Divorce 101: Understanding the “Language” of Divorce

Divorce can be a challenging and stressful time. Nearly all areas of life – finances, family life, social relationships, and more – are impacted by the process. Making things even more nerve-racking is most people’s unfamiliarity with divorce. It’s not something that most people learn in the course of everyday life. More often, it’s learned out of necessity.

Where should I start? 

An important first step in familiarizing yourself with the divorce process is to understand the “language.” Divorce is a legal proceeding, and, like most legal matters, has its own terminology. To help alleviate some of the confusion, here are some of the key terms you should know.

Important Divorce Terms to Know

  • Petition for Dissolution: The initial court filing. This is often done near the beginning of the divorce process, but in some cases it makes more sense to file at the end.
  • Petitioner/Respondent: The two parties to a divorce. The petitioner is the spouse who initially files for divorce; the respondent is the other spouse. In most cases, there is no significant advantage or disadvantage to being either party.
  • Discovery: The legal process to determine the financial assets of the spouses and other relevant information. This includes requesting financial disclosures, including records/statements, and may also include giving oral statements under oath.
  • Marital Property: Assets acquired or co-mingled during marriage. These assets are divided up according to the terms laid out in the Marital Settlement Agreement (see below).
  • Non-Marital Property: Property acquired prior to marriage or by gift/inheritance during marriage and not co-mingled with marital assets. While these assets are kept by the individual who owns them rather than divided up with marital assets, they can influence the split of marital assets. 

The following terms are different ways of working towards a divorce agreement: 

  • Mediation: A process where both parties work with a neutral mediator. It is important to work with mediation friendly attorneys for this.
  • Collaborative Divorce: A voluntary process of working together towards mutual agreement. In a collaborative divorce spouses also include their attorneys and other professionals in the meetings to ensure everyone’s needs are advocated for.
  • Litigation: The “traditional” legal process of divorce. Both spouses hire attorneys who handle the negotiation process. Litigation may be the best in cases where spouses will not be able to work together, there is a suspicion of hiding assets, or in cases with a history of abuse in the relationship. 

Other Important Terms:

  • Maintenance: Formerly called alimony, the payment by one spouse to the other in order to help the recipient maintain their lifestyle after marriage. This is generally taxable income to the recipient.
  • Support/Child Support: Regular payments from one spouse to the other for the purposes of helping the recipient with the costs of raising children. These payments are not taxable income to the recipient. 
  • Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA): The final agreement that lays out the decisions made around division of marital property, custody, and issues such as maintenance payments and support. This document is filed with the court and becomes legally binding when approved.
  • Joint Parenting Agreement (JPA): The agreement that divides up parenting responsibilities. These are broken down into decision making over children’s education, health, religion, and extra-curricular activities. The JPA also specifies divisions of parenting time. It typically includes procedures for periodic future review and resolving future changes or issues.

Understanding Divorce

Understanding the above terms is a great place to start, but there are countless other issues to ensure you’re informed about. An excellent next step for learning more about the divorce process is to check out BDF’s 5 Strategies for a Financially Responsible Divorce.


Mark Durrenberger, CFP®, ChFC®, EA is a Senior Advisor at BDF. Mark has been in the financial industry since 2010 and received both his Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees from Northwestern University.