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Family Law

Family law is the area of the law governing family-related issues and domestic relations.  This includes, but is not limited to, the nature of marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships; issues arising during marriage, including spousal abuse, legitimacy, adoption, surrogacy, child abuse, and child abduction; and the termination of the relationship and ancillary matters including divorce, annulment, property settlements, alimony, and parental responsibility orders (in the United States, child custody and visitation, child support awards).

This list is by no means exhaustive of the potential issues that come through the family court system.  Family courts often see the most overcrowded dockets in the United States.  Litigants come from all social and economic spheres and for many different reasons.  The following glossary provides definitions for various legal terms having to do with family law.

Family Law Glossary:

Abandonment: When one spouse leaves the marital home without the consent of the other spouse.  Some states consider this action grounds for divorce.

Absolute Divorce: A declaration by a court that the marriage has been dissolved.  The parties are no longer married to each other and are now free to marry another person.

Adultery: When one spouse has sexual intercourse with a third party.  Some states consider this action grounds for divorce.

Adversarial Divorce: A divorce where spouses are unable to come to mutual agreement.

Alienation of Affection: This occurs when a third party defendant diminishes the martial relationship between the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s spouse.

Alimony: Support paid by one ex-spouse to the other as ordered by a court in a divorce case.   Also sometimes called “spousal support, ” alimony is completely separate from child support.

Annulment: This occurs when a marriage is dissolved in a legal proceeding that treats the marriage as if it never occurred.  Annulment is only allowed in certain limited situations.

Anetuptial Agreement: A legal contract signed by two people prior to marriage which states limitations to spouse’s rights to property, support, or inheritance if the marriage ends in divorce.

Best Interest of the Child: Family courts use this self-explanatory legal standard when deciding issues relating to support, visitation and custody.

Bigamy: This criminal offense occurs when one spouse enters a marriage when a prior marriage has not been legally terminated.

Biological Parent: A parent by blood.

Blood Test: The process where blood is drawn from a child and its presumed or prospective parents and subjected to genetic testing to determine biological parentage.

Child Custody: Courts determine which parent or relative should have physical and/or legal control and responsibility for minor children.  Child custody can also become an issue when a child, relative, close friend, or state agency questions whether one or both parents is unfit, absent, dead, in prison, or dangerous to the child’s well-being.

Child Support Guidelines: A set of mathematical formulas that determine how much child support should be awarded.

Child Support Worksheet: This court form is used to calculate the child support guidelines.

Child Support: This legal responsibility requires each parent to provide adequate financial support for their children until each reaches the age of emancipation.  The court’s goal is to keep the children in the same quality of lifestyle that they had before the divorce proceedings.

Cohabitation: This refers to two people living together and can be grounds for terminating spousal support in some states.

Collusion: An agreement between two or more people that one of them brings false charges against another. During divorce proceedings, for instance, both spouses may agree to use adultery as a ground in order to obtain a quick divorce even though they both know adultery has not actually been committed.  Collusion is illegal.

Common Law Property Distribution: The method the court uses to divide property in a divorce according to who holds title to the property.

Common Law Marriage: A common law marriage happens when a man and woman who are free to marry agree to live together as husband and wife without the formal ceremony.  Many states do not recognize common law marriages.

Community Property: Property and profits received by a husband and wife during the marriage, with the exception of inheritances, specific gifts to one of the spouses, and property and profits clearly traceable to property owned before marriage, all of which is separate property.

Conciliation: This refers to an attempt to negotiate an agreement between the divorcing spouses concerning the children and any other disputed issues.

Condonation: The act of forgiving one’s spouse who has committed an act of wrongdoing that would constitute a ground for divorce.  Usually proven by continued cohabitation with the spouse after learning that the wrongdoing was committed, condonation is often used as a defense to a divorce.

Constructive Abandonment: This occurs when one spouse refuses to engage in sexual relations with the other spouse and, in some states, is considered grounds for divorce once a certain amount of time has elapsed.

Custodial Parent: This is the parent whom the child normally resides with, and the one responsible for making legal decisions on behalf of the child.  There are various types of custody arrangements.

Custody, Sole and Joint: This refers to the legal arrangements regarding where a child will live and how decisions about the child will be made.  There are two parts to custody: legal and physical.  Legal custody refers to the decision-making portion; physical custody refers to where the child lives on a regular basis.  The parent who does not have primary custody will usually be allowed to have regular visits with the child.  The standard for custody is “best interest of the child”.

Decree: This is the final decision in a divorce proceeding.

Desertion: This refers to one spouse voluntarily leaving the other, without the consent of the other spouse, for an uninterrupted period of time and with no intentions of returning.

Dissolution of Marriage: The legal judgment severing a marriage and returning each person to single status.

Divorce: The termination of a marriage by legal action, requiring a petition or complaint for divorce or dissolution by one party.  Some states still require there be one or more of a list of legal grounds for divorce, but no-fault divorce is now the rule in which “incompatibility” is sufficient to grant a divorce.

Domicile: The place where a person has been physically present with the intent to make that place a permanent home.  A “residence,” on the other hand, is a place where a person is living at a particular time.  A person can have more than one residence but only one domicile.

Emancipation: The point at which a minor comes of age, typically at 18 or 21 years of age.

Equitable Distribution: The fair–though not necessarily equal–division of community property between spouses going through divorce proceedings.

Family Court: A court with jurisdiction over child support, divorce, and comparable domestic issues.  In Pennsylvania, Family Courts are part of the Court of Common Pleas.

Father’s Rights: This legal principle requires that custody decisions not discriminate against fathers.

Fault-Based Divorce: This type of divorce is granted if one member of the marriage is guilty of some kind of marital misconduct, such as adultery or desertion.

Fault Grounds: Marital wrongs that will justify the granting of a divorce, such as adultery or desertion.

Grounds: In family law, this term refers to acceptable reasons for seeking a divorce.

Guardian Ad Litem: This is an adult–a trained social worker, counselor, or other professional–typically appointed by the court to represent the non-legal interests of minor children during divorce proceedings.

Habitual Residence: The place where a person resides “as of habit,” or permanently, in the eyes of the law.

Incompatibility: The state of a marriage in which one or both married parties no longer have the mutual desire to live together and/or stay married.  It is ground for divorce or dissolution in most states, even in cases where the other spouse disagrees.

Joint Legal Custody: This type of custody over minor children occurs when the parents share the responsibilities and major decision-making related to the children.

Joint Physical Custody: This type of custody over minor children occurs when the parents share the actual physical custody of the child, but not necessarily legal custody.

Judgment of Divorce: This formal written document states that a man and a woman are divorced.  In some states this is known as the Divorce Decree or Decree of Dissolution.

Law Guardian: This refers to an attorney that is typically assigned by the judge to represent the children in an intense custody battle.

Legal Custody: The authority of one or both parents to make legal decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of their children.

Legal Separation: This occurs when a court declares that the parties can live separate and apart even thought they are still married to each other.  Some states require a certain period of legal separation before divorce proceedings can be initiated.

Limited Divorce: This principle establishes certain legal responsibilities while the parties are separated but does not legally end the marriage.

Lump Sum Alimony: This type of spousal support is ordered to be paid in a fixed amount.  The payment may be made in installments.

Maintenance: Another term for spousal support or alimony.

Marital Property: Marital property is defined as all assets acquired during the marriage and prior to the date of separation, and thus subject to fair distribution.

Marital Settlement Agreement: This written agreement is into by the divorcing parties and states their rights and agreements pertaining to property, support, and custody arrangements.

Neglect: This is the failure to provide support, medical care, education, moral example, discipline, or similar necessaries.

No-Fault Divorce: This type of divorce may be granted even though neither spouse has committed any type of marital misconduct.

Non-Custodial Parent: The parent who does not possess physical custody of their children, and who usually pays child support for each child.

Non-Marital Property: This is property considered by the courts to belong to one spouse or another and is not available for equitable distribution.

Nullity: A decree stating that a marriage is null and void.

Order of Protection: An order assigned by the court to prevent one spouse from doing something, typically occurring in cases where one spouse is harassing the other.  Spouses refusing to abide by the order may be arrested and could face serious repercussions.

Palimony: Support paid from one person to another even though they never married.

Paternity: This refers to the legal biological relationship between father and child.

Physical Custody: This refers to the parent with whom the child resides.  In some situations, ex-spouses enjoy joint physical custody.

Postnuptial: A written contract between husband and wife setting out all of their present and future rights in light of the divorce proceedings.

Prenuptial Agreement: A legal contract two people sign before marriage which places limitations on a spouse’s rights to property, support, and inheritance in the case of divorce.

Primary Caretaker: The parent who provides most of the child’s day to day care.

Pro Se Divorce: A divorce in which each spouse represents themselves in court without an attorney.

Reconciliation: Resuming the martial relationship.

Restraining Order: A court order restricting a person’s actions, which are sometimes taken out by one spouse to deter the other spouse from engaging in violent acts against them or their children.

Separate Maintenance: An action filed for support between two spouses not residing together although neither spouse is actively seeking a divorce.

Separate Property: In community property states, this is the property owned by one spouse which he/she acquired: a) before marriage, b) by inheritance, c) as a gift, d) assets traceable to other separate property such as money received from sale of a house owned before marriage, or e) property the spouses agree is separate property.  When divorce occurs, community property will be divided equally, but separate property is retained by the owner without being shared with the other spouse.

Separation: When spouses no longer cohabitate or live together.

Settlement Agreement: In family law, the written version of a divorce settlement.

Sole Custody: This type of custody occurs when one parent is awarded both physical and legal custody.

Split Custody: This type of custody occurs when the actual time of physical custody is split between both parents, giving each parent the right to make decisions.

Spousal Support: Payment for support of an ex-spouse ordered by the court.  More commonly called alimony, spousal support is the term used by some states instituting new non-confrontational terminology (such as “dissolution” instead of “divorce”) since divorce has become “no-fault” in all states but two.

Spouse: This term refers to a husband or wife.

Supervised Visitation: This refers to visitation by a parent with his child while another adult–but not the custodial parent–supervises.

Temporary Custody: This refers to the noncustodial spouse’s right to have parenting time with his or her child, and includes extended stays and overnights.

Temporary Restraining Order: A n order of the court prohibiting a party from acting–for instance, threatening, harassing, or physically abusing the other spouse and/or the children; selling personal property; taking money out of accounts; denying the other spouse a motor vehicle.

Termination of Parental Rights: This occurs when a family judge declares that a parent shall no longer have a right to participate in decisions affecting the welfare of the child.

Uncontested Divorce: When the defendant is not going to contest the divorce and there are no issues for the court to decide about the children, money, or property.

Un-Emancipated: This refers to the period when minor children are dependent upon their parents or legal guardians.

Visitation: This refers to the right of a non-custodial parent to spend time with his or her children.

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