When you are considering a separation or dissolution, you hear a lot of confusing words you may not be familiar with. Below are some shorthand family law definitions for your use, not meant to be the final word on the law.

Affidavit: Written testimony under oath – usually sworn to in front of a notary.

Alimony: See Maintenance.

Alternative Dispute Resolution: Ways for parties to a divorce case to resolve their disagreements without a trial; usually defined to include negotiation, mediation and arbitration.

Annulment: An order which nullifies a marriage, or declares that no marriage ever existed. Also called declaration of invalidity or declaration of nullity.

Answer: A document used to respond to the complaint or petition. Answers usually admit or deny specific allegations or claims in the document being answered. Also called a response.

Appeal: A procedure to ask a higher court to review the ruling of a lower court.

Appearance: Coming into court as a party to a case or voluntarily submitting to the power of a court. Usually this is not a physical act, but a lawyer filing a document.

Arbitration: Submitting a disputed matter for decision to a person who is not a judge. The decision of an arbitrator is usually binding and final.

Attorney (at Law): An advocate or counsel employed to prepare, manage and try cases in court. Must be licensed by the state. Lawyer and attorney are usually synonymous.

Child Support: Money paid by one parent to the other for the support of their children. In Washington State there is a state schedule based upon the comparative net incomes of the parents. The court must approve a support agreement that does not meet the schedules. There is really nothing to fight about here – you give your tax returns and pay stubs, it is entered into the computer program and out comes the answer.

Common Law Marriage: A marriage without license or ceremony recognized by the law in the state it was created. Not recognized in Washington.

Community Property: A form of co-ownership of property by a husband and wife. All property acquired by the work effort from the date of the marriage to the date of separation. (See Separate Property below).

Contempt of Court: Failure to comply with a court order by a person who is able to comply. It also includes conduct in court which obstructs a court in the administration of justice.

Counter-Petition: A pleading asking for a divorce or other relief filed in response to a Petition.

Cross-Examination: Asking questions of a witness who was put on the stand by the other lawyer. Cross-examination is usually intended to discredit the witness or weaken the effect of the testimony.

Custody: In Washington there is no “custody” established by the court but a Parenting Plan that is approved that addresses who the child lives with and visitation by the non-custodial parent. (See Parenting Plan below)

Date of Separation: The date you and your spouse separated with the intent to end the marriage.

Declaration: Written testimony under oath, not necessarily sworn to before a notary.

Default: Failure to do something or to do it on time.

Defendant: The husband or wife who is sued for divorce. In some states, the respondent.

Deposition: Testimony under oath taken before a court reporter but not in court. A discovery method.

Direct Examination: Asking questions of a witness by the lawyer who called the witness.

Discovery: Procedures used to learn facts necessary to settle a case or prepare it for trial.

Dissolution of Marriage: The legal process of ending a marriage. What most people call a divorce.

Domestic Violence: Conduct against another member of a family which can include beatings, threats, stalking or other forms of intimidation, harassment, neglect, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. May include any act by one member of a family that causes one of its members physical or emotional harm.

Equitable Division: A system of dividing property owned by parties to a divorce.

Evidence: Proof presented at a hearing, including testimony, documents or objects.

Exhibits: Tangible things presented at trial as evidence.

Ex-Parte: Any application to a court for relief made when only one side is present, or without formal notice.

Fees: A lawyer’s charges paid by a client for legal services rendered to the client. Although many different fee arrangements are possible, the following represent the most common types of fees:

  1. Hourly fee: A fee based on the time expended and an hourly rate.
  2. Retainer: Money paid by the client to the lawyer to obtain a commitment from the lawyer to handle the client’s case. A retainer can be a deposit against which the lawyer charges fees as they are earned. It can also be a non-refundable engagement fee. This is a fee that is sometimes charged by a lawyer for the agreement to take your case and to commit to being available for your case. Normally, an engagement fee is in addition to charges on an hourly rate basis. Your written fee agreement should specify whether a retainer fee is refundable, and if so, in what amount and under what circumstances.
  3. Contingency Fee: A percentage of the recovery. Contingent fees are generally forbidden in divorce cases, but, in some states, are permitted in a proceeding to enforce the judgment.
  4. Bonus Fee: A fee based upon factors in addition to the hourly fee. Also called a premium or final fee.
  5. Flat Fee: A fee in a fixed amount for handling an entire case or a certain part of it.
  6. Minimum Fee: A fee which sets a floor on charges for services.

File: To place a document in the official custody of some public official. Also used to mean start a case.

Garnish: To take money from wages or from an account to satisfy an unpaid court order for the payment of money.

Grounds: Washington is a no-fault state, meaning you do not need to show grounds to get a dissolution. Either party can end the marriage by saying that it is irretrievably broken.

Guardian-ad-Litem: A person appointed by a judge to prosecute or defend a case for a person legally unable to do so, such as a minor child.

Hearing: Any proceeding before a judicial officer.

Injunction: A court order which requires a party to do some act or prohibits a party from doing some act.

Interrogatories: Written questions served on the other party who is required to serve sworn written answers within a specified time. A type of discovery.

Joint Custody: Any arrangement which gives both parents legal responsibility for the care of a child. In some states, also means shared rights to the child’s companionship.

Judgment: The decision of a court. A type of order. Also called a decree.

Jurisdiction: The power of a court to decide a particular matter.

Legal Separation: A court order arranging the terms under which the parties will live apart after separating. While signifying the separation of the parties, it does not formally dissolve the marriage or permit the parties legally to marry other persons.

Lien: A legal claim or charge on property for the payment of some debt, obligation, or duty.

Litigation: All of the proceedings that take place in the course of a lawsuit.

Maintenance: Payments made to support a current or former spouse. Also called maintenance or spousal support.

Marriage: a civil contract between a man and woman.

Mediation: A dispute resolution process in which a disinterested third party, the mediator, assists the parties in reaching an agreement.

Motion: An application to the court for an order. May be written or oral.

Modification: A change in the judgment, based on a change of circumstances.

No-Fault Divorce: A divorce granted without proving that one party is guilty of misconduct.

Order: A ruling by the court.

Parenting Plan: In Washington state you develop and file a Parenting Plan. This spells out in detail the residential schedule of the children, who makes decisions on major issues (health, education, religious upbringing, etc.), and how disputes are to be resolved in the future. This replaces the old concept of custody and visitation.

Perjury : The crime of lying under oath. It includes lying during a trial, at a deposition, or in a written affidavit. It can be punishable by imprisonment.

Petition: the initial papers you file to get a dissolution (divorce)

Petitioner (Plaintiff): The party who filed the Petition (Complaint).

Pleading: A document filed with the court which asks for something or responds to a pleading filed by the other party.

Privilege: A client’s right to refuse to disclose confidential communications between the client and certain persons in a professional relationship with the client, such as lawyers, doctors, psychotherapists, and priests.

Pro Se: A party who is representing him or herself in a lawsuit.

Property Settlement Agreement: The written agreement made between the parties settling the issues in a divorce.

Request for Production: A written request by one party to the other asking the other party to turn over tangible objects, usually documents.

Respondent (Defendant): The party defending against a divorce Petition (Complaint).

Response: See Answer.

Restraining Order: See Injunction

Retainer: See Fees.

Retaining Lien: A lien that permits an attorney to hold any of your property, papers and records in the attorney’s possession until fees are paid.

Separate Property: Property you had before you got married or which you inherited or received as a gift during the marriage and before you separate. (See Community Property above)

Service: The delivery of official papers by a means prescribed by law.

Settlement: The resolution of disputed issues by agreement between the parties.

Spousal Maintenance: (Alimony) Either spouse may be entitle to spousal support. The purpose of spousal maintenance is to rehabilitate the supported spouse while they are retrained to enter the work force and become self supporting. Factors include length of marriage, age and education of people. A thirty year marriage where one spouse never worked is a different case for a three year marriage where both worked.

Stipulation: An agreement between the parties or their lawyers about issues in the lawsuit.

Subpoena: A document served on a party or a witness commanding appearance at a certain time and place. A Subpoena Duces Tecum is a command to produce documents, papers, or other things listed in the subpoena.

Summons: The written notification of the lawsuit that is served upon the Defendant. Also called a Citation.

Temporary Orders: Orders granting relief between the filing of the lawsuit and the judgment. Automatic in some states. Also called Pendente Lite Orders.

Trial: The final hearing in court to decide the issues in the case.

Uncontested Divorce: A divorce in which there is no dispute as to how any of the issues will be resolved.

Visitation: See Parenting Plan above. The right of a parent who does not have primary custody of the child to spend time with the child.