Glossary of Family Law Terms

Family Law is a specialized area of law with much jargon and many terms of art.  We have included some of the most frequently used terms here to get you started.  Please note that these terms have a variety of meanings depending on the circumstances.  Only consultation with a qualified professional can specifically address how these terms may apply to your circumstances.

  • Alimony — In California, each partner to a marriage or a Registered Domestic Partnership has a legal duty to support their partner both during marriage, and, possibly, after separation.  Cash payments to provide financial support from one partner to another are generally referred to as “spousal support” rather than using the outdated term “alimony.”
  • Arrears — Money owed that is unpaid and overdue. Generally, you will hear this term as it relates to past due child and spousal support.
  • Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (“ATROs”) — This is the former reference to orders that go into effect upon the filing of a Petition for Dissolution, Legal Separation or Annulment; these orders are now referred to as the “Standard Family Law Restraining Orders.” These orders restrain each partner from transferring, disposing of, wasting or encumbering property or taking minor children out of the State until a further court order.  The ATROs seek to maintain the “status quo” during legal proceedings and may impact your ability to change insurance, beneficiaries or take other actions. Consult with a qualified professional at Sefton Family Law Group, P.C., to understand what you can and cannot do in light of the ATROs.
  • Bifurcation — To separate legal issues for a court determination rather than determining all issues at once. The Court may often “bifurcate” and determine issues in sequence rather than at once.  For example, upon request, the Court may bifurcate and dissolve a marriage or Registered Domestic Partnership to return the parties to their single status ahead of resolving other issues in the case.  Further the Court can address issues such as the validity of a premarital agreement if to do so encourages settlement or creates other efficiencies.
  • Child Custody — When the individuals disagree on issues relating to child custody, the Court will likely resolve such disputes utilizing the “best interests of the child” test.  In California, the Courts distinguish between “legal custody” and “physical custody” for minor children and adult disabled children.  Legal custody is the right of an individual to make decisions regarding the health, education, welfare, and safety of children.  Physical Custody refers to where the child will be at any given time, i.e., which individual is responsible for the child.  Two parents may have a “co-parenting” plan which details which parent will be responsible for the child at any one time as part of their physical custody arrangement.
  • Cohabitation — An emotionally and physically intimate relationship that includes a common living place.  Parties that live together may owe each other greater duties than those who do not live together.
  • Collaborative Law — An alternative process to addressing issues in court which includes a series of settlement meetings between the parties, their attorneys, and other professionals.  This process is non-binding and either party can terminate the proceedings at any time.  Generally, each party must hire new lawyers if the Collaborative process does not result in settlement.
  • Contempt of Court — Made upon a finding that a party has disobeyed a court order or court direction.  A finding of contempt may subject the party to civil and criminal penalties including fines and time in jail.
  • Declaration of Disclosure, Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure (“PDD”) , Final Declaration of Disclosure (“FDD”) — In California, at least one party to a dissolution must complete and serve at least a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure as a predicate to obtaining a dissolution of marriage or dissolution of Registered Domestic Partnership. These disclosures must be made under penalty of perjury.
  • Default — A party’s failure to answer a complaint, motion or petition may result in the Court taking action by way of “default.”
  • Discovery — Procedures available in a lawsuit to determine relevant facts or information. The procedures available to parties are broader than those that apply to third parties or witnesses.
  • DissoMaster and SupportTax — Computer programs that calculate child support and temporary or pendente lite spousal support.
  • Domestic Violence — Actions barred under California law which include “molesting, attacking, striking, stalking, threatening, sexually assaulting, battering, harassing, telephoning, including, but not limited to, making annoying telephone calls as described in Section 653m of the Penal Code, destroying personal property, contacting, either directly or indirectly, by mail or otherwise, coming within a specified distance of, or disturbing the peace of the other party, and, in the discretion of the court, on a showing of good cause, of other named family or household members.”  See Cal. Fam. Code Section 6320.
  • Evaluation — Process by which a trained and qualified professional makes recommendations on child custody matters.
  • Ex Parte Application — A procedure utilized by the Court to resolve issues on an emergency basis.  Generally, these requests are determined within 24-72 hours of being submitted to the Court and are reserved for extraordinary issues requiring immediate attention such as issues relating to the immediate health and safety of the parties or their children.
  • Fiduciary Duty — The Court imposes greater legal responsibilities on parties in a fiduciary relationship than those who are unrelated. Partners to a marriage or Registered Domestic Partnership owe each other a fiduciary duty.  Parties living together may also be in a fiduciary relationship.  Consult with a qualified professional at Sefton Family Law Group, P.C., to understand the fiduciary duties which may apply to you.
  • Garnishment — A legal remedy whereby an individual’s property or money in the possession or under the control of a third person, such as a bank or employer, is withheld from the individual and applied to the debt.
  • Income and Expense Declaration (“I&E”) — A form on which a party discloses their income and expenses under penalty of perjury.  This declaration is part of the party’s Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure (“PDD”) and Final Declarations of Disclosure (“FDD”).  All parties to a dissolution must complete at least a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure (unless they default and fail to respond to the Petition).
  • Interim Order — An order made while the action is pending that refers to any order made in a case before the final order or decree is made.
  • Judgment — The official final decision of a court about the rights and claims of each side in a lawsuit.
  • Jurisdiction — The power of the court to hear a case.  Generally, if the court does not have jurisdiction over the parties or the subject matter, it cannot render a decision on the matter.
  • Mandatory Settlement Conference — A conference held between the parties in an attempt to settle any outstanding disputes.
  • Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) — A settlement agreement reached between parties to a divorce or legal separation, usually resolving all outstanding disputes between the parties.
  • (Mandatory Custody) Mediation — In California, before parents can have a judge resolve a parenting dispute, they must attend mandatory mediation.  This process is generally carried out by court staff in “Family Court Services” and generally involves staff members meeting with the parents to try to resolve any disputes.  The actual procedures for custody mediation vary from county to county.  Consult with a qualified professional at Sefton Family Law Group, P.C., to understand the mediation process which applies in your county.
  • Mediation (Private) — A voluntary and confidential process in which a neutral, third-party facilitator (the mediator) helps the parties negotiate an agreement. Generally, attorneys do not participate directly in mediation in family law matters acting instead as “consulting attorneys” providing advice to the parties outside of the mediation sessions.  Mediation is non-binding and either party can terminate the proceedings at any time.
  • Minor’s Counsel — A court appointed attorney for a minor child.  This individual represents the child’s interests, not the parents.
  • Modification Order — An order of the court that alters, changes, extends, amends, limits, or reduces an earlier order of the court.
  • Motion — A request by a party or individual to the Court to enter an order.  A Request for Order can be for a temporary order, emergency relief, or for any other remedy. See also “Request  for Order.”
  • Notice of Entry of Judgment — A notice issued by the judge that decrees that judgment has been entered in the case.
  • Order to Show Cause (“OSC”) — Generally, issued by the Court after a request by a party or individual to the Court to enter an order. See also “Motion” and “Request for Order.”
  • Parenting Plan — A written plan describing how custody will be shared between parents.  A proper plan will also describe how the parents share vacations and decision-making authority on issues relating to the health, education, welfare, and safety of any minor children.
  • Pendente Lite Spousal Support — A temporary order regarding spousal support.
  • Petition – A legal filing that begins the process of a judicial determination of the parties’ rights and responsibilities.
  • Petitioner — The person who files the Petition to start a case.   Generally, at trial, the Petitioner puts on their evidence first.
  • Premarital Agreement — Formerly known as “prenuptial agreements,” these agreements are entered into by parties who intend to marry or register as Domestic Partners and seek to either clarify their legal rights or responsibilities or to alter their legal rights and responsibilities.  If you are considering marriage or registration as Domestic Partners, consult with a qualified professional at Sefton Family Law Group, P.C., to determine if a premarital agreement is appropriate for you.
  • Request for Order — A request by a party or individual to the Court to enter an order.  A Request for Order can be for a temporary order, emergency relief, or for any other remedy. See also “Motion.”
  • Respondent — The person who responds or is to respond to the Petition.
  • Response — A legal filing that responds to the Petition.
  • Schedule of Asset and Debts (“SAD” or “A&D”) — A form on which each party must disclose all their assets and debts under penalty of perjury and give to the other side.  With the I&E, a major component of the Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure or Final Declaration of Disclosure.
  • Service — Providing the other party or witness a copy of the papers being filed with the court in the appropriate manner.
  • Spousal Support — In California, each partner to a marriage or a Registered Domestic Partnership has a legal duty to support their partner.  Cash payments to provide support from one partner to another are generally referred to as “spousal support” rather than using the outdated term “alimony.”
  • Standard Family Law Restraining Orders (“SFLROs”) — Formerly referred to as the ATROs (discussed above), this refers to orders that go into effect upon the filing of a Petition for Dissolution, Legal Separation or Annulment. These orders restrain each partner from transferring, disposing of, wasting or encumbering property or taking minor children out of the State until a further court order. These orders seek to maintain the “status quo” during legal proceedings and may impact your ability to change insurance, beneficiaries or take other actions. Consult with a qualified professional at Sefton Family Law Group, P.C., to understand what you can and cannot do in light of the SFROs.
  • State Disbursement Unit — The state agency that collects and disburses child support in the State of California that is subject to wage assignment.
  • Status Hearing — A hearing in which the court identifies what issues are contested, what discovery needs to be completed, and what future hearings are needed.  Also, related to Case Management Conference, Case Planning Conference, Trial Planning Conference, depending on the County.
  • Stipulated Judgment — An agreement between the parties resolving all or a portion of the parties’ disputes that is incorporated into the judgment and enforceable as a judgment.
  • Stipulation — An agreement between parties on any matter relating to the proceeding or trial, such as an agreement on support, parental rights and responsibilities, parent/child contact and property division on either a temporary or final basis. A stipulation is submitted to the judge, who enters an order consistent with the parties’ agreement.
  • Subpoena — A court issued order requiring someone to appear in court or at a deposition and/or bring documents.
  • Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) — An emergency order enjoining a person from taking certain action for a certain period of time. A temporary restraining order can order a person to cease any communication or contact with another person.
  • Temporary Judge or Judge Pro Tem. — A private individual judge appointed by the Court to act as a judge for specific purposes.  In California, generally, the parties can agree to have their entire family law matter determined by a Judge Pro Tem.
  • Trial — A hearing where the Court takes evidence by way of oral testimony from witnesses, documentary evidence, and any other evidence relevant to the proceedings.  In family law cases, the trier of fact is a judge, not jury.  Because cases made be tried in phases or by single issue (see “Bifurcation” above), trials may span over a course of days or months and may not be on consecutive days.  The Court may hold a hearing or trial on issues pending final determination of the case for such pendente lite issues as temporary support or child custody.
  • Trial Setting Conference (“TSC”) — A court appearance in which the court sets the date for trial.
  • UCCJEA – An acronym for The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which is designed to assist people to determine the proper court for child custody disputes.