Your Divorce Glossary: A-to-Z Terms You Need to Know

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As if the decision of getting divorced isn’t stressful enough, there’s the issue of trying to internalize what feels like an entirely new language of legalese that’s unavoidable during the process. Whether you are just beginning the process or are well on your way to the conclusion, understanding the confusing jargon can make all the difference. So we put together a glossary of terms you will be hearing a lot of to help you navigate every step of the process.

Affidavit: A written statement of facts made under oath and signed before a Notary Public. Affidavits are used primarily when there will not be a hearing in open court with live testimony. The attorney will prepare an affidavit to present relevant facts. The person signing the affidavit is referred to as the “Affiant”. 

Allegation (or Averment): A statement that one party claims is true. 

Answer: A written response to the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. It serves to admit or deny the allegations (or averments) in the Petition and may also make claims against the opposing party. We often refer to the Answer as a “responsive pleading”. An Answer should be filed within thirty (30) days of either (a) the Petition being served or (b) the Respondent’s voluntary appearance being filed with the Court. 

Appeal: The process by which a higher court reviews the decision of a lower court. In Missouri, a person will first file an appeal with the Missouri Court of Appeals. After that appeal is decided there may be a further appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. 

Child Custody: The legal rights and responsibilities awarded by a court for the possession of, care of, and decision-making for a minor child. 

Child Support: Financial support for a child paid by one parent to the other parent. 

Contempt of Court: The willful and intentional failure of a party to comply with a judgment. Contempt of court may be punishable by fines or incarceration. 

Contested Divorce Case: A case in which the parties cannot reach an agreement and requires a trial to have the judge decide the disputed issues. 

Court Order: A court-issued document setting forth the orders entered by the judge presiding over the divorce. A “Consent Order” can be issued based upon the parties’ agreement. An Order can also be issued based on the judge’s decision. 

Cross-Examination: The questioning of a witness by the opposing attorney during trial in response to questions asked by the other attorney. 

Deposition: A witness’s testimony taken out of court, under oath, and in the presence of lawyers and a court reporter. If a person gives different testimony at the time of trial, he or she can be impeached with their deposition testimony. 

Direct Examination: The initial questioning of a witness in court by the attorney who called him or her to the stand.

Discovery: A process used by lawyers to discover information from the opposing party for the purpose of fully assessing a case for settlement or trial. Types of discovery include interrogatories, requests for the production of documents, and requests for admissions. 

Equitable Distribution of Property: The method by which real and personal property and debts are divided in a divorce. Missouri law requires that marital property and debts be divided in an equitable manner. 

Ex Parte: The term used to describe an appearance of only one party or attorney before the judge, without the other party or attorney being present. 

Guardian ad Litem (GAL): A licensed attorney appointed by the court to represent the minor children and make recommendations to the court regarding custody. A Guardian ad Litem may be appointed in Missouri divorce or custody cases and is required in parental child abuse or neglect cases. The Guardian ad Litem represents the child’s best interests in court. 

Guardian ad Litem Fees: Guardian ad Litem fees are allocated by the court and paid directly to the GAL by the parties. If Guardian ad Litem fees are not paid by a party, that party’s pleadings may be stricken from the court’s record, resulting in the other party’s pleadings prevailing. 

Hearing: Any proceeding before the court for the purpose of resolving disputed issues between the parties through the presentation of testimony, affidavits, exhibits, or argument. 

Hold-Harmless Clause: A term in a Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage or Marital Settlement and Separation Agreement that requires one party to assume responsibility for a debt and to protect the other spouse from any loss or expense in connection with it. Basically, one party is ordered to hold the other party harmless from liability. 

Interrogatories: Written questions sent from one party to the other that are used to obtain facts or opinions related to the divorce. 

Joint Legal Custody: Means that the parents share the decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority relating to the health, education, and welfare of their child, and, unless allocated, apportioned, or decreed, the parents shall confer with one another in the exercise of decision-making rights, responsibilities, and authority.

Joint Physical Custody: Means an order awarding each of the parents significant, but not necessarily equal, periods of time during which a child resides with or is under the care and supervision of each of the parents.  Joint physical custody shall be shared by the parents in such a way as to assure the child of frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with both parents. 

Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage: A final court order dissolving the marriage, dividing property and debts, ordering support, and entering other orders regarding finances and the minor children.

Maintenance: Court-ordered spousal support payments from one party to another, often to enable the recipient spouse to become financially independent. 

Mediation: A process by which a neutral third party facilitates negotiations between the parties on all issues pending in the divorce. 

Motion: A written application to the court for relief, such as temporary child support, child custody, or spousal maintenance. 

Motion to Modify: A party’s written pleading to the court to change a prior Judgment regarding child custody, child support, or spousal maintenance. 

No-Fault Divorce: The type of divorce that does not require evidence of marital misconduct. This means that abandonment, cruelty, and adultery are neither relevant nor required to be proven for the purposes of granting a divorce. 

Notice of Hearing: A written pleading sent to the opposing attorney (or pro se party) listing the date and place of a hearing and the nature of the matters that will be heard by the court. 

Party: The person in a legal action whose rights or interests will be affected by the divorce. For example, in a divorce, the parties are the Petitioner and the Respondent. 

Petition for Dissolution of Marriage: The first document filed with the clerk of court in an action for divorce. The petition sets forth the facts on which the relief is based. If the Petitioner alleges that the marriage is not irretrievably broken, the document filed is a Petition for Legal Separation. 

Petitioner: The person who filed the petition initiating a divorce. 

Pleadings: Documents filed by the court. 

Prenuptial Agreement. An agreement entered into before marriage that sets forth each party’s rights and responsibilities should the marriage terminate by death or divorce, also called a Premarital Agreement.

Postnuptial Agreement. An agreement entered into after the marriage date, setting forth each party’s rights and responsibilities should the marriage terminate.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO): A type of court order that provides for direct payment from a retirement account to a former spouse. 

Relocation Notice: A parent’s written request to the other parent to relocate with the children. The Relocation Notice is drafted pursuant to Section 452.377 RSMo.

Request for Production of Documents: A written request for documents sent from one party to the other during the discovery process. 

Respondent: The responding party to a divorce; the party who did not file the petition initiating the divorce. 

Setoff: A debt or financial obligation of one spouse that is deducted from the debt or financial obligation of the other spouse. 

Settlement: The agreed resolution of disputed issues. 

Show Cause: Written application to the court to hold another person in contempt of court for violating or failing to comply with a current court order. 

Stipulation: An agreement reached between parties or an agreement by their attorneys. 

Subpoena: A document delivered to a person or witness that requires him or her to appear in court, appear for a deposition or produce documents. Failure to comply could result in punishment by the court. A subpoena requesting documents is called a “subpoena duces tecum”. 

Temporary Restraining Order (TRO): An order of the court prohibiting a party from certain behavior. For example, a TRO may order a person not to transfer any funds during a pending divorce action. 

Third Party Custody: Means a third party designated as a legal and physical custodian of the parties’ minor children in a divorce or motion to modify.

Trial: A formal court hearing in which a judge will decide disputed issues raised by the parties’ pleadings. 

Under Submission: A term used to describe the status of a case after a court hearing on a motion or trial, when the judge has not yet made a decision. 

We hope that you find this glossary helpful in your divorce case. If your attorney uses legalese that you don’t understand, speak with him or her and ask for further explanation so you can make educated and informed decisions during your divorce. Should you need the assistance of an experienced divorce attorney or have questions about your divorce situation, know that we are here to help and ready to discuss those questions with you.

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