Terms To Know in a Child Custody Case (With Definitions)

Affidavit: A written statement that usually needs to be signed in front of a notary. Often used as evidence in a trial.

Alternative dispute resolution methods: Used to resolve child custody and divorce matters outside of court. Methods include mediation, collaborative law and arbitration.

Code: A set of laws governing a specific topic (e.g., family code).

Contempt of court: Defiance of the court, for which penalties range from fines to jail time.

Contested case: A case where parents disagree on some or all matters.

Custody evaluation: Process in which a mental health professional determines what's best for a child so they can make a recommendation to the court. The evaluator may interview parents, the child and those who know the family well.

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Decree: Also called a court order, a decree details arrangements for custody and divorce as decided by a judge or agreed upon by parents.

Default judgment: Grants the petitioner some or all of their requests when the respondent does not respond to a petition for custody or divorce.

Depositions: The out-of-court questioning of witnesses in the presence of a court reporter. The transcripts can be used as evidence at trial.

Discovery: A period in the court process dedicated to collecting and exchanging documents and information to settle a case or prepare for trial.

Emergency order: A court order made to address an urgent issue that can't wait for a standard temporary order or a final order.

Ex parte: Meaning "for one party," ex parte refers to hearings that happen with only one parent present. Hearings for emergency orders are often ex parte.

Filing: Turning in forms to the court. There's paper filing where you hand in physical forms to the court in person or by mail, and e-filing where you submit your forms to the court electronically.

Final order: Details the final arrangements for custody and divorce as decided by a judge or agreed upon by parents.

Hearing: A court appearance held so a judge or other judicial officer can make decisions about the case. A trial is a type of hearing.

Joint legal custody (shared decision-making): Grants both parents the right and responsibility to make decisions for their child.

Joint physical custody (shared parenting time): Grants both parents the right and responsibility of providing their child's day-to-day care and residence.

Jurisdiction: The power to issue an order in a case. For example, if you live in Utah, New York probably does not have jurisdiction over your case. (The Uniform Child Custody Act sets which U.S. state has jurisdiction in custody cases).

Legal aid: A public service that gives low-income people access to legal help.

Litigant (party): A person named in a case.

Minor: A person who hasn't reach the age of legal adulthood (usually 18).

Motion: A request made to the court, often in writing.

Obligee (payee): The person who receives child support or alimony.

Obligor (payor): The person who pays child support or alimony.

Parenting plan: A set of rules for parenting apart created by parents or decided by a judge. It includes a parenting schedule.

Parenting schedule (visitation schedule): A written or visual depiction of when the child is in the care of each parent.

Parenting time: Time when a parent is in charge of caring for their child. The parent is not necessarily with the child the whole time (e.g., if the child is at school).

Petition (application): A court document used to request orders for custody, divorce, etc.

Petitioner (plaintiff or applicant): The person who files a petition with the court.

Pro bono: Short for pro bono publico, meaning "for the good of the public," this term refers to free legal representation.

Pro se (self-represented): Meaning "on one's own behalf," this term refers to parents who handle their case without attorney representation.

Provision (stipulation): A term in an agreement or order. For example, a provision in a parenting plan might say parents must enforce an 8 p.m. bedtime for the child on school nights.

Respondent (defendant): The parent who did not start the case.

Service: The process by which copies of paperwork filed with the court by one party are provided to the other.

Settlement: An agreement filed with the court. If a settlement addresses all issues and receives the court's approval, it ends the case.

Sole legal custody (sole decision-making): Puts one parent in charge of making major child-related decisions.

Sole physical custody (primary parenting time): Gives one parent the majority of parenting time and the responsibility of providing the child's primary residence.

Summons: A court document ordering someone to appear in court.

Temporary order (pendente lite order): An order that gives parents custody, or requires certain other arrangements like child support, before the final order.

Unbundled legal services (limited representation): Tasks a lawyer does without taking on an entire case. For example, if you pay a lawyer just to review your parenting plan, that is an unbundled service.

Uncontested case: A case where parents agree on how to resolve all matters. Parents who agree from the outset of their case can file a joint application if offered by the court.

Visitation: Time the child spends with the noncustodial parent or third parties, like grandparents.

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Long distance schedules

Third party schedules


Summer break

Parenting provisions


How to make a schedule

Factors to consider

Parenting plans:

Making a parenting plan

Changing your plan

Interstate, long distance

Temporary plans

Guides by location:

Parenting plans

Scheduling guidelines

Child support calculators

Age guidelines:

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18 months to 3 years

3 to 5 years

5 to 13 years

13 to 18 years


Joint physical custody

Sole physical custody

Joint legal custody

Sole legal custody

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