The terms to know when going through a divorce

Make sure you have the basics down before you get started.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

Even when you know it’s the right move, getting divorced is incredibly difficult.

Our clients and those of us who have gone through divorce know one thing that makes it a little easier: understanding the legal terms you’ll encounter throughout the process.

Who’s involved in a divorce?


Also sometimes known as the applicant or plaintiff

The person who files for divorce or fills out the application for divorce


Also sometimes known as the defendant

The person who receives the divorce application, or is served the paperwork

Divorce attorney 

Also known as a lawyer or family law attorney

The person with a law degree and a license to practice law that you hire to help you with your divorce

Pro se

Latin for for himself

This means you represent yourself without an attorney

What are the different kinds of divorce?

Uncontested divorce

You and your spouse agree on all the terms of your divorce: property, childcare, assets and more.

This is a much more straightforward process. Although your settlement and final divorce will need to be approved by a judge before your divorce is final, uncontested divorces often bypass court altogether.

Though it’s never easy, an uncontested divorce is simpler, saving you considerable time, money and aggravation.

Contested divorce

You and your spouse don’t agree on all of the major issues and rely on the court to determine the final outcome.

This is what people traditionally think of when they think of a divorce—a couple on opposite sides of a court case with a judge deciding who gets what and how. Surprisingly, only a small fraction of contested cases end up in a formal court trial. Judges often encourage spouses to settle out of court, which can ultimately save time, money and a lot of headaches.

Default divorce
This is a divorce where the responding party either: 

  • Doesn’t respond to the divorce petition by the court’s allotted time 
  • Doesn’t show up to court 

In this case, the court defaults to the requests made by the petitioner.

Do you need a legal reason to get divorced? 

In most states, you can get a no fault divorce.

No-fault divorce

This is a divorce based on irreconcilable differences. A no-fault divorce doesn’t require either of the parties to show any wrongdoing by their spouse. This is how the majority of people get divorced. 

General terms

Petition for Divorce
This is the legal document filed in court by the petitioner. This document is the start of divorce proceedings in the court.

Divorce summons 
This is the legal document that tells the responding party that a divorce case has been filed in court.

Verified complaint
This is the legal complaint signed and filed by the plaintiff. It contains one or more grounds for divorce and asks the court for relief.

Examples include: no fault, child custody, visitation, child support maintenance, division of assets and alimony. 

Marital settlement agreement
This is a legally binding contract, written and signed by both spouses, that outlines the terms of your settlement agreement

This is the official process to legalize a document performed by a notary public. The process ensures that a document is authentic and was signed by that person of their own free will. 

This is an official legal request made by the prosecution, plaintiff or defense to the court. All motions are ruled on by a judge.

Examples include: A request to exclude specific evidence or dismiss the case.

Custody and visitation terms

What’s custody? 

Custody is the legal and practical relationship between parents and children, where parents make decisions for the child and care for them.

  • Joint custody
    Describes a situation where both parents make decisions about the child. The joint custody can be both physical and legal.
  • Legal custody
    Describes the parent who’s able to make legal decisions about the child. Examples of decisions include medical, educational and religious.
  • Physical custody 
    Describes the parent with whom the child lives most of the time, in cases where parental custody is split unevenly.
  • Sole custody
    Describes a situation where one parent has both physical and legal custody of the child. The other parent may have visitation rights, but can not make any decisions about the child.

What’s visitation? 

Sometimes it’s not possible to divide the time evenly between two parents or guardians. In most cases, the person without primary physical custody receives visitation rights. Visitation rights are a plan for arranging visits with the child and are very unique from one family to the next. 

Child and spousal support terms

Child support

Child support is a payment made by one parent to the other to help with the cost of caring for your child or children.

Spousal support

Spousal support is the payments made by one spouse to another, during the ongoing divorce case. The court can award this as needed. 


Alimony is the payments made by one spouse to another, after the divorce is finalized. The court can award this as needed.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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