Simple Guide to Divorce Terminology - Zukerman Law

Simple Guide to Divorce Terminology

Navigating a divorce involves understanding a unique set of legal terminologies and concepts specific to the process. To assist you through this journey, we’ve compiled a glossary of critical terms and definitions related to divorce, designed to simplify and clarify the various stages and elements you might encounter.

Affidavit: This is a document where the person writing it promises that everything said is true, and they make this promise while in the presence of an official like a notary public or someone from the court.

Alimony: This refers to money one spouse has to pay the other for support either during their separation or after they’re divorced. This support can be temporary or permanent, and it might be given all at once or over time. It’s also known as spousal support or maintenance.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): These are ways to solve disagreements without going to court, aiming for a less hostile process. Examples include mediation, where a neutral third party helps reach a compromise, or arbitration, where a third party makes a decision.

Annulment: This is a legal way of saying a marriage was never valid from the start, so technically, there was never a marriage. Reasons might include being too young, already married to someone else, not being able to agree because of mental health issues, being under the influence, or being tricked or forced into marriage.

Arrearage: This term refers to overdue money for a child or spousal support payments. If payments aren’t made, legal action might be necessary, and the person who owes money could be penalized by the court.

Child Support: This is money paid by the parent who doesn’t live with the child to the parent who does, intended for the child’s needs and care.

Child Support

Child Support Guidelines: These are rules that outline how to calculate child support payments, usually based on the parents’ incomes and what the child needs.

Child Custody: This means having the right to take care of your child. “Legal custody” means you can make big decisions about your child’s life, like education and healthcare. “Physical custody” means the child lives with you.

Cohabitation: This is when a couple lives together without being married.

Contested Divorce: This is when a couple can’t agree on important aspects of their divorce, like who gets the kids, how to split up property, or whether one person should receive financial support from the other.

Community Property: In some places, this means that everything a married couple owns together, including debts, is split equally. Not all states have this rule.

Decree: This is the final step in your divorce process, where the court issues a written decision or order that officially ends your marriage. This legal document outlines all the details of your divorce agreement.

Default: If someone doesn’t respond to a divorce petition or show up in court when they’re supposed to, they’re in default. This usually means the court might just go ahead and give the other spouse everything they asked for in their petition.

Defendant: This is the person who has to defend themselves in court because someone filed legal papers against them. In divorce cases, they might also be called the respondent.

Deposition: This is part of the process where both sides gather information before the trial. It involves one party’s lawyer asking you questions, your answers are given in front of your lawyer, and everything is written down to be used in court later.

Discovery: This is the phase in legal proceedings where both sides share information with each other. It includes answering questions, giving documents to the other side, and taking depositions.

Dissolution: Just another term for divorce, which means legally ending a marriage.

Divorce: The legal process of ending a marriage, making both parties single again and able to marry other people.


Domestic Violence: This includes physical harm, threats, sexual assault, emotional manipulation, and financial control by one partner over the other within the same household. It’s also known as intimate partner abuse. If you’re facing this, it’s crucial to seek help immediately. 

Equitable Distribution: This is how property gets divided in a divorce, aiming to be fair but not necessarily splitting everything 50/50.

Ex parte: When the court makes a decision with only one party present, usually for urgent matters like a restraining order to protect someone’s safety.

Fault Divorce: This is when one spouse blames the other for the breakup due to specific reasons like cheating, abandonment, or abuse. These are less common since the spouse being accused can argue against these claims in court.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL): This is someone the court picks to look out for what’s best for kids when there’s talk of abuse or neglect in court cases like divorce. They help make sure the children’s needs are considered first.

Interrogatories: These are a set of written questions from the other side in a lawsuit that you have to answer in writing. It’s part of gathering information before the trial.

Joint Legal Custody: This means both parents share the responsibility to make big decisions for their child, like healthcare and education.

Joint Physical Custody: Both parents get to have their child live with them at different times. It’s about sharing the child’s everyday care.

Legal Advice: This is when a lawyer gives you advice about your legal situation and what the law says about your case. Only a licensed attorney can give this kind of advice.

Legal Custody: Having legal custody means you have the right to make important decisions about how your child is raised, like what school they go to or what medical care they receive.

Marital Property: This includes everything you and your spouse get while you’re married.

Mediation: This is when a neutral third person helps the people in a dispute talk it out and try to reach an agreement without going to court.

No-fault Divorce: You don’t have to blame the other person for the divorce; you can say you don’t get along anymore. It’s a way to end the marriage without pointing fingers.

Non-custodial Parent: This is the parent who doesn’t have the child living with them most of the time.

Non-marital Property: This is what you owned before you got married or what you got by yourself, like through a gift or inheritance, while you were married.

Petitioner: This is the person who starts the divorce or legal action to end the marriage.

Physical Custody: This means your child lives with you, and you take care of them on a day-to-day basis.

Plaintiff: Another word for the person who brings the lawsuit or legal action, similar to a petitioner in family court.

Premarital Agreement: An agreement couples make before they get married about what happens with their stuff if the marriage ends. It’s also called a prenuptial agreement.

Prenuptial Agreement: Just like a premarital agreement, it’s a plan made before getting married about how things will be split if the marriage doesn’t last.

Property Division: This is about splitting up what the couple owns when they divorce. They can agree on how to do it, or a judge might have to decide. It’s not always split down the middle.

property division

Pro Se: When you go to court without a lawyer and represent yourself in the legal proceedings.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO): This is a court order that splits retirement benefits between spouses when they divorce or separate, making sure the retirement funds are divided properly.

Respondent: This person responds to legal actions or divorce petitions in court, sometimes also called the defendant.

Restraining Order: A court’s command to stop someone from doing certain things, often used in situations of domestic violence or during disputes over custody to protect one of the parties.

Separate Property: This is what you owned by yourself before getting married or what was given just to you, not as a couple, during your marriage. It’s not limited to physical things like houses or cars.

Separation Agreement: A legal document made before or instead of a divorce where both parties agree on things like support, who gets what, and who takes care of the kids. This agreement can be part of the final divorce decree.

Service of Process: The official way to tell someone that there’s a legal case against them. This means physically giving them the court papers, either by someone specially assigned to do this or by the sheriff.

Settlement Conference: A meeting with both sides and their lawyers to try and solve their issues without going to trial, often because the court asked for it.

Sole Custody: When only one parent has both the right to make major decisions and the responsibility for the day-to-day care of the children.

Split Custody: A situation where parents divide their children between them for custody purposes – for example, one child lives with one parent, and the other child lives with the other parent. Courts usually don’t prefer this arrangement.

Spousal Support or Maintenance: Money paid by one spouse to the other for support during or after a divorce, also known as alimony.

Stipulation: A mutual agreement by divorcing spouses on their divorce terms, which becomes part of the court’s final decision.

Subpoena: A legal order that requires you to show up in court or provide documents. Ignoring a subpoena can lead to legal penalties, including fines or jail.

Title of Proceedings: This is the formal name given to your court case, which will be used on all official documents and records. In divorce cases, it usually follows the format of one spouse’s last name versus the other spouse’s last name. This title identifies your specific legal action within the court system.

Uncontested Divorce: When both spouses agree on all aspects of the divorce, making the process smoother and often quicker.

Visitation: The scheduled time a parent who doesn’t have custody (non-custodial parent) spends with their children, also referred to as access.

Without Prejudice: This is a rule used during settlement talks or mediation, meaning anything you say or offer in these discussions can’t be brought up in court later. It’s meant to encourage open and honest negotiation by protecting both parties from having their attempts at settlement used against them if they end up going to trial.

Final Remarks

The terms we’ve covered are among the most frequently encountered during a divorce proceeding. However, divorce cases can involve a variety of other legal concepts and terminologies depending on the specifics of each case.

If you have any further questions about your divorce or need assistance with any aspect of the process, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Zukerman Law. We’re here to provide the support and guidance you need.


Stuart Zukerman

Stuart Zukerman, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, has over 32 years of experience in litigation with a focus on Family Law, Personal Injury, Wrongful Dismissal claims, and Collaborative Divorce & Mediation. He has extensive trial experience in divorce, child custody, spousal support, asset division, and ICBC injury claims. As an accredited Family Law Mediator, he helps resolve disputes without court intervention. Stuart has also authored papers on family law and lectured at CLE courses.