Divorce Terminology

It is not unusual to come across legal terminology you do not understand in court documents, in conversation with your divorce lawyer, or from the judge. Knowing what these words and phrases mean can be key in understanding the divorce process, so use this list of terms to help you.



Also frequently known as a declaration. It is written testimony given under oath to share evidence or your point of view.


Sometimes called a settlement agreement, this document outlines how you and your partner agree to resolve child custody, property distribution, and other disputed issues


Commonly referred to as a response or a “response to petition”. This is the response to your motion in court, usually submitted in writing


More commonly called maintenance or spousal support, this is money paid from one former spouse to the other


An annulment is a process that voids a marriage. This is rare, but easier than a divorce when possible.


When one party asks a higher court to review a judge’s decision on the grounds it believes the judge made a legal mistake


Community Property

Washington State is a community property state. This means spouses split marital property and assets equitably but not always equally.


If parties fail to follow any order issued by the court, the judge may hold them in contempt. This is a serious offense, and may result in fines or even jail time.

Contested Divorce

A divorce in which either party disagrees about an aspect of the process

Custodial Parent

This is an outdated term meaning roughly the same thing as a “primary residential parent”



The court can grant a default judgment if your spouse fails to respond to a petition or other motion within the allotted time. This automatically grants you what you requested.


A recorded, in-person interview used to gather information during discovery


The process of getting evidence and information from your spouse or other parties. This process often uses both interrogatories and depositions.

Dissolution of Marriage

Another word for divorce



Written statements given under oath as a part of the discovery process, often requiring answering a list of questions

Irreconcilable Differences and Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage

These are the only things you need to attest occurred in your marriage to get a no-fault divorce in Washington State.



The court that has the legal authority over a particular case (usually the county where you live)


Legal Separation

Washington State allows couples to go through the process of legal separation to establish separate homes without getting divorced; often used as a first step toward divorce if the couple cannot reconcile


Marital Property

Typically, all assets obtained during the marriage, except inheritances, some gifts, and some personal injury proceeds.


A written or spoken request to a judge asking for a certain action


Noncustodial Parent

An older term for the parent who the child does not live with the majority of the time. This parent is now known as a “nonprimary residential parent”.

No-Fault Divorce

Washington State follows no-fault divorce laws, meaning neither party has to prove marital misconduct to get a divorce. This also means one spouse’s misbehavior does not entitle the other to additional assets or support, e.g., adultery on one side does not guarantee alimony for the other spouse



The judge’s decision on a motion or other important matter, usually providing direction for one or both partners


Parenting Plan

The document outlining all aspects of your child custody and visitation schedule


This is the paperwork filed to begin your divorce case.


The person who files for divorce or a residential schedule (parenting plan).

Prenuptial Agreement

An agreement signed by both partners before marriage to define who owns which assets and how they will divide them in the event of a divorce


Qualified Domestic Relations Order

Usually called a QDRO, this type of court order plays an important role in splitting a retirement fund according to the judge’s wishes or your settlement agreement



Although rare, sometimes spouses reconcile after they begin the divorce process. If you are considering reconciliation, you may want to discuss your legal options with your attorney

Residency Requirement

In Washington State, there is no residency requirement for filing for divorce as long as you or your spouse currently reside in the state


Your spouse, if you filed for divorce. You, if your spouse filed.


Separate Property

Items or assets belonging to only one spouse; usually acquired before marriage or through inheritance


When a deputy or process server presents a copy of the divorce filing or other legal papers to the other involved party

Spousal Support

Also known as alimony, this is financial support paid to one’s former spouse after a divorce


A subpoena is a court order requiring you to appear or present evidence in court


Temporary Order

The judge issues these orders to ensure a parent or child has the support and protection they need while a divorce case is underway; they can include a parenting plan, child support, spousal support, an order for protection, debt division, property division and attorney fees.


Uncontested Divorce

A divorce where both parties agree to get a divorce, and settle all issues in mediation or through another out-of-court method



A word sometimes used to describe the time a child spends with the parent who is not the primary residential parent according to the parenting plan. Washington State now refers to it as “parenting time”

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