Divorce Terminology

Divorces are never easy, but some are simple; at least from a legal standpoint. They can also become one of the most complex legal matters that you are likely to encounter in your lifetime. Regardless of their legal complexity, divorce is always a stressful situation for all parties involved.

Knowing some of the basic terms lawyers and judges use during the process can help. Here are a few of the most common terms you are likely to encounter:

Petition for Divorce. This is the actual legal document that will be filed with the court asking for a dissolution of the marriage (divorce). Sometimes also be called Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. The petition spells out in legal terms what you want the court to do (grant a divorce), as well as the legal grounds for that action.

Temporary Order. As the name suggests, these are not permanent decisions, but something meant to bridge the time between hearings. This is a court order that only will last till some specified event occurs. Also called an Interim Order. For example, a temporary custody order would specify which parent has custody of the children till a final custody hearing is set.

Community Property. First things first, many people have heard this term bounced around and understand it to mean that property that is acquired by the husband and wife during their marriage belongs to both. Property that was owned by either spouse prior to the marriage is their own. Not all states use this legal concept. Michigan is not a community property state. Michigan is an “equitable distribution” state (see below).

Equitable Distribution. Michigan and some other states use a model that requires the equitable distribution of property acquired during the marriage. This means that property and debts  are divided fairly, not necessarily equally. The courts use a number of factors when determining what is equitable, including the length of the marriage and the earnings potential of the parties involved.

Custody. Most often used to refer to child custody. This refers to the person who will have direct responsibility for the child or children (the custodial parent). Sometimes a court will award sole custody to one of the parents, but Joint Custody (awarding custody to both parents) is common. Joint custody can be as simple as both parents having an equal say in the child’s upbringing, or it can mean shared physical custody as well. The most common scenario is that one parent will have primary physical custody (the child will live with that parent) and the other will have visitation (see below).

Another use of the term is in regards to property. In this case, the word custody means the care of and control over property, but not ownership. For example the wife may have custody of husband’s golf clubs because they are still in the garage, but she does not have ownership of them and should not sell them at her upcoming garage sale.

Child Support. Parents have a legal obligation to financially support their children. In a divorce a parent who doesn’t have primary physical custody will be required to pay child support. Michigan has child support guidelines that are used to determine the amount of child support.

Visitation. When one parent has primary physical custody, the other parent is usually granted the right to visit the child on a regular basis. A visitation schedule is worked out either between the parents or by the courts to avoid future disagreements between the parents.

Spousal Support. Sometimes called Alimony, the court may decide and order that one spouse has a legal obligation to provide financial support of the other.

You can find a more complete glossary here.

Photo by Phil Roeder