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Glossary of Legal Terms You Will Encounter in Massachusetts Family Court Cases

Legal jargon can be complex, and to the untrained ear it can sound like a different language. Simplified definitions for some of common legal terms which you might have heard can make all the difference when you’re trying to understand what’s going on in your case.

The Wright Family Law Group family law glossary provides easy-to-understand definitions so you can decode the most common terms used when discussing issues pertaining to Massachusetts divorce, child support, child custody, alimony, property division, and more.


A written statement of facts that are made under oath and that must be witnessed and signed by a notary or other official authorized to administer oaths.


A legal proceeding used to declare a marriage null and void.


The formal response for a divorce, separation, or annulment complaint. The answer contains the admission or denial of the allegations made by the plaintiff or against the defendant.


Amount of support determined by the Court or the Massachusetts Department of Revenue Child Support Enforcement Division that was due and has not been paid.

Certificate of Service

An attestation on court filings that the other party was provided with a copy of the paperwork.

Child Custody

Refers to the rights and obligations between parents regarding their children after a divorce, or paternity judgment.

Child Support

The money a parent pays to another parent to help pay for the needs of the child.

Child Support Guidelines

The mathematical formula that the Court uses to derive the proper amount of child support that should be ordered.

Child Support Worksheet

A court form devised to calculate the child support guidelines.


An arrangement where two unmarried people, who are typically romantically involved, live together.

Collaborative Divorce

A legal process, in which divorcing couples work with their lawyers and other family professionals to work out an agreement without going to court.

Contempt of Court

Any deliberate failure to obey an order or judgment of the Court, including the disruption of the Court.

Complaint for Modification

A legal proceeding that can be filed in the event of a material change in circumstances to modify a judgment. This may be due to financial changes, relocation, re-marriage, or a change in the parenting plan impacting the well-being of a child.


A statement of the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage issued by the defendant. It will be different than that of the plaintiff.

Custodial Parent

The parent a child normally lives with, and the one who makes day to day decisions concerning the child.


Refers to the rights and obligations between parents regarding their children after a divorce, legal separation, or paternity judgment.

Default Order or Judgment

An order or judgment made based solely on the plaintiff’s complaint due to no response or presence of the defendant.


The testimony of a witness under oath outside of court and reduced to writing. It also is used to question the opposing party.


Procedures used to gather and exchange information that pertains to the credibility of the opposing party’s case.

Ex Parte Order

An order issued regarding an urgent matter, often concerning domestic violence or child abuse and generally in an emergency situation, granted on the request of and for the benefit of one party only. Ex parte matters are usually temporary orders pending a formal hearing.

Expert Witness

A professional used to help a judge reach a decision. Experts can include appraisers, counselors, evaluators, and accountants.


A support enforcement technique, in which the support payment is automatically deducted from the supporter’s paycheck and delivered to the recipient parent.

Guardian Ad Litem

An adult, usually appointed by the court, who represents the non-legal interest of a minor child in a divorce. He or she is a trained social worker, attorney, counselor, or other professional.


A proceeding taking place before a court where testimony is given and arguments are heard.


A court order preventing someone from doing a particular act that is likely to cause physical or mental injury or property loss of another individual.


A form of discovery. A group of questions served upon the opposing party to gain knowledge pertaining to the issues in the matrimonial proceedings.

Joint Petition for Divorce (also called a 1A divorce)

A legal proceeding that is filed when both parties want a divorce and the terms of the separation are agreed upon.

Judgment of Divorce

A legal judgment that severs a marital relationship and returns each person to single status.

Legal Custody

The authority of one parent or both parents to make legal decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of the child. It may be sole, primary, or joint custody.

Legal Separation

A court process in many states designed to define the important rights and obligations between spouses when they live apart but do not want divorce.  There is no such thing as a legal separation in Massachusetts.


Temporary or permanent financial support paid to one spouse from the other, either in one lump sum or installments.  Also known as “alimony” or “spousal support.”


A non-adversarial divorce procedure, where divorcing spouses are assisted in reaching a settlement by a neutral third party who is trained in the divorce process.

Motion to Modify

A written request of the court to change a previous order regarding child custody, support, alimony, or other divorce-related decisions.

No-Fault Divorce (also called a 1B divorce)

A type of divorce, in which neither party needs to prove there was any kind of marital misconduct.

Notice of Hearing

Notice regarding a preliminary, temporary, or other hearing that may involve child custody, support, or maintenance/alimony.


A court’s specific ruling on a disputed issue.

Parenting Plan

A list of dates stating times each parent may see each child.

Petition or Complaint

The title given to the first document filed in pursuit of a divorce.


Person initiating a lawsuit in family law cases.  Also known as a “plaintiff.”

Physical Custody

Refers to the amount of time each parent is permitted to be in the physical vicinity of their child. This may be sole, primary, or joint custody.

Prenuptial Agreement

A contract entered prior to marriage that establishes the property and financial rights of each spouse in the event of divorce.

Pro Se

When a spouse represents themselves in court without an attorney.

Pre-Trial Conference

Final hearing before trial. A comprehensive memorandum to the Court is required at these hearings.

Process Server

Person appointed to serve summons, subpoenas, or other process on a party.  In Massachusetts, only constables or a sheriff are recognized as process servers.

Purge Amount

An order that a parent be incarcerated for failure to comply with the court’s order to pay child support. The amount is based on the judge’s assessment of the parent’s ability to pay.

Restraining Order

An order used by the court to protect against a situation involving alleged domestic violence, harassment, stalking, or sexual assault.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)

A special court order used in divorce or legal separation to split a retirement or pension plan by recognizing joint marital ownership interests in the plan.

Request for Production

Part of the discovery process. One attorney asks that the other side produce financial documents he or she feels are necessary for the case.

Residency Requirement

The state requirement that you live in a certain jurisdiction before filing for divorce there. Will vary by state.


Also known as “defendant.” The party who must respond to a filed petition.

Right of First Refusal

A provision placed in child custody agreements requiring one parent to offer the other parent the opportunity to look after their children before contacting a babysitter or other family member to take care of them.


A document delivered to a person who is not directly involved in the action filed but is needed for testimony.


A written notification to the defendant that an action has been filed against him or her.

Temporary Order

Order of the court that only applies while the divorce is pending. They are generally terminated when the divorce or other family court proceeding is finalized.


A former court hearing to decide the disputed issues filed in the complaint or summons.

Visitation (also known as Parenting Time)

The right of a parent who does not have 2/3 parenting time to see his or her child.

Writ of Execution

A court order authorizing the seizure of an asset of a non-custodial parent who owes past-due child support. The order usually authorizes the seizure of assets up to the total amount of past-due child support owed under the judgment. It also is known as a levy.