Glossary of Family Law Terms


The following are words and phrases that are often used in dissolution proceedings.

Actuary: Expert hired to determine the value of a pension plan.

Ante-nuptial Agreement: Agreement entered into before marriage that sets forth the rights and obligations of the parties.

Annulment: See Nullity, below.

Appeal: Request to a higher court to reverse a decision of a lower court. See Appellate Decisions, below.

Appellate Decisions: The published opinions of District Courts of Appeal, the California State Supreme Court, Federal District Courts, Federal Courts of Appeal and the United States Supreme Court.

Appraiser: Expert hired to evaluate a house, business or other asset of the parties.

Assignment of Wages: Order of court providing for direct payment of child or spousal support by the employer of the spouse who has been ordered to make the payments.

At-Issue Memorandum: Document filed with the court when a case is ready for trial.

Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders ("A.T.R.O."): Temporary restraining orders found on the back side of the Summons (Family Law). Restrain parties from removing the minor children from the state, disposing of assets or changing insurance policies.

Bifurcation: Usually means to dissolve the marriage before the property issues are resolved.

Capital Gains Tax: The tax assessed when an asset is sold. Usually is the difference between what the asset sold for and what was paid for it, minus the cost of any improvements.

Certified Family Law Specialist: Attorney certified by the State Bar of California as having experience, attending yearly courses and having passed a test in Family Law.

Claimant: Person other than the husband or wife who claims an interest in the property of the parties or claims custody or visitation rights with the children.

Code of Civil Procedure: The body of California laws that deal with court procedures.

Cohabitation: Living with a person of the opposite sex as man and wife, but without being married.

Comingle: Mixing of community and separate money or other assets together in the same bank account, house, business, etc.

Commissioner: Judicial officer hired by the county to act as a judge.

Community Property: Property acquired by either spouse during marriage other than by gift or inheritance.

Conciliation Court: Service provided by the county free of charge to parents to work out custody and visitation problems with their children with the Social Workers.

Contempt: Willful violation of a court order. This can result in jail time and/or a fine.

Court Costs: Fees, including filing fees, which are paid to the county directly as part of the dissolution proceeding.

Custody - 2 types: Legal custody defines who makes major decisions in the upbringing of the children. Physical custody defines the actual living arrangements of the children.

Date of Separation: Date on which the court determines that the parties evidence their intention to permanently end the marriage. Does not require a physical separation, but married people who are not living together can still be held to have not separated. Assets accumulated and income earned after date of separation are separate property.

Declaration: Document signed under penalty of perjury and filed with the court. Equivalent to an affidavit.

Default: When one party does not file papers in opposition to the dissolution, an Order to Show Cause (OSC) or other proceedings.

Deferred Compensation: Salary or other benefits paid at a date later than when it is earned, usually at retirement or termination of employment.

Deposition: Hearing in an attorney's office where the party must answer questions of the other party's attorney under penalty of perjury.

Discovery: Finding out facts from witnesses or other parties before trial. May be done by deposition, subpoena, interrogatories, notices to produce and requests for admission.

Dissolution of Marriage: Correct name for "divorce" in California.

District Court of Appeal ("D.C.A."): The first level of appellate courts in the State of California.

"Duke" Order: Court order permitting one party to remain in the house for a period of time after the trial, usually for the benefit of the children. Derived from the name of a noted appeals court case.

Employment Benefits: Forms of compensation in addition to normal salary or wages, such as medical insurance, pension contributions, 401K plans, profit sharing plans and bonuses.

Evidence Code: The body of California laws that govern how and what evidence can be received by the court.

Ex Parte Application: Request for emergency court order made without the participation of the parties or testimony.

Experts: Persons hired by parties to evaluate assets, also used to make evaluations for custody arrangement.

Extension of Time: A court order or agreement between the parties that the time for one or both parties to file and serve pleadings can be delayed, either indefinitely or to a specified date.

Family Code: The body of California laws governing marriage and divorce. Also includes laws governing non-marital relationships.

Filing Fee: Cost paid to the county to process the dissolution of marriage.

Final Declaration of Disclosure: A form setting forth the party's statement of community property and separate property. Must be mailed to the other attorney thirty days before trial.

Forensic Accountant: A certified public accountant who specializes in dissolution of marriage issues, such as appraisal of businesses and professional practices, determination of net controllable cash-flow, and taxes.

Guidelines: Schedules to help the judicial officers to arrive at child and spousal support figures.

Hardship Deduction: Deduction from spouse's income in calculating child support, such as medical bills not paid by insurance or uninsured catastrophic losses.

Income & Expense Declaration: Specialized form of declaration used to set forth a party's income and living expenses.

Interrogatories: Form of discovery where questions are sent by an attorney and must be answered by a party under penalty of perjury.

Irreconcilable Differences: The technical grounds for a dissolution of marriage. The basis for California's "no-fault" divorce law.

Joinder: Procedure for bringing other persons or corporations into the dissolution action.

Judgment: Document of the court ending the marriage and making other orders concerning property, children and support.

Jurisdiction: Determines if the court has the power to hear the matter or make orders against a party.

"Kick Out" Order: Specific type of restraining order forcing one party to vacate the family home.

Legal Custody: See "Custody" above.

Legal Separation: Process by which child custody is determined and assets are divided, but the parties remain married.

Lis Pendens: Document recorded with the county recorder to show that there is a dispute over ownership of real property.

Mandatory Settlement Agreement: Written agreement of the parties resolving all or some of the issues in the dissolution action (also known as a Property Settlement Agreement).

Mandatory Settlement Conference: Required meeting with a judicial officer to try to settle the case.

Mediation: Process of resolving disputes with the help of a neutral third party.

Motion: Legal proceeding where a party seeks relief from the court. No testimony is permitted. Usually involves procedural issues.

Notice: To give either written or oral notification of a hearing and specific time limits in a form specified by the rules.

Nullity: Ruling that the marriage did not exist. Usually based on fraud by a spouse before marriage.

Order to Show Cause ("OSC"): A court hearing where one or more issues of the dissolution action are heard; most commonly used to set temporary child and spousal support while the case is pending or to modify a prior support order.

Parties: People in the dissolution action, usually just the husband and wife.

Paternity: Judgment that a man is the father of a particular child.

Petitioner: Person who files the dissolution action.

Physical Custody: See "Custody" above.

Pleadings: Papers filed with the court and served on the other party. Can be court forms on or line-numbered pleading paper.

Post-nuptial Agreement: Agreement entered into after marriage that sets forth the rights and interest of the husband and wife.

Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure: A form setting forth the party's statement of community property and separate property. Must be mailed to the other attorney not more than sixty days after the Respondent is served.

Pre-marital Agreement: See Anti-nuptial agreement, above.

QDRO ("quadro"): Order directing a pension plan to pay out the non-employed spouse's interest in the pension directly by the plan itself.

Reimbursement: Compensation from the community property or the other party for expenses paid for the community or other spouse's benefit or contributions of separate property toward the purchase of community property.

Respondent: Person who did not file the dissolution action.

Restraining Order: Order made by the court directing a party to do or not do something.

Response: A pleading in reply to the other party's pleading. Must be filed with the court and served on the other party.

Retainer Agreement: Document signed by client and lawyer setting forth the terms of their relationship including fees, billing procedures, etc.

Sanctions: Fees or other penalties ordered by the court for failure to act or for disobeying court orders.

Separate Property: Property owned by either party before marriage or obtained during marriage through gift or inheritance or acquired by one spouse after separation.

Separation: Period of time after date of separation and before the judgment of dissolution of marriage is made.

Service of Process: Delivery of legal papers to the other party.

Spousal Support: Payment of money by one spouse to the other for living expenses. Used to be called "alimony."

Statement of Decision: A written statement setting forth the reasons and legal grounds for the judge's ruling.

Stay-Away Order: Type of restraining order forbidding one party from going near the other party, family members, work place, etc.

Stipulation: Agreement between the parties entered into in court; also written agreements of the parties and signed by the judicial officer.

Subpoena: Order to appear at a deposition or court, also order to produce documents.

Summons: Document advising a person that a court action has begun. See Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders, above.

Trial Court: Judicial officer who hears the trial.

Trial: Proceeding where the property and other issues of the dissolution action are presented to the judicial officer.

Temporary Restraining Order ("TRO"): Emergency orders made by the court.

Tracing: The process by which the source of the funds to purchase an asset is determined.

Visitation: Set time for a parent to be with the children.

Vocational Evaluation: Meeting of one spouse with a counselor to discuss possible careers, schooling, etc. May be set up by spouse's attorney.

Wage Assignment: Order for payment of child or spousal support directly by the spouse's employer.

Waiver: Giving up of a possible legal right.

Writ of Execution: Taking of money or assets awarded to one party in the judgment directly from the bank account, business or other assets.

730 Evaluation: A study ordered by the court, pursuant to Evidence Code Section 730. Most commonly applies to a psychiatric or psychological child custody cases, but can apply to the appointment of an expert on any issue in the dissolution.