Legal Terms – Family Law Cases (North Carolina Only)

Acceptance of Service.  Signing a document that says you “accept” legal service of documents instead of having a sheriff hand them to you. This is usually done when both parties have attorneys.

Affidavit or Sworn Statement.  Written document signed under oath, under penalty of perjury, in the presence of a notary or other authorized person. It functions as sworn testimony.

Answer and Counterclaims. An Answer is the defendant’s written response to the allegations that a plaintiff has made in the Complaint, the document that generates the lawsuit. The defendant usually adds his or her own claims, such as alimony or child custody, called Counterclaims. These two things usually happen together, resulting in one document called the Answer and Counterclaims.  Then the plaintiff has the right to give his or her response to the Counterclaims, which is called the plaintiff’s Reply to the Answer.

Arbitration. A form of alternative dispute resolution done only by agreement of the parties in North Carolina family law cases. Using this process, both parties hire an agreed-upon arbitrator who makes a decision/ruling in your case instead of using a judge.

Child Custody Mediation. In North Carolina, it is a form of alternative dispute resolution that is usually mandatory after a custody case is filed. The mediator does not make any decisions in the case. Instead, the mediator helps parents work towards an agreed-upon visitation schedule.  Only the parents or guardians are allowed to attend custody mediation. Agreements are signed by the parties and the judge, making them valid court orders. If mediation is unsuccessful, the case goes to court.

Child Support. Money paid by one parent to the other to support a child. There is no “accounting” of how money is used. It is almost always based on the formula used by the NC Child Support Guidelines.  The formula uses incomes, health insurance, work-related childcare and the number of overnights per year that a parent has with his or her child if it is 123 or more overnights.

Child Support Enforcement/Services. Through attorneys and child support workers, it is a government agency that helps parents obtain and/or enforce child support orders, and in some cases determination of paternity and/or past government benefits provided for a minor child.

Complaint. Document filed at the courthouse that starts a lawsuit, filed by a plaintiff. It contains claims, such as equitable distribution of marital property, child custody and support or alimony. It must be accompanied by a Summons, the pre-printed notice to the defendant, and be served by sheriff, certified mail or by the defendant signing an Acceptance of Service.

Consent order.  Formal agreement that the parties sign. When the judge signs it, the agreement becomes a court order without the need for a trial. Sometimes the parties must appear in the courtroom for a few minutes for the judge to get their permission to sign the order without a trial. The consent order is enforced exactly the same way as any other order.

Contempt of Court. Violation of a court order or refusal to comply with the judge’s request or demand in the court room. A judge has the authority to incarcerate someone for contempt.

Custody order. An order that determines legal custody (decision-making custody) and physical custody (visitation schedule) of the parents. Orders are enforced by the contempt powers of the court, after a parent files a claim alleging that the other has violated the order.

Cross examination.  After a witness testifies in court, the opposing attorney asks the witness follow-up questions about his or her earlier testimony.  The attorney seeks to show the witness in an unfavorable light, often by proving he or she is not truthful or forthcoming.

Custody Diary. Notes about the good and bad events related to a child and the parents, with dates if possible. A custody diary is private, for your attorney to use if you have a custody trial.

Date of Separation (DOS). The date that spouses stop living together. A valid separation means they can’t live under the same roof, and at least one of the spouses (either one) must intend for the separation to be permanent.  No documents are required in order for spouses to be officially separated. The DOS is used to establish marital property, and it triggers the starting point for a divorce based on a one-year separation.

Defendant. The person who is served with a Complaint and Summons. These documents generate the lawsuit, which is always filed by a plaintiff. In civil cases, being the defendant has no bad connotation as it does in criminal cases. It means the defendant files a Counterclaim (child custody, alimony, etc.) instead of a Complaint.

Department of Social Services. The government agency in North Carolina that operates many programs and services, including Medicaid, Child Protective Services, Child Support Enforcement/Services and Adoptions in certain circumstances.

Deposition. When a witness testifies in a proceeding under oath but outside of court, usually in the office of an attorney. A hired court reporter attends the deposition and prepares a written transcript of the testimony, which is available for both parties. It is then used in court for a variety of purposes.

Direct Examination. The “easy” questions you are asked by your attorney in court. These questions are followed by cross examination by the other attorney.  After that, your attorney may (or may not) ask you follow up questions called re-direct to give you an opportunity to further explain what you said while you were cross examined.

Discovery. Information-gathering tool used by attorneys. All responses to Discovery are made under oath, either in  writing or verbally in a deposition. Interrogatories require written answers to written questions. A Request for Production of Documents requires someone to give the other side a stack of documents. A Request for Admissions requires written answers to written statements being “admit” or “deny.”  Depositions require verbal answers to verbal questions.

Domestic Violence. Someone in a personal relationship attempts to (or does) cause bodily injury, puts someone in fear of imminent serious bodily injury or on-going harassment, or certain acts of sexual assault.

Domestic Violence Protective Order (DVPO). Requires one party to stay away from the other, including the residence, school and/or job. A DVPO is a civil court order but the violation of a DVPO is a crime. The court may grant a DVPO on an emergency basis (called an ex parte order).

Entered.  A court order is “entered” once signed by the judge and filed. An order is then “filed” or file-stamped by the clerk of court, and it will have a date stamped on the front. Once stamped, it is part of the court file, which is public record.

Evidence. What the judge must rely on to decide the disputed facts of what has actually happened.  After deciding what officially happened, the judge must then decide what should be done, such as what custody schedule would be in a child’s best interest. Evidence includes the testimony of witnesses, tax returns, earning statements, bank and credit card statements, deeds, health insurance records, school records, etc.

Evidence Code. Each state has rules that govern trial procedures related to evidence (i.e., what is or is not admissible in court). For example, the code has rules about objections made on the grounds of hearsay.

Ex parte.  An emergency hearing in court without the other party being present. Ex parte orders are rare, but they are often emergency domestic violence orders or emergency custody orders. The other person has a right to be heard in court very soon after the ex parte order is entered.

Experts. Hired by the attorney or client, or appointed by a judge, experts frequently testify about their specialty and/or prepare a report for the judge and the parties.  Family law experts include medical doctors, counselors, psychologists, CPAs, appraisers, etc.

Family Court. In Pitt County, we have an official Family Court that assigns judges and court dates, keeps track of required hearings, and generally expedites administrative events.

Fees. The term “fees” includes those paid to an attorney, court reporter, courthouse or the office of the sheriff to serve legal documents.

Filed. A document is filed when it is file-stamped by the clerk of court, and it will have a date stamped on the front. Once stamped, it is part of the court file, which is public record.

Filing Fees. The money paid to the court system/state when certain legal documents are filed. These fees are paid by anyone who files documents, with or without an attorney.

Form #4 Financial Affidavit. Budget for parents who are self-employed in child support cases. In Pitt County, we have a standardized Financial Affidavit, identified as Form #4.

Guidelines. The NC Child Support Guidelines use a formula based on incomes, health insurance, work-related childcare and the number of overnights per year that a parent has with his or her child if it is 123 or more overnights. Occasionally, there are a few other categories of expenses. The calculations use one of three types of “worksheets” to determine the amount of support.

Hearing. A word that is used interchangeably with the word trial. Locally, the term hearing usually refers to a trial of shorter duration, such as a three-hour hearing for temporary child support.

Interrogatories.  An information-gathering tool used by attorneys as part of the discovery phase of a case. All responses to discovery are made under oath. Interrogatories require written answers to written questions.

Mediation (Family Financial Mediation). A form of alternative dispute resolution, family financial mediation is mandatory in Pitt County once a property or alimony case is filed.  The parties share the cost of the neutral mediator they choose, who facilitates the negotiation by going back and forth between the parties in separate rooms.  The mediator helps both sides find common ground but does not make any decision for the parties. If the parties are able to settle the case, they often sign a handwritten agreement that is immediately binding, and although it is usually typed, edited and formalized after mediation.

Perjury.  An intentional false verbal or written statement made under oath in court, in a deposition, in pleadings (court documents), in discovery, or any matter that the law requires a witness to be sworn.  Perjury is a crime.

Pleadings. Complaint, Answer, Counterclaim, Reply, Motion, or other documents that are filed at the courthouse, at the office of the clerk of court.  They become part of the public record.

Request for Admissions (RFAs). RFAs requires written answers to written statements as being “admit” or “deny.” If explanation is needed, it should also be included.

Request for Production of Documents or Things (RPD).  An information-gathering tool used by attorneys as part of the discovery phase of a case. All responses to discovery are made under oath.  The RPD requires providing copies of documents that are requested by the opposing party, along with reasonable written response as necessary.

Rules of Civil Procedure. Each state has a set of rules that apply to administrative or procedural matters, such as issuing and serving subpoenas and discovery, extensions of time to file required documents and other details of carrying out the law.

Separation Agreement. Contract that spouses (or former spouses) sign that settles some or all of the disputed claims they have, such as equitable distribution, alimony, child custody or support. A separation agreement can become a court order in some circumstances.

Service. The act of giving someone specific legal documents, either by signing an Acceptance of Service, signing for certified mail, or by having a sheriff hand them to the person. Service of process means service of a Complaint, Summons and any related documents at the beginning of a case.

Subpoena.  A document that require a witness to appear in court or at a deposition to testify. A subpoena or subpoena duces tecum (rarely called by that name) requires a witness to provide documents or other evidence.

Sworn Statement.  Document signed under oath or testimony spoken in court under penalty of perjury. A sworn statement that includes an intentional false answer is perjury, a crime.

Trust Account.  Client money is often placed in an attorney’s trust account, a special bank account that assigns legal ownership of the funds to the client until the attorney is paid for services.

Print This Page