Glossary of Key Terms - California Family Law for Paralegals
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- county seat
- The municipality where a county's principal offices are located - also termed county town.
- case system
- the method of studying law generally used in American law schools, in which the students read, outline (brief), discuss and hear lectures about the cases. Each case presented stands for a particular rule of law in the subject matter covered and is contained in "casebooks" on particular topics (contracts, torts, criminal law, constitutional law, agency, etc.). The system is useful since it relates the law to real and factual situations which assist students in memorization and encourages deductive reasoning. The case system is reinforced by textbooks and outlines on the subject matter, which were formerly the principal sources of learning. The method was introduced first at Harvard in 1869 by professor Christopher C. Langdell and soon became standard.
- Common law
- The law that has been handed down generation by generation over the years, typically through and by case decisions
- California Rules of Professional Conduct
- Rules and regulations that have been promulgated to regulate the professional conduct of attorneys.
- Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
- The debtor's property is completely liquidated and his or her debts are then paid off to the extent available by virtue of the proceeds of liquidation.
- Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
- Basically the same as Chapter 13 proceeding with the exception that it is primarily designed for business entities e.g. partnerships and corporations.
- Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
- Contemplates the plan of paying off the judgment debtor's (or bankrupt's) creditors over an extended period of time.
- Child custody evaluator
- A mental health professional who specializes in evaluating questions of custody and placement of minor children.
- abandonment (of a child)
- A parent's failure to provide any financial assistance to or communicate with his or her child over a period of time. When this happens, a court may deem the child abandoned by that parent and order that person's parental rights terminated.
- The voluntary abandonment of one spouse by the other, without the abandoned spouse's consent. Commonly, desertion occurs when a spouse leaves the marital home for a specified length of time. Desertion is a grounds for divorce in states with fault divorce.
- accompanying relative
- An immediate family member of someone who immigrates to the United States. In most cases, a person who is eligible to receive some type of visa or green card can also obtain green cards or similar visas for accompanying relatives. Accompanying relatives include spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21.
- acknowledged father
- The biological father of a child born to an unmarried couple who has been established as the father either by his admission or by an agreement between him and the child's mother. An acknowledged father must pay child support.
- child support
- court-ordered funds to be paid by one parent to the custodial parent of a minor child after divorce (dissolution) or separation. Usually the dollar amounts are based on the income of both parents, the number of children, the expenses of the custodial parent, and any special needs of the child. In many states or locales the amount is determined by a chart which factors in all these figures. It may also include health plan coverage, school tuition or other expenses, and may be reduced during periods of extended visitation such as summer vacations. Child support generally continues until the child reaches 18 years, graduates from high school, is emancipated (no longer lives with either parent), or, in some cases, for an extended period such as college attendance. The amount and continuation of support may be changed by the court upon application of either party depending on a proved change of circumstance of the parents or child. Child support should not be confused with alimony (spousal support) which is for the ex-spouse's support. Child support is not deductible from gross income for tax purposes (but may allow a dependent exemption) nor is it taxed as income, unlike alimony, which is deductible by the payer and taxed as the adult recipient's income.
- age of majority
- Adulthood in the eyes of the law. After reaching the age of majority, a person is permitted to vote, make a valid will, enter into binding contracts, enlist in the armed forces and purchase alcohol. Also, parents may stop making child support payments when a child reaches the age of majority. In most states the age of majority is 18, but this varies depending on the activity. For example, in some states people are allowed to vote when they reach the age of eighteen, but can't purchase alcohol until they're 21.
- A written law passed by Congress or a state legislature and signed into law by the President or a state governor. (In fairly rare circumstances, a legislative act can become law without the approval of the head of the executive branch of government.) Statutes are often gathered into compilations called "codes," large sets of books that can be found in many public and all law libraries, or sometimes on the Internet.
- subpena duces tecum
- A type of subpena, usually issued at the request of a party, by which a court orders a witness to produce certain documents at a deposition or trial. However, when one party wants an opposing party to produce documents, a different discovery device, called a Request for Production of Documents, is often used instead.
- request for admission
- A discovery procedure, authorized by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the court rules of many states, in which one party asks an opposing party to admit that certain facts are true. If the opponent admits the facts or fails to respond in a timely manner, the facts will be deemed true for purposes of trial. A request for admission is called a "request to admit" in many states.
- A formal investigation -- governed by court rules -- that is conducted before trial. Discovery allows one party to question other parties, and sometimes witnesses. It also allows one party to force the others to produce requested documents or other physical evidence. The most common types of discovery are interrogatories, consisting of written questions the other party must answer under penalty of perjury, and depositions, which involve an in-person session at which one party to a lawsuit has the opportunity to ask oral questions of the other party or her witnesses under oath while a written transcript is made by a court reporter. Other types of pretrial discovery consist of written requests to produce documents and requests for admissions, by which one party asks the other to admit or deny key facts in the case. One major purpose of discovery is to assess the strength or weakness of an opponent's case, with the idea of opening settlement talks. Another is to gather information to use at trial. Discovery is also present in criminal cases, in which by law the prosecutor must turn over to the defense any witness statements and any evidence that might tend to exonerate the defendant. Depending on the rules of the court, the defendant may also be obliged to share evidence with the prosecutor.
- res ipsa loquitur
- A Latin term meaning "the thing speaks for itself." Res ipsa loquitur is a legal doctrine or rule of evidence that creates a presumption that a defendant acted negligently simply because a harmful accident occurred. The presumption arises only if (1) the thing that caused the accident was under the defendant's control, (2) the accident could happen only as a result of a careless act and, (3) the plaintiff's behavior did not contribute to the accident. Lawyers often refer to this doctrine as "res ips" or "res ipsa."
- A situation in which a judge or prosecutor is removed or steps down from a case. This often happens when the judge or prosecutor has a conflict of interest -- for example, a prior relationship with one of the parties.
- res nova
- Latin for "a new thing," used by courts to describe an issue of law or case that has not previously been decided.
- informed consent
- An agreement to do something or to allow something to happen, made with complete knowledge of all relevant facts, such as the risks involved or any available alternatives. For example, a patient may give informed consent to medical treatment only after the healthcare professional has disclosed all possible risks involved in accepting or rejecting the treatment. A healthcare provider or facility may be held responsible for an injury caused by an undisclosed risk. In another context, a person accused of committing a crime cannot give up his constitutional rights--for example, to remain silent or to talk with an attorney--unless and until he has been informed of those rights, usually via the well-known Miranda warnings.
- Miranda warning
- A warning that the police must give to a suspect before conducting an interrogation, including the right to remain silent, the right to have an attorney present, the right to a court appointed attorney, and the fact that any statements made by the suspect can be used against him in court.
- implied warranty
- A guarantee about the quality of goods or services purchased that is not written down or explicitly spoken. Virtually everything you buy comes with two implied warranties. One for "merchantability" and one for "fitness." The implied warranty of merchantability is an assurance that a new item will work for its specified purpose. The item doesn't have to work wonderfully, and if you use it for something it wasn't designed for, say trimming shrubs with an electric carving knife, the warranty doesn't apply. The implied warranty of fitness applies when you buy an item for a specific purpose. If you notified the seller of your specific needs, the item is guaranteed to meet them. For example, if you buy new tires for your bicycle after telling the store clerk that you plan to use them for mountain cycling and the tires puncture when you pass over a small rock, the tires don't conform to the warranty of fitness.
- emergency protective order
- Any court-issued order meant to protect a person from harm or harassment. An emergency protective order is issued by the police, when court is out of session, to prevent domestic violence. An emergency protective order is a stop-gap measure, usually lasting only for a weekend or holiday, after which the abused person is expected to seek a temporary restraining order (tro) from a court.
- temporary restraining order (TRO)
- An order that tells one person to stop harassing or harming another, issued after the aggrieved party appears before a judge. Once the TRO is issued, the court holds a second hearing where the other side can tell his story and the court can decide whether to make the TRO permanent by issuing an injunction. Although a TRO will often not stop an enraged spouse from acting violently, the police are more willing to intervene if the abused spouse has a TRO.
- best interests (of the child)
- The test that courts use when deciding who will take care of a child. Factors considered by the court in deciding the best interests of a child include:
age and sex of the child
mental and physical health of the child
mental and physical health of the parents
lifestyle and other social factors of the parents
emotional ties between the parents and the child
ability of the parents to provide the child with food, shelter, clothing and medical care
established living pattern for the child concerning school, home, community and religious institution
quality of schooling, and
the child's preference.
- custody (of a child)
- The legal authority to make decisions affecting a child's interests (legal custody) and the responsibility of taking care of the child (physical custody). When parents separate or divorce, one of the hardest decisions they have to make is which parent will have custody. The most common arrangement is for one parent to have custody (both physical and legal) while the other parent has a right of visitation. But it is not uncommon for the parents to share legal custody, even though one parent has physical custody. The most uncommon arrangement is for the parents to share both legal and physical custody.
- uncontested divorce
- A divorce automatically granted by a court when the spouse who is served with a summons and complaint for divorce fails to file a formal response with the court. Many divorces proceed this way when the spouses have worked everything out and there's no reason for both to go to court -- and pay the court costs.
- A paper prepared by the plaintiff and issued by a court that informs the defendant that she has been sued. The summons requires that the defendant file a response with the court -- or in many small claims courts, simply appear in person on an appointed day -- within a given time period or risk losing the case under the terms of a default judgment.
- response or answer
- A defendant's written response to a plaintiff's initial court filing (called a complaint or petition). An answer normally denies some or all facts asserted by the complaint, and sometimes seeks to turn the tables on the plaintiff by making allegations or charges against the plaintiff (called counterclaims). Normally a defendant has 30 days in which to file an answer after being served with the plaintiff's complaint. In some courts, an answer is simply called a "response."
- A formal written request made to a court, asking for an order or ruling on a particular matter. For example, if you want to be appointed conservator for an elderly relative, you must file a petition with a court. See also complaint.
- The authority of a court to hear and decide a case. To make a legally valid decision in a case, a court must have both "subject matter jurisdiction" (power to hear the type of case in question, which is granted by the state legislatures and Congress) and "personal jurisdiction" (power to make a decision affecting the parties involved in the lawsuit, which a court gets as a result of the parties' actions). For example, state court's subject matter jurisdiction includes the civil and criminal laws that the state legislature has passed, but does not include the right to hear patent disputes or immigration violations, which Congress has decided may only be heard in federal courts. And no court can entertain a case unless the parties agree to be there or live in the state (or federal district) where the court sits, or have enough contacts with the state or district that it's fair to make them answer to that court. (Doing business in a state, owning property there or driving on its highways will usually be enough to allow the court to hear the case.) The term jurisdiction is also commonly used to define the amount of money a court has the power to award. For example, small claims courts have jurisdiction only to hear cases up to a relatively low monetary amount--depending on the state, typically in the range of $2,000-$10,000. If a court doesn't have personal jurisdiction over all the parties and the subject matter involved, it "lacks jurisdiction," which means it doesn't have the power to render a decision.
- full disclosure
- the need in business transactions to tell the "whole truth" about any matter which the other party should know in deciding to buy or contract. In real estate sales in many states there is a full disclosure form which must be filled out and signed under penalty of perjury for knowingly falsifying or concealing any significant fact.
- service of process
- the delivery of copies of legal documents such as summons, complaint, subpena, order to show cause (order to appear and argue against a proposed order), writs, notice to quit the premises and certain other documents, usually by personal delivery to the defendant or other person to whom the documents are directed. So-called "substituted service" can be accomplished by leaving the documents with an adult resident of a home, with an employee with management duties at a business office or with a designated "agent for acceptance of service" (often with name and address filed with the state's Secretary of State), or, in some cases, by posting in a prominent place followed by mailing copies by certified mail to the opposing party. In certain cases of absent or unknown defendants, the court will allow service by publication in a newspaper. Once all parties have filed a complaint, answer or any pleading in a lawsuit, further documents usually can be served by mail or even FAX.
- personal service
- delivering a summons, complaint, notice to quit tenancy or other legal document which must be served by handing it directly to the person named in the document. Personal service is distinguished from "constructive service," which includes posting the notice and then mailing a copy or publishing a summons on a person the court has found is hiding to avoid service, and from "substituted service," which is giving the document to someone else (another resident, a secretary or receptionist, or other responsible adult) at the address.
- substituted service
- accomplishing service (delivery) of legal documents required to be served personally by leaving the documents with an adult resident of the home of the person to be served, with an employee with management duties at the office of an individual, with such an employee at corporate headquarters, with a designated "agent for acceptance of service" (often with name and address filed with the state's Secretary of State), or in some cases (like a notice to quit the premises) by posting in a prominent place followed by mailing copies by certified mail to the person to be served.
- service by publication
- serving a summons or other legal document in a lawsuit on a defendant by publishing the document in an advertisement in a newspaper of general circulation. Service by publication is used to give "constructive notice" to a defendant who is intentionally absent, in hiding, unknown (as a possible descendant of a former landowner), and only when allowed by a judge's order based on a sworn declaration of the inability to find the defendant after "due diligence" (trying hard). Service by publication is commonly used in a divorce action to serve a spouse who has disappeared without leaving a forwarding address or to give notice to people who might have a right to object to a "quiet title" action to clear title to real property.
- errors and omissions
- short hand for malpractice insurance which gives physicians, attorneys, architects, accountants and other professionals coverage for claims by patients and clients for alleged professional errors and omissions which amount to negligence.
- 1) the proper or most convenient location for trial of a case. Normally, the venue in a criminal case is the judicial district or county where the crime was committed. For civil cases, venue is usually the district or county which is the residence of a principal defendant, where a contract was executed or is to be performed, or where an accident took place. However, the parties may agree to a different venue for convenience (such as where most witnesses are located). Sometimes a lawsuit is filed in a district or county which is not the proper venue, and if the defendant promptly objects (asks for a change of venue), the court will order transfer of the case to the proper venue.
- the place where a person has his/her permanent principal home to which he/she returns or intends to return. This becomes significant in determining in what state a probate of a dead person's estate is filed, what state can assess income or inheritance taxes, where a party can begin divorce proceedings, or whether there is "diversity of citizenship" between two parties which may give federal courts jurisdiction over a lawsuit. Where a person has several "residences" it may be a matter of proof as to which is the state of domicile. A business has its domicile in the state where its headquarters is located.
- 1) the place where one makes his/her home. However, a person may have his/her state of "domicile" elsewhere for tax or other purposes, especially if the residence is for convenience or not of long standing. 2) in corporation law, the state of incorporation.
- due process of law
- a fundamental principle of fairness in all legal matters, both civil and criminal, especially in the courts. All legal procedures set by statute and court practice, including notice of rights, must be followed for each individual so that no prejudicial or unequal treatment will result. While somewhat indefinite, the term can be gauged by its aim to safeguard both private and public rights against unfairness. The universal guarantee of due process is in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides "No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.
- 1) n. a prior reported opinion of an appeals court which establishes the legal rule (authority) in the future on the same legal question decided in the prior judgment. Thus, "the rule in Fishbeck v. Gladfelter is precedent for the issue before the court in this case." The doctrine that a lower court must follow a precedent is called stare decisis 2) adj. before, as in the term "condition precedent," which is a situation which must exist before a party to a contract has to perform.
- stare decisis
- Latin for "to stand by a decision," the doctrine that a trial court is bound by appellate court decisions (precedents) on a legal question which is raised in the lower court. Reliance on such precedents is required of trial courts until such time as an appellate court changes the rule, for the trial court cannot ignore the precedent (even when the trial judge believes it is "bad law").
- appellate court
- a court of appeals which hears appeals from lower court decisions. The term is often used in legal briefs to describe a court of appeals.
- 1) v. to ask a higher court to reverse the decision of a trial court after final judgment or other legal ruling. After the lower court judgment is entered into the record, the losing party (appellant) must file a notice of appeal, request transcripts or other records of the trial court (or agree with the other party on an "agreed-upon statement"), file briefs with the appeals court citing legal reasons for over-turning the ruling, and show how those reasons (usually other appeal decisions called "precedents") relate to the facts in the case. No new evidence is admitted on appeal, for it is strictly a legal argument. The other party (Respondent or appellee) usually files a responsive brief countering these arguments. The appellant then can counter that response with a final brief. If desired by either party, they will then argue the case before the appeals court, which may sustain the original ruling, reverse it, send it back to the trial court, or reverse in part and confirm in part. For state cases there are Supreme Courts (called Courts of Appeal in New York and Maryland) which are the highest appeals courts, and most states have lower appeals courts as well. For Federal cases there are Federal Courts of Appeal in ten different "circuits," and above them is the Supreme Court, which selectively hears only a few appeals at the highest level. 2) n. the name for the process of appealing, as in "he has filed an appeal."
- forum non conveniens
(for-uhm nahn cahn-vee-nee-ehns)
- Latin for a forum which is not convenient. This doctrine is employed when the court chosen by the plaintiff (the party suing) is inconvenient for witnesses or poses an undue hardship on the defendants, who must petition the court for an order transferring the case to a more convenient court. A typical example is a lawsuit arising from an accident involving an out-of-state resident who files the complaint in his/her home state (or in the defendant driver's home state), when the witnesses and doctors who treated the plaintiff are in the state where the accident occurred, which makes the latter state the most convenient location for trial.
- modern, gentler sounding, term for divorce, officially used in California since 1970 and symbolic of the no-fault, non-confrontational approach to dissolving a marriage.
- spousal support
- payment for support of an ex-spouse (or a spouse while a divorce is pending) ordered by the court. More commonly called alimony, spousal support is the term used in California and a few other states as part of new non-confrontational language (such as "dissolution" instead of "divorce") now used since divorce is "no-fault" in all states but two.
- no fault divorce
- divorces (dissolutions) in which neither spouse is required to prove "fault" or marital misconduct on the part of the other. To obtain a divorce a spouse must merely assert incompatibility or irreconcilable differences, meaning the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This means there is no defense to a divorce petition (so a spouse cannot threaten to "fight" a divorce), there is no derogatory testimony, and marital misconduct cannot be used to achieve a division of property favorable to the "innocent" spouse. Increasingly popular since the 1960s, no fault divorce is in effect in every state except Illinois and South Dakota
- a change in an existing court order or judgment made necessary by a change in circumstances since the order or judgment was made or to cure an error. A motion (petition) to the court for modification is common after divorce judgments because the courts "retain jurisdiction" over matters concerning the children which may need changes such as terms of child support and custody.
- a formal request made to a judge for an order or judgment. Motions are made in court all the time for many purposes: to continue (postpone) a trial to a later date, to get a modification of an order, for temporary child support, for a judgment, for dismissal of the opposing party's case, for a rehearing, for sanctions (payment of the moving party's costs or attorney's fees), or for dozens of other purposes. Most motions require a written petition, a written brief of legal reasons for granting the motion (often called "points and authorities"), written notice to the attorney for the opposing party and a hearing before a judge. However, during a trial or a hearing, an oral motion may be permitted.
- juvenile court
- a special court or department of a trial court which deals with under-age defendants charged with crimes or who are neglected or out of the control of their parents. The normal age of these defendants is under 18, but juvenile court does not have jurisdiction in cases in which minors are charged as adults. The procedure in juvenile court is not always adversarial (although the minor is entitled to legal representation by a lawyer). It can be an attempt to involve parents or social workers and probation officers in the process to achieve positive results and save the minor from involvement in future crimes. However, serious crimes and repeated offenses can result in sentencing juvenile offenders to prison, with transfer to state prison upon reaching adulthood with limited maximum sentences. Where parental neglect or loss of control is a problem, the juvenile court may seek out foster homes for the juvenile, treating the child as a ward of the court.
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