Common Legal Terms

 - The following was compiled by the the Boston Bar Association - Our special thanks

Affidavit of IndigencyThis is a sworn statement filed by people of limited means, often to get filing fees waived and to have the state pay for the costs of having a process server "serve" the court papers on an opposing party in their case.

AlimonySupport paid to someone you are legally married to or who you were legally married to in the past.

AnswerA court case starts with a complaint filed by a plaintiff.  A defendant usually has 20 days (after being served with a complaint) to file a written answer in court admitting or denying each paragraph of the complaint.

Assistant Register: An Assistant Register assists the Judge in the courtroom and helps to process court papers in the Register's Office. Often this is the person that you check in with when you go to the courtroom where your case will be heard by a Judge.  

Child Support GuidelinesThis is the court established formula that the Judge uses to set a child support order.  It is based primarily on the income of the parties, the number of children and the ages of children.

CitationIn a child guardianship case, a "citation" is the form that must be "served" on the parents or other parties to the case to give notice of the case when the parents or the other parties have not signed their "assent" (meaning that they agree) to the guardianship. 

ComplaintA court case is started with a complaint.  The type of complaint which is best for you depends on what you want from the court and will depend on your relationship to the parties in the case.  Unmarried parents often file paternity or Chapter 209C complaints; married parties often file divorce or separate support complaints.

Complaint for Contempt:  A complaint filed by one party against another for failure to comply with an order of the Court.

Contempt:  A refusal to comply with an order of the Court.

Court OfficersCourt officers are in the courthouse to keep the peace and to provide for the safety of Judges, court staff and the public.  Court officers usually wear uniforms.

CustodySee Physical Custody, Shared Legal Custody, Sole Custody.

DefendantThe person against whom a complaint is filed is called the defendant. 

DivorceA divorce complaint is filed to legally end a marriage and to deal with division of marital property, debts, support, and children. 

Docket NumberEvery court case is given a number.  This is on the upper right corner of most court papers. 

DORDOR (the Department of Revenue) is the state child support agency and is involved in cases if a party or the child have received public assistance.  DOR is involved in other cases if the child support is paid through DOR or a person seeking support applies for DOR services. 

Family Service OfficerThe Family Service Officer meets with you to see what your case is about and to try to help you reach a written agreement with the other party on the day of your hearing.  The Family Service Officer is not a Judge and usually not a lawyer; he or she can repeat what you say to the Judge.  The Judge also can order that the Family Service Office do a more detailed investigation of your case. 

Financial StatementYou will have to fill out this form describing your financial situation if your case involves issues of support or other financial matters.  Your Financial Statement is one of the most important documents in your case.  Do not wait until the last minute to fill it out.  Be sure to attach copies of your W-2's and 1099 tax forms from the prior year to the Financial Statement.

Income Assignment:  The Judge makes an order for an immediate or a suspended (inactive) income assignment whenever child support is ordered.  If the order is immediate, the employer (or other source of income) is sent a copy of the order requiring that the child support be taken out of a paycheck (or other source of income) starting immediately.  A suspended order can be changed to an immediate assignment if a parent gets behind in support payments.

Judgment:  Cases usually start with temporary orders.  After a trial or a written agreement of the parties for final resolution of the case, a judgment is entered.  Usually, a judgment cannot be changed without a substantial change of circumstances. 

Judgment of Divorce Nisi:  The initial divorce judgment.  After the judgment nisi enters following a divorce hearing, the divorce becomes absolute and final in 90 days. 

Marking a Motion:  This means scheduling a hearing on a motion.  A motion is used to request temporary orders until the Court enters a final judgment or further temporary orders.  Unless there is a dire emergency, a motion cannot be marked until the complaint and summons are served. 

Modification:  A complaint for modification is needed to start a Court case to change a judgment of the Court. (See judgment).  Motions to change temporary orders may be filed while a case is pending, but the Judge often does not modify (change) the temporary orders until trial unless things have changed in a major way since the last Court order. 

Paternity cases:  Cases involving parents who have children but who have not been married to each other.  Also called "Chapter 209C" cases. 

Physical Custody:  Physical custody means the person with whom the child lives with. 

Plaintiff:  The person who files the complaint is called the plaintiff. 

Process Server:  The complaint and summons have to be served (delivered) on a defendant.  Deputy Sheriffs or constables are process servers who can serve a complaint, summons, or other court papers. 

Proposed Order:  Whenever you file a motion for temporary orders, you must file a proposed order telling the Court what you want ordered. 

Pro Se party:  If you appear in court without a lawyer, you are a "pro se" (pronounced "pro say") party - meaning you represent yourself. 

Return of Service:  A summons and complaint have to be "served."  The return of service is the part of the summons filled in by a Deputy Sheriff or other person who served the papers describing how service was made. 

Separate Support case:  A married person may file this complaint if he or she does not want a divorce, but wants to live separately from a spouse and needs support or child custody orders.  ( A married person seeking only support may also file a complaint for support).

Shared Legal Custody: This means both parents make decisions together on major issues relating to their child such as education, medical treatment, religion, and other important issues in the child's life.  If a parent has sole legal custody, he or she can make the important decisions about the child without getting input from the other parent. 

Shared Legal Custody and Physical Custody to One Parent:  This means the child lives with one parent, but both parents participate in making important decisions about the child.

Shared Legal Custody and Shared Physical Custody:  This means the child spends substantial time living with both parents and both parents participate in making important decisions about the child.

Sole Custody (Sole Legal and Sole Physical Custody):  This means the child lives with one parent who is solely responsible for making major decisions about the child and for the child's general upbringing. 

Stipulations:  Written agreements filed in Court cases. 

Summons:  After a complaint is filed, a summons will be issued so that the defendant can receive official notice of the case.  Copies of the summons and complaint must be "served" on the defendant in the case. 

Visitation order:  This is a Court order that sets out when the parent who does not have physical custody can spend time with the child.