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Family Law Definitions and Terminology


Adoption: The area of law that allows a non parent to become the legal parent of a child. Usually the rights of the biological parents have to be terminated by consent or court order. Adoption papers can be filed by private attorneys, government agencies, or non profit organizations.

Alimony: An amount given from one spouse to another while they are separated or upon their divorce. Texas Spousal Support is very limited.

Annulments: A legal determination that a marriage was not valid.

Attorney General: The official Child Support Enforcement Agency of Texas. The Office of the Attorney General provides services for parents who wish to obtain or provide support for their children. The Office of the Attorney General can establish court orders for financial and medical support, and enforces support orders.

Child Support: Determination of the appropriate amount of money to be paid from one parent to another for the financial support of children, including basic support, health insurance and medical costs, child care, and related expenses. This amount is usually based on guidelines set for employed individuals and self employed individuals.

Custody: Means the charge and control of a child including the right to make all major decisions such as educations, religious upbringing, training, health, right to establish the residence of the child, and welfare. Custody, without qualification, usually refers to a combination of physical custody and legal custody. Joint Custody does not necessarily mean joint physical custody.

Deposition: Procedure during which an attorney questions a witness or a party to the divorce under oath and the questions and the answers are transcribed by a court reporter.

Discovery: Exchange of information regarding all issues relevant to your divorce. The most frequently used forms of discovery are interrogatories and depositions.

Divorce: The division of assets, debts, custody of children, child and spousal support, and changing legal states from “married” to “single”; the final, legal ending of a marriage, by Court order.

Divorce Mediation: Divorce mediation is an alternative to the traditional adversarial litigation process for resolving the issues in a divorce. Mediation tries to help the parties settle the issues themselves. The direct negotiations are a way to try to limit reliance on courts and adversarial attorneys. A mediator can, with the cooperation of the parties, conduct the same discovery (investigation of relevant facts concerning assets, etc.) as a litigator. Each party has his or her own attorney but the attorneys’ roles are limited in a successful mediation. Mediation is often far less hostile than litigation, which is a particular benefit when there are children. Thus, mediation has the potential to be considerably less expensive than a traditional adversarial divorce as long as the parties are relatively confident that the other is being truthful and forthcoming with the presentation of the facts.

Enforcement Proceedings: a separate action to enforce any existing order in family courts.

Final Decree of Divorce: A document that grants a divorce and reflects the court’s decision following trial, resolving all issues such as dissolution of marriage, support, custody, visitation, and equitable distribution. If the parties settle out of court, the Agreed Final Decree includes all the terms of the Settlement Agreement.

Interrogatories: Written questions used as part of discovery which are answered and sworn to by each party.

Joint Custody: There are two aspects to joint custody:

  • Joint legal custody mean that the parties has the rights and responsibilities for making decisions concerning the significant aspects of a child’s life, including educational, medical, and religious issues.
  • Joint physical custody means that the child lives part of the time with each parent.

– It is not unusual for parents to have joint legal custody while one parent has sole or primary physical custody and the other has substantial time with a child

Modifications: A formal change to a previous order of the court, such as a change in a custody arrangement or the amount of support being paid.

Name Changes: Adults and minor children can legally change their name. For adults, this can be a part of a divorce proceeding or by a separate suit filed in a court of law. A child’s name can be changed anytime by a parent in a paternity suit, adoption, or name change petition.

Order: A document that reflects the Court’s decision after hearing a Motion or Order to Show Cause.

Order to Show Cause: When emergency relief is sought from the Court, a party may file an Order to Show Cause. For example, a party might file an Order to Show Cause when there is imminent threat that funds will be dissipated or that a child will be taken out of state.

Paternity: The legal determination that someone is the mother or father of a child and related issues such as child custody and child support.

Post Divorce Issues: Includes modifications to custody, child support and visitation, as well as all enforcement proceedings to enforce existing orders or divide property not divided in a previous divorce.

Premarital Agreements: Persons intending to marry have the right to enter into an agreement to maintain separate property as separate and even to characterize community property after marriage as separate, which is significant as no court has the authority to divest a person of their separate property.

Protective Orders: In cases of family or domestic violence, a protection order can be obtained for the safety of the party and minor children. This can also be obtained through the District Attorney’s office.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO): This is a vehicle by which a spouse’s interests in the other person’s retirement, pension, or related plans, are protected. They need to be carefully drafted or they will not qualify.

Restraining Orders: Used in situations of domestic/family violence to get immediate protection for a family member, including a child. These are temporary and usually are followed by a permanent injunction.

Retirement Income: Texas law says that in most cases, all retirement income acquired during marriage is subject to division upon divorce.

Spousal Maintenance: Each person has a statutory duty to support their spouse. If a divorce is filed, the court may order one person to pay directly to the other spouse, or to any creditors, for the benefit of the spouse.

Suit Affecting Parent-Child Relationship: This can be filed by anyone with a relationship to the child to establish custody, child support, rights or duties, visitation and even change the name of the child.

Trial: If the parties cannot resolve their differences, the parties and their witnesses testify and present evidence in open court, subject to interrogation by the other spouse’s lawyer. At the conclusion of trial, the Court renders a decision called a Judgment.

Visitation: The right of a non-custodial parent or Grandparent to visit or spend time with his or her children.