Family Law – Glossary of Terms

Family Law Glossary

For more information, see our Family Law and Family Law Frequently Asked Questions page.

Note: The following definitions listed in this Family Law Glossary are intended to be helpful, BUT they are not intended to constitute legal advice or address every possible meaning of the terms contained in it.

Adjudicated – Settled by a court of law.

Affiant – The person who makes and signs an Affidavit.

Affidavit – a written statement voluntarily made in which the facts stated are sworn or affirmed to be true before a Notary Public or Deputy Clerk.

Affidavit of Diligent Search – An Affidavit used to show that the Petitioner made all reasonable effort to find the Respondent, or where the Respondent was living or working before providing service by publication.

Agreement – A voluntary understanding between two or more persons.

Alimony – Money or property given by one spouse to their former spouse for the support of that spouse.

Answer – written response by a respondent that states whether he or she admits (agrees with) or denies (disagrees with) the allegations in the petition. Any allegations not specifically denied are considered to be admitted.

Appeal – asking a district court of appeal to review the decision in your case. There are strict procedural and time requirements for filing an appeal.

Appear or Appearance – To come into Court either in person or by an attorney, voluntarily agreeing to a Court’s jurisdiction.

Arbitration – A process whereby a neutral third person or panel considers the facts and arguments presented by the parties and their attorneys and renders a decision. (May be binding or nonbinding.)

Arrearage – Money that is overdue and not paid.

Asset – everything owned by you or your spouse, including property, cars, furniture, bank accounts, jewelry, life insurance policies, businesses, or retirement plans. An asset may be marital or nonmarital, but that distinction is for the court to determine if you and your spouse do not agree.

Attorney – a person with special education and training in the field of law who is a member in good standing of The Florida Bar and licensed to practice law in Florida. An attorney is the only person who is allowed to give you legal advice. An attorney may file your case and represent you in court, or just advise you of your rights before you file your own case. In addition to advising you of your rights, an attorney may tell you what to expect and help prepare you for court. In family law matters, you are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer, like a public defender in a criminal case. However, legal assistance is often available for those who are unable to hire a private attorney. You may consult the yellow pages of the telephone directory for a listing of legal aid or lawyer referral services in your area, or ask your local clerk of court or family law intake staff what services are available in your area. You may also obtain information from the Florida Supreme Court’s Internet site located at

Best interest: When a court enters a custody order, it considers the best interest of the children. In assessing the best interest, the court considers several factors, such as the child’s wishes, the characters of the parents, stability, etc.

Bond – money paid to the clerk of court by one party in a case, to be held and paid to an enjoined party in the event that the first party causes loss or damage of property as a result of wrongfully enjoining the other party.

Case Name – The names of the parties to the lawsuit(example “Smith v. Smith”)

Case Number – The number the Clerk assigned to a case for identification purposes.

Case Style – The case names and number.

Central Governmental Depository – the office of the clerk of court that is responsible for collecting and disbursing court-ordered alimony and child support payments. The depository also keeps payment records and files judgments if support is not paid.

Certificate of Service – a document that must be filed whenever a form you are using does not contain a statement for you to fill in showing to whom you are sending copies of the form. Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form 12.914 is the certificate of service form and contains additional instructions.

Certified Copy – a copy of a document(an order or final judgment), certified(signed and stamped) by the clerk of the circuit court to be an authentic copy.

Certified Mail – mail which requires the receiving party to sign as proof that they received it.

Child support – money paid(with legal obligation) from one parent to the other for the benefit of their dependent or minor child(ren). This is financial support for the child. Child support is based upon each parent’s income and the custody arrangement. A parent may be required to pay a certain monthly sum. A court may also allocate how medical, daycare and other expenses are to be paid.

Child Support Guidelines – Guidelines established by Florida statutes (F.S. 61.30) that provide a statutory minimum amount of child support based on the joint income of the parents and the number of minor children to be supported.

Child Support Guidelines Worksheet – A form which outlines the statutory formula to established minimum child support.

Civil Action – A legal action that is not criminal.

Clerk of the Circuit Court – elected official in whose office papers are filed, a case number is assigned, and case files are maintained. The clerk’s office usually is located in the county courthouse.

Cohabitation – To live together as husband and wife, with or without sexual relations.

Complaint – See petition.

Constructive Service – notification of the other party by newspaper publication or posting of notice at designated places when the other party cannot be located for personal service. You may also be able to use constructive service when the other party lives in another state. Constructive service is also called “service by publication.” However, when constructive service is used, the relief the Court may grant is limited. For more information on service, see the instructions for Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure Forms 12.910(a) and 12.913(b) and Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form 12.913(a).

Contempt – A willful disregard or disobedience of a Court Order.

Contested Divorce – When the respondent opposes one or more issues of the divorce petition.

Contested Issues – any or all issues upon which the parties are unable to agree and which must be resolved by the judge at a hearing or trial.

Contingent Asset – an asset that you may receive or get later, such as income, tax refund, accrued vacation or sick leave, a bonus, or an inheritance.

Contingent Liability – a liability that you may owe later, such as payments for lawsuits, unpaid taxes, or debts that you have agreed or guaranteed to pay if someone else does not.

Counter-Petition – a written request to the court for legal action (an affirmative relief for the respondent), which is filed by a respondent after being served with a petition.

Court Order – Any order made by a judge.

Custody – See Shared Parental Responsibility, Sole Custody and Rotation Custody.

Default – a failure of a party to respond to the pleading of another party. This failure to respond may allow the court to decide the case without input from the party who did not appear or respond.

Defendant – The person who is defending or denying, usually used in criminal case: however sometimes may be used in place of the word respondent.

Delinquent – late.

Dependent Children – children who depend on their parent(s) for support either because they are under the age of 18, they have a mental or physical disability that prevents them from supporting themselves, or they are in high school while between the ages of 18 and 19 and are performing in good faith with reasonable expectation of graduation before the age of 19.

Deposition – The sworn testimony (answers to questions) of a party or witness taken down by a court reporter outside of the courtroom and which may be reduced to writing in a transcript.

Deputy Clerk – an employee of the office of the clerk of court, which is usually located in the county courthouse or a branch of the county courthouse.

Dismiss – To end; to terminate a legal action.

Dissolution of Marriage – divorce; a court action to end a marriage.

Divorce – The legal process of dissolving a marriage.

Domestic Violence – A learned pattern of physical, verbal, sexual, and/or emotional behavior in
which one person in a relationship uses force, fear and intimidation to dominate or control the
other person, often with the threat or use of violence. Domestic violence is a crime.

Domestic Violence Injunctions – The law authorizes courts to issue protective orders (a special type of restraining order) where there has been violence or other forms of abuse within a family. These orders may include orders for custody, support and a parenting plan.

Enjoined – prohibited by the court from doing a specific act.

Equitable Distribution – Distribution of the marital assets and liabilities between the parties to a dissolution of marriage proceeding. Equitable distribution is presumed to be an equal division unless there is legal justification for an unequal distribution.

Evidence – Any kind of proof legally presented to the court (documents, testimony of witnesses, exhibits, objects, etc.).

Ex Parte – communication with the judge by only one party. In order for a judge to speak with either party, the other party must have been properly notified and have an opportunity to be heard. If you have something you wish to tell the judge, you should ask for a hearing or file information in the clerk of court’s office, with certification that a copy was sent to the other party.

Exclusive Use and Possestion – Allowing one spouse to use (without interference from the other spouse), property that belongs to both of them. Usually, the term refers to exclusive use and possession of a marital home, where one spouse resides in the home with the minor children and the other spouse has no rights to the home until the time the children reach the age of majority and/or the house is sold.

Family Law Case Manager – A court employee who helps parents without attorneys by providing assistance with common family law forms and giving information about court procedures and other sources of help in their communities.

Family Law Intake Staff – a court’s employee(s) who is (are) available to assist you in filing a family law case. Family law intake staff are not attorneys and cannot give legal advice. They may only assist you with filling out the form(s). Your local clerk’s office can tell you if your county has such assistance available.

Filing – delivering a petition, response, motion, or other pleading in a court case to the clerk of court’s office.

Filing Fee – an amount of money, set by law, that the petitioner must pay when filing a case. If you cannot afford to pay the fee, you must file an Application for Determination of Civil Indigent Status, to ask the clerk to file your case without payment of the fee. This form can be obtained from the clerk’s office.

Final Hearing – trial in your case.

Financial Affidavit – a sworn statement that contains information regarding your income, expenses(including monthly), assets, debts and liabilities.

Final Judgment – a written document signed by a judge and recorded in the clerk of the circuit court’s office that contains the judge’s decision in your case.

Foster Care – Care provided a child in a foster family or boarding home, group home, agency boarding home, child care institution, or any combination thereof.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL) – a neutral person who may be appointed by the court to evaluate or investigate your child’s situation, and file a report with the court about what is in the best interests of your child(ren). Guardians do not “work for” either party. The guardian may interview the parties, visit their homes, visit the child(ren)’s school(s) and speak with teachers, or use other resources to make their recommendation.

Hearing – a legal proceeding before a judge or designated officer (general magistrate or hearing officer) on a motion or other legal action that is handled in the courtroom. Parties and attorneys may call witnesses and introduce evidence. A judge will make a decision based on all the evidence and the decision will become a court order.

Holiday – Each family has certain holidays and special occasions that it celebrates. A parenting plan would specify who the child will spend holidays with and define each holiday so both parents know when it begins and when it ends.

Income – Any form of payment to an individual, regardless of source, including, but not limited to: wages, salary, commissions and bonuses, compensation as an independent contractor, worker’s compensation, disability benefits, annuity and retirement benefits, pensions, dividends, interest, royalties, trusts, and any other payments, made by any person, private entity, federal or state government, or any unit of local government.

Income Deduction Order – An order requiring a specific amount of money be taken directly out of a person’s paycheck by their employer and paid to another person for a Court ordered obligation (example: child support or alimony).

Injunction – A Court order to prevent a person from doing something, or to require them to do something.

IV-D Cases – Case in which services are provided pursuant to Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.s.C., usually to establish or enforce child support.

Judge – an elected official who is responsible for deciding matters on which you and the other parties in your case are unable to agree. A judge is a neutral person who is responsible for ensuring that your case is resolved in a manner which is fair, equitable, and legal. A judge is prohibited by law from giving you or the other party any legal advice, recommendations, or other assistance, and may not talk to either party unless both parties are present, represented, or at a properly scheduled hearing.

Judgment – See Court Order.

Judicial Assistant – the judge’s personal staff assistant.

Jurisdiction – The legal right and power of a Court to hear a case and make a decision; the legal right by which Judges exercise their authority. Some of the kinds of jurisdiction are: jurisdiction over: children, the parties, the property, the Subject matter; Personal jurisdiction and Proper jurisdiction.

Liabilities – everything owed by you or your spouse, including mortgages, credit cards, or car loans. A liability may be marital or non-marital, but that distinction is for the court to determine if you and your spouse do not agree.

Lump Sum Alimony – money or property ordered to be paid by one spouse to another in a limited number of payments, often a single payment. For example, the title to the marital home could be awarded as lump sum alimony.

Mandatory Disclosure – items that must be disclosed by both parties except those exempted from disclosure by Florida Family Law Rule 12.285.

Marital Asset – generally, anything that you and/or your spouse acquired or received (by gift or purchase) during the marriage(including retirement pension, insurance plans, etc). For example, something you owned before your marriage may be non-marital. An asset may only be determined to be marital by agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Marital Liability – generally, any debt that you and/or your spouse incurred during the marriage. A debt may only be determined to be non-marital by agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Mediation – A meeting with a trained, neutral third party who helps the parties try to solve problems cooperatively. Most courts provide mediation of custody and parenting plan problems up to a certain number of hours. Mediation may occur face to face or separately, if necessary. Mediation is confidential. The mediator does not tell the parents what they should do or make a recommendation to the court. Mediation may not be appropriate where there are safety issues or domestic violence concerns.

Mediator – a person who is trained and certified to assist parties in reaching an agreement before going to court. Mediators do not take either party’s side and are not allowed to give legal advice. They are only responsible for helping the parties reach an agreement and putting that agreement into writing. In some areas, mediation of certain family law cases may be required before going to court.

Minor (children) – A person under the age of 18.

Modification – Modification means change, a change made by the court in an order or final judgment. If you wish to change a previous order of the court, you may in the court file a supplement petition for Modification of Final Judgment.

Motion – a formal request filed to the court, other than a petition. A judge makes a decision to allow or deny the request, usually after a hearing or a trial.

No Contact – a court order directing a party not speak to, call, send mail to, visit, or go near his or her spouse, ex-spouse, child(ren), or other family member.

Non-Jury Trial – A trial in front of a Judge who makes all the decisions; family law cases in Florida are concluded as non-jury trials.

Non lawyer – a person who is not a member in good standing of The Florida Bar.

Nonmarital Asset – generally, anything owned separately by you or your spouse. An asset may only be determined to be nonmarital by either agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Nonmarital Liability – generally, any debt that you or your spouse incurred before your marriage or since your separation. A debt may only be determined to be nonmarital by either agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Non-Military Affidavit – An Affidavit that states whether a party has been in the military service for at least 30 days before a lawsuit is filed.

Nonparty – a person who is not the petitioner or respondent in a court case.

Notary Public – a person authorized to witness signatures on court related forms.

Obligee – a person to whom money, such as child support or alimony, is owed.

Obligor – a person who is ordered by the court to pay money, such as child support or alimony.

Order – a written decision signed by a judge and filed in the clerk of the circuit court’s office that contains the judge’s decision on part of your case, usually on a motion.

Original Petition – see Petition.

Parenting Course – a class that teaches parents how to help their child(ren) cope with divorce and other family issues.

Parenting Plan – A document that states when the child will be with each parent and how decisions will be made. The parenting plan may be developed by the parents, through mediation, with the help of attorneys or by a judge after a trial or hearing. See also Custody.

Parenting Time – The actual time a child is scheduled to spend with a parent. During parenting time that parent has primary responsibility for making routine decisions for the child but not major decisions. See also Custody.

Party – a person involved in a court case, either as a petitioner or respondent.

Paternity Action – A lawsuit used to determine whether a designated individual is the biological father of a specific child or children.

Paternity Complaint – A paper filed in court asking the court to determine that a particular man is the father of a child born to a woman not married to him and also to determine the custody and contact issues relating to the child, to develop a parenting plan and to determine child support.

Payee – The person that a check is made “payable to” or who is to receive payments.

Payor – an employer or other person who provides income to an obligor.

Pending – Begun, but not yet completed.

Perjury – Making a false statement under oath in Court or in an Affidavit.

Permanent Alimony (or Permanent Periodic Alimony) – spousal support ordered to be paid at a specified, periodic rate until modified by a court order, the death of either party, or the remarriage of the Obligee, whichever occurs first.

Personal Service – when a summons and a copy of a petition (or other pleading) that has been filed with the court are delivered by a deputy sheriff or private process server to the other party. Personal service is required for all petitions and supplemental petitions.

Petition – a written request to the court for legal action, which begins a court case.

Petitioner – the person or party who files a petition that begins a court case.

Pleading – a formal written statement of exactly what a party wants the court to do in a lawsuit or court action.

Post-Judgement – Any additional matters that are in front of the Court ater a final judgment is entered are considered post-divorce or post-judgment.

Postnuptial agreement – This is an agreement entered into by already married persons that sets forth how certain issues are to be addressed if a divorce arises. These agreements may be incorporated into a divorce decree.

Prenuptial agreement – This is an agreement entered into before a marriage that dictates how property, debt and support issues are to be addressed.

Primary Residential Parent – Typically, the primary residential parent is the parent with whom the children live the majority of the time.

Primary Residence – the home in which the child(ren) spends most of his/her (their) time.

Pro Bono – Free legal services provided to indigent parties.

Pro Se Litigant – a person who appears in court and represents him/herself without the assistance of a lawyer.

Pro Se Coordinator – see Family Law Intake Staff.

Property Settlement Agreement – An agreement made between the parties as part of the divorce proceeding which divides their property and allocates responsibility for liabilities. Usually titled “Marital Settlement Agreement” if made during the course of a dissolution action and includes agreements regarding children.

Reasonable Time-Sharing – visitation between the nonresidential parent and child(ren) that provides frequent and unhampered contact with the child(ren). Such visitation is designed to encourage a close and continuing relationship with due regard for educational commitments of child(ren), any health or social factors of the child(ren), business and personal commitments of both parents, and home arrangements of both parents.

Rehabilitative Alimony – spousal support ordered to be paid for a limited period of time to allow one of the parties an opportunity to complete a plan of education or training, according to a rehabilitative plan accepted by the court, so that he or she may better support himself or herself.

Respondent – the person who is served with a petition requesting some legal action against him or her.

Rotating Custody – physical custody of child(ren) after divorce, which is alternated between the mother and father at specified periods of time, as determined by the court. Rotating custody allows each parent equal time with the child(ren).

Ruling – See Court Order.

Safety Focused Parenting Plan – A parenting plan specially created for families where there is a mental illness, drug addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, or other circumstances that impact safety of the child or a parent. The Florida Judicial Department and State Family Law Advisory Committee are currently developing such a plan. If you determine that your situation requires a safety-focused parenting plan, you should consult with an attorney.

Scientific Paternity Testing – a medical test to determine who is the father of a child.

Self-Represented – An individual who files a court case without using the services of an attorney. See also Pro Se.

Service – the delivery of legal documents to a party. This must be accomplished as directed by Florida Family Law Rules 12.070 and 12.080.

Shared Parental Responsibility – an arrangement under which both parents have full parental rights and responsibilities for their child(ren), and the parents make major decisions affecting the welfare of the child(ren) jointly. Shared Parental Responsibility is presumptive in Florida. Defined in the Florida Statutes as “a court-ordered relationship in which both parents retain full parental rights and responsibilities with respect to their child and in which both parents confer with each other so that the major decisions affecting the welfare of the child will be determined jointly”.

Social Investigation – A formal review of the parties, their homes and the people and circumstances affecting the children done by an outside party upon order of the Court. It may be used to help the Court make decisions on custody and visitation issues.

Sole Parental Responsibility – a parenting arrangement under which the responsibility for the minor child(ren) is given to one parent by the court, with or without rights of visitation to the other parent.

Specified Time-sharing – a parenting arrangement under which a specific schedule is established for the visitation arid exchange of the child(ren).

Spouse – a husband or wife.

Spousal Maintenance – In a divorce, one spouse may be required to make payments to the other. This is often called alimony. Spousal maintenance may be required if one spouse lacks sufficient assets to provide for their reasonable needs.

Spousal Support – Payments made to one spouse by the other spouse based on need and ability to pay. (Alimony.)

Subpoena – Command to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony on a specific matter.

Summons – Document served by the Sheriff or Process Server telling the respondent that an action has been filed against them and that they are required to appear and answer a complaint.

Supervised Visitation – a parenting arrangement under which visitation between a parent and his or her child(ren) is supervised by either a friend, family member, or a supervised visitation center.

Supplemental Petition – a petition that may be filed by either party after the judge has made a decision in a case and a final judgment or order has been entered. For example, a supplemental petition may be used to request that the court modify the previously entered final judgment or order.

Temporary Relief Hearing – A Court proceeding seeking an order lasting for a limited period of time.

Transcript – A written record of a trial, hearing, or other proceeding. A certified court reporter prepares an official copy.

Trial – the final hearing in a contested case.

UCCJA Affidavit – Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Affidavit.

Uncontested – any and all issues on which the parties are able to agree and which are part of a marital settlement agreement.

Vacate – To set aside; usually pertains to an order.

Witness – A person who testifies in Court about what he/she has seen, heard, observed, or knows.

Legal terminology in family law cases can be confusing. To help navigate and represent you in a family law case, such as a divorce, child custody or support matter, you should contact the Law Offices of Matthew Z. Martell to speak with a family lawyer in Sarasota FL. Following are some commonly used terms in family law.

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