Glossary of Family Law Terms

Absent Parent

A parent who no longer lives with his / her children.

Acknowledgement of Service

In England and Wales the respondent receives this standard court form along with the divorce petition. The form must be completed by the respondent to acknowledge receipt of the petition. The respondent must declare on the form whether they intend to defend the petition.


Sexual intercourse between a spouse and an individual to whom they are not married. This is one of five ‘facts' which establish a ground for divorce in the UK: the petitioner must have discovered the adultery within the last 6 months.


A written statement of evidence. An affidavit must be either be sworn on a religious text (e.g. the bible) or affirmed to be true.


Regular payments by one party of a marriage to another in the US (known as ‘maintenance' in the UK).

Ancillary relief

In England and Wales a financial claim brought by a spouse through the courts when petitioning for divorce, nullity or judicial separation. An application for ancillary relief can be for a capital sum, maintenance payments, a property adjustment or a combination thereof.


The dissolution of a marriage in legal proceedings in which the marriage is declared null and void as though it never occurred.


A written defence to a divorce petition in England and Wales.


A lawyer in the US.


A lawyer in England and Wales who has rights of audience before the courts.

CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Services)

CAFCASS officers in England and Wales are responsible for preparing independent reports to help the court decide what arrangements will be in the children's best interests.

Child of the Family

In England and Wales this is a child who has been treated by a married couple as a child of the family. Step children can be children of the family.

Clean Break

Under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 in England and Wales, courts are encouraged to seek a ‘clean break'. This is a financial settlement by which neither party has an ongoing financial commitment to the other during their lifetimes or on death. This may be difficult to achieve when there is an ongoing obligation to maintain children.


The state of an unmarried couple, who share a relationship, living together.


Another term for mediation in the UK.

Consent Order

In England and Wales, an agreement (often financial) between parties which has been made legally binding and enforceable by a court.


The arrangements for the absent parent in England and Wales to spend time with his / her child(ren). This used to be called ‘access'.


An individual named in a divorce petition in England and Wales with whom the adulterous party has had sexual intercourse. A co-respondent need not be named unless the petitioner is seeking to claim costs from them.


Another term for a barrister.

CSA (Child Support Agency)

A government agency in England and Wales that ensures absent parents pay maintenance for their children.


Previously the term in the UK for the parent who had chief rights over the children. This term is still used in the US.

Decree Absolute

In England and Wales the final court order that dissolves a marriage.

Decree Nisi

From the Latin meaning literally ‘decree unless', this is an interim stage in divorce proceedings in England and Wales. It is the point at which a court has decided that there are grounds for divorce and represents an indication that the marriage can be dissolved unless sufficient evidence is adduced to the contrary.


The legal relationship between an individual and a country. Domicile is usually established by an individual being resident in a country with an intention to make it their permanent home.

Ex Parte

An application to a court in England and Wales by one party without notification to the other party.


See Financial Dispute Resolution

Financial Dispute Resolution Appointment

Often abbreviated to FDR, this is a stage in the courts in England and Wales following an application for ancillary relief. It is the second court appointment and provides an opportunity for a judge to give his / her opinion on the parties' true positions, and to encourage settlement. A judge involved in an FDR is not involved in a final hearing should the case proceed that far.

First Directions Appointment

Also known as a ‘first appointment' this is the first stage in the courts in England and Wales following an application for ancillary relief. Prior to the first appointment, the parties must disclose their financial positions and a judge may ask for further information in the form of expert evidence.

Guardian (also Childrens Guardian)

An individual appointed to represent the interests of a child in England and Wales.

Grounds for divorce

In England and Wales the basic ground for divorce is that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. One or more of five ‘facts' must be established to prove this breakdown. These are: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, two years separation with consent and five years separation without consent.

Hague Convention

The principle underpinning the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is that matters concerning custody of a child are best decided in the country of the child's habitual residence. The Convention requires the judicial / administrative authorities in any Convention State to which a child has been removed to act swiftly to determine whether the child has been wrongly removed.


A court order that prevents an individual from certain behaviour or directs certain behaviour. Failure to comply with the order may result in imprisonment.

Judicial Separation

An alternative to divorce in England and Wales. Whilst not ending the marriage it allows the court to look at the financial arrangements (though not pensions) between the parties. It is usually used when the parties have an overriding reason for not wanting a divorce.


Regular payments by one party of a marriage to another in the UK (known as ‘alimony' in the US). Such payments can be by court order or by agreement and can be either to provide for the other party, or for the children, or for both.

Maintenance Pending Suit

A temporary order by a court in England and Wales for maintenance to be paid until ancillary relief proceedings are concluded.

Marital Property

Property and debt that a couple acquire during their marriage.

Matrimonial Home

A property inhabited by a married couple.

Matrimonial Home Right

In England and Wales, when the matrimonial home is in the sole name of one spouse, the other can register with the Land Registry that they have a right of occupation in that property. This provides some protection against the property being sold while the parties are still married.


An alternative to the court process, mediation is conducted by a third party to help parties reach agreement on issues between them. A mediator will not advise or impose a settlement but rather encourage mutual agreement.

Non-Molestation Order

A court order in England and Wales that prevents an individual from using violence against or harassing another.


Where a court declares a marriage to be annulled in England and Wales. A nullity is available only in very limited circumstances.


A direction by a court that must be obeyed.

Occupation Order

An order by a court in England and Wales confirming or denying an individual's right to occupy a property.

Parental Responsibility

The rights and responsibilities of a parent over his / her child (e.g. decisions about education). In England and Wales adults who are not a biological parent can have parental responsibility and an adult can apply to a court for parental responsibility.

Parent with Care

A term in England and Wales for the parent with whom the child lives and who has primary responsibility for a child's care.


A participant in court proceedings (usually the husband or wife in divorce cases).


A paternity issue is an issue about the identity of a child's biological father.

Pension Ear Marking Order

An order by a court in England and Wales that an individual pays some of their pension, on retirement, to their spouse. Such orders are relatively infrequently made, having been somewhat superseded by pension sharing orders.

Pension Sharing Order

An order by a court in England and Wales that gives a proportion of one spouse's pension rights to the other. The order is carried out directly rather than on retirement (in contrast to a pension ear-marking order).

Periodical Payments

Another term for maintenance in England and Wales.


The document that initiates the divorce. In England and Wales the petition contains the parties' details, the cause of the marriage breakdown and, in broad terms, the financial claims.


The individual who initiates the divorce, judicial separation or annulment.


The section of the petition in England and Wales that asks the court to make orders in favour of the petitioner.

Prohibited Steps Order

A court order in England and Wales that prohibits particular action in relation to a child (e.g. removing from the country, changing surname etc.).

Property Adjustment Order

An order by a court in England and Wales that adjusts the ownership of property. Such an order can transfer property (e.g. a house) from one spouse to another or it can transfer it from joint names into the name of just one.

Qualifying domestic relations order (QDRO)

In the US a court order relating to the provision of child support, alimony payments or marital property rights.


Married people who have fallen out getting back together.


In England and Wales a term referring to which spouse a child will live with.

Residence Order

A court order in England and Wales stating with whom a child will live.

Request for Directions

An application to a court in England and Wales for a decree nisi.


The spouse who is being divorced and on whom the petition is served.

Separation Agreement

A written agreement in England and Wales between parties upon separation.


A lawyer in England and Wales that advises a client and prepares a case. While a solicitor may have rights of audience in courts, a client will often be represented in court by a barrister.

Statement of Arrangements

A standard court form in England and Wales that must be completed to indicate arrangements for the children. The form must be submitted with the petition.


A court order requiring an individual to give evidence in court.

Unreasonable behaviour

One of the five ‘facts' in England and Wales that establish that the marriage has irretrievably broken down and that there is therefore a ground for divorce. One party alleges that the other has behaved so unreasonably that they cannot be expected to continue to live with them.


The right of a parent of child in the US to visit each other when the child resides with the other parent.

Ward of Court

An order by a court in England and Wales that means that all decisions regarding a child's upbringing must be approved by the court.

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