Legal Terms Glossary: Understanding “Legalese” in Family Law

Legal Terms Glossary to Help You Understand Your Family Law Attorney

Legal Terms

Legal Terms can be confusing. This guide will help!.

Legal Terms are Confusing

Legal Terms can be really confusing.  Most professions have jargon used only in their profession.  Most other groups have some of their own language.  But, we can all agree that attorneys are the worst!

Legal Terms Cause Miscommunication

Attorneys have so many legal terms sprinkling their conversation.  It makes it difficult for clients to follow.  It creates miscommunication.  Following are some of the commonly used legal terms to help you translate what your attorney is telling you.  Remember, if in doubt, ask your attorney to explain in plain English.  You have the right to know.

Legal Terms Glossary

Ad Litem — This is one of those legal terms that needs more explanation.  Ad Litem refers to a person appointed by the court to represent.  If you need to know more about an ad litem for your case, see this article.

Adoption Evaluation — A study of your life and circumstances to determine fitness for adoption.  This will include a visit to your residence.

Affidavit — A written statement sworn before an officer authorized to receive oaths (usually a Norary).  It is deemed as testimony and false information in an affidavit is perjury.

Answer —Document filed with the court in response to a lawsuit.  The Answer must be filed in a timely fashion or your risk default.  Usually an answer is a very simple general denial of the allegations in the petition.  Often an answer if filed with a Counterpetition.

Arbitration — An alternative dispute resolution method where the parties hire an impartial person, called an arbitrator, to determine a solution.  Arbitration is usually binding, which means the parties have to abide by the decision.  Arbitration is only rarely used in Family Law.

Arrearage — A legal term used to describe child support that is past due.

Bifurcation — Separating an issue from the other issues in the case and trying the issues separately.

Child Custody — In Texas, child custody is called conservatorship.  See Conservatorship.

Cohabitation — An intimate relationship between people sharing a home without legal or religious sanction.

Cohabitation — Couples who live together without being married.

Collaborative Law — A non-litigation approach to family law.  Each party still has an attorney but the process relies on collaboration, or negotiation, and input from various experts including financial experts, psychologists and counselors.  There are a series of settlement meetings to address various issues. Although this is not litigation, it may still be contentious and costly.

Community Property — Community property is the legal term for property acquired during the marriage.  Basically, unless it is a gift or an inheritance that is traceable, it belongs to both of you.  This includes “your” retirement account, “your” paycheck and things bought with “your” money during the marriage.

Contempt of Court — Disobeying court orders with the possibility of sanctions or jail time as a consequence.

Conservator — Person with rights and duties for a child.  See Conservatorship, Sole Managing Conservator, Possessory Conservator and Joint Managing Conservator.

Conservatorship — What most people call child custody.  It is the legally defined relationship between a parent and children after a divorce designating parent’s rights to make decisions and duty to care for the children. The court may assign sole conservatorship or joint conservatorship.

Counterpetition — A Counterpetition may be filed in response to a lawsuit against you.  The counterpetition responds to the original petition and provides your own lawsuit.

Court of Continuing Jurisdiction — The court retains continuing jurisdiction over a case involving children until the child turns 18 or until the case is legally moved to another jurisdiction.  For more information about moving jurisdiction, talk to your attorney or review the Family Code.

Default — Failure to answer a complaint, motion, or petition.  This failure can result in the other person obtaining the order they want without your input.

Deposition —  It sounds a bit scary, but this legal term refers to  nothing more than a question and answer session recorded by a court reporter.  You are under oath, just like when you are in court, and as long as you tell the truth you should be okay.

Discovery — Formal information gathering process whereby you will either ask for or be asked to produce documents and information.

DNA Testing — Medical procedure to determine the parents of a child by testing the chromosomes of each parent and child.

Dismissal for Want of Prosecution (DWOP) — Case dismissed due to lack of action.

Legal Terms Definitions

“What did he mean by deewop (DWOP)??? Why can’t he speak English?”

Garnishment — Withholding or gathering of funds to pay a debt, including child support.

Geographic Restriction — A restriction in the divorce decree or child custody order which limits a parent who has the child to living in a specific area.  The child cannot be moved out of the area.  Often there will be a geographic restriction for a specific county, or a county and contiguous counties.  The restriction is designed to keep parents close enough that both can participate in the children’s lives.

Guardian Ad Litem — A person appointed by the court to represent the interests of a minor child in a divorce or parentage case. Different from an attorney, a guardian ad litem makes a recommendation to the court as to the best interest of the child.

Home Study  — See Adoption Evaluation.

Income and Expense Declaration — Form disclosing income and expenses, under penalty of perjury, which is provided to the other party and to the court.

Interim Order — An interim order is sometimes called a temporary order, and refers to any order made in a legal case before the final order or decree is made. In family cases, interim orders are the judge’s short-term decisions about issues such as child support, child custody, visitation, possession of the family home, attorney fees, spousal support or payment of debts. The final court order may be entirely different.

Inventory and Appraisment — The Inventory is a document which lists all of your assets and belongings.  It also lists liabilities and debts.

Joint Managing Conservator —Both parents share the rights and duties for the child.

Judgment — The official final decision of a court about the rights and claims of each side in a lawsuit. In Texas, a judgment becomes a final order of the court 30 days after it is entered.  Up until that time, either party can file an appeal, ask for a new trial or ask that the judgment be modified or corrected.

Jurisdiction — The authority of the court to hear a case.

Managing Conservator —  The parent who has the ability to designate the residence of the child and may have the ability to make certain decisions, including education, without agreement by the other parent.

Marital Settlement Agreement — A settlement agreement reached between parties to a divorce or legal separation, resolving all outstanding disputes between the Parties.

Mediated Settlement Agreement (MSA) — A settlement agreement reached at mediation.  A mediated settlement agreement is binding on the parties, which means they have to honor the agreement.

Mediation — Parties meet with a neutral third party, a mediator, to work out an agreement in the case.  The mediator facilitates an agreement whenever possible.  In family law cases, courts will usually order mediation prior to a final trial.

Modification  — Seeking to change an order of the court.

Motion — A request for action filed with the court.

Non-Suit — A non-suit is what you file to drop your pleadings.  Be careful when filing a non-suit if the other party has active pleadings.  The case is still active and you have nothing on file with the court.

Notice of Entry of Judgment — A notice issued by the judge that decrees that judgment has been entered in the case.

Order to Show Cause (OSC) — A motion to the court to obtain court orders regarding custody, support, visitation, attorney fees, or any other relief.

Parenting Plan — A written plan describing conservatorship or custody and providing details about parental rights and duties.  The plan may contain very specific information or may be more general guidelines.

Pendente Lite Support — A temporary order, regarding spousal support.  This is referred to as Temporary Spousal Maintenance in the Texas Family Code.

Perjury — Most people recognize this legal term.  It means lying to the court.  The important thing to note here is that it does not only refer to your testimony.  It can also refer to any documents you sign as being true.

Petition — A legal document filed with the court to start a case.

Petitioner — The person who files the petition to start a case.

Psych Eval — Abbreviation for psychological or psychiatric evaluation of a party in a child custody lawsuit.  The evaluation is rarely used unless specific issues warrant it.

Pleading —  An official document filed with the court regarding the case.

Possession Schedule — The time you are allotted to have in person with your children.

  • Standard Possession (SPO) — Most often means  the non-primary parent has possession of the child from Friday evening at 6:00 p.m. until Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. on the 1st, 3rd and 5th weekends each month. two hours on Thursday evening, alternating holidays and a month in summer.
  • Expanded Standard — In addition to the SPO, the non-primary parent can elect to have the child from when school gets out on Thursday to when school begins on Friday.  The non-primary parent can also elect to have the child from when school gets out on Friday until when school begins on Monday.
  • Deviations from Standard or Expanded Standard
    • Parental Agreement: Parents can agree on a schedule that works for both parties and for the child.
    • Court Orders:  Sometimes work schedules or other issues make the default possession schedules unworkable.  If the parents cannot agree on something that allows both parents possession, the Texas Family Code allows the court to deviate from the SPO.  In crafting the order, the court must stay as close to the SPO as possible.

Possessory Conservator — The non-primary or non-managing conservator.  This parent has some rights and duties during the time of possession.

Legal Terms are frustrating

I don’t know what standard and expanded standard possession means. I just want to be a Dad!

Pre-Trial Conference — A hearing, or meeting, with the attorneys and the judge setting the date for the final trial and for all actions which must take place and when.  The document completed at this hearing is called a Scheduling Order or a Docket Control Order.  Clients typically do not need to attend.

Primary Custody — See Managing Conservator

Pro Bono — To represent a client without charge.  If you cannot afford an attorney, there are attorneys who handle cases pro bono.*

Pro Se — Representing yourself in your legal matter.  If you have a child custody dispute or property dispute, we recommend you have a qualified family law attorney to represent you to make sure your rights are protected.

Respondent — The person who has to respond to a lawsuit filed by the petitioner.

Response — A legal document filed in response to the filing of a lawsuit.  Most often this takes the form of an Answer or Counterpetition.

Retroactive Child Support — Child support for the time period before a child support suit is filed.   Theoretically you can go back to the date of the child’s birth, but the courts tend to lean toward the 4 year mark.

Schedule of Debts and Assets — A form on which each party must disclose all their assets and debts under penalty of perjury and give to the other side and the court.

Separate Property —  Separate property is a legal term used to define the property you had prior to your marriage, or property that was a product of a gift or inheritance.  CAUTION:  If you receive a gift or inheritance during your marriage, keep it separate from the joint accounts.  If you want to claim it as separate, you will have to be able to clearly trace it.

Service — Process to give papers and documents to the other party.

Service Plan — Agreement between a parent and CPS regarding actions which must be taken by the parent in order to keep or regain children who have been removed.

Social Study — A study by a social worker to look into the family and evaluate the best interest of the child in a custody lawsuit.

Sole Managing Conservator — One parent by agreement or by court order is given the sole rights, duties and privileges concerning  children after a divorce.

Status Hearing or Status Conference —   See Pre-Trial Conference.  A hearing in which the court where the judge identifies the issues and sets deadlines.  Clients do not usually need to attend this hearing.

Stipulated Judgment — An agreement between the Parties regarding resolution of all outstanding disputes between the Parties that is incorporated into the judgment and enforceable as a judgment.

Stipulation — An agreement between opposing parties on any matter relating to the proceeding or trial, such as which exhibits are authenticated and admissible.  It may also include agreements on support, parental rights and responsibilities, parent/child contact and property division on either a temporary or final basis. A stipulation is submitted to the judge, who signs it and creates an enforceable order.

Subpoena — An order summoning someone to court and may require documents.  Failure to appear can bring a penalty.

Temporary Injunction  — An order enjoining a person from taking certain action for a certain period of time.  Most often this includes provisions regarding maintaining property, bank accounts and other financial accounts as well as setting forth temporary custody.

Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) — Similar to a Temporary Injunction, but does not require a hearing.  A hearing must, however, be held within 14 days.

Termination  — Removal of parental rights.  It can be voluntary or involuntary.  Once rights are terminated, you are no longer a parent.

Testimony —  Testimony is a legal term most people know.  It refers to what you say, under oath to the court.  It is most often spoken, but may be written testimony.

Trial Setting — The date the case is set for final trial.

UCCJEA — Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction And Enforcement Act, which provides legal remedy for custody and child support issues across the states.

Did We Miss a Legal Term?  Let Us Know!

This covers the legal terms that readily come to mind.  If there are more you think we should include, let us know by contacting us.  We will put your suggestions in the glossary and even give you credit if you want us to!

Bob Leonard Law Group, PLLC

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* Our law firm maintains at least one pro bono case at all times.  We obtain our referrals from our local legal aid office, Legal Aid of North West Texas.   The State Bar of Texas asks that attorneys donate time to pro bono matters.