Glossary of Terms in Family Law: Part 1

Glossary of Terms in Family Law - Part 1. Washington DC
Last Updated on February 28, 2023 by Carlos Lopez

Family law defines and protects the rights and responsibilities of family members in various situations. It has been designed as a framework that provides the basis for fair and equitable outcomes for all involved family members, whether adults or children.

Family law can be an emotionally charged field of law, often dealing with relationship breakdowns and resulting conflicts. For this reason, family law attorneys need not only legal knowledge, but also a good understanding of people and accompany them with appropriate sensitivity.

Why do I need to know terms about family law?

Attorneys always strive to ensure that our clients fully understand the meaning of terms used in their affairs and any assignments assigned.

Being able to explain the terms of family law not only means you have a head start in understanding your problem, but potentially avoid potentially costly mistakes.

Therefore, if you do not understand the terminology or legal documents that have been provided to you, you must seek advice from your lawyer or services such as legal aid as soon as possible.

Family Law Glossary A – H


An abortion is a procedure to end a pregnancy. Roe v. Wade employed constitutional rights of privacy to legalize abortion at least up to the end of the first trimester. It is during that period a private matter between the woman and her physician.

Adoption Petition 

The petition is filed before a family law judge asking for a legal termination of the existing parental rights of one or both parents and for the Order to specify the new parentage.


Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and another person who is not their married spouse is a common ground for a fault divorce under common law.


Court-ordered or agreed upon payments by one spouse to the other, either during the separation or after the divorce. There are types and purposes of alimony, including rehabilitative or permanent. Payments usually stop when the recipient dies or gets remarried.


A legal procedure which cancels a marriage. Annulling a marriage has the effect of completely erasing it as though it never occurred.

Best Interest of the Children 

The main test applied by a Custody Court to decide the awarding of custody and visitation to contending parents. Includes a wide range of factors, including the child’s wishes, security, health, welfare, education, resources, prior history and related concepts to determine what that the judge will consider in determine what order will be in the best interest of the children.

Change of Circumstances

To obtain a modification of support or custody, the party seeking it must allege that there has been a change in circumstances since the entry of the current Order. The applicant must then prove such change in circumstances by credible evidence in order to be considered by the Court for a modification.

Child Abuse

The infliction of any kind of cruelty to a child’s physical, moral or mental well-being. May also include the criminal offense of sexual assault.

Child Protective Services

This is one often used name for a state agency that has the duty of preventing and responding to reports of child abuse, neglect or physical endangerment. The agency is endowed with in loco parentis authority and may bring charges against an errant parent.

The agency may also bring a petition involuntarily terminate parental rights. Such agencies also generally overlook the foster care system and place neglected children in foster care homes.

Child Support 

An ongoing, periodic payment made by a parent with less than 50% physical custody of the child to the parent having physical custody. This may begin after the separation and continue after the divorce until the child reaches the age of majority.

Collaborative Divorce

A collaborative law divorce is a process in which the parties use negotiations and mediation to achieve a settlement agreement.

Mediation is an alternative to the adversarial process wherein a neutral, licensed mediator steers the parties to discuss areas of mutual agreement and to work toward a comprehensive settlement in a more relaxed and informal manner.

Collusive Divorce

The parties must try to avoid terms that indicate that they are obtaining a mutually contracted divorce. Such provisions are deemed collusive and can taint the whole divorce if allowed to appear prominently. The prohibition against a collusive divorce is apparently due to the false premise that the parties will not reconcile if they are plotting to engineer a divorce.

Common Law Marriage

A marriage recognized by statute or common law in which the parties have lived together as husband and wife for an extended number of years and consider themselves to be married, the law will recognize and enforce the obligations of the relationship. Common law marriages have been abolished in most but not all states.


In order to constitute a defense in a divorce action, the condonation by the spouse of the violent or reprehensible actions of the other spouse must be free, voluntary and not induced by duress or fraud.

Contempt of Custody Order

Action by a parent who is subject to Child Custody Order to knowingly violate the terms of the Order without consent or permission. Penalties can vary and are imposed generally at the discretion of the Court.

Contempt of Support Order

This is generally a criminal misdemeanor in most states for knowingly failing to abide by a Court Order of support of a spouse and/or children.

Custodial Parent

The parent who is given primary physical custody of a child by court order.


A common law grounds for a fault divorce that involves the unjustified abandonment of the other marital partner without consent and with the intention of permanently severing the relationship and never returning.

Divided Custody

A custody arrangement in which each parent has physical custody of at least one of their children. Shared custody of all of the children may still be applied in this custody model. This method is not favored as it is not popular to split the children up; therefore, a supporting reason must be provided to the court in requesting this arrangement. Also known as Split Custody.


The termination of a marriage by legal action that is commenced by filing a complaint or petition in divorce. 

Divorce Complaint

A divorce complaint or petition is the official document that is filed with the court to obtain a divorce. The complaint must be served on the defendant spouse using a method permitted under law.

DNA test in Paternity Case

A blood test that is used to determine if the putative father or mother is in fact the natural parent.

Earning Capacity

A parent’s ability, by training and experience, to earn a certain amount or range of money each year for purposes of computing the parent’s ability to pay a specified amount in child support payments.

Family Court

Each county court usually has a separate division for divorce, support and custody matters. It may also be called the Domestic Relations Division.

Foreign Divorce

As a general rule, foreign divorces are recognized as valid if the spouse requesting the divorce became a legal resident of the state or country granting the divorce, and if both parties consented to the jurisdiction of the foreign court.

Garnishment of Wages

Used in domestic relations Orders for child support where the amount of support that is required is taken automatically from the parent’s paycheck directly by the employer and sent to the state office that distributes such payments to the guardians of the children.

Grandparents’ Custodial Rights

Generally, primary custodial rights are in the natural parents and grandparents do not have a right to exert custody except where the parents specifically consent or where unusual circumstances, such as neglect, exist.

Grounds for Divorce

The reasons specified by a spouse for the right to get a divorce. Most states now grant a no-fault divorce and one based on a period of uninterrupted separation. Each state also maintains some fault grounds. In a contested divorce, there may be a trial or hearing in which the plaintiff and/or defendant must prove one or more grounds for divorce or for defending against it.


A guardianship is a legal relationship created when a person or institution is named in a will or assigned by the court to take care of minor children or incompetent adults. The guardianship of a minor remains under court supervision until the child reaches majority at 18.

Family Law Attorney in Washington, D.C.

At Lopez Law Firm, We sit down with you and get to the heart of your family law case, working until we get the best solution for you and your family in Washington D.C. Schedule your consultation today!

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