Glossary of Family Law Terms

In preparing the contents for the New Client Packet that the firm gives to new clients, I was asked to create a glossary of family law terms. I was probably too aggressive in doing so. I compiled a list of 66 terms and definitions of terms relevant to our Minnesota and Wisconsin cases. While we aren't providing all of these to clients new to the legal process and all of the terms they need to appreciate, I can publish this laundry list here for your edification and reference. Enjoy?!

Adjudicated Father

A man that a court or a Recognition of Parentage (ROP) says is the legal father of the child.

Affidavit

A written document made under oath. The person signing it is saying that these are the facts as they know them.

Alimony

See Spousal Maintenance

Alternative Dispute Resolution

This is a general term for methods of resolving cases outside of the courtroom.  ENEs, as well as mediation and arbitration, are forms of ADR. 

Answer & Counter-Petition

The written response of a party who gets served with the Summons and Petition for Divorce. The Answer contains the factual background and the relief requested from the answering party’s perspective. The Answer must be served within thirty (30) days from the date that it is served.

Appeal

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

Arbitration

A process where a neutral third party decides an issue either because the Court ordered arbitration or because the parties agreed to use arbitration.

Basic Support

The law states that basic support includes the dollar amount ordered for a child's housing, food, clothing, transportation, and education costs; as well as other expenses relating to the child's care. Child support is calculated under the "computation of child support obligation" statute.  Basic support does not include monetary contributions for a child's child care expenses and medical support.

Best Interests of the Child (BIOC)

Minnesota and Wisconsin law looks at what is best for the child when deciding about custody for the first time. This is called "Best Interests of the Child." It is a legal standard of 13+ factors.

Child

Under Minnesota Law, a “child” is anyone who is under the age of eighteen (18) or twenty (20) if the child is still in high school or is not capable of self-support.

Child Care Support

Based on the amount of work-related or education-related child care costs between parents.  Each parent's portion of the cost of child care is determined by the parent's proportionate share of the "PICS" amount, or Parental Income for determining Child Support, which is essentially each parent's gross incomes added together.  The child care obligation is further adjusted by the amounts of federal and state child care credit parents' receive.  See the statute here.

Child Support

Financial care and support of a child, including health, dental, education, and child care costs.

COBRA

A method for some employees to get health coverage after leaving employment.

Commencement

Divorce is started by having the other spouse served with a “Summons” and “Petition for Dissolution of Marriage“.

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. Neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin recognizes common law marriages.

Community Property

Community property is a legal term that describes the law in some states setting forth the prescribed division of that property that was acquired by the parties, either individually or as a couple, and includes the income of the parties. Some states divide community property equally, while others first make a determination of what constitutes community property and then make an equitable division of the property.

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.

Court

The judge or the room where judgment is made.  “The bench” is sometimes used to refer to the judge or the desk where he sits.

Custodial Parent

The spouse who has physical custody of the spouses' child or children.

Custody

See Legal Custody or Physical Custody.

Custody evaluation

A custody evaluation is a report, made by a neutral, containing recommendations for custody and parenting time related issues for family law litigants.  The neutral conducts an investigation by gathering information about the parents, children, and significant others and speaking with parent references.  Based on their investigation and the law, the evaluator provides recommendations to the court and parties for custody designations, parenting time schedules, and other parenting related decisions. The court can order an evaluation, or the parties may agree to hire a neutral to conduct an independent evaluation.  Some counties have a court services or domestic relations division which employs neutral evaluators.  In recent years, courts have ordered fewer evaluations (due to reduced funding), and some courts place an income limit restriction on the availability of custody evaluations.  For example in Ramsey County, evaluations through domestic relations are only available to parents with a combined income of $50,000.00 or less.  There are many private neutral evaluators available who will work for a fee, typically split by the parties.

Default

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

Default Judgment

Ruling by judge against someone who did not come or respond to the Court.

Discovery

Discovery is the information gathering phase of a law suit.  Discovery typically occurs sometime soon after filing of a law suit, with a deadline for completion usually a few months before trial.  Discovery can be used for several purposes but usually the purpose is to obtain evidence to assist in preparing a case for trial.  The most popular forms of discovery are “Requests for Interrogatories”, “Requests for Production of Documents”, “Requests for Admissions”, and “Depositions”.  Interrogatories are a formal way of saying you request the other party or witness provide sworn answers, in writing, to your questions.  Depositions are conducted orally, by asking the other party or witness questions in person.  The deposition is recorded by a court reporter and the court reporter provides a written transcript of the deposition afterwards.  The transcript gives the party requesting the deposition a solid idea of how the deponent will testify at trial and a method to impeach a witness's credibility should the witness change their version of events.  

District Court

Also called the “Trial Court”.  The District Court is the first tier of the state court system’s three tiers (Minnesota Court of Appeals and Minnesota Supreme Court being tiers two and three respectively).  Federal courts have the same structure.  Cases begin, and are initially filed in the district court.  Cases that aren’t resolved or dismissed eventually make their way to trial, before a district court Judge or Referee, who renders a decision.  Minnesota State district courts are divided into ten (10) districts.

Divorce or Dissolution

Divorce or dissolution of marriage is terms for the process by which the marriage of two people is terminated. It may also establish their right to remarry, distribute their property between them according to the law of the state in which they reside, determine whether either party will pay spousal support, and, if they have children, with whom the children shall live and whether one party will pay child support.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is sometimes referred to as intimate partner violence because it is not limited to parties living together. Domestic violence is the control of another through physical, verbal, emotional, psychological and spiritual violence. Intimate partner violence figures broadly in many family law issues, including child custody and visitation. Studies have shown that the period between initial separation and divorce can be the most dangerous for victims of domestic violence and their children.

Early Neutral Evaluation

This is one of the resources available mentioned above that will be discussed at your ICMC.  It’s “early” because it’s often right after the ICMC so before the case has really headed too far down the litigation track.  It’s “neutral” because it involves someone who doesn’t know anything about your family.  It’s an “evaluation” because, unlike a traditional mediation, the neutral(s) involved will give you an opinion about what they think after hearing some facts from you and the other party about your case.

Equitable Distribution

The division of property between the spouses, and usually only that property bought or acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage. Taking into account all of the circumstances of the parties division or property is completed according to the equities of those circumstances, which isn't necessarily equal.

Financial Early Neutral Evaluation

Typically only in Minnesota divorce cases, an ENE as described above which involves financial issues such as division of assets and liabilities and cash flow issues like spousal maintenance and child support.  An FENE just involves one neutral, usually an attorney or an accountant.  After providing the evaluator with information regarding your assets, liabilities, income, and expenses, the evaluator will then explain to you, based on their family court experience, what they think a likely outcome is for your case and see if they can help you and your spouse reach an agreement on the financial issues in your case.

Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)

An advocate for a child whose welfare is a matter of concern for the court.  The court will appoint a GAL upon its own initiative or on the request of a party.  Some GALs are compensated, other are voluntary.  Each district court has a roster of GALs who serve in family court and other matters where a child’s welfare is at issue.  The GAL is required to provide an independent analysis of what is in the best interest of the child, and report their findings and conclusions to the court and parties.  Some information obtained by the GAL, typically impressions of the child, may be deemed confidential by the court and not shared with the parents.  GALs are required to follow the procedures as stated in Rule 905 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice.

Initial Case Management Conference

An ICMC is a chance to meet the judicial officer assigned to your case and discuss resources that might be available to you for resolving your case without proceeding to litigation.  There are no arguments made or decisions issued at an ICMC.  Depending on the judge, he or she may not even wear a robe or sit on the bench.  There’s no court reporter taking anything down, unless you have agreements which you would like to formalize on the record.

Irretrievable Breakdown

The legal grounds for no-fault divorces.

Joint Physical Custody

When the child lives part-time with one parent and part-time with another parent. Joint physical custody is not always 50/50 between the parents.

Judgment and Decree

This is what we are trying to get to, in most cases.  This is the final order of the court in your case.  A Stipulated J&D is one that is agreed upon between the parties.

Legal Custody

The parent(s) with legal custody make the big decisions in the child’s life. Things like choices about the child’s school, religion, and major medical decisions. The court likes parents to have joint legal custody. This means that they have equal rights in making decisions. But, if there has been domestic abuse or if the parents cannot get along at all, the court does not want them to have joint legal custody.

Marital Property

All property acquired during the marriage with some exclusions

Mediation

Many Decrees and Custody orders require parties participate in mediation before bringing their matter before the court.  Please see your Decree or Order.  Minnesota courts also require divorce filers to complete mediation or some other form of alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”). A mediator typically will not express an overall opinion, but attempt to assist the parties in resolving the issues themselves.

Medical support

Based on the cost of health care coverage for the child, whether those costs are health plan premiums, deductibles, co-pays, costs for public coverage, or uncovered plan costs.  Each parent's portion of the medical support obligation is determined by the parent's proportionate share of PICS, or Parental Income for determining Child Support; which is essentially each parent's gross incomes added together.  Generally, parent's are required to cover their children's health care costs through the best available coverage available to the parents through their employers.  For a description of how the court arrives at that determination, please review the statute. If employer sponsored coverage is unavailable, parents are encouraged to apply for Minnesota Care or Medical Assistance through the state of Minnesota.

Motion

Cases begin with the filing of a Complaint or Petition.  Once a case is filed, requests for any court action must be brought by motion.  A motion is brought within a case filed in court requesting the court do something.  Typically, the request is that the court decide on a disputed issue within the case by issuing an order.  Motions are brought to address issues necessary for resolution prior to trial, and sometimes issues arising after trial.  It is a written (sometimes oral) application to the court to obtain a ruling or order directing that some act be done in favor of the applicant. The applicant is known as the moving party, or the Movant.  Procedural rules require most motions to be made in writing and can require that written notice be given in advance of a motion being made.

No Fault Divorce

A divorce that doesn't require one spouse to prove the other spouse's fault or misconduct before being entitled to a divorce.

Non-Custodial Parent

The spouse who doesn't have physical custody of the spouses' child or children.

Non-Marital Property

Property that belongs to only one spouse, because of pre-marital possession, inheritance, or gifting, and won't be included in any equitable distribution of property.

Order

A court's ruling or decision on a certain matter or legal issue, usually a decision on a motion filed by one spouse.

Order for Protection

This is a no contact order involving family or household members where domestic abuse has been alleged to have been committed by one party against the other party or a child on whose behalf the protective order is being sought.

Parenting Time

Under Minnesota law this is the time that a parent spends with the child. It does not matter who has physical custody. Mostly, Parenting Time is used when talking about the parent who does not have physical custody and the time they spend with the child. This used to be called "visitation" in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Paternity

This term has to do with who is the "legal father" of a child. The biological father is not always the legal father. Only the legal father has the rights and responsibilities of a father. Paternity can be established when both the mother and father sign a Recognition of Parentage (ROP) or with a paternity action in court. You do not have to have genetic testing (DNA testing) before deciding paternity, but is often a good idea.

Paternity Order

A court order that says who the legal father is. The paternity order also tells you what rights the parents have. The order might say who has physical and legal custody of the child, and if parenting time is given to the noncustodial parent.

Petition for Divorce

The “Petition for Dissolution of Marriage” is a legal document that contains the facts of the marriage from the initiating party’s perspective. At the end of the document, it requests certain relief.  The recipient has 30 days to respond.

Petitioner

The spouse who filed the divorce petition; same as "plaintiff."

Physical Custody

The child lives with the parent who has physical custody. That parent is in charge of the child’s day-to-day care. One parent can have sole physical custody or both parents can have joint physical custody. Mostly, the courts give sole physical custody to one parent. One parent can have sole physical custody even if both parents have joint legal custody.

Placement

Under Wisconsin law the amount of time and a schedule that the non-custodial parent (parent that does not have physical custody) spends with the minor child.

Presumption of Paternity

In some cases, the court will take for granted that a certain man is the father of a child, like a husband. The man has to prove he is NOT the father if he does not agree.

Pretrial

A Pretrial is a Court Hearing that is typically used as an opportunity to settle the case (sometimes, with the Judge’s assistance) on a permanent basis.

Pro Se

Pro Se is Latin for "for oneself." Pro se means that you do not have an attorney and are representing yourself in court.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order

This is an order which would come after your J&D which divides retirement assets.  If one spouse is awarded some or all of a retirement asset in the other party’s name, the QDRO tells the plan administrator for the company through which the asset is held to whom and how much of the asset to transfer.

Recognition of Parentage

This is a document, often signed at the hospital soon after the birth of a child born to unwed parents, in which both parties recognize that the male signing the document is the father of the child.  This document says that they acknowledge the father-child relationship without the need for paternity testing.  However, this document does not give the father any custody or parenting time rights.  In order to establish those rights, an action must be commenced in district court in the county where the mother or the child resides. 

Referee

A District Court Referee is very similar to a Judge.  Referees hear matters in district court and render decisions, just like a Judge does.  However, the law requires that a district court Judge confirm the Referee’s decision.  In my experience, and the experience of other attorneys I have spoken with, Judges rarely disagree with a Referee’s decision.  Referees mostly serve in Hennepin and Ramsey County District Courts, and serve in several areas, including family court, housing court and probate court.

Respondent

The party to a case who is served the initial documents

Service

Delivering a legal document to one of the parties in a way which follows legal requirements for serving.

Social/Custody & Parenting Time Early Neutral Evaluation

An SENE as described above which involves issues related to the children, included legal custody, physical custody, and parenting time schedules.  In order to ensure no gender bias, this process involves two neutrals, one male and one female, typically family law attorneys, social workers, or psychologists.  You will have the opportunity to tell the evaluators about the history of your relationship with the other parent, your relationship with your children, what you are asking for as an outcome in your case, and any concerns you have about the other parent.  You will also have the opportunity to hear the other parent tell the evaluators the same information from their perspective.  After hearing about the issues from both parties, the evaluators will confer and then give you recommendations on their opinion(s) as to likely outcomes in your case.  After hearing their recommendations, they will help you and the other parent try to reach an agreement which is in your children’s best interests.

Spousal Maintenance / Spousal Support

Previously referred to as Alimony, Spousal Maintenance in Minnesota and Spousal Support in Wisconsin is the post-divorce financial support provided by one spouse to the other spouse.

Summons

The “Summons” is a legal document that directs both parties not to harass the other party; not to change or cancel any insurance policies or beneficiaries to insurance; not to dispose any property unless it is to meet necessary living expenses or to pay for a lawyer for the Divorce proceeding.

Temporary Hearing

Once the Divorce case is filed, either party can ask the Court through written pleadings for certain relief on a temporary basis.  Meeting with the judge to seek temporary action is called a “Temporary Hearing”.  The Court’s relief is set forth in a “Temporary Order” and lasts until the parties settle the case on a permanent basis or the case is decided at trial.

Temporary Support

Payments made by one spouse to the other for financial support while the divorce action is pending.

Visitation

See Parenting Time and/or Placement