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Glossary of Legal Terms

To be used for informational purposes only. Please consult a competent attorney for legal advice.


Affidavit  – A written declaration, made under oath and notarized by a Notary  Public. Affidavits are no longer required in Washington; instead, the  courts use Declarations.

Alimony  – see support or spousal support paid to a former spouse. There are  four types of spousal support: temporary or interim support - while  litigation is pending, term - for a set number of years after the  divorce, rehabilitative - intended for re-education and training of a  dependent spouse, and permanent support - usually for very long term  marriages or when one spouse is unable to support themselves.

Annulment  - a declaration that a marriage was void from the beginning, usually  the result of fraud or a failure to consummate the marriage.

Answer – a formal pleading filed in response to a complaint.

Appearance  - informing the court of your whereabouts and your desire to  participate in your case, either in person, at a Court hearing, or in  writing by filling out a Notice of Appearance.

Appraisal – a document stating the opinion of value of real property or personal property.

Bailiff - a  member of the judge or commissioner’s staff who is in charge of  courtroom procedure and security. The bailiff may sometimes be the same  person as the clerk.

Calendar - The court’s schedule of cases to be heard, also called a Docket.

Case Information Statement (CIS)  – a form required to be filed within 20 days after the answer is filed  in court, which includes information about the parties, the family,  their finances, assets and liabilities, and other pertinent information  that enables the court or the other side to get a thumbnail sketch of  the issues in dispute in a family law case.

Case Management Conference  – usually the first appearance in court by the parties and their  attorneys after a complaint and answer are filed. The judge assigns a  track to the case (see “Track” below), reviews the CIS, and sets a  schedule for the exchange of financial information, formal discovery and  settlement conferences. 

Certified  Copy - a copy of a document from a court file made by the court clerk,  which has an official stamp on it. There is usually a fee for a  certified copy.

Clerk of the Court  - an officer of the court who handles clerical matters like keeping  records and entering judgments. Usually, there is one head clerk, but  many people who work in the Clerk’s Office are also clerks.

Child Support  – the monetary support paid by both parents to dependent children. The  amount of support is statutory, and is based on net income of both  parties and a number of factors. Calculation of support should be done  by a professional with the use of updated software. 

Child Support Worksheet  – a form by which the parties' net income, taxes and other deductions,  and other pertinent financial information is used to calculate each  party’s child support obligation. 

Cohabitation  – when two people live together in a relationship tantamount to  marriage and involving mutual financial support. Cohabitation can  trigger the termination or modification of spousal support.

Commissioner/Court  Commissioner - similar to a judge, but only makes decisions relating to  a particular subject matter. Many counties have family law  commissioners who decide cases only about family law.

Comparative Market Analysis  – an informal opinion regarding the value of real property, based on a  review of houses that have sold and that are currently offered for sale. 


Complaint  – a pleading that sets forth the allegations that constitute grounds  for divorce or annulment or other relief (such as domestic violence,  custody, adoption)

Continuance - delaying your court hearing to a later date.

Counterclaim – a request for relief from the party answering a complaint. 

Custodian – the person the children live with the majority of the time.

Custody Mediation  – court-ordered participation in a program with a trained mediator to  assist the parties in resolving disputes over custody and visitation or  parenting time.

DCS  - Division of Child Support. The state office (part of DSHS) that  creates enforces and sometimes modifies child support obligations. Used  to be called CSD, OSE and SED.

Declaration - a written statement made to the court under oath.

Default Order - an order that can be obtained if the responding person does not respond on time.

Deposition  – the gathering of sworn testimony of a party or witness, usually done  in a lawyer’s office. The testimony is transcribed verbatim by a court  stenographer, who produces a written booklet for use at trial. All  parties to the case are given notice of the date, time and place of a  deposition and have the opportunity to ask questions of the witness and  to interpose objections.

Discovery  – also called “pre-trial discovery,” this is the formal exchange of  information between the parties and disclosure of all factual issues in  dispute in a case. The purpose is to streamline the trial and also to  assist the parties in achieving a settlement with each providing fully  informed consent.

Dissolution - the legal term for divorce in the State of Washington

Domestic Violence Complaint  – a civil action against a spouse, family member or a person with whom  the plaintiff has a present or past dating relationship, alleging that  the defendant committed a specified criminal act. All domestic violence  complaints are reviewed by a judge or hearing officer; if accepted for  filing, the court will issue a temporary restraining order (TRO)  prohibiting the defendant from contact with the victim. A hearing is  scheduled within 10 days of the TRO. Important: If you think you or  someone in your family may be a victim of domestic violence, call the  police or the domestic violence hotline in your area. Do NOT wait to  obtain legal advice.

Durable Power of Attorney  – sometimes referred to as a living will, gives a party the right to  represent a principle as their “attorney in fact” (as opposed to their  “attorney at law”).  Gives the party specific rights to do business as  the principle (but not to represent them in a court of law). Usually a  power of attorney is terminated once the principle no longer has the  mental ability to consent or to terminate this arrangement.  With a  durable power of attorney, this right extends past this point, and may  even be triggered to not be effective, until this point in time. 

Equitable distribution  – the division of community property assets and debts acquired by one  or both parties during the marriage. Assets that are exempt from  equitable distribution include gifts from third parties, inheritances,  premarital assets, post separation assets, and any other asset defined  by a prenuptial agreement. 

Ex Parte - going before the court without notifying the other party. 

Expert Witness  – unlike a fact witness, an expert witness provides specialized  testimony to assist the court in determining an issue that is not  readily apparent to a lay person, such as the value of property, welfare  of children, health of a party, fitness of a parent, employability of a  party or other issue pertinent to the case. Expert witnesses are paid  for court and to prepare for court. The employment of expert witnesses  can add significantly to the expense of a family law case; they are  often valuable tools in trial or settlement. Knowing when to hire an  expert is something that a client should discuss with the attorney.

Filing - giving court papers to the Court Clerk to place in the case file.


Final Judgment of Dissolution  – a final order that dissolves the marriage and often distributes  property and sets support. A certified copy is needed for change of  name, change of beneficiary or religious annulments.

Forensic Accountant  – an expert witness who investigates a party’s finances to determine  whether the reported income or assets is truthful and accurate. They are  useful in many situations such as when one party is self employed and  is believed to be under-reporting income.

Hearing - going before a judge or commissioner to request a court order.

Interrogatories – written questions regarding pertinent facts of a case, answered under oath, usually due within 30 to 40 days of service. 

Joint Legal Custody  – not to be confused with shared residential custody, this refers to  the legal rights and responsibilities of the respective parents and  recognizes that both parties should have equal say in major decisions  (medical, higher education, etc) affecting a child. Mostly all divorces  and separations result in a determination of joint legal custody.

Joint Residential Custody  – also called shared parenting, this is a custody and visitation  arrangement that attempts to equalize the time spent between two  parents. If it is done by consent, the time can be shared in any manner  the parties think is in the best interests of the children – every other  week, every other day, alternating three or four days with each parent,  etc. 

Jurisdiction  - the court’s authority to make decisions regarding certain people and  issues.  If a court does not have jurisdiction, it does not have the  power to make orders. 

Motion - a formal request to the court for an order. 

Motion Docket - the court’s schedule of motions to be heard.


Note or Notice of Hearing - a written request to the clerk to schedule your case for hearing. 

Order:  A court document signed by a judge or commissioner that requires  someone to do or not do something.  If you disobey an order of the  court, you can be held in contempt of court.

Parentage  - the legal name for the legal relationship between an unmarried parent  and their child (paternity).  Also the name of the type of court case.

Paternity Affidavit - a special form, also known as an Acknowledgment of Paternity or Paternity affidavit;  typically used by unmarried parents to state who the father of the  child is. In Washington, these forms are often offered to the mother in  the hospital right after a child’s birth. The form must be signed by the  mother and father (and presumed father) of a child and filed with the  Washington State Department of Health. If the form is filed after July  1, 1997, and is not rescinded, it a final legal determination of  parentage. If the form was filed before July 1, 1997, there is a legal  presumption that the father named on the form is the child’s father, but  the form is not a final legal determination of parentage.

Pendente Lite (PL)  – a Latin term meaning “while the case is pending.” This usually refers  to an interim or temporary order for child support, spousal support. 

Petitioner  - the person who first files a legal case. The petitioner in the  caption of a form does not change even when motions are filed later by  the other party.

Permanent Support  – spousal support that will continue indefinitely until it is modified  by a new court order. The word “permanent” means until further order of a  court, not necessarily “forever.” The amount of support can be adjusted  up or down due to a permanent and material change in circumstances,  such as an increase in the need of the dependent spouse or the ability  to pay of the supporting spouse. 

Post-Judgment Motion  – a motion filed to seek enforcement or modification of a final  judgment of dissolution and/or a property settlement or support  agreement, filed after the parties are divorced. 

Presumed Father  - a man who is recognized under law as the father of a child until the  parent-child relationship is either established (or disestablished) by  court order or paternity affidavit. Under the new Uniform Parentage Act,  generally, there are two ways to become the presumed father of a child:  (1) be married to the child’s mother at the time of, or 300 days  before, the child’s birth; or (2) have signed a paternity affidavit  before July 1, 1997.

Pro Se - acting without aid of an attorney; representing yourself in court. 

Parenting Plan  – a written document that sets forth the schedule for visitation and  parenting (sometimes referred to as custody), and the terms and  conditions under which the parties will resolve mutual decisions  regarding education and other important parenting issues. It is prepared  by the attorneys or by a mediator after the parties have reached an  agreement in the best interests of the children. 

Process - written notice to appear in court. 

Rehabilitative Support  – spousal support that is temporary in nature and intended to raise the  dependent spouse’s ability to earn income. Usually it is designed to  assist a dependent spouse in returning to school or achieving  specialized training in a field. The advantage to the paying spouse is  that the end result is to make the dependent spouse independent, or less  dependent, on support and to reduce alimony in the long run. It is  especially useful for a spouse who has put his or her career “on hold”  to raise a family or is out of touch with the technological training or  skills needed in the workplace. 

Respondent - the person against whom a legal case was originally filed.

Response - a formal written answer to a petition filed with the court. 

Requests for Admissions – written statements that a party is required to admit or deny within 30 days of receipt. 

Request for Production  – similar to interrogatories, this is a written request for the  production of relevant documents, such as business records, bank account  statements and ledgers, copies of titles, mortgage and Deeds, and other  documents that will provide mutual disclosure of the issues in dispute  in a pending case. In anticipation of a notice to produce, the parties  may voluntarily exchange relevant documents. 

Retainer Agreement  – a written document setting forth the manner in which an attorney is  hired (retained) and paid. Usually a payment of money in advance is  deposited in the attorney’s trust account and drawn against as fees are  earned. Future payments are paid in advance to maintain a minimum  balance in the trust account.  The reason for advance payment is to  ensure that the parties do not run out of funds to pay counsel fees  while the divorce is pending, which could result in the inability to  afford an attorney. 

Service - giving court papers to the other party. 

Shared Parenting Agreement – see “joint residential custody,” above.

Support or Spousal Support – The legal term for alimony.

Temporary Order - a court order entered after a case is filed and before it is finished which is only in effect while the case is going on. 

Temporary Restraining Order (TRO)  – an interim order restraining a party from doing something or ordering  a party to do something. Usually in the context of a domestic violence  complaint, the TRO is by its very nature, temporary, and intended to  preserve the status quo. In a pendente lite motion, either party may  request a TRO preventing the dissipation of assets or destruction of  documents. 

Vacating Judgment or Default  – when default is entered against a party for failing to answer, the  court may “vacate” or negate a previous order or judgment, upon a  showing of excusable neglect and a meritorious defense.

Venue - the county where the case should be filed


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Family  law is very fact specific. Each case is decided according to its unique  set of facts. No one should act upon the information contained in this  site without first consulting a competent family law attorney.