Understanding Legal Terms When You’re Going Through a Divorce
When you face divorce, many factors add to the stress and anxiety you face. One thing that can make the process more challenging is trying to understand all the legal jargon associated with the proceedings. Once you grasp a basic understanding of the terms you hear, the process seems slightly less overwhelming. The terminology described here will help you interpret the phrases you encounter along the way. It is conveniently organized for you under three primary categories.
Nisi: You will hear the phrase Judgement of Divorce Nisi, which means a divorce judgment that is not yet finalized. Once a divorce is final, it becomes a Judgement of Divorce Absolute. There is a period in between the two judgments in which a spouse may challenge the divorce. This is known as the Nisi period, and it may last for different lengths of time, depending on the situation. If the divorce goes unchallenged during this period, it becomes final automatically once the period expires.
Temporary order: There are various scenarios in which a judge may make decisions affecting the family while a divorce is in process, regarding matters such as alimony, child custody, and child support. If the courts issue a temporary order on any of these matters, it must be followed until a judgment is made in the case or the court issues another order that supersedes the first.
Separation agreement: This written agreement is intended to describe what will happen after the court grants a divorce. It may cover alimony, child support, child custody, life and health insurance, and property division.
Discovery: This term is used to describe the process of gathering evidence for a case and its disclosure. This may include tools like interrogatories, requests for the production of documents, and depositions, among others.
Answer: In reference to a divorce, this term refers to the answer that a defendant’s spouse files when they are served with a complaint for divorce. In this response, the defendant describes what they want regarding matters such as child support and alimony. They may also state that they do not want a divorce if that is the case.
Complaint for divorce: This document is the first form that an individual must file to start a civil divorce case, stating why they want a divorce.
Joint petition for divorce: Couples who seek a “no-fault divorce” may file; this is the route they typically take after completing a separation agreement. It may involve more paperwork at the start but is often easier on each spouse overall.
Fault divorce: In situations where one spouse blames the other for the breakdown of their marriage, a fault divorce is often filed. Reasons for this type of divorce may include a prison sentence of five years or more, impotence, non-support, abusive treatment, gross and confirmed habits of intoxication, desertion, and adultery. These divorces can be expensive and time-consuming, as the spouse who files must prove that the other is at fault.
Irretrievable breakdown: When each spouse agrees that their marriage is broken, it is called an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. This means that the marriage did not work out, and neither party is solely at fault.
Finances and Property
Qualified domestic relations order: This order, also called a QDRO, or “quadro,” refers to the division of a spouse’s retirement plan if it falls under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. A judge may rule that one party is entitled to a portion of the other spouse’s retirement, such as a 401k or pension.
Alimony: You may also know alimony as spousal support. It refers to the money that a court orders one spouse to pay another while a divorce is pending and once it is finalized. This sum may be based on various factors, including the spouses’ ability to earn, the spouses’ health, the age of the spouses, and the length of the marriage, among others.
Automatic restraining order: This is a court order that prevents either spouse from encumbering, spending, concealing, transferring, selling, or otherwise disposing of property that belongs to either party. In some cases, there are exceptions, such as cases in which a spouse must use such property to pay for living expenses. This order initially applies to the spouse who files the divorce and then to the defendant-spouse once they are served the summons and complaint.
Equitable distribution: This term means that the courts will divide the assets the spouses share fairly. Note that this does not necessarily mean “equally.” To determine equitable distribution, the court may consider factors such as each party’s contribution as a homemaker; their contribution to the preservation and appreciation in the value of each of their estates; amount and duration of alimony; each party’s opportunity for acquisition of income and capital assets in the future; each party’s needs, liabilities, estate, employability, vocational skills, income, occupation, station, health, and age; the conduct of each party during the marriage; length of the marriage; and negative assets, or debt.
Child support guidelines: In cases involving a child support judgment, a court may use a worksheet to determine the amount of child support. In most cases, this is the amount that a court will order to be paid for child support; however, there are limited circumstances in which a judge may deviate from this amount. These guidelines are typically based on factors like the spouses’ incomes and may be reviewed and changed periodically.
Child support: This is the money that a court orders one parent to pay the other for the financial support of the children. This may be used for various living expenses, including educational expenses, dental, and medical bills.
Parenting time: This term may also be known as “visitation” and refers to the time a child will spend with the parent they do not primarily live with. Modern courts apply the term “visitation” to supervised visits instead of unsupervised time spent with a parent.
Child custody: This term may refer to physical custody, meaning where the child lives, or legal custody, which refers to crucial decisions in the child’s life. This may include decisions regarding medical care, religion, and education. The courts determine which parent will maintain these types of custody in a divorce. The decisions the court makes may result in shared custody or sole custody, and each type of custody may be determined separately.
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