Common Family Law Terms

Subpoena, interrogatories, affidavit…legal jargon can be quite confusing. Here are some common family law legal terms you may encounter throughout the divorce process:

Affidavit – A written or printed statement made under oath.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – A procedure for settling a dispute outside the courtroom. Most forms of ADR are not binding on the parties, and involve referral of the case to a neutral party such as an arbitrator or mediator.

Answer – The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint, articulating the grounds for defense.

Assets – Property of all kinds, including real and personal, tangible and intangible.

Brief – A written statement submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding that explains one side's legal and factual arguments.

Case File – A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.

Case Law – The law as established in previous court decisions. A synonym for legal precedent. Akin to common law, which springs from tradition and judicial decisions.

Cause of Action – A legal claim.

Common law – The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States that relies on the articulation of legal principles in a historical succession of judicial decisions. Common law principles can be changed by legislation.

Complaint – A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant.

Counsel – Legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a case.

Court – Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs."

Damages – Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).

Defendant – In a civil case, the person or organization against whom the plaintiff brings suit; in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.

Deposition – An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial.

Executory contracts – Contracts or leases under which both parties to the agreement have duties remaining to be performed. If a contract or lease is executory, a debtor may assume it (keep the contract) or reject it (terminate the contract).

Injunction – A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.

Interrogatories – A form of discovery consisting of written questions to be answered in writing and under oath.

Issue – 1. The disputed point between parties in a lawsuit; 2. To send out officially, as in a court issuing an order.

Judge – An official of the judicial branch with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts. Used generically, the term judge may also refer to all judicial officers, including Supreme Court justices.

Jurisdiction – The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.

Jurisprudence – The study of law and the structure of the legal system.

Jury – The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact.

Lawsuit – A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty which resulted in harm to the plaintiff.

Litigation – A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.

Moot – Not subject to a court ruling because the controversy has not actually arisen, or has ended.

Motion – A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.

Nonexempt assets – Property of a debtor that can be liquidated to satisfy claims of creditors.

Opinion – A judge's written explanation of the decision of the court.

Oral argument – An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges' questions.

Plaintiff – A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.

Pleadings – Written statements filed with the court which describe a party's legal or factual assertions about the case.

Precedent – A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court.

Procedure – The rules for conducting a lawsuit; there are rules of civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure.

Property of the estate – All legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case.

Pro Se – Representing oneself. Serving as one's own lawyer.

Pro Tem – Temporary.

Record – A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.

Remand – Send back.

Sanction – A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.

Service of process – The delivery of writs or summonses to the appropriate party.

Settlement – Parties to a lawsuit resolve their dispute without having a trial.

Statute – A law passed by a legislature.

Sua Sponte – Latin, meaning "of its own will." Often refers to a court taking an action in a case without being asked to do so by either side.

Subpoena – A command, issued under a court's authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Subpoena duces tecum – A command to a witness to appear and produce documents.

Summary judgment – A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial.

Temporary restraining order – Akin to a preliminary injunction, it is a judge's short-term order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted. Often referred to as a TRO.

Testimony – Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.

Tort – A civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract.

Transfer – Any mode or means by which a debtor disposes of or parts with his/her property.

Transcript – A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial, or during some other formal conversation, such as a hearing or oral deposition.

Venue – The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction.

Verdict – The decision of a trial jury or a judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case.

Witness – A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

Writ – A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.

Source: USCourts.gov, a clearinghouse for information from and about the Judicial Branch of the U.S. Government.

Updated 5/2009