Family Law Glossary

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  • Admissible

    Refers to whether a piece of evidence can be considered by a judge.


  • Adoption

    The process of becoming a legal parent to the biological child of someone else.


  • Adultery

    When a person engages in sexual acts with someone other than his or her spouse; this is a fault ground for divorce in South Carolina.


  • Affidavit

    A sworn statement signed by the person making it and notarized; such statements can be submitted at temporary hearings in South Carolina.


  • Alienation of affection

    A tort action brought by one spouse against the other spouse’s paramour in some states; this is not a valid claim in South Carolina courts.


  • Alimony

    Financial support paid from one spouse to the other following divorce.


  • Alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”)

    A method where legal disputes may be heard and decided privately, rather than having a court make a decision.


  • Annulment

    The voiding of a marriage, as if it had never taken place.


  • Answer

    The Defendant’s written response to the allegations in the Plaintiff’s Complaint.


  • Appeal

    A request that a higher court review, and potentially change, the decision of a lower court.


  • Appraiser

    A person who provides an expert opinion on the value of property.

  • Arbitration

    One kind of alternative dispute resolution, in which a neutral third party (“arbitrator”) can impose a decision on the parties or makes a recommendation as to the terms of settlement.


  • Arrearage

    Money remaining unpaid; the term often refers to past due alimony or child support payments.

  • Attorney-client privilege

    Communications between a client and his or her attorney cannot be used as evidence in trial.


  • Attorney’s fees

    The amounts paid to a lawyer for legal services; these are usually paid by the client, but in South Carolina Family Court, there are times when an opposing party is required to pay his or her spouse’s attorney’s fees.

  • Bench warrant

    An arrest warrant issued by a judge, which allows law enforcement to immediately arrest the individual.


  • Best interests of the child

    The overarching consideration in South Carolina Family Court cases involving the welfare of a child; the child’s best interests may be affected by the child’s age, gender, health, relationship with each parent/caregiver, social factors, and countless other considerations.


  • Certificate of Service

    A written confirmation that the party filing a document has served a copy of the document on the opposing party.

  • Child support

    The obligation that each parent has to financially support his or her children; this also refers to the obligation that the non-custodial parent has to make payments to the custodial parent for the care of the child.


  • Coercion

    Use of threatened force to prompt an adversary to do something like enter a contract.


  • Cohabitation

    When two people live together.


  • Collusion

    An agreement between at least two people to obtain a result forbidden by law; for example, a husband and wife are prohibited from committing fraud upon the court to obtain a divorce that they are not entitled to.


  • Common law

    The part of law that is derived from custom and prior court opinions rather than statutes.


  • Common law marriage

    A marriage that results from an agreement between two people to be married (rather than being married during a ceremony conducted by a third party); such marriages are valid in South Carolina.


  • Complaint

    The document that begins a lawsuit, which is written by the Plaintiff and contains the legal claims against the Defendant and sets forth the facts supporting those claims.


  • Condonation

    When one person approved of, either implicitly or explicitly, the activities of another; this is commonly used as a defense to a claim for divorce on the ground of adultery.


  • Connivance

    An indirect agreement that something unlawful should be done by someone else; this is commonly used as a defense to a claim for divorce on the ground of adultery.


  • Consent order

    A court order that is based upon the agreement of all parties to a lawsuit.

  • Counterclaim

    A claim by a Defendant against a Plaintiff; this is usually filed with the Defendant’s Answer.

  • Court reporter

    The person who records the court proceedings and prepares a written transcript.


  • Criminal Domestic Violence (“CDV”)

    Physical harm or injury, or threat of physical harm or injury, inflicted by one household member on another; household members are only spouses, former spouses, a couple with a child in common, or a cohabiting opposite-sex couple; perpetrating such acts or threats is a crime in South Carolina.


  • Cross-examination

    The opportunity to question an adverse witness at trial.


  • Custody

    In South Carolina Family Court, this usually refers to which parent has the right to exercise authority over a minor child and is responsible for caring for that child.


  • Custody evaluator

    A third party expert, usually in the mental health field, charged with objectively assessing a child’s best interests; in South Carolina Family Courts, this person may be distinguished from the Guardian ad Litem.


  • De facto custodian

    By South Carolina statute, this is a person who has been the primary caregiver and financial supporter of a child who has resided with the person for a specified period of time; such persons may be entitled to seek visitation or custody of the child, and South Carolina Family Court may award the person visitation or custody of the child if the child’s natural parent is unfit or there are other compelling circumstances.


  • Decision-making authority

    The right of a parent to make specific decisions regarding the minor child; usually refers to decisions concerning medical care, education, religious upbringing, and social activities.


  • Decree

    An official order from a court.


  • Default

    Results failure to perform a legal obligation or duty, most often when a Defendant does not respond to a Complaint.


  • Defendant

    A person who is being sued; sometimes called the “respondent”.

  • Deposition

    When one party questions the other party or a witness prior to trial; depositions are usually conducted in an office, and all questions and answers are recorded by a court reporter.


  • Desertion

    When one spouse ceases cohabitation from the other without consent of the other spouse and without justification; this is a fault-based ground for divorce in South Carolina Family Court, but is no longer commonly used, as the absent spouse must be gone for at least a year, and it is generally easier to seek a no-fault divorce.


  • Direct examination

    The questioning of a witness by the party calling the witness.


  • Discovery

    The process through which each party exchanges information related to all claims or defenses, including the pieces of evidence in each party’s possession.


  • Duress

    Actual or threatened violence (or restraint) against a person to compel him to enter into a contract.


  • Enforcement

    An attempt to require an opposing party to comply with the terms of a Court order.


  • Equitable distribution

    The process for dividing marital assets in the event of a divorce.

  • Evidence

    The proof that is submitted to a court, which can include objects, photographs, documents, witness testimony, various records.


  • Ex parte

    A motion before a judge by one party without the other party present; such motions are reserved for emergency situations only.


  • Exhibits

    Pieces of evidence attached to written motions or introduced during a court proceeding.

  • Expert witness

    A person who is called to testify who possesses education and experience in a specific area, such that his or her testimony is useful for explaining technical evidence.


  • Financial declaration

    A form that must be completed by each party in South Carolina Family Courts that contains information about each party’s income, expenses, and outstanding debts.

  • Forensic accountant

    An accountant who serves as an expert witness at trial, presenting accounting information as evidence; in South Carolina Family Court, these expert witnesses may trace assets and debts, provide valuations of businesses, and/or calculate a party’s income.

  • Garnishment

    When a debtor has an outstanding debt, his or her wages or property may be garnished to satisfy the debt.

  • Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”)

    A person who is appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the minor child(ren).

  • Habitual drunkenness

    A fixed habit of intoxication, either by alcohol or other substances; this is a fault-based ground for divorce in South Carolina.

  • Hearsay

    Out of court statements made by people who are not in court.

  • Illegitimate child

    A child who is born outside of a marriage relationship.

  • Imputed income

    Income attributed to a party that is more than what is actually earned; such income is imputed when there is evidence that the party is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, especially if it appears there is an attempt to avoid child support payments.

  • Interrogatories

    Written questions that are sent to the opposing party to answer, and must be answered under penalty of perjury.

  • Joint custody

    As defined by South Carolina statute, both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child, including the child’s education, medical and dental care, extracurricular activities, and religious training; however, a judge may designate one parent to have sole authority to make specific, identified decisions while both parents retain equal rights and responsibilities for all other decisions.

  • Jurisdiction

    Refers to the authority of a court to hear and make a determination in a case.

  • Laches

    An unreasonable delay in exercising a right or requesting a remedy that results in waiver of that right.

  • Legal custody

    Authority to make decisions for the minor child, including those regarding the child’s education, medical care, religious upbringing, and social activities.

  • Lis pendens

    Refers to a written notice that there is a pending lawsuit over ownership of a piece of real property.

  • Litigation

    The process of bringing and engaging in a lawsuit.

  • Marital property

    All real and personal property that has been acquired by the parties during their marriage and is owned by them as of the date of filing of marital litigation.

  • Marital settlement agreement

    A contract between spouses that addresses marital issues between them, such as equitable distribution, alimony, child custody and visitation, child support, payment of attorney’s fees, and taxes.

  • Mediation

    One kind of alternative dispute resolution, in which the parties convene to attempt settlement, with the assistance of a neutral third party (“mediator”).

  • Motion

    A formal request to the court to provide some relief or for a specific order; can be written or oral.

  • Non-marital property

    Property acquired by either spouse before the marriage; by inheritance or gift; or, in marital litigation, after a temporary order, the formal signing of a marital settlement agreement, or entry of a permanent order of separate support and maintenance; also refers to property acquired by exchanging any of the above, and property that is excluded by written contract of the parties (for example, that excluded by a prenuptial agreement).

  • Notice

    A written notification of a lawsuit, hearing date, or other information.

  • Order

    A decision that is issued by a court that can include an instruction to do something or to refrain from doing something.

  • Order of Protection

    An order restraining one person from abusing or communicating with another, and/or from being within a specific distance of the other; such an order results from a petition alleging that criminal domestic violence has occurred between the household members.

  • Paternity

    Paternal descent or origin; biological paternity is distinguished from legal paternity in South Carolina Family Court.

  • Pendente lite

    Refers to the fact that an action is pending and what is to happen while litigation is continuing; in South Carolina Family Court, this applies to most relief granted on a temporary basis.

  • Perjury

    Occurs when a person willfully gives false statements while under oath.

  • Personal jurisdiction

    Refers to a court’s authority to make decisions pertaining to the participants in a lawsuit.

  • Physical cruelty

    Violence or treatment that endangers a spouse’s life or health and renders cohabitation between spouses unsafe; this is a fault-based ground for divorce in South Carolina.

  • Physical custody

    Responsibility to provide adequate shelter, food, and general care for a child.

  • Plaintiff

    The person who files a lawsuit seeking a remedy for an injury or for specific court intervention in resolving a dispute.

  • Pleadings

    The written documents that are filed with a court by each party; these include the Complaint, Answer, Counterclaim, and Reply, as well as any motions filed by either party.

  • Pre-nuptial agreement

    An agreement between two people, made before marriage, addressing any subsequent divorce between them; such agreements may address ownership of property and payment of alimony.

  • Prejudice

    Bias or partiality that favors one side for a reason other than pursuing justice.

  • Premarital assets

    Assets owned by either party prior to their marriage.

  • Private investigator

    A detective who is hired to gather information about a party or witness in a lawsuit and may later be called to testify about this information.

  • Privilege

    A particular law that grants special rights to some persons or relationships than would ordinarily be granted.

  • Pro se

    Latin phrase meaning “on one’s own behalf” or “for himself”; typically refers to a party who is representing him or herself in litigation, rather than hiring a lawyer.

  • Psychological parent

    A person who has established a bonded, parental relationship with a child, resulting from living with the child and assuming responsibilities of parenthood, and encouragement by the child’s biological parent.

  • Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”)

    An order following a divorce that splits or changes ownership of a retirement plan or pension.

  • Recrimination

    An accusation made by a person accused, against his accuser, of having committed the same offense; this is commonly used as a defense to a claim for divorce on the ground of adultery.

  • Reply

    A response to the allegations contained in a Counterclaim.

  • Requests for Admission/Requests to Admit

    A procedure where one party asks that the other party admit certain facts; if the adverse party fails to respond in a timely manner, the facts are deemed admitted at trial.

  • Requests for Production/Requests to Produce

    During the discovery process, each party may request that the other provide documents or other tangible evidence that relates to the claims and defenses of the lawsuit, and the responding party is required to provide these, or provide a specific objection to providing them.

  • Restraining order

    A court order that instructs a person or party not to do something.

  • Return

    A response to allegations, or requests for relief, contained in a motion.

  • Rule to Show Cause

    In South Carolina, this is a court order requiring a person to appear and explain why he or she should not be held in contempt.

  • Separation

    Occurs when a married couple stops cohabiting.

  • Service

    To deliver required notice to a party or witness.

  • Shared custody

    Refers to parents who have joint physical custody of minor children.

  • Sole custody

    A person has the rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child, including the child’s education, medical and dental care, extracurricular activities, and religious training.

  • Split custody

    Refers to a situation when children are split between two parents, such that one parent has physical custody of one child and the other parent has physical custody of another child.

  • Spousal support

    Payments made from one spouse to another during litigation.

  • Statute

    A written law that is passed by a governmental body and arranged in a systematic code.

  • Stipulation

    An agreement or concession made between the parties in a lawsuit.

  • Subject matter jurisdiction

    Refers to a court’s authority to hear a particular case.

  • Subpoena

    The method of requiring a witness to appear and give testimony or provide records; also refers to the written notice that the witness is required to provide testimony or records at a certain date, time, and location.

  • Summons

    The official notice that informs a defendant that he or she is being sued and is required to appear to answer the allegations made against him or her.

  • Temporary hearing

    In South Carolina Family Court, this is a hearing during which evidence (in the form of affidavits) is reviewed by a judge before making decisions on the pendente lite issues in the case.

  • Transcript

    A written copy of proceedings before a court.

  • Transmutation

    The process through which formerly non-marital property can become marital property, based on the intent of the parties to a marriage.

  • Unclean hands

    A principle that prevents a party who has acted improperly, illegally, or unethically from recovering in a lawsuit.

  • Uncontested divorce

    When there are no issues in a divorce case that must be decided by a judge.

  • Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”)

    A model act that addresses which state has subject matter jurisdiction to determine custody and visitation of a particular child; this jurisdiction is based on where the child’s “home state” is, based on the provisions of the Act, which has been adopted by South Carolina.

  • Venue

    The location where a case may be properly heard by a court.

  • Visitation

    The right to see a child, typically awarded to the parent who does not have physical custody of the child.

  • Wage withholding

    A legal procedure that allows a portion of wages or income to be withheld to pay an expense, such as child support.

  • Warrant

    An order that a person be arrested and brought before a court.

  • Wiretapping

    Intercepting private communications without authorization; such action is a federal crime.