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Home Page > Family and Relationships > Divorce > Divorce in New Jersey: A Self-Help Guide

J. Glossary


AFFIDAVIT—A written or printed statement of facts signed by the party making the statement and witnessed by a person who is authorized by the government to administer oaths and attest to the fact that the signature on a document is authentic.

ALIMONY—Money paid by one spouse to the other spouse after the divorce to help the other spouse continue to live the way he or she lived while married. Also called spousal support.

ANSWER—The document filed by the defendant in response to the complaint filed by the plaintiff. The answer admits to the statements in the plaintiff’s complaint that are true and denies the statements that are false. An answer may also include a counterclaim.

ANSWER TO COUNTERCLAIM—The document filed by the plaintiff in response to the defendant’s counterclaim.

ARBITRATION—An arbitration session is more formal than a mediation session (see mediation). Like mediation, arbitration relies on an arbitrator, an impartial third party, to decide issues in a case. The parties can decide that the arbitrator’s decision will be binding on them, meaning that they cannot question those decisions or appeal them. While an arbitrator may decide some issues within a divorce case, only the judge hearing the divorce case may decide whether or not to grant the divorce.

BEST INTERESTS INVESTIGATION—In family actions where the court determines that the custody of children is a genuine and substantial issue, the court may order an investigation to determine what is in the best interests of the child regarding custody and parenting time/visitation. This investigation is often referred to as a best interests investigation. Depending on what factors are in dispute, a best interests investigation may consist of either a home inspection, a social investigation, or both. The investigation may be done by any member of the staff of the Family Division of the Superior Court. The purpose of the investigation is to provide the court with information that corresponds to the list of factors designated by New Jersey law as being relevant to a determination of the best interests of the child in a custody dispute. (See pages 27-29.)

CAUSE OF ACTION—The grounds or reason for your divorce.

CHANCERY DIVISION—The Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey where lawsuits asking primarily for non-money-related relief are filed and heard by the court. The Chancery Division includes, among other parts, the Family Part, where divorces are filed and heard by the court. See Family Part.

CHILD SUPPORT—Financial support provided by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent to help support the children.

CERTIFICATION—A written or printed statement of facts that supports a request for relief to the court. The party who makes the statement of facts swears at the end of the certification that everything stated is true to the best of that party’s knowledge. Unlike an affidavit, a certification does not require the signature of an authorized witness, such as a notary public.

CIVIL ACTION—A lawsuit that involves non-criminal claims against a party.

CIVIL UNION—This is the current term for the legal union of two same-sex persons in New Jersey. At this time, New Jersey is the only state using this term. Under New Jersey law, couples in a civil union are entitled to the same benefits and protections as spouses in a marriage. They also have the same legal duties to each other and to their children. State law also allows couples dissolving their civil unions to ask for the same relief as divorcing spouses. However, federal laws do not give civil union couples the same rights as married couples. This means that same-sex couples dissolving a civil union may have different results than divorcing spouses, especially in the areas of division of property and taxes on alimony received.

COBRA—Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1986. The law that requires employers to offer a continuation or extension of health coverage in certain instances where coverage under that plan would normally end, such as when an employee is terminated from or leaves a job.

COMPLAINT—The document that begins a lawsuit in the civil division of the New Jersey Superior Court. A complaint must set forth claims that give the party being sued a general idea about what he or she is being sued for. The party who files the complaint is known as the plaintiff.

CONSENT JUDGMENT—A judgment signed by the plaintiff, the defendant, and the judge, where the plaintiff and defendant reach an agreement with respect to all of the terms included in the consent judgment. When the parties come to an agreement of this type, they usually avoid having to participate in a trial or hearing.

CONSENT ORDER—See consent judgment.

CONTESTED DIVORCE—A divorce where the defendant contests or objects to the things that the complaint states happened—for example, that the defendant committed adultery or was cruel to the plaintiff in some way, or where the defendant objects to something the plaintiff is asking for in the complaint, such as custody, support, or property. Contested divorces usually take more time and end up being more complicated.

COUNT—The term that refers to the plaintiff’s or defendant’s statement of the fact or facts in a complaint or counterclaim, which gives him or her a right to relief from the court. For example, a divorce complaint or counterclaim might contain two counts, one with facts supporting a right to a divorce based on extreme cruelty and the other with facts supporting a right to a divorce based on desertion.

COUNTERCLAIM—A complaint filed by the defendant against the plaintiff as a part of the defendant’s response to the plaintiff’s complaint. In a divorce action, the defendant will often file a counterclaim with his or her answer.

CROSS-EXAMINATION—The process by which the attorney for the opposing party (or the opposing party if he or she does not have an attorney) asks questions of the party and the party’s witnesses about the answers that they have given to questions asked during direct examination. For example, after each of the plaintiff’s witnesses testifies, the defendant (or the defendant’s attorney, if he or she has one) can cross-examine those witnesses. The plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney may also cross-examine the defendant’s witnesses. The questions asked on cross-examination must refer to something that the witness has said in response to questions on direct examination. The judge may also ask questions of any of the witnesses during cross-examination.

CROSS-MOTION—A type of document that may be filed in response to a motion. Another type of response to a motion is a certification in opposition to that motion. Unlike a certification in opposition to a motion, a cross-motion usually concerns a subject different from that of the motion filed by the opposing party.

CUSTODIAL PARENT—This term usually refers to the parent with whom the child physically resides. In situations where the child resides most of the time with this parent but also resides part of the time with the other parent, the custodial parent may be referred to as the parent of primary residence.

CUSTODY—This term refers to the right of a natural or adoptive parent to the care, control, and maintenance of his or her natural or adopted child. Custody is awarded to a parent or parents in a divorce or custody proceeding. See also physical custody, legal custody, and sole custody.

DEFAULT JUDGMENT—In the context of a divorce case, when the defendant is properly served with a complaint and fails to respond to it by filing an answer in the time allowed, the plaintiff may request that the court grant him or her judgment by default in his or her favor against the defendant.

DEFENDANT—The party who is sued by a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit is called the defendant. The accused in a criminal lawsuit is also referred to as the defendant.

DIRECT EXAMINATION—The process by which a party or a party’s witness answers questions asked by either a judge (if the party has no attorney) or by his or her attorney (if the party is represented by an attorney). After direct examination is completed, the opposing party or the attorney for the opposing party is permitted to ask questions of the party’s witnesses on cross-examination (see above). The person asking the questions is not supposed to “lead the witness” (to use words in the question that give the answer to the question). The judge may also ask questions of any of the witnesses during direct examination.

DISCOVERY—The disclosure of facts, documents, and other information by the defendant and plaintiff to each other before the hearing or trial takes place.

DISMISS—To discontinue or end a lawsuit without any further consideration or hearing.

DISSOLUTION—Another term for the act of terminating a marriage by way of divorce.

DIVORCE—The legal end of a marriage by way of a judgment or order of a court.

DOCKET NUMBER—The number assigned by the clerk of the court to a case when it is filed with the court, so that it may be easily identified and located. Always include your docket number on all letters and documents you send to the court or to the other parties in the case.

DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIP—This is an older term for the union of same-sex couples under a 2004 New Jersey law. The Domestic Partnership Act allowed same-sex couples, where both partners were at least 18 years of age, and any couple, where both partners were over 62 years of age, to enter into a domestic partnership. Couples in domestic partnerships got the right to inherit from and be the legal guardians of each other, the right to visit each other in hospitals, and health insurance coverage from a partner who was a state employee. The law changed in 2007 to permit only couples in which both partners are at least 62 years of age to enter into domestic partnerships. Same-sex couples under the age of 62 must now enter into civil unions. Couples who were in domestic partnerships before 2007 were allowed to end the domestic partnership and enter into a civil union without a court order. For more information about domestic partnerships, please go to and search for the words “domestic partnership.”

EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION—Under New Jersey law, this term refers to the concept of equitably (fairly) dividing marital property (the property of a husband and wife acquired by either of them during their marriage) or marital debt (debt incurred by either the husband or wife during the marriage) as a part of a divorce case.

EVIDENCE—Testimony, written documents, material objects, or other things presented at a trial for the purpose of proving the existence or nonexistence of a fact.

EXHIBIT(S)—This term refers to papers, documents, or other objects that are either attached to an affidavit or a certification in order to support factual statements made in the affidavit or certification. The term also refers to papers, documents, or other objects presented to the court during a trial or hearing in order to support facts that are presented by testimony or other evidence at that trial or hearing.

FAMILY PART—Also called the Family Division. The part of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court where lawsuits involving subjects that arise out of family-type situations are filed and heard by the court.

FAULT-BASED DIVORCE—A divorce based on a specific reason (ground or fault). See page 20 for a list of the grounds for a fault-based divorce.

FINAL JUDGMENT OF DIVORCE—The court order that legally ends your marriage. That court order describes the resolution of the issues that you have raised in your divorce complaint, such as custody, child support, alimony, equitable distribution of property and debt, and name change.

FINAL RESTRAINING ORDER—A court order issued after the filing of a domestic violence complaint and a hearing where both the plaintiff and defendant have had an opportunity to appear and present evidence, or where the defendant waives the right to a hearing and admits to having committed an act of domestic violence. This type of court order normally restrains the defendant from having any type of contact with the plaintiff. Under New Jersey law, final restraining orders remain in force indefinitely or until either the plaintiff or defendant applies to the court and convinces the court, by way of evidence, to dissolve the order.

GENERAL APPEARANCE—Where a defendant who is not represented by an attorney does not file an answer to a complaint, he or she may enter a general appearance by signing a document called an acknowledgment of service and returning it to the plaintiff. (See page 46 for an explanation of the procedure for using an acknowledgment of service.) Where a defendant who is represented by an attorney does not file an answer to a complaint, his or her attorney may still make a general appearance by sending a letter to the court or filing a motion informing the court that he or she is representing the defendant in the matter before the court.

HEARING—A public proceeding in a court in which witnesses are heard, evidence is presented, and the parties to the lawsuit are present and have a right to be heard. There is no jury present. This proceeding is formal, but somewhat less formal than a trial.

INTERROGATORIES—Written questions sent to the opposing party as a part of the discovery process prior to the trial or hearing.

JUDGMENT—The court order that represents the court’s written decision in a lawsuit. The judgment should be signed and dated on the date that the case is decided.

LEGAL CUSTODY—The parent with legal custody of a child is responsible for making important decisions concerning the child, such as where the child should go to school and what kind of medical care the child should get. It is common for both parents to retain legal custody of the child, even where only one parent has physical custody.

LEGAL RELIEF—What you are asking the court to order in a complaint or a motion.

LITIGANTS—The name given to persons named in and participating in a lawsuit. See also parties.

MEDIATION—The act of attempting to resolve a dispute or disputes with the help of a neutral third party before a trial or hearing.

MOTION—A request to the court for legal relief. Motions are usually filed after the court enters an order in a case, but they may be filed at the start of a case in place of an answer to a complaint or along with the answer. A motion may ask for new relief, which will change the original order or judgment. A motion may also ask the court to enforce a court order where a party has been ordered to do something that he or she is not doing. The responding party responds to a motion by either agreeing with it or opposing it. The responding party may also file a cross-motion asking for his or her own separate relief. The moving party may then respond to the cross-motion by consenting to it or opposing it. If a court grants a motion and/or cross-motion, it issues a new order, and that new order enforces or changes the prior order. If a court denies a motion and/or cross-motion, it issues an order stating that the motion and/or cross-motion is denied, and the prior order remains in effect. A court may also grant or deny a part of a motion or cross-motion.

MOVING PARTY—The party who files motion papers with the court.

NO-FAULT DIVORCE—A divorce based on the fact that you and your spouse have experienced irreconcilable differences for a period of six months or more, or based on the fact that you and your spouse have been living separate and apart in different places for 18 consecutive months or more.

NON-CUSTODIAL PARENT—This term refers to the parent who does not have the child physically living with him or her. In situations where the child resides most of the time with the other parent but also resides part of the time with this parent, the non-custodial parent may be referred to as the parent of secondary residence.

NOTARY PUBLIC—A public officer whose function it is to administer oaths and to certify by his or her official seal that the signature of the party taking the oath is authentic. Law offices, banks, and real estate offices often have employees who may also be notaries public.

ORDER—The court’s written decision in a lawsuit, signed and dated on the date that the case is decided. See also judgment.

PARTIES—The plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) named in a lawsuit.

PENDENTE LITE—Latin term meaning pending or during the actual progress of the lawsuit or litigation. In the context of a divorce, “pendent lite relief” is relief that one or more of the parties applies for before the final judgment of divorce is entered.

PERSONAL PROPERTY—Possessions such as cars, appliances, TV sets, sound equipment, jewelry, expensive tools, furniture, etc.

PHYSICAL CUSTODY—The parent with physical custody is the parent the child lives with most of the time. This parent is also called the custodial parent or the parent of primary residence.

PLAINTIFF—The party who begins a civil lawsuit by filing a complaint.

PROOF OF SERVICE—A document filed with the court that proves the date on which documents were formally served on a party in a court action.

PRO SE—Acting as one’s own lawyer. In Latin, “for oneself.”

PUBLIC BENEFITS—Financial assistance that some low-income families or individuals may be eligible to receive from the local, county, or federal government. Public benefits include the different forms of welfare such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), General Assistance (GA), and Emergency Assistance (EA). Other benefits include Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

QDRO—Qualified Domestic Relations Order. A QDRO is a special type of order prepared by an expert and approved by the court that is used to divide a private or state pension. Division of a federal pension requires the use of a different type of order, called a Court Order Approved for Processing (COAP).

REAL PROPERTY—Land and any building on the land, such as a house. Real property is also called real estate.

RESPONDING PARTY—The party who responds to the moving party’s request for relief by agreeing to it, opposing it, or filing a cross-motion to respond to it.

SERVICE/SERVICE OF PROCESS—The legal term for leaving a summons or other official court paper with a person who is a party named in a lawsuit. The purpose of service is to give the party being sued notice of when and where the court will hear the lawsuit so that party may appear and be heard by the court. In a divorce, the initial service of process refers to the plaintiff delivering to the defendant a copy of the summons and complaint. The most common type of service is personal service, meaning to deliver or leave with an actual person. Another type of service is substituted service, meaning to mail the papers, leave the papers with someone other than the party, or publish notice of the lawsuit in a newspaper.

SHERIFF—In New Jersey, an office of the court that employs officers who perform official duties such as providing security to the courthouse and serving process on litigants. See service/service of process.

SOLE CUSTODY—The term that describes the legal result when a court awards both legal and physical custody to only one of the parents of a child. Sole custody is usually ordered only in situations where one parent is missing or absent or has been found legally unfit to parent a child. The parent with no custodial rights may still be awarded visitation or parenting time with the child, but it is likely to be limited and supervised.

SPOUSAL SUPPORT—Technically, this term refers to support paid by a husband or wife to his or her spouse while they are separated but before they are divorced. However, sometimes this term is used in place of the term alimony although, technically, alimony refers to support paid after the divorce. See also alimony.


SUBPOENA—A command issued from the clerk of the Superior Court to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony in a hearing or trial.

SUBPOENA DUCES TECUM—A command issued from the clerk of the Superior Court to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony in a hearing or trial and to produce at the hearing or trial specific papers and documents related to the case.

SUMMONS—The official notice to the defendant that someone has filed a lawsuit against him or her. It also tells the defendant where and how he or she must respond to the complaint and how long he or she has to respond.

TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER—A court order issued against the defendant after the plaintiff alone gives testimony to a municipal or Superior Court judge concerning alleged abuse by the defendant. A temporary restraining order makes a preliminary finding before there is a full hearing, based only on the plaintiff’s testimony, that the plaintiff is in need of this protection. The order requires the defendant to stay away from the plaintiff and not communicate with him or her in any way. It also orders both parties to appear at a final restraining order hearing within 10 days or less of the date of the order and give testimony to the court.

TESTIMONY—The statement of a witness in court under oath.

TEVIS CLAIM—A claim by one spouse for damages for a personal injury caused by the other spouse. This type of claim is named for the case that brought this concept to the attention of the court.

TRIAL—A public proceeding in which witnesses may testify, evidence may be presented, and the parties to the lawsuit have a right to testify. In addition, a jury may be present at a trial. In the context of a divorce case, it is extremely rare to have a jury decide anything except issues involving personal injury of one spouse by the other. A trial is usually more formal than a hearing.

UNCONTESTED DIVORCE—A divorce where the defendant spouse does not object to the things the plaintiff says happened in the marriage or does not object to anything the plaintiff is asking for in the complaint.

WORKERS COMPENSATION—A fixed award given to an employee who is injured in the course of employment, or whose injuries arise out of the employment. In return for getting a fixed amount of money from his or her employer, the employee gives up his or her right to sue the employer for damages for pain and suffering and compensation due to the employer’s alleged negligence.

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