Common Terms and Definitions

Note: The following definitions are intended to be helpful, BUT they are not intended to constitute legal advice or address every possible meaning of the term(s) contained in this glossary. Please consult a lawyer if you have any questions.

Glossary of Common Legal Terms



Acknowledgment of Service– this is a form that the respondent can file to let the court know that they have received a copy of the court papers and are willing to go forward without further service of process (see service, below.)

Acknowledgment of Service, Wavier of Venue and Personal Jurisdiction– a form the respondent can file in a case where they live in another county or state than the petitioner and they acknowledge that they have received the papers, they agree to move forward with the case in the county where it was filed, and they agree to waive any additional service.

Affidavit – a written statement that is sworn or affirmed to be true by the person signing it.

Affidavit of Due Diligence- Service by Publication– this form is required when you want to file an action against someone, but despite trying everything you can, you have not been able to locate them to serve them. When this happens, there is a process for notifying them called Service by Publication. The Affidavit of Due Diligence must be filed along with a request for Service By Publication.

Alimony– Alimony is money paid by one spouse to the other spouse. It can be temporary, lasting for a short period of time, or permanent, lasting a long period of time, or as a one-time lump sum payment. One person must show that they need this support and the other person must have the ability to pay it. A court typically awards alimony when long-term relationships end but there is a high standard in Georgia for a court to award alimony.

Annulment – is a legal order that determines that a marriage never existed. Annulments are rare, and there are special requirements that must be met to successfully obtain an annulment.

Answer – written response from the person being sued that states whether he or she admits (agrees with) or denies (disagrees with) the allegations in the petition or lawsuit.  If the person responding to a claim does not specifically deny a claim, the court treats this as if the responding party admits it.

Appeal – asking a higher court to review the decision in your case.  There are strict procedural and time requirements for filing an appeal and these depend on the type of appeal and the court you appeal to.

Arbitration- In arbitration, a neutral person called an arbitrator hears arguments, reviews the evidence and makes a decision. This is different from mediation, where the parties, not the mediator, make the decisions.

Asset – something you own, like property, cars, furniture, money in a bank account, jewelry, life insurance policies, businesses, or retirement plans.  An asset may be considered part of a marriage or not, depending on its source and when it was acquired. If parties don’t agree, the court will decide.

Attorney – someone who is licensed to practice law in Georgia and is in good standing with the State Bar of Georgia.  An attorney can represent you in court or give you legal advice to help you resolve your legal problem.

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Bond – money paid to the clerk of court by one party in a case, to be held and paid to another party in case the first party causes loss or damage of property

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Capacity-someone’s ability to enter into a legal agreement.

Certificate of Service– this is a form that is required to show that a party has taken the steps necessary to notify the other party of legal filings in a case.

Certiorari -an order by a higher court (“appellate court”) granting or denying a review of a judgment.

Contract – (1) an agreement between 2 or more people to do or not to do a particular thing; (2) an agreement between 2 or more people that makes, changes, or ends a legal relationship.

Custody – this is a term that is used to describe the practical and legal relationship between a child and their parent or guardian. There are two kinds of custody: physical which addresses where the child(ren) will live and legal custody, which addresses who and how major life decisions, such as health, education, religious affiliation, and extracurricular activities will be made. Both kinds of custody can be sole (meaning one person has these primary rights) or joint (meaning two people share these rights and work together.)

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Declaratory Judgment – a lawsuit in which the person suing asks the court to tell the parties what their rights and responsibilities are without awarding damages or ordering them to do anything.

Debt – an amount owed by one person or entity to another.

Defamation – when one person hurts another person’s character, fame, or reputation by making false statements.

Dependent Child(ren) – child(ren) who depend on their parent(s) for support either because they are under the age of 18,  have a mental or physical disability that prevents them from supporting themselves, or are in high school, between the ages of 18 and 19, and performing in good faith with a reasonable expectation of graduation before the age of 19.

Dissolution of Marriage or Divorce- a court action to legally end a marriage.

Divorcing Parents Program- this program helps parents understand the impact of divorce on their children, can help reduce conflict and give practical solutions to future problems. All parties in a divorce action that has children under 18 years of age are required to attend the program before the final divorce decree will be entered.

Domestic Relations Financial Affidavit – this document is required in family law cases and it is a sworn statement that contains information regarding your income, expenses, assets, and debts you owe. Each party can file their own or get together and file one form that includes the required information for both parties.

Domesticating a Foreign Judgment– this is an order that that is required where there is a judgment or order that comes from another state and someone has moved to Georgia and wants to be able to enforce their rights from the judgment from another state.

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Eminent Domain/Condemnation  the right of the state or another government to take private property for public use after giving fair compensation to the owner.

Enforcement -to take legal steps to make sure someone follows an order or judgment.

Enjoined – prohibited by the court from doing a specific act.

Ex Parte – Communication with the judge by only one party.  For a judge to speak with either party, the other party must have been properly notified and have an opportunity to be heard.  If you have something you wish to tell the judge, you should ask for a hearing or file information in the clerk of court’s office, with certification that a copy was sent to the other party.

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Filing – delivering a petition, response, motion, or other pleading in a court case to the clerk of court’s office in the court that will hear your case. There are fees associated with filing a case and these depend on the court and the type of action.

Filing Fee – an amount of money, set by law, that the petitioner must pay when filing a case.  If you cannot afford to pay the fee, you must file a special form to ask the clerk to file your case without payment of the fee.  This form can be obtained from the Self-Help Office or from the clerk.

Final Hearing – trial in your case.

Final Judgment – a written document signed by a judge and recorded in the clerk of the circuit court’s office that contains the judge’s decision in your case.

Foreclosure – a proceeding by a creditor to take back someone’s home or land.

Fraud -deceiving someone on purpose in a way that financially hurts others.

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Garnishment – a legal process that allows part of a person’s wages and/or property to be held back for payment of a debt.

Guardian ad Litem – a neutral person who may be appointed by the court to evaluate or investigate your child’s situation and file a report with the court about what is in the best interests of your child(ren). Guardians do not “work for” either party.  The guardian may interview the parties, visit their homes, visit the child(ren)’s school(s) and speak with teachers, or use other resources to make their recommendation.

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Hearing – a legal proceeding before a judge or designated officer (general magistrate or hearing officer) on a motion.

Health Insurance-coverage under a fee-for-service arrangement, health care maintenance organization, or preferred provider organization, and other types of coverage available to either parent, under which medical services could be provided to a minor or dependent child.

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Income Deduction Order– this is an order entered by the judge that sets the amount and timing of child support payments and requires that these payments be withheld by an employer. These payments have priority over any other payments that might be owed.  There is a federal law that sets out the maximum amount that can be withheld.

Injunction – a court order requiring a person to do something or to stop doing something.

Insurance -a contract between an insurance company and a person or group which provides for a money payment when a loss, accident, or death occurs.

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Judge – an elected official who is responsible for deciding matters on which you and the other parties in your case are unable to agree.  A judge is a neutral person who is responsible for ensuring that your case is resolved in a manner that is fair, equitable, and legal.  A judge is prohibited by law from giving you or the other party any legal advice, recommendations, or other assistance, and may not talk to either party unless both parties are present, represented, or at a properly scheduled hearing.

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Legitimation- is the process (other than marriage) that fathers use to establish legal rights and responsibilities for their biological child(ren) born when the parents aren’t married. Without legitimation, fathers do not have the right to custody or to visit child(ren) born outside of marriage, even though these fathers still have a responsibility to pay to support them. Without legitimation, a mother has custody and the right to make decisions for the child(ren) without asking the father.

Liabilities – everything owed by you or your spouse, including mortgages, credit cards, or car loans.  A liability may be personal or of marriage, and a court will decide which if you and your spouse do not agree.

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Malpractice the delivery of poor quality services or care by an accountant (accounting), lawyer (legal), doctor (medical), or other professional, with the result that the client or patient is harmed.

Marital Asset – generally, anything that you and/or your spouse acquired or received (by gift or purchase) during the marriage.  For example, something you owned before your marriage may be nonmarital.  An asset may only be determined to be marital by agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Marital Liability – generally, any debt that you and/or your spouse incurred during the marriage.  A debt may only be determined to be nonmarital by agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Mediator – a person who is trained and registered to help parties explore whether they can reach an agreement before going to court.  Mediators do not take either party’s side and are not allowed to give legal advice.  They are only responsible for helping the parties reach an agreement and putting that agreement into writing.  In most areas, mediation of certain family law cases may be required before going to court.

Modification – a request to change a court’s order or final judgment. There are rules about how, why and when someone can ask for modification. A modification can be agreed to by the parties, and if the parties do not agree, the court will decide.

Modification – Custody – a change to the last court order that sets out where a child lives and with whom and when he or she visits.

Modification – Other – a change to court order other than a custody order, such as a child support order.

Motion – a request made to the court, other than filing the initial action or answering it.

Motion for Contempt– this is a motion that a party can file with the court that when one party believes that the other party has not complied with a court order.

Motor Vehicle Accident  –when a person or property is hurt because of an accident involving a car, truck, or other vehicles

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Nonlawyer – a person who is not a member in good standing of the State Bar of Georgia.

Nonmarital Asset – generally, anything owned separately by you or your spouse.  An asset may only be determined to be nonmarital by either agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Nonmarital Liability – generally, any debt that you or your spouse incurred before your marriage or since your separation.  A debt may only be determined to be nonmarital by either agreement of the parties or determination of the judge.

Nonparty – a person who is not the petitioner or respondent in a court case.

Notary Public – a person authorized to witness signatures on court related forms.

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Obligee – a person to whom money, such as child support or alimony, is owed.

Obligor – a person who is ordered by the court to pay money, such as child support or alimony.

Order – a written decision, signed by a judge and filed in the clerk of the circuit court’s office, that contains the judge’s decision on part of your case, usually on a motion.

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Parenting Plan – this is a document that parents file with the court as part of a divorce or legitimation and custody case. Parties can get together and submit one plan that both agree to, or each can submit their own plan and the court will decide. The parenting plan includes issues about where the child(ren) will live and when they will spend time with each parent and covers birthdays, holidays and summers, etc. It also includes information about how decisions about the child(ren)’s health, education, and religion will be decided.

Partition – to divide real property owned by 2 or more people into separate parts.

Party – a person involved in a court case, either as a petitioner or respondent.

Paternity Action – A lawsuit used to determine whether a designated individual is the father of a specific child or children.

Paternity Test – a medical test to determine who the father of a child is.

Personal Service – when a summons and a copy of a petition (or other pleading) that has been filed with the court are delivered by a deputy sheriff or private process server to the other party.  Personal service is required in most court cases, and parties can agree to waive this by signing an acknowledgment of service form (see above.)

Petition – a written request to the court for legal action, which begins a court case.

Petitioner – the person who files a petition that begins a court case.

Pleading – a formal, written statement of exactly what a party wants the court to do in a lawsuit or court action.

Post-judgment – a lawsuit or petition filed after a judgment is issued. “Post” means “after.”

Pro Se or Self-Represented Litigant – a person who appears in court without the assistance of a lawyer.

Protective Order – a court order which is meant to protect a person from another person.

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Quiet Title – a case in which the ownership of real property is in dispute, and the court must decide who owns (or has title to) the property. To “quiet title” is to declare that a certain person is the legal owner of the real property in dispute.

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Respondent – the person who is served with a petition requesting some legal action against him or her.

Restraining Order – a court order directing a party not speak to, call, send mail to, visit, or go near his or her spouse, ex-spouse, child(ren), or another family member. A court can file an individual (one party) or a mutual (both parties) restraining order.

Rule Nisi– this is a form that you file if you want the court to schedule a temporary hearing in your case to decide some matters while your case proceeds.

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Service – the delivery of legal documents in a case to a party. 

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Temporary Restraining Order – a court order that says a person must not do certain things that are likely to cause harm that cannot be fixed. Unlike an injunction, it is often granted immediately, without notice to the opposing party and without a hearing. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held.

Trial – the final hearing in a contested case.

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Uncontested – any and all issues on which the parties can agree, and which are part of a final settlement agreement.

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Verification– this is a form that is signed by a party under oath in front of a Notary Public to state that the facts in the court filing are true to their best knowledge a belief.

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Workers’ Compensation -A state-regulated insurance program that pays injured workers’ medical bills and replaces part of their lost wages if they were injured at work or have a work-related illness and their employer has workers’ compensation insurance

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