Massachusetts Legal Terms

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

Legal jargon can be complex and sound like a different language to the untrained ear. Simplified definitions for some common legal terms 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 true facts that you swear to be true. It must be witnessed and signed by a notary or someone authorized to administer oaths.


A legal process to officially end a marriage and declare it invalid.


The official reply in a divorce, separation, or annulment case. It’s where you say if the things the other person is claiming are true or not.


The money for child support that the court decided on but hasn’t been paid yet.

Certificate of Service

A note on court papers saying the other person got a copy of the papers.

Child Custody

Parental responsibilities and rights regarding their children after a divorce or paternity judgment.

Child Support

The money one parent pays the other to help care for their child.

Child Support Guidelines

A math formula the Court uses to decide how much child support should be paid.

Child Support Worksheet

A form to figure out child support based on guidelines provided and established by the Court.


When unmarried people who are romantically involved live together.

Collaborative Divorce

A way of divorcing in which couples work together with their lawyers to reach an agreement without going to court.

Contempt of Court

Not following a court order on purpose. This includes disruption of the Court.

Complaint for Modification

A legal process initiated in response to significant changes such as financial, remarriage, or alterations in the parenting plan affecting a child’s well-being, seeking to modify a judgment.


When the defendant states their explanation of why the marriage broke down.

Custodial Parent

The parent a child lives with most and who makes everyday decisions for the child.


Rights and responsibilities between parents for their kids after a divorce or paternity judgment.

Default Order or Judgment

A decision based only on one person’s complaint because the other person didn’t respond.


Testifying under oath outside of court. This is often used to question the other party.


Following standard procedures of obtaining and sharing information about the other party’s case.

Ex Parte Order

An urgent court order, usually temporary, for situations like domestic violence or child abuse.

Expert Witness

A professional who helps a judge make decisions, like appraisers or counselors.


Taking child support directly from the payer’s paycheck and giving it to the recipient.

Guardian Ad Litem

An adult appointed by the court to represent a child’s non-legal interests in a divorce. This individual may be a trained social worker, counselor, or other professional.


A legal session held in court where testimony is provided and arguments are heard.


A court order stopping someone from doing something harmful to others.


Questions served on the other party to get information for the divorce case.

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

A legal process initiated when both parties mutually seek a divorce and the terms of the separation are agreed upon.

Judgment of Divorce

The court’s decision to officially end a marriage.

Legal Custody

Authority to make legal decisions for a child, shared by one or both parents.

Legal Separation

A court process, in some states, defining rights and obligations when spouses live apart without divorcing. There is no such thing as a legal separation in Massachusetts.


Financial support paid to a spouse after a divorce, also called alimony or spousal support.


A non-adversarial way of settling a divorce with the help of a neutral third party.

Motion to Modify

A written request to change a previous court order in divorce matters.

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

A divorce in which neither party has to prove misconduct.

Notice of Hearing

A notice for a court hearing involving child custody, support, or alimony.


A court’s decision on a disputed issue.

Parenting Plan

A schedule showing when each parent can see their child.

Petition or Complaint

The first document filed to start a divorce case.


The person starting a lawsuit, also called a plaintiff in family law cases.

Physical Custody

How much time each parent can spend with their child.

Prenuptial Agreement

A contract made before marriage about property and finances in case of divorce.

Pro Se

When a person represents themselves in court without a lawyer.

Pre-Trial Conference

A final meeting before trial, where a comprehensive memorandum to the court is required.

Process Server

A person delivering court documents, recognized as constables or a sheriff in Massachusetts.

Purge Amount

An order to go to jail for not paying child support, based on the judge’s assessment.

Restraining Order

A court order protecting against domestic violence or harassment.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)

A court order splitting retirement or pension plans in divorce.

Request for Production

Asking the other side for financial documents during the divorce process.

Residency Requirement

The rule that you must live in a particular place before filing for divorce there. This rule varies depending on the state.


The person responding to a filed petition, also called a defendant.

Right of First Refusal

It is a requirement to offer the other parent childcare before asking someone else, e.g., a babysitter or other family member.


A document to get testimony from someone not directly involved in the case.


A notice to the defendant that they’re being sued.

Temporary Order

A court order during divorce proceedings that usually ends when the divorce is finalized.


An office court session to resolve contested matters raised in a complaint or summons.

Visitation (also known as Parenting Time)

The right of a parent without primary custody to see their child.

Writ of Execution

A court order allowing the seizure of assets from a parent who owes past-due child support.

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