Family Court is a very nuanced place, compared to other courts. It has its own way of implementing procedural rules, of applying the law, or enforcing litigants’ rights. Family court legal terms and phrases, that are often misused by non-legal professionals. Knowing what to say, or not say, is also important. (Read more here on this topic.)
One of the major complaints litigants have is that they don’t understand the “legalese” or “legal jargon” often spoken in court. Because of this they miss deadlines, file the wrong documents, or worse, violated court orders… unintentionally of course.
It is no secret that some terms are used interchangeably, both correctly and incorrectly so, and compounds things. Particularly for the pro se litigant, trying to figure out the “right” way to use a word often misused only complicates things even more.
This article will compare some of the most familiar terms and how they differ in meaning despite their interchangeable use.
Family Court Legal Terms Often Confused
Acknowledgement of Paternity vs. Order of Filiation
Acknowledgement of Paternity is a statement (provided by the state by way of a form) where the parents of a child agree that the man that signs it is the biological father. This form is usually used when the unmarried parties did not acknowledge paternity at the time of the child’s birth/
Order of Filiation is when the court issues a document naming the father as a result of either party bringing a Petition for Paternity on its own or in a custody case.
Access vs. Visitation
Access is the term used in some jurisdictions for parenting time. Same as visitation, it is used interchangeable with access and parenting time in custody cases.
Adjournment vs Continuance
Adjournment is when a court reschedules a court date that was originally scheduled for motion, conference, etc.
Continuance is when a court date, usually a hearing or trial, is rescheduled by either party or court.
Admissable Evidence vs. Allowable Evidence
Admissable Evidence is evidence that meets the rules of evidence of a court and can be used in trial.
Allowable Evidence is any evidence that may be allowed because it does not necessarily violate any rules of evidence.
Affidavit vs Under Oath
Affidavit is a written statement made under oath, the person states that they are telling the truth but only in the document.
Under Oath means that the person swearing that they are telling the truth can be in writing or in person.
Arrears vs. Judgment of Support
Arrears is the unpaid and overdue child support or spousal support.
Judgment of Support is when action was taken by the court to reduce the unpaid child or spousal support to make either of them executable or attachable. It can be levied against or attached to the debtor’s assets or income.
Attorney for Child vs. Guardian ad Litem
Attorney for Child is a licensed attorney who represents the child in court in custody or abuse cases.
Guardian Ad Litem is someone is trained to represent the child in court, not necessarily a licensed attorney.
Contempt of Court vs. Violation of a Court Order
Contempt of Court can be civil or criminal in nature. It is up to the laws of the state to determine if the violation of court order can be considered criminal or civil or both. The punishment for either can range from monetary fines, to a change in custody/visitation to imprisonment.
Violation of a Court Order does not necessarily arise to the level of contempt. It is usually something that is menial or immaterial, as thus goes unpunished.
Custodial Parent vs. Guardian
Custodial Parent is the parent that has the child live with them a majority of the time. They can be considered the custodial parent because the parents were never married and the child lives with one parent. The court can also issue an order naming one parent as the custodial parent as well. The custodial parent can be legally determined in a custody case.
Guardian is ANY party who the child lives with for a period of time or who has authority over a child for a period of time. A person can be a guardian on a temporary or permanent. The parents can give another person guardianship or the court can order that a person be the guardian in a custody case or a temporary guardianship case.
Default vs Inquest
Default is when a Respondent (Defendant) party fails to respond to a petition or complaint or fails to respond within the specified time.
Inquest where the Respondent (Defendant) fails to show up in court for a hearing or trial and the Petitioner (Plaintiff) presents evidence and proceeds in the case without them.
It is always advisable to familiarize yourself with the legalese of Family Court legal terms before you proceed in any case. The progression of your case and its overall outcome are dependent on this. There are several online resources that make it easier to understand.