end to a marriage by a court. This term alone is well-known and commonly used, but many may not realize that there can be a lot more to this single, seemingly simple term. The practice of family law has a wealth of terms uniquely associated with it, many of which may be unfamiliar to a person who is just beginning the process of divorce. For those who feel they may need a crash course in family law lingo, here are a few common family law terms:

Affidavit: A voluntary declaration of facts written down and sworn to by the declarant before an officer authorized to administer oaths, such as a notary public.

Blended Family: The combined families of persons with children from earlier marriages or relationships.

Contested Divorce: A divorce that one spouse opposes in court; a divorce in which the spouses litigate.

Docket: To make a brief entry in the docket of the proceedings and filings in a court case; to schedule (a case) for trial or some other event.

Estate: The amount, degree, nature and quality of a person’s interest in land or other property; all that a person or entity owns, including both real and personal property.

Family Law: The body of law dealing with marriage, divorce, adoption, child custody and support, child abuse and neglect, paternity, juvenile delinquency, and other domestic-related issues; (more broadly) the bodies of law dealing with wills and estates, property, constitutional rights, contracts, employment, and finance as they relate to families.

Guardian Ad Litem (GAL): A guardian, usually a lawyer, appointed by the court to appear in a lawsuit on behalf of an incompetent or minor party.

Hardship: A condition that makes it onerous or impossible for a child-support obligor to make the required child-support payment.

Indigent: A person who is found to be financially unable to pay filing fees and court costs and so is allowed to proceed in forma pauperis. 

Judgment: A court’s final determination of the rights and obligations of the parties in a case. The term judgment includes a decree and any order from which an appeal lies.

Kinship: Relationship by blood, marriage or adoption.

Liability: The quality or state of being legally obligated or accountable; legal responsibility to another or to society, enforceable by civil remedy or criminal punishment.

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.

No-Fault Divorce: A divorce in which the parties are not required to prove fault or grounds beyond a showing of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage or irreconcilable differences.

Obligation: A legal or moral duty to do or not do something; a formal binding agreement or acknowledgement of a liability to pay a certain amount or to do a certain thing for a particular person or set of persons.

Parenting Plan: A plan for allocating custodial responsibility and decision-making authority on behalf of a child, and resolving subsequent disputes between parents.

Reconciliation: Restoration of harmony between persons or things that had been in conflict.

Subpoena: A writ commanding a person to appear before a court or other tribunal, subject to a penalty for failing to comply.

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 settlor) for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary). 

Visitation right: A noncustodial parent’s or grandparent’s court-ordered privilege of spending time with a child or grandchild who is living with another person, usually the custodial parent.

Wage-Withholding: The withholding of a certain percentage of an obligor’s earnings for satisfaction of judgments for child support and alimony.

Zero-Tolerance Policy: An established plan or method of action stating that certain acts will not be permitted or condoned.

Terms defined by the following source:

Garner, Bryan A. A Dictionary of Family Law Terms. St. Paul: West Group, 2001. Print.


NOTE: Many state and federal laws use terms like ‘custody’ when referring to arrangements regarding parenting time and decision-making for a child. While this has been the case for many years, these are not the only terms currently used to refer to these topics.

Today, many family law practitioners and even laws within certain states use terms such as ‘parenting arrangements’ or ‘parenting responsibility,’ among others, when referring to matters surrounding legal and physical child custody. You will find these terms as well as custody used on the OurFamilyWizard website.