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Family Law Glossary of Terms

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Glossary of Family Law Terms

- A -

ABSOLUTE DIVORCE: the final ending of a marriage. Both parties are legally free to remarry.

AB INITIO: Latin for "from the beginning."

ACTION: a lawsuit or proceeding in a court of law.

ADULTERY: While still married one spouse has sexual intercourse with a third party. This ground for divorce requires clear and convincing evidence of adultery. The complaint for divorce must recite specific facts supporting the alleged adultery. The adultery must have taken place within five years of filing the divorce complaint, and the innocent spouse must not have condoned the adultery (i.e. resumed cohabitation or sexual intercourse) with the adulterer after learning of the adultery.  

AFFIDAVIT: a written statement under oath.

AGREEMENT: a verbal or written resolution of disputed issues.

ANSWER: the written response to a complaint, petition, or motion.

ALIMONY: a payment of support provided by one spouse to the other.

ALIAS SUMMONS: another summons when the original is not served on the defendant.

ANNULMENT: a marriage can be dissolved in a legal proceeding in which the marriage is declared void, as though it never took place. In the eyes of the law, the parties were never married. It is available only under certain limited circumstances.

APPEAL: a legal action where the losing party requests that a higher court review the decision.

--B -

BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILD: Discretionary legal standard pertaining to support, visitation and custody.

BIGAMY: When one spouse enters a marriage when he/she has not terminated the previous marriage.

BILL OF COMPLAINT: This is the document that is filed in order to start the divorce process. The Bill of Complaint recites the statutory factors that permit the divorce to be granted in Virginia, gives background information regarding the parties (social security number, dates of birth) and their marriage (date, children, separation date), and sets forth the grounds for divorce. At the end, the Complaint requests certain relief, usually that the divorce be granted, that support be ordered, property be divided, etc. These are allegations, to which the defendant spouse will have a chance to respond.

- C -

CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES: Maryland has child support guidelines which must be followed in awarding child support. The guidelines are a formula. There is a worksheet which each side must fill out. The court will review the figures on the worksheet and apply the guidelines. There are only a few circumstances when the court can award child support higher or lower than the guidelines. See the Annotated Code of Maryland, Family Law Article, Sections 12-201 through 12-204.

COLLUSION: an agreement between two or more persons that one of the parties brings false charges against the other. In a divorce case, the husband and wife may agree to use adultery as a ground in order to obtain a divorce more quickly, knowing full well that adultery was not committed. Collusion is illegal.

COMPLAINANT: the one who files the suit, same as plaintiff.

COMMON LAW MARRIAGE : a common law marriage comes about when a man and woman who are free to marry agree to live together as husband and wife without the formal ceremony. to be common law married, both spouses must have intended to be husband and wife. Maryland does not recognize common law marriages.

COMPLIANT: called a Bill of Complaint. The legal paper that starts a case.

CONDONATION: the act of forgiving one's spouse who has committed an act of wrongdoing that would constitute a ground for divorce. Condonation generally is proven by living and cohabiting with the spouse after learning that the wrongdoing was committed. It often is used as a defense to a divorce.

CONTEMPT: failure to follow a court order. One side can request that the court determine that the other side is in contempt and punish him or her.

CORROBORATIVE WITNESS: a person who testifies for you and backs up your story. If you are asking the court to grant a divorce, you must bring to the hearing a witness who can corroborate your grounds for divorce.

CUSTODY-SOLE & JOINT: refers to the legal arrangements for whom a child will live with and how decisions about the child will be made. Custody has two parts: legal and physical. Legal custody is the decision-making part: physical custody refers to where the child lives on a regular basis. Generally, the parent the child does not live with will be allowed to have regular visits with the child. Parents can make any custodial arrangement that is in the best interest of their children. The standard for custody is "best interest of the child".

- D -

DEFAULT: a party's failure to answer a complaint, motion, or petition.

DEFENDANT: the person the case is brought against.

DISCOVERY: a way for getting information from the other side or other people. Examples of discovery are interrogatories (written questions) and depositions (questions which are usually in person and recorded).

DISSOLUTION: the legal end of a marriage.

- E -

EMANCIPATION: The point at which a minor becomes an adult. In Virginia it is 18 or graduation from high school, whichever is later, but in no event later than age 19.

EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION: A system of dividing property acquired by spouses during their marriage in connection with a divorce proceeding. The court may distribute equitably all property acquired during the marriage whether legal title is joint or individual. 

- F -

FILING: giving the clerk of Court your legal papers.

- G -

GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE: the legal basis for a divorce; the law sets out specific reasons for a divorce which have to be proven before the court can grant a divorce.

- J -

JUDGMENT: a court's decision.

JURISDICTION: the authority of the court to hear a case.

- L -

LIMITED DIVORCE: establishes certain legal responsibilities while the parties are separated but does not end the marriage. See Annotated Code of Maryland, Family Law Article, Section 7-102.

- M -

MARITAL PROPERTY: includes all property acquired during the marriage, even if it is not titled in both names, with some exceptions, See Annotated Code of Maryland, Family Law Article, Section 8-201(e) for definition and Sections 8-203 through 8-205 for how the court treats marital property.

MASTER: hears cases like a judge. A master's decision is reviewed by a judge before becoming final.

MOTION: a request to the court.

N0-FAULT DIVORCE: A type of divorce that may be granted even though either spouse has not performed any kind of marital misconduct (VA is a no-fault jurisdiction). In Virginia, you must live separate and apart for 6 months (no children) or one year (with children).

- N-

NON-CUSTODIAL PARENT: The parent who does not have physical custody of the child, and who typically pays child support to the other parent.

- O-

ORDER OF PROTECTION: An order entered by the court to protect a spouse, other family members, or sometimes property from being harmed. Typically this is ordered in cases where one spouse is harassing or abusing the other. If the spouse refuses to abide by the orde, he or she may be arrested and imprisoned.

ORE TENUS: This is a hearing in court that generally takes about ten minutes (once your case is called). One spouse answers questions that will establish that the factors required to allow the Court to grant a divorce in Virginia are present. The spouse usually provides the Court with their driver's license as further evidence of Virginia residency. A corroborating witness must also testify at this hearing. This witness basically confirms the spouse's testimony. If the grounds are based on separation, the witness should be able to confirm the parties' separation date, that no reconciliation has occurred, and if a reconciliation had occurred, that the witness would have known. The Court will enter the Final Decree that day.

- P -

PENDENTE LITE: temporary arrangements for custody, child support, child visitation, alimony, us and possession of the family home, etc., until a final hearing.

PETITION: a legal paper that starts a case.

PLAINTIFF: the person who started the case.

PRO SE/PROPER PERSON: representing yourself in court without an attorney.

- R -

RECONCILIATION: married people getting back together.

- S -

SERVICE: providing a copy of the papers being filed to the other side.

SPOUSE: husband or wife.

SUBPOENA: a form issued by the court requiring someone to appear in court and/or bring documents.

- U -

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE: when the defendant is not going to try to stop the divorce and there are no issues for the court to decide about the children, money, or property.

USE AND POSSESSION: the right of the parent who has custody of a minor child of the marriage to remain in the family home for up to three years from the date of the divorce, under certain circumstances. See Annotated Code of Maryland, Family law Article, Sections 8-206 through 8-211.

 - V -

VENUE: the county where the case is heard.

- W -

WRIT OF SUMMONS: a form issued by the court directing a party to respond to a complaint, motion, or petition.

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