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Definitions of words used in a divorce case

When you are going through a divorce, there are a lot of words you will hear – some of them you know, some of them are vaguely familiar and some of them you have no idea what they mean.  Below is a brief glossary of some of the most commonly used words and phrases.

General terms:

Petitioner:  The person who filed the case.  This really only matters if there is a trial, when the Petitioner presents his or her evidence first.

Respondent:  The person who did not file the case.  If there is a trial, the Respondent presents his or her evidence second.

Dissolution of Marriage:  This is what most people (including family law attorneys) call divorce.  After a Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage is entered, the people who used to be married are no longer married and they are divorced.  In the Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage, the property and responsibility for debts are divided, support for the former spouses and any children born of the marriage is determined,  custody and visitation for those children are set forth and responsibility for attorney’s fees and costs is decided.

Legal Separation:    Everything is the same as with a Dissolution of Marriage, except the parties remain legally married:  the property and responsibility for debts are divided, support for the former spouses and any children born of the marriage is determined, custody and visitation are set forth and for attorney’s fees and costs is decided.

Maintenance:  This is support for a spouse.  The IRS calls spousal support alimony.

Custody-related terms

Sole legal custody:  A parent with sole legal custody is entitled to make the final decision on issues affecting the health, education or welfare of a child, in the event the parents do not agree.  In virtually all cases, a parent with sole legal custody of a child is required to consult with the other parent before making the decision.

Joint legal custody:  Parents with joint legal custody must discuss and agree on major issues relating to the health, education and welfare of the children.  In the form Parenting Plan used in St. Louis County, examples of such decisions are:  the choice or change of schools, including college or special tutoring; choice or change of physician, surgeon or dentist; religious instruction, training or education; selection of child care providers; major medical care, surgery, or any medical procedure requiring hospitalization or out-patient surgery; major dental work and orthodontia; psychological or psychiatric treatment or counseling; the choice or change of camps or other special or extracurricular activities; the extent of any travel away from home; part or full-time employment; purchase or operation of a motor vehicle; contraception and sex education; actual or potential litigation on behalf of the children.

Sole physical custody:  Where the child spends most of his or her time.

Joint physical custody:  This is generally used when the child spends significant – but not necessarily equal – time with each parent.  Where the parents are granted joint physical custody, one parent is designated as having the address for mailing and school purposes.

Visitation and temporary custody:  These terms relate to time with the child for the parent who does not have sole or joint physical custody.

Property and debt related terms

QDRO:  This stands for Qualified Domestic Relations Order and it the way that court orders dividing many retirement plans (such as pensions and profit-sharing plans) are carried out.

Surviving spouse:  If this designation is used in a QDRO dividing a traditional pension (where the person who worked for the company receives a set amount monthly after retirement), after the person who worked for the company dies, the payments to the former spouse will continue for his or her lifetime.  This designation must be made in the original agreement or decision dividing the pension, as it affects the amount of the benefit paid to the former employee on retirement.

Indemnify and hold harmless:  This phrase is used where one person agrees to pay a debt that is in the joint names of the people getting divorced.  Because the creditor made a deal with both people and is not (and cannot be part of the dissolution of marriage case), if the debt is not paid by the person who agreed to pay it, the creditor can collect it from the other person.  If the dissolution of marriage judgment contains an obligation to indemnify and hold harmless, the party who paid the debt and was not obligated to do so may try to collect the money paid and the other costs like attorney’s fees and court costs from the person who was ordered to pay originally and did not.