Family Law Glossary

Affidavit: A written or printed declaration of facts, confirmed by oath or affirmation of the party making it.

Affidavit of Consent: A legal document signed by both parties that declares consent to the divorce proceedings. This document allows a divorce in Pennsylvania to proceed by consent. Consent is a “ground” for divorce. Other grounds include fault, and a two-year separation.

Alimony: An allowance or support (i.e. money) paid to an ex-spouse by the other, usually on a regular monthly basis after the parties are divorced.

Alimony Pendente Lite: An allowance or support (i.e. money) paid to one spouse by the other, usually on a regular monthly basis during the divorce process.

Answer: This term could refer to various matters. In the Discovery portion of the divorce, for example, an answer refers to the information provided in response to Interrogatories (questions) sent by the other party. In regard to Pleadings, the Answer is the defendant’s response to allegations made by the Plaintiff; it is a formal, written statement declaring the grounds of his or her defense. In short, it is a written response to facts alleged by the other party in a complaint, petition, or motion.

Arbitration: Resolution of the dispute through a neutral third party (i.e. an attorney), who offers a decision after a hearing at which both sides present an argument. The arbitrator essentially acts as a private judge in the case and enters a binding decision.

Associate: An attorney or member of a law firm who has not yet been named a partner; an attorney who does not own a equity stake in the law firm.

Bailiff: A uniformed court officer who keeps order in the courtroom.

Child Support: Money paid by one parent to the other to help support their children. The legal obligation of parents to contribute to the economic maintenance of their children. In Pennsylvania, this is an enforceable order.

Community Property: Property owned in common by wife and husband, each having a one-half interest by reason of the marriage. Pennsylvania is NOT a community property state.

Conference: An informal meeting among several individuals to resolve differences, or for deliberation. Usually there is no official record of the meeting, such as a transcript made by a court reporter.

Conference Officer: A court-appointed official who conducts conferences aimed at resolving disputes without the need for an official hearing or trial. Conferences can be aimed at resolving disputes over marital property, alimony, support, child custody and other Family Law issues. Parties can therefore reach agreement without enduring formal, courtroom litigation.

Consultation: A meeting between a potential client and a potential attorney, in which the broad facts of the case are discussed. In some instances, the consult can provide a general idea of the approach the attorney would recommend with regard to the client’s legal problems.

Contempt: A situation in which a party to a divorce, custody, or support matter is in violation of an Order handed down by the court.

Court of Common Pleas: In Pennsylvania, the Court of Common Pleas is the “trial court” at which most legal cases (other than small claims) are adjudicated. Each county in Pennsylvania has a Court of Common Pleas. The Courts of Common Pleas frequently have different divisions to resolve different types of claims, such as the Orphan’s Court (wills and estates), Family Court (divorce, custody), Criminal and Civil.

Custody: The granting of physical guardianship and care of a thing or person. In family law it refers to how physical time with a child is divided between parents and how legal decisions regarding the child are made by the parents.

Custody Agreement: A binding agreement that sets out the terms of custody of a child or children.

Date of Separation: The “Date of Separation” is a very important date in divorce proceedings in Pennsylvania. It is the date on which a wife and husband are no longer considered to be a marital unit. In Pennsylvania, the Date of Separation is presumed to be the date the divorce complaint is filed. However, a party can establish an earlier date by proving that the couple no longer lived together as husband and wife, did not conduct themselves in the public realm as such, ceased to have intimate relations, and at least one party indicated his or her intention to seek a divorce. The parties do not have to be physically separated (living apart) to establish a Date of Separation. Frequently, legally separated couples continue to live together for financial or other reasons.

Divorce Complaint: A legal document, filed with the court by the Plaintiff, specifying names and addresses of the parties and the type of divorce being sought. To file a complaint in Pennsylvania, one or both of the spouses must be in residence for at least six months prior to the filing date. The spouse that files the divorce complaint is the “plaintiff.” The other spouse is the “defendant. There is no advantage to being the plaintiff or defendant in a divorce proceeding.

Divorce Decree: An Order handed down by the court declaring that the parties are no longer legally married.

Docket: A listing of pleadings and orders filed with the court in a case by date of filing.

Earning Capacity: A determination of the ability to earn money, which is set by the court and based on a variety of factors; for the purpose of setting the support to be paid by one spouse to the other.

Equitable Distribution (ED): The process of legally dividing marital property, assets, and finances during the divorce in Pennsylvania. Equitable essentially means “fair based on the circumstances of the parties.” Marital property in Pennsylvania is not necessarily divided 50/50 as in community property states.

Family Court: A division of the Court of Common Pleas that handles domestic (family) disputes, such as divorce, custody, and support matters.

Fault Divorce: In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of divorces are obtained on no-fault grounds. However, a party can still seek a divorce based on fault grounds. “Fault,” can be established by proving things such indignities (an example of an “indignity” is adultery) or bigamy, among other categories of legally recognized fault.

Hearing: A court proceeding in which witnesses and arguments are heard and evidence is presented, usually before a judge or divorce master. If the hearing is before a judge, it is usually a formal proceeding. Hearing before a master can be either formal or informal.

Indignities: Offenses or cruelties directed at another party’s self-respect, sensibility, or emotion, (as opposed to physical abuses). In Pennsylvania divorce law, indignities can include neglect, abusive language, ridicule, adultery, etc.

Legal Custody: The right to make major decisions on behalf of a child, including but not limited to medical, religious, and educational decisions.

Marital Assets: Marital assets are, in general, assets acquired by the parties during a marriage, except gifts or inheritances. Marital assets can also include the increase in value on separate or non-marital assets during the marriage. Martial assets might also include separate assets that were gifted to the marriage or put into joint names during the marriage. Martial assets are the assets that are divided by the court in Equitable Distribution in Pennsylvania.

Marital Settlement Agreement (also called a Property Settlement Agreement): An agreement between divorcing spouses that sets forth agreed-upon terms for, usually, the division of marital property, support and, occasionally, custody rights. Marital Settlement Agreements are used to resolve claims for Equitable Distribution, Alimony, and Custody outside of court.

Master: An individual employed by the Court to observe and carry out specific judicial duties in a case. These can include the taking of testimony regarding discovery, custody, or support matters. The Master is required to prepare a report on the proceedings, which can be used by the Court to guide its decisions if the parties are unable to settle the issue or case.

Mediation: A form of dispute resolution in which the couple works to settle issues in their divorce or custody case, such as Equitable Distribution, Custody, and Support, with the assistance of a neutral third party.

Motion: A paper or pleading filed with the court by a party to ask the court for action or relief in the case. A motion is usually based on legal rights and typically does not involve factual disputes. If facts important to the request for relief are at issue, then the request for relief is a “Petition.”

Movant: One who files or makes a motion before the court.

No Fault Divorce: A divorce obtained without having to establish “fault.” In Pennsylvania, there are two ways to obtain a no-fault divorce: (1) if the parties sign Affidavits of Consent to the divorce; or, (2) if the parties are legally separated for two years, (see “Date of Separation” above).

Non-Marital Assets: A non-marital asset is generally an asset acquired by a party either before the date of marriage or after the date of separation. Non-marital assets can also include gifts or inheritances. Non-marital assets are not divided by the court in Equitable Distribution.

Notice: Information concerning a fact that is officially given to a party by an authorized agent. A person has notice of a fact if he/she knows it, should know it, has reason to know it, or has been given notification of it.

Opposing Counsel: The opponent’s attorney.

Order: A mandate, command, rule, or direction given by the court, either in writing or orally.

Partner: An attorney in a law firm with an equity stake in the law firm. Also used to refer to senior attorneys, even if they do not have an equity stake in the law firm.

Party: One of the people involved in the case or legal dispute, i.e. the Plaintiff or Defendant.  

Petition: A formal, written request made to the court, requesting action on a particular matter, which generally includes a recital of the facts that precipitated the petition. A Petition usually involves factual disputes that the court needs to resolve before deciding to grant or deny the requested relief.

Petitioner: The individual who filed the Petition with the court.

Physical Custody: The actual, physical “possession” and control of the child.

Pleading: This term refers to papers filed with the court by the parties, such as Complaints, Answers, Motions, and Petitions.

Praecipe: A legal paper that commands an individual to do the thing required, or to show reason why it has not been done. Most often it is a command to the Prothonotary to take a step to move a case forward, such as a command to send the file to the judge for a decision.

Prenuptial Agreement: An agreement signed by both marital parties that signifies intent to divide property and assets in the event of a future divorce.

Primary Physical Custody: The right to assume physical care of the child for the majority of the time.

Property Settlement Agreement: See Marital Settlement Agreement, above.

Pro se: A term used to indicate that an individual is representing himself or herself in a legal suit, and is not represented by an attorney.

Protection from Abuse Order or “PFA”: An emergency, temporary, or permanent order that a person can seek to obtain legal protection from abuse by an intimate partner or relative (such as a spouse, girlfriend, parent, etc.). A Protection from Abuse Order generally prevents the abuser from being near or contacting the protected parties.

Prothonotary: A chief clerk of a court. The term is generally used to refer to the Prothonotary’s Office, which is where you file papers with the court.  

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO): This is an order that transfers all or a portion of a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or pension plan, penalty free from one spouse to another pursuant to an equitable distribution or marital settlement agreement.

Request for Production of Documents: A “Request for Production of Documents” is a formal request that the other party to a divorce produce certain documents, usually financial information like tax returns, bank account statements, etc.

Respondent: The party responding to or opposing a motion or petition.

Retainer: Money paid to a law firm in advance to secure their work on your case. The law firm then pays itself from the retainer as it completes work on the case.

Retainer Agreement: A legally binding contract, signed by attorney and client, that sets out the terms, costs, and responsibilities of each during the representation.

Rule: An established standard, guide, or regulation.

Special Relief: A type of petition or motion filed with court seeking interim action by the court while the case is proceeding.

Statute: A formal, written piece of legislation enacted by the city, county, state, or federal government. It is what most people think about when they think about “the law.”

Stenographer or Court Reporter: A person who records the spoken proceedings of a case, collecting them in a transcript.

Subpoena: A legal summons initiated by an attorney and issued through the court demanding a response. A subpoena usually requests either documents or a person’s appearance in court, or both.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania: One of two intermediate, appellate courts in Pennsylvania. It is often the final arbiter of legal disputes if there is an appeal.

Support: A sum of money, usually paid monthly, by one spouse to another for the care and maintenance of a child or children of the union. It can also be money paid to a spouse.

Support Order: An order, generated by the court, spelling out the terms and amount of the support to be paid.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania: The highest court in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania only hears a limited amount of appeals.

Waiver of Notice: This is a document that the parties to a divorce can sign to expedite a divorce. It waives certain notice of a request to enter a divorce decree that is otherwise required under the law.

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