The Language of Family Law
A Glossary of Common Legal Terms
-- A --
Action: The legal term for lawsuit.
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ): The person who decides appeals from the decisions
of government agencies such as the Department of Social and Health Services.
ADR/Alte rnative Dispute Resolution: Methods of resolving legal disputes without a
trial, including arbitration, mediation, and settlement conference (see definitions below
for the terms arbitration, mediation, and settlement conference).
Advocate: Someone who speaks on behalf of another, frequently a lawyer or paralegal.
Affidavit: A statement made under oath and notarized by a Notary Public. Affidavits
are no longer required in Washington; instead, courts use Declarations (see definition
Affidavit of Paternity: An affidavit signed by an unmarried mother and father (and the
mother's husband if she is married to someone else) stating who the child's father is.
Agreement: A written resolution of a disputed issue or issues. Sometimes called a
Alimony: This term, used in other jurisdictions, is replaced with the term “maintenance”
in Washington State (see definition of “maintenance” below).
Amendment: An addition or modification that changes something such as a law, rule or
Annulment: A determination that an apparent marriage was never valid. This
determination is called a "declaration of invalidity" in Washington State.
Ans wer: The pleading served in response to a petition for divorce, separation, or
declaration of invalidity which admits or denies the petition’s allegations, and which may
also make claims against the other party.
Appeal: The process whereby a higher court reviews proceedings and determines
whether an error was made that warrants a change of the lower court’s decision.
Appearance: The formal method of telling the court that you submit to the court’s
jurisdiction. May be done in person at a Court hearing or in writing.
Glossary of Terms – Page 1 of 11
Arbitration: The submission of a dispute between two parties to a neutral third party
(not a judge) to make a decision. Arbitration of disputes under parenting plans must
always be immediately appealable to a court. Other disputes may, by agreement of the
parties, be subject to binding arbitration. See also "med iation," a separate process
sometimes confused with arbitration, and "settlement conference."
Arrears: Money owed but not paid.
Attorney of Record: An attorney who has filed either a Notice of Appearance or any
court papers in the case.
-- B --
Bailiff: The person in charge of courtroom procedure and security.
Beneficiary: A person who receives benefits or advantage (for example, money from an
Breach: A failure to carry out an agreement or legal obligation.
-- C --
Calendar: The court's schedule of cases to be heard, also called a Docket.
Caption: The heading of each legal document that contains the name of the court, the
names of the parties, the case number, and the name of the document itself.
Certified Copy: A copy of the document from the court file made by the court clerk that
has an official stamp on it. There is usually a charge for a certified copy.
Chambe rs: The private office of a Judge or Commissioner, where s/he hears motions
and signs orders when not holding court.
Child Support: Financial support for a child (not taxable to the recipient or deductible
to the payer spouse).
Clerk of the Court: An officer in the County Clerk's Office who handles clerical
matters like keeping records, filing documents and providing certified copies.
Commissioner (Court Commissioner): This person is similar to a judge but only
makes decisions relating to a particular subject matter. Many counties have family law
commissioners who decide cases only in family law, such as dissolutions.
Community Property: The property you and your spouse acquired during your
marriage (compare “separate property,” defined below). This includes wages, pensions
and other benefits from employment during your marriage.
Glossary of Terms – Page 2 of 11
Compensation: Something you are owed.
Complaint: The initial request or plea to a court in a civil matter.
Co-parent counseling: Structured sessions with two parents, facilitated by a therapist, in
an effort to: reduce parental conflict, which is the primary predictor of child adjustment;
facilitate parent adjustment, which promotes responsive parenting; support family
reorganization and restore equilibrium; implement the parenting plan and solve routine
parenting problems; promote emotional and psychic divorce through practicing behavior;
and enhance parent-child relationship through skill development and play.
Collaborative law: A practice in which the parties and their attorneys formally contract
to negotiate in good faith and to refrain from using the court system except to formalize
agreements reached through negotiation. If either party files a contested matter in court,
under a formal collaborative law contract, both attorneys must withdraw and both clients
retain new counsel and new experts.
Consideration: Something of value.
Contempt of Court: Failure to obey a court order.
Contested: A case that is being disputed or litigated.
Continuance: Postponing your court hearing to a later date.
Counterclaim: A claim filed by a defendant against the plaintiff in a civil action.
Creditor: Someone owed money.
Cross-Examination: The questioning of a witness by the opposing party during a trial
or at a deposition.
Custody: The use of this term in Washington State was largely superseded by the term
"parenting” upon enactment of the Parenting Act of 1987. The term survives largely
because some federal statutes require a determination of which parent has physical
control of a child the majority of the time. The term also survives in statutory law when
referring to non-parents who are caring for children pursuant to court order.
-- D --
Debtor: Someone who owes money.
Declaration: A written statement made to the court that the signer swears is true.
Glossary of Terms – Page 3 of 11
Declaration of Invalidity: The formal name in Washington State for what is popularly
called an "annulment" of marriage. The court declares that the marriage is invalid.
Decree: The final court order in your dissolution. It includes the property division and
the arrangements made for the care and support of your children.
Default: Failure to respond to a lawsuit.
Default Order (Order of Default): An Order that is entered after a party fails to
respond to court papers within the designated time.
Defendant: A person being sued in a civil matter.
Deferment: A postponement of a responsibility to a later date.
Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS): The government agency that runs
Washington State's aid and welfare programs.
Deposition: A series of questions and answers that a person is required to answer under
oath during the course of a lawsuit.
Direct Examination: The initial questioning in court of a witness by the lawyer who
called him/her to the stand.
Discovery: The part of any lawsuit during which the parties obtain information useful to
proceeding with their case. Can be done formally through interrogatories, requests for
production, and subpoenas, or informally between the parties and attorneys
Dissolution of Marriage: The formal name for divorce in Washington State.
Division of Child Support: A state agency that helps one parent (or guardian) collect
child support from the other parent.
-- E --
Emancipation: The point in time when parental duties of care for a child stop.
Encryption: A method of protecting confidential communications by encoding them in
such a way that an outsider cannot easily crack the code.
Equitable Distribution of Prope rty: A system of distributing property in connection
with a dissolution on the basis of factors beyond who holds title to the property.
Escrow Account: An account where money owed is kept until it is supposed to be paid.
Estate: The property of a deceased person.
Glossary of Terms – Page 4 of 11
Evidence: Documents, testimony, or other material offered to prove or disprove
Exempt Property: Property that can not be taken to pay off a debt.
Ex Parte: An application for court relief without notifying the other party.
-- F --
Filing: Giving court papers to the court clerk to place in the case file.
Forbearance: An agreement not to collect money owed.
Foreclosure: Proceeding by a creditor to take back land.
Forfeiture: The loss of property. Also the procedure by which the seller on a real estate
contract takes back the property due to non-payment.
-- G --
Garnishment: An order requiring that a creditor be given either a part of ones wages or
money in a bank account.
General Assistance Une mployable (GAU): A state program for poor people who can
not work because of a disability.
Grantee: Someone who gets something.
Grantor: Someone who gives something.
Grounds: The reasons for granting a dissolution.
Guardian: A person appointed by a judge to look after the interests and to manage the
affairs of a minor or a person who is unable to manage them him/her self.
Guardian Ad Lite m: A person appointed by the court to look after the interests of a
minor or an incapacitated person in a proceeding such as a dissolution or a guardianship.
-- H --
Hearing: Going before a judge or court commissioner to request a court order.
Hold Harmless: Where one spouse assumes liability for an obligation and promises to
protect the other spouse from any loss or expense in connection with it.
Glossary of Terms – Page 5 of 11
Home State: The state where the parties were living six months before the action is
filed. The home state court is generally the court with jurisdiction to make final
determinations in a dissolution case.
-- I --
Incapacitated: A person found by a judge to have a mental or physical condition which
makes him/her unable to manage his/her own affairs.
Incompetent: A person who, because of a mental or physical disability, is unable to
look after his or her own affairs.
Indemnification: The promise to reimburse another person in case of a loss.
In Forma Pauperis: A Latin term which means you may file your papers in court
without paying the filing fee if you cannot afford the fee.
Intestate: Dying without a will.
Inte rrogatories: Written questions one party asks another to discover certain facts. The
other party is required to respond in writing under oath within 30 days.
Irretrievably Broken: The basis for getting a divorce. It means that you cannot
successfully continue your marriage.
-- J --
Joinder: Both spouses ask the court together to dissolve their marriage, divide the
property and make arrangements for the children.
Judgment: The decision of a judge.
Juris diction: The authority of a court to hear and decide cases. Jurisdiction is
determined by the geographic location of the court and the subject matter of the case.
-- L --
Legal Separation: A court judgment or written agreement directing or authorizing
spouses to live separate and apart. A decree of separation does not dissolve the marriage
or allow the parties to remarry, but may resolve financial claims.
Lien: A claim or charge against property or another asset for the payment of a debt.
-- M --
Glossary of Terms – Page 6 of 11
Maintenance: Washington State's word for spousal support, sometimes called
"alimony" in other jurisdiction. Funds paid from the primary wage earner party to the
party making less money. This amount is separate from the amount of money paid for
support of the children. Occurs only in dissolution cases, not meretricious relationships.
Maintenance payments are tax-deductible to the payor and taxable to the recipient.
Mediation: The use of a neutral third-party to assist parties involved in a dispute in
reaching a resolution. Unlike an arbitrator, a mediator does not make a decision for the
parties. The mediator may or may not exp ress opinions about the desirability of various
outcomes to the dispute. See also "arbitration and "settlement conference" elsewhere in
Meretricious Relations hip: The older term for a cohabitation relationship that is
"marriage like," defined by the courts and not by statute.
Modification: A change.
Motion: A request to a court to for some particular relief, such as temporary support,
injunction, or attorney’s or expert’s fees.
-- N --
Notary Public: A person who authenticates a signature by determining that the person
signing is truly the person of that name.
Note for Motion: A written request to the clerk to schedule your case for a hearing.
Notice of Appearance: A paper filed with the court showing that a party knows of the
case and where to send papers filed in the future.
-- O --
Opposing Party: The person or organization you are in conflict with.
Orde r: A court document signed by a judge or commissioner that gives an order and
requires that someone do or not do something.
Orde r on Show Cause: The court order entered after a hearing on an order to show
Orde r to Show Cause: A court order which, when personally served on a party,
requires him or her to appear in court to respond to a request for court orders by another
Overpayment: Money paid to you that you are not entitled to.
Glossary of Terms – Page 7 of 11
-- P --
Parentage: An action filed to establish child support and a parenting plan when the
child's parents are unmarried. Also called "paternity."
Parenting: This concept replaced the concepts of "custody" and "visitation," except in
very limited contexts involving non-parents and certain federal statutes, in Washington
State by the Parenting Act of 1987.
Parenting Evaluation: A court-ordered investigation and report to the court regarding
the relative parenting skills of two parents and the needs of the children involved.
Parenting evaluators can be guardians ad litem, attorneys or mental health professionals.
Parenting evaluations can be ordered in any case involving the welfare of children and
disputes as to their proper care.
Parenting functions: As defined by RCW 26.09.004, “parenting functions” means those
aspects of the parent-child relationship in which the parent makes decisions and performs
functions necessary for the care and growth of the child. Parenting functions include:
a) Maintaining a loving, stable, consistent, and nurturing relationship with the child;
b) Attending to the daily needs of the child, such as feeding, clothing, physical care
and grooming, supervision, health care, and day care, and engaging in other
activities which are appropriate to the developmental level of the child and that
are within the social and economic circumstances of the particular family;
c) Attending to adequate education for the child, including remedial or other
education essential to the best interests of the child;
d) Assisting the child in developing & maintaining appropriate interpersonal
e) Exercising appropriate judgment regarding the child's welfare, consistent with the
child's developmental level & the family's social & economic circumstances; and
f) Providing for the financial support of the child.
Parenting Plan: A Court Order entered in a dissolution, legal separation, or parentage
action containing the following provisions regarding children: (1) residential schedule,
(2) decision- making, and (3) dispute resolution. A “temporary” parenting plan is a plan
for parenting of the child(ren) pending final resolution of any action for dissolution of
marriage, declaration of invalidity, or legal separation. A “permanent” parenting plan is
incorporated in any final Decree.
Perjury: Telling a lie under oath.
Petition: A legal pleading making a formal request. The first pleading in an action for
dissolution, setting forth the allegations on which the requested relief is based.
Glossary of Terms – Page 8 of 11
Petitione r: The party who files the petition for dissolution.
Pleading: Formal legal documents of the parties giving their respective claims and
Prenuptial Agreement: A contract between a man and a woman who are intending to
marry which alters or varies Washington State law regarding the distribution of property
upon separation or divorce or upon the death of one party to the contract.
Pro Bono: For free.
Process: Written notification to appear in court (see Summons)
Pro Se: Acting without the aid of an attorney; representing yourself.
Prosecutor: The lawyer that represents the government.
Protection Orde r: A court order protecting a survivor of domestic violence against
further acts of aggression by a batterer.
Protective Order: A court order protecting documents or information in the hands of
one party from discovery by the other party.
-- R --
Revised Code of Washington (RCW): The statutory laws of the State of Washington.
Real Property: Land and any houses or other buildings on it.
Reconsideration: A request that a judge review his or her previous ruling in a case.
Replevin: A form of legal action used to retrieve perso nal property of one party
wrongfully kept by another. Can be used to require the return of personal property after a
dissolution is finalized.
Repossession: A right, under contract, to take back property when the debt to pay for the
property has not been paid.
Request for Production: A formal request from one party to another for documents in
the possession of that party (tax returns, business records, old love letters...). The
response to a request for production of documents must be made under oath.
Residential Time/Residential Schedule: Visitation and custody. The residential
schedule of the Parenting Plan states the time that each parent will spend with the
Glossary of Terms – Page 9 of 11
Respondent: The party who is responsible to answer a legal action; the non-petitioning
Response: A formal written answer to a petition filed with the court by the respondent.
Restitution: Money one must pay to compensate another for damages.
Restraining Orde r: A court order to prevent a spouse from doing some act that may
harm the other spouse.
Retainer: Popular term for an "advance fee deposit," or funds an attorney requires be
paid in advance and placed in trust in expectation of fees to be billed by the attorney.
Ruling: A decision by the court.
-- S --
Sealed File: A court file to which the general public does not have access, either by
statute, because of the type of case (typically a parentage action) or by court order
(typically because of the specific facts of the case).
Sealed Record: A document that is not publicly available found within a file that is
generally open to the public. Most financial records within a dissolution file in
Washington State are now sealed records.
Separate Property: Property belonging to one spouse only, usually either acquired
before or after the marriage, by gift or inheritance during the marriage, or else derived
from those sources. Note that all property, both separate and community, is before the
trial court for division during a dissolution of marriage.
Service: Giving court papers to the other party by hand delivering, sending them by
certified mail or notifying the other party of the dissolution case through publication of a
notice in a newspaper.
Settlement Confe rence: A form of ADR, defined elsewhere in this glossary. Required
in King County in every dissolution and parenting plan modification case, and desirable
in all sorts of litigation. A settlement conference is a structured attempt, usually
facilitated by a neutral third party who expresses opinions regarding the likely outcome
of the case in court, to reach agreement by compromise on one or all aspects of a case
without going to trial.
Subpoena: The means by which an attorney, with or without court assistance, can
require the appearance of a person at a deposition or trial and require that person to bring
specified documents within their control with them.
Subpoena Duces Tecum: A subpoena issued in order to obtain documents.
Glossary of Terms – Page 10 of 11
Summons: Notice that a lawsuit has been filed and an explanation of ho w to respond.
Suppleme ntal Security Income (SSI): A federal program for poor people who cannot
work because of a disability.
-- T --
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): The state welfare program.
Temporary Orde rs: Court orders entered and in effect while a case is proceeding from
filing to settlement or trial. They can restrain parties from taking certain actions (e.g.
concealing assets), require them to take certain actions (e.g. paying bills), and can
provide a temporary schedule for the children's residential time and maintenance and
support for the family to be paid by the primary wage earner.
Testator: A person who leaves property through a will.
-- U --
UCCJA Declaration: A declaration required by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction
Act which you must include in the petition. This informs the court where the children of
the marriage have lived and with whom.
Unlawful Detainer: The court action used by a landlord to evict a tenant.
-- V --
Venue: The county where the case should be filed, usually the county where you live.
Sometimes parties will seek to change venue to another county.
Glossary of Terms – Page 11 of 11