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Glossary of Family Law Terms

Family Law is a specialized area of law with much jargon and many terms of art.  We have included some of the most frequently used terms here to get you started.  Please note that these terms have a variety of meanings depending on the circumstances.  Only consultation with a qualified professional can specifically address how these terms may apply to your circumstances.


  • Alimony — In California, each partner to a marriage or a Registered Domestic Partnership has a legal duty to support their partner both during marriage, and, possibly, after separation.  Cash payments to provide financial support from one partner to another are generally referred to as “spousal support” rather than using the outdated term “alimony.”
  • Arrears — Money owed that is unpaid and overdue. Generally, you will hear this term as it relates to past due child and spousal support.
  • Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (“ATROs”) — This is the former reference to orders that go into effect upon the filing of a Petition for Dissolution, Legal Separation or Annulment; these orders are now referred to as the “Standard Family Law Restraining Orders.” These orders restrain each partner from transferring, disposing of, wasting or encumbering property or taking minor children out of the State until a further court order.  The ATROs seek to maintain the “status quo” during legal proceedings and may impact your ability to change insurance, beneficiaries or take other actions. Consult with a qualified professional at Alex Family Law, P.C., to understand what you can and cannot do in light of the ATROs.
  • Bifurcation — To separate legal issues for a court determination rather than determining all issues at once. The Court may often “bifurcate” and determine issues in sequence rather than at once.  For example, upon request, the Court may bifurcate and dissolve a marriage or Registered Domestic Partnership to return the parties to their single status ahead of resolving other issues in the case.  Further the Court can address issues such as the validity of a premarital agreement if to do so encourages settlement or creates other efficiencies.
  • Child Custody — When the individuals disagree on issues relating to child custody, the Court will likely resolve such disputes utilizing the “best interests of the child” test.  In California, the Courts distinguish between “legal custody” and “physical custody” for minor children and adult disabled children.  Legal custody is the right of an individual to make decisions regarding the health, education, welfare, and safety of children.  Physical Custody refers to where the child will be at any given time, i.e., which individual is responsible for the child.  Two parents may have a “co-parenting” plan which details which parent will be responsible for the child at any one time as part of their physical custody arrangement.
  • Cohabitation — An emotionally and physically intimate relationship that includes a common living place.  Parties that live together may owe each other greater duties than those who do not live together.
  • Collaborative Law — An alternative process to addressing issues in court which includes a series of settlement meetings between the parties, their attorneys, and other professionals.  This process is non-binding and either party can terminate the proceedings at any time.  Generally, each party must hire new lawyers if the Collaborative process does not result in settlement.
  • Contempt of Court — Made upon a finding that a party has disobeyed a court order or court direction.  A finding of contempt may subject the party to civil and criminal penalties including fines and time in jail.
  • Declaration of Disclosure, Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure (“PDD”) , Final Declaration of Disclosure (“FDD”) — In California, at least one party to a dissolution must complete and serve at least a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure as a predicate to obtaining a dissolution of marriage or dissolution of Registered Domestic Partnership. These disclosures must be made under penalty of perjury.
  • Default — A party’s failure to answer a complaint, motion or petition may result in the Court taking action by way of “default.”
  • Discovery — Procedures available in a lawsuit to determine relevant facts or information. The procedures available to parties are broader than those that apply to third parties or witnesses.
  • DissoMaster and SupportTax — Computer programs that calculate child support and temporary or pendente lite spousal support.
  • Domestic Violence — Actions barred under California law which include “molesting, attacking, striking, stalking, threatening, sexually assaulting, battering, harassing, telephoning, including, but not limited to, making annoying telephone calls as described in Section 653m of the Penal Code, destroying personal property, contacting, either directly or indirectly, by mail or otherwise, coming within a specified distance of, or disturbing the peace of the other party, and, in the discretion of the court, on a showing of good cause, of other named family or household members.”  See Cal. Fam. Code Section 6320.
  • Evaluation — Process by which a trained and qualified professional makes recommendations on child custody matters.
  • Ex Parte Application — A procedure utilized by the Court to resolve issues on an emergency basis.  Generally, these requests are determined within 24-72 hours of being submitted to the Court and are reserved for extraordinary issues requiring immediate attention such as issues relating to the immediate health and safety of the parties or their children.
  • Fiduciary Duty — The Court imposes greater legal responsibilities on parties in a fiduciary relationship than those who are unrelated. Partners to a marriage or Registered Domestic Partnership owe each other a fiduciary duty.  Parties living together may also be in a fiduciary relationship.  Consult with a qualified professional at Alex Family Law, P.C., to understand the fiduciary duties which may apply to you.
  • Garnishment — A legal remedy whereby an individual’s property or money in the possession or under the control of a third person, such as a bank or employer, is withheld from the individual and applied to the debt.
  • Income and Expense Declaration (“I&E”) — A form on which a party discloses their income and expenses under penalty of perjury.  This declaration is part of the party’s Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure (“PDD”) and Final Declarations of Disclosure (“FDD”).  All parties to a dissolution must complete at least a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure (unless they default and fail to respond to the Petition).
  • Interim Order — An order made while the action is pending that refers to any order made in a case before the final order or decree is made.
  • Judgment — The official final decision of a court about the rights and claims of each side in a lawsuit.
  • Jurisdiction — The power of the court to hear a case.  Generally, if the court does not have jurisdiction over the parties or the subject matter, it cannot render a decision on the matter.
  • Mandatory Settlement Conference — A conference held between the parties in an attempt to settle any outstanding disputes.
  • Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) — A settlement agreement reached between parties to a divorce or legal separation, usually resolving all outstanding disputes between the parties.
  • (Mandatory Custody) Mediation — In California, before parents can have a judge resolve a parenting dispute, they must attend mandatory mediation.  This process is generally carried out by court staff in “Family Court Services” and generally involves staff members meeting with the parents to try to resolve any disputes.  The actual procedures for custody mediation vary from county to county.  Consult with a qualified professional at Alex Family Law, P.C., to understand the mediation process which applies in your county.
  • Mediation (Private) — A voluntary and confidential process in which a neutral, third-party facilitator (the mediator) helps the parties negotiate an agreement. Generally, attorneys do not participate directly in mediation in family law matters acting instead as “consulting attorneys” providing advice to the parties outside of the mediation sessions.  Mediation is non-binding and either party can terminate the proceedings at any time.
  • Minor’s Counsel — A court appointed attorney for a minor child.  This individual represents the child’s interests, not the parents.
  • Modification Order — An order of the court that alters, changes, extends, amends, limits, or reduces an earlier order of the court.
  • Motion — A request by a party or individual to the Court to enter an order.  A Request for Order can be for a temporary order, emergency relief, or for any other remedy. See also “Request  for Order.”
  • Notice of Entry of Judgment — A notice issued by the judge that decrees that judgment has been entered in the case.
  • Order to Show Cause (“OSC”) — Generally, issued by the Court after a request by a party or individual to the Court to enter an order. See also “Motion” and “Request for Order.”
  • Parenting Plan — A written plan describing how custody will be shared between parents.  A proper plan will also describe how the parents share vacations and decision-making authority on issues relating to the health, education, welfare, and safety of any minor children.
  • Pendente Lite Spousal Support — A temporary order regarding spousal support.
  • Petition – A legal filing that begins the process of a judicial determination of the parties’ rights and responsibilities.
  • Petitioner — The person who files the Petition to start a case.   Generally, at trial, the Petitioner puts on their evidence first.
  • Premarital Agreement — Formerly known as “prenuptial agreements,” these agreements are entered into by parties who intend to marry or register as Domestic Partners and seek to either clarify their legal rights or responsibilities or to alter their legal rights and responsibilities.  If you are considering marriage or registration as Domestic Partners, consult with a qualified professional at Alex Family Law, P.C., to determine if a premarital agreement is appropriate for you.
  • Request for Order — A request by a party or individual to the Court to enter an order.  A Request for Order can be for a temporary order, emergency relief, or for any other remedy. See also “Motion.”
  • Respondent — The person who responds or is to respond to the Petition.
  • Response — A legal filing that responds to the Petition.
  • Schedule of Asset and Debts (“SAD” or “A&D”) — A form on which each party must disclose all their assets and debts under penalty of perjury and give to the other side.  With the I&E, a major component of the Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure or Final Declaration of Disclosure.
  • Service — Providing the other party or witness a copy of the papers being filed with the court in the appropriate manner.
  • Spousal Support — In California, each partner to a marriage or a Registered Domestic Partnership has a legal duty to support their partner.  Cash payments to provide support from one partner to another are generally referred to as “spousal support” rather than using the outdated term “alimony.”
  • Standard Family Law Restraining Orders (“SFLROs”) — Formerly referred to as the ATROs (discussed above), this refers to orders that go into effect upon the filing of a Petition for Dissolution, Legal Separation or Annulment. These orders restrain each partner from transferring, disposing of, wasting or encumbering property or taking minor children out of the State until a further court order. These orders seek to maintain the “status quo” during legal proceedings and may impact your ability to change insurance, beneficiaries or take other actions. Consult with a qualified professional at Alex Family Law, P.C., to understand what you can and cannot do in light of the SFROs.
  • State Disbursement Unit — The state agency that collects and disburses child support in the State of California that is subject to wage assignment.
  • Status Hearing — A hearing in which the court identifies what issues are contested, what discovery needs to be completed, and what future hearings are needed.  Also, related to Case Management Conference, Case Planning Conference, Trial Planning Conference, depending on the County.
  • Stipulated Judgment — An agreement between the parties resolving all or a portion of the parties’ disputes that is incorporated into the judgment and enforceable as a judgment.
  • Stipulation — An agreement between parties on any matter relating to the proceeding or trial, such as an agreement on support, parental rights and responsibilities, parent/child contact and property division on either a temporary or final basis. A stipulation is submitted to the judge, who enters an order consistent with the parties’ agreement.
  • Subpoena — A court issued order requiring someone to appear in court or at a deposition and/or bring documents.
  • Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) — An emergency order enjoining a person from taking certain action for a certain period of time. A temporary restraining order can order a person to cease any communication or contact with another person.
  • Temporary Judge or Judge Pro Tem. — A private individual judge appointed by the Court to act as a judge for specific purposes.  In California, generally, the parties can agree to have their entire family law matter determined by a Judge Pro Tem.
  • Trial — A hearing where the Court takes evidence by way of oral testimony from witnesses, documentary evidence, and any other evidence relevant to the proceedings.  In family law cases, the trier of fact is a judge, not jury.  Because cases made be tried in phases or by single issue (see “Bifurcation” above), trials may span over a course of days or months and may not be on consecutive days.  The Court may hold a hearing or trial on issues pending final determination of the case for such pendente lite issues as temporary support or child custody.
  • Trial Setting Conference (“TSC”) — A court appearance in which the court sets the date for trial.
  • UCCJEA – An acronym for The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which is designed to assist people to determine the proper court for child custody disputes.

Recommended Reading

So many resources exist to help you through your family law matter.  Consult with our professionals to find the right reading materials for your circumstances.  This list has proven useful to other individuals going through family law transitions.

  •  The Child Custody Book: How to Protect Your Children and Win Your Case, Judge James W. Stewart
  • Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenney, McMillan & Switzler
  • Custody Chaos, Personal Peace:  Sharing Custody with an Ex Who Drives You Crazy, Jeffrey P. Wittmann, Ph.D.
  • Cutting Lose, Ashton Applewhite
  • Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen
  • The Dollars and Sense of Divorce, Judith Briles, Ph.D.
  • For Better or for Worse, Divorce Reconsidered, E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly
  • Forgive for Good, Dr. Fred Luskin
  • Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury
  • The Good Divorce, Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.
  • Good Parenting Through Your Divorce, Mary Ellen Hannibal
  • A Guide to Divorce Mediation, Gary J. Friedman, J.D.
  • Healthy Divorce, Craig Everett and Sandra Volgy Everett
  • Learning to Leave: A Woman’s Guide, Lynette Trier with Richard Peacock
  • Mom’s House, Dad’s House:  Making Two Homes for Your Child, Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.
  • Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends, Dr. Bruce Fisher
  • Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade after Divorce, Judith S. Wallerstein, Ph.D. & Sandra Blakeslee
  • The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman
  • Should You Leave, Peter D. Kramer
  • Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce, Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D. with Joan Berline Kelly, Ph.D.
  • Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, Dr. Laura Schlessinger
  • Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, Mira Kirshenbaum
  • Uncoupling:  Turning Points in Intimate Relationships, Diane Vaughan
  • The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D, Julia M. Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee
  • We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents’ Divorce, Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.
  • Wednesday Evenings and Every Other Weekend, F. Daniel McClure, Ph.D. and Jerry B. Saffer, Ph.D.
  • What About the Kids:  Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce, Judith S. Wallerstein

Frequently Asked Questions

Why use a Certified Specialist* when I can find a lower cost attorney?

Family law is an area requiring experience, knowledge of the law, and knowledge of the community in which your matter arises to have effective representation.  Critical questions often are answered by knowing the judge and the court you find yourself in, knowing the players, knowing the law, and giving advice based on experience and strategic smarts.  Many decisions made in family law are part of a balancing test. Spousal support (alimony), child custody, and business valuation are key examples. In these cases, experience and understanding how decisions are made is critical.  By hiring a certified specialist, you can ensure that your attorney is experienced both practically and understands the law.  Certification requires attorneys to prove that they have experience in a variety of family law areas and requires the attorney to pass an extensive test aimed at demonstrating mastery of various aspects of family law.  For more information about the standards for certification, visit

When you hire a certified specialist you can be assured that the attorney meets both the practical and experiential requirements and has demonstrated mastery of the substantive family law necessary to be designated a specialist.

*The State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization certifies lawyer in a variety of areas, including Family Law.  A specialist certified in family law often adds the designation “CFLS” to indicate they are a Certified Family Law Specialist.

Why hire an attorney at a law firm rather than a solo or small firm? Won’t I be paying for a lot of overhead or training junior staff?

At Apex Family Law Group, we have strength in numbers.  Your lost cost solo may be lacking in experience, knowledge of the law, knowledge of the judge and court, or knowledge of the players.  Our team of lawyers can cover more territory and know more people in the family law community than one or two attorneys working on their own.  We collaborate and share best practices in the firm and have created efficiencies for dealing with many of the routine tasks in a family law matter—something a one or two person firm simply cannot achieve.

We are smart in our size.  By having a team of professionals, we can create a more cost-effective representation for you.  For example, in one of our cases the lawyer on the other side charged $500 per hours to scan documents (likely because she had no staff).  By having a team of professionals, we can ensure that the lowest cost professional is doing the work that is suited for their skill level and experience and at the lowest cost to the client.  For example, in divorce cases, generally, each party must complete a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure.  At our firm, these documents can often be prepared in a much more cost- effective manner through the use of legal assistants and administrative staff instead of using an attorney.  In fact, because we have administrative staff that does not bill, oftentimes our clients are not billed for some routine administrative tasks.  A solo has to bill all their time and prepare administrative tasks because they have no or limited staff.

Because we are a firm, we invest in our staff.  We have in firm protocols to more efficiently meet our clients’ needs and we invest in training our professionals to provide services to our clients.  Part of that training is “hands on.”  As a result, many times you will have the benefit of two lawyers in a meeting or going to court but only be charged for one.  Here you get the benefit of two lawyers and we provide hands on training to more junior attorneys.

Further, because we have a team of professionals, it is likely that you will always be able to talk to a real human being during business hours.  Because family law is often stressful, you will have the peace of mind knowing that you won’t be caught leaving a voicemail or in an electronic phone tree.  You will actually have a person to talk to and respond to your concerns.

When considering hiring an attorney ask about the billing rates of the professionals in the office and whether the attorney has administrative staff available for which you will not be charged.  Be a smart consumer of legal services.  Don’t pay one price for all legal services in your family law matter.  You should pay for the skill, experience, and knowledge necessary for your representation. This is an area where “one size” does not fit all.

Why am I being charged for an initial consultation?

Our services are provided on an hourly basis.  Unlike other attorneys, we do not charge a success fee or get paid based on the outcome of your matter.  Our goal is to efficiently resolve your case and in many instances, our fees end up being modest.  As a result, we only charge for the time we spend.  Therefore, every hour of our time is valuable and takes away from our other clients.

Further, our consultations generally involve providing confidential information to us and thereby bound us to keep your information confidential as party of an attorney-client communication.  Even if you do not hire us, an initial consultation often precludes us from representing other individuals in your matter.  So, the decision to meet and consult with you may have lasting implications for our ability to represent others in our community.  Consequently it is standard practice in family law that quality attorneys charge for their time taken for an initial consultation.

Because we charge for initial consultations, we try to have the meetings be productive so that you receive value for our time and your time spent in the initial consultation.  Please come prepared with your questions and we will do our best to make the time valuable.

Finally, in appropriate circumstances when the consultation leads to a substantive matter, we consider waiving the consultation fee from the first invoice in the matter after a representation agreement is executed and retainer provided.

We look forward to working with you.

How much will my matter cost? If it is a simple premarital agreement/postmarital agreement/cohabitation, please quote me a price.

Many clients believe that their matter is simple and want a quote for a “standard agreement.”  Just as your relationship is unique, your agreement will likely be unique, too.  Each couple comes to us with different needs and different goals.  Depending on your needs and how aligned yours goals are, the cost can vary widely.

Beware of “standard” or “form agreements,” if you hear about this you are getting sold and may regret the consequences.  If you want to invest the time and energy to enter into these agreements, do it right and your money will be well spent.  You should prepare disclosures to ensure that both parties understand the issues in the agreement.  Spend the necessary amount of time with your attorney to understand the legal and practical realities of having an agreement.  We have had many cases where parties entered into a “standard agreement” only to find deep regret that the cookie cutter form they found online or through a friend trying to be thrifty led to serious and expensive mistakes when implemented.  Please don’t fall into that trap.  Further, using “standard agreements” can lead to deep divisions between couples.  Please do not fall prey to the superficial “easy” solution of a standard agreement prepared to protect only one party as a starting point of your discussions about your financial future.  Those cases end up costing lots of time and precious energy in difficult negotiations and prolonged drafting periods. At worst, the parties’ relationship can be deeply wounded.

We prefer to work in a collaborative style to make sure both parties’ needs are met.  We meet with our client and determine high level goals and ensure that the couple is of one mind before we start drafting.  We advocate group meetings (lawyers and clients) before the agreement is prepared to avoid prolonged drafting periods.  For all agreements, we work from forms that we have created over the years and update routinely to ensure that we create the right, cost-effective, agreement for you.  We use varying levels of staff to keep fees to a minimum.  Know that we will work “smart” to ensure that your agreement meets your needs.

Ultimately, you know yourself and your partner better than we do.  Without knowing your situation, we cannot accurately determine how much time will be involved in your matter.  We are happy to give you a budget once we have met, learned about your circumstances, and explained to you the varying choices available in these agreements.  Let us help you be strong, smart and steady in your choices regarding these agreements.  We find that clients that are focused on the end goal, an agreement reached in concert with their partner, and not those focused on cost, end up with the best agreements at the lower cost.

We Are Ready

Our team is back and we are here for you when you are facing significant and difficult family law transitions. Contact us for  caring, thoughtful, and strong support.



San Francisco: 1-415-523-3050                                                          Santa Barbara: 1-805-755-4919


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