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Family Law Glossary

These definitions are intended to help you better understand the terms used in your case.



Absolute Divorce: Commonly referred to as divorce, an absolute divorce can only be obtained by a judgment of the court that finds all legal requirements have been met. It is not possible to remarry until divorce is absolute.

Action: Also called a case or lawsuit. A civil judicial proceeding where one party sues another for a wrong done, to protect a right, or to prevent a wrong.

Affidavit: A written statement made under oath.

Alimony: Maintenance or spousal support, which is legally based on the reasoning that both spouses have an absolute obligation to support each other during the marriage. Either husband or wife may request post-separation support (PSS) and/or post-marital alimony, and the court may order either to pay alimony.

Allegation: Saying that something is true. The assertion, declaration, or statement made by a party in a case or pleading.

Annulment: A court decree that says the marriage was never valid. Examples of grounds for an annulment include: the spouses are nearer of kin than first cousins, either spouse is under age 16, the marriage was entered under the belief that the woman was pregnant, either spouse is physically impotent, either spouse is incompetent, or rhe marriage is bigamous.

Arbitration: A process by which parties agree to resolve their disputes outside of court, authorizing a third-party (the arbitrator) to decide how to resolve the issues. The arbitrator’s decision is usually binding upon the parties.

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Best Interest of the Child: The standard a judge uses to decide custody and visitation issues.

Brief: A written document prepared by a lawyer and filed with the court in support of their arguments.

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Case: A lawsuit or action in a court.

Child: Any person under the age of sixteen (16) years of age.

Child Support: Money and health care paid by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent for the support and care of the children.

Civil Action: A lawsuit, other than a criminal case, filed in a judicial district courthouse. Civil actions include family actions (e.g., divorce, child support) and small claims cases.

Claim: In civil cases, the statement of relief desired.

Cohabitation: Two adults dwelling together continuously and habitually in a private heterosexual or homosexual relationship. Cohabitation is evidenced by the voluntary mutual assumption of those marital rights, duties and obligations that are usually manifested in a marriage. Cohabitation may be relevant to the issue of alimony entitlement.

Complaint: A legal document filed by the plaintiff that initiates a lawsuit. A complaint states the issues the plaintiff wants the court to resolve.

Contempt: A civil contempt of court generally arises from a willful failure to comply with a court order, such as a failure to pay child support. Punishment for civil contempt may be a fine or imprisonment.

Contract: A legally enforceable agreement between two or more parties.

Custody: A court order that decides where a child will live and how decisions about the child will be made, as set out by an agreement between the parties or as decided by a judge.

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Declaration: An unsworn statement of facts made by a party to the transaction, or by one who has an interest in the facts recounted.

Defendant: In civil cases, the person who is given court papers, also called a respondent.

Dependent Spouse: For the purposes of post-separation support or alimony, this is the spouse that is dependent on the other spouse for financial support.

Dissolution: The legal end of a marriage, also called a divorce.

Domicile: The permanent home of a person. A person may have several residences, but only one domicile.

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Emancipation: The release of a youth from the legal authority and control of the youth’s parents and the corresponding release of the youth’s parents from their obligations to the youth.

Equitable Distribution: When dividing marital property during a divorce, North Carolina law allows for identification, classification, valuation, and division of marital property and debts. Equitable distribution doesn’t always split property equally (i.e., not fifty-fifty). With equitable distribution, the court considers distributional factors, the classification of property (marital, separate, or mixed), and other factors.

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Filing: Giving the court clerk legal papers, which become part of the case file.

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Joint Custody: Joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or both.

Joint Legal Custody: Involves a common joint decision-making arrangement where the parents are required to consult with each other on major issues involving the children.

Joint Physical Custody: A residential schedule for the children providing that each parent has the children residing with him and her for more than 122 nights (one-third) per year.

Judge: A person who hears and decides cases for the courts.

Judgment: Also called a decree or an order. A final written decision of the court regarding the litigated issues.

Jurisdiction: Power and authority of a court to hear and make a judgment in a case.

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Litigation: A court action and the use of the court system to determine the outcome of contested issues.

Lump Sum Almony: One lump payment of alimony instead of periodic payments. You may want to consult with your tax attorney and/or Certified Public Accountant regarding the tax consequences prior to signing a lump sum alimony agreement.

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Mediation: The process by which parties attempt to resolve a dispute outside of the court system, through a negotiation-style settlement conference. Unlike an arbitrator or a judge, the mediator has no authority to compel the parties to accept a particular outcome and if the parties fail to reach a settlement, they may proceed to trial.

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No-Fault Divorce: Described as irretrievably broken down. The most common kind of divorce, where no one needs to prove that the husband or the wife is at fault, or caused the marriage to end.

Notarize: To formally complete a document by acknowledgement or oath.

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Oath: To swear/affirm to the truth of a statement or document.

Order: A written interim directive of the court. An order is similar to a judgment except that, unlike a judgment, an order does not finally dispose of the entire case.

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Party: A person or legal entity that is named as a plaintiff or defendant on legal papers.

Pendente Lite: Alimony awarded prior to the divorce is called pendente lite alimony. It is taxable income to the recipient and tax deductible to the payor. In North Carolina, Pendente Lite Alimony is called “Post-Separation Support” (PSS).

Permanent Alimony: Paid until either the death of the payor or the remarriage of the recipient. Generally permanent agreements include clauses that state alimony ends if the: parties resume marital relations, recipient remarries, recipient cohabits with another adult in a sexual relationship, either party dies, or the stated expiration date is reached, if one was included in the agreement.

Plaintiff: Also called the complainant or petisioner. The person who sues or starts a civil case.

Post-Nuptial Agreement: Also called a Post-Marriage Agreement. A marriage contract that legally defines the spousal relationship and is generally used to: allocate funds or property to children from a previous marriage, amend a pre-nuptial agreement that was signed before marriage, define and clarify ownership and division of financial assets in the event the couple divorces (e.g., property, receipt stock options, businesses started by you or your spouse), plan for property distribution in the case of death or divorce, or effectively manage their marriage partnership and responsibilities.

Post-Separation Support (PSS): Alimony awarded prior to the divorce, also called Pendente Lite alimony. It is taxable income to the recipient and tax deductible to the payor.

Pre-Marital Agreement: An agreement between prospective spouses made in contemplation of marriage and to be effective upon marriage. Depending upon the terms and validity of the agreement, a valid premarital agreement may bar alimony and property distribution beyond the terms specified in the agreement or bar them entirely.

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Record: The pleadings, the exhibits, and the transcript made by the court reporter of all proceedings in a trial.

Rehabilitative Alimony: Generally awarded when the recipient is younger, or able to eventually enter or return to the work force and become financially self-supporting. This type of alimony agreement may include paying for education to enable the recipient to become self-supporting. It is the most commonly awarded type of alimony.

Restraining Order: A civil court order to protect a family or household member from physical abuse.

Retainer Agreement: Also known as a legal service agreement. A contract setting out the terms between a lawyer and client for retention of and payment for the lawyer’s services.

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Separate and Apart: Under previous law, “separate and apart” meant the absolute cessation of sharing a residence and sexual relations. Under the current North Carolina laws, isolated sexual contact may not stop the one-year period. However, it isn’t black-and-white in this area—there is no specified amount of contact indicated in the law that would cause the one-year separation to start over.

Separation Agreement and Property Settlement (SAPS): A written proclamation that legally confirms husband and wife are living apart and that both, or just one, intends to remain that way. The SAPS an be used to detail child support and custody, distribute property, and alimony. A legally bindingn SAPS is signed by both husband and wife and is notarized.

Separation Date: The date of a physical residential relocation of one spouse with the intention, of at least one spouse, that the separation be permanent.

Summary Judgment: Summary Judgment is a simplified divorce procedure that is based on both spouses: living separate and apart without cohabitation for one year, agreeing to all terms of the divorce, with no issues to be decided by the court, and the court’s finding that all facts from non-testimony evidence are presented by affidavit, verified motion, or other verified pleading.

Summons: A document notifying a party of a court action and requiring that a party respond within a certain timeframe. It is issued by the clerk of court, usually with the complaint, and may be served by the sheriff or by certified mail to the individual named on the summons.

Supporting Spouse: The spouse upon whom the other spouse is actually substantially dependent for financial maintenance and support or from whom such spouse is substantially in need of financial maintenance and support.

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Temporary Alimony: Payments are made for a specific period of time, typically one to two years. This type of alimony agreement may be awarded when one person may need financial assistance to get re-established.

Testimony: Statements made by a witness or party under oath.

Tort: A civil injury or wrong to someone else, or their property.

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Visitation: Also called child visitation, access, or parenting time. A court order deciding the amount of time the non-custodial parent may spend with the child.

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Wage Withholding: A court order that deducts child support or alimony payments from the responsible party’s wages.

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