Legal Terms to Know


Administrative Court: Handles cases involving administrative agencies like environmental protection and licensing boards

District Court: Handles civil and criminal cases, generally without a jury. These cases would include family law matters, small claims, and juvenile civil or criminal issues.

Probate Court: Handles specialized cases like wills, estates, adoptions, guardianships, name changes, trusts, child and adult protective proceedings, and judicial separations.

Superior Court: Conducts civil and criminal cases, either as a bench or jury trial. Also handles appeals from District Court and certain governmental agencies.

Supreme Judicial Court (Law Court): Hears appeals covering questions of law from lower courts/governmental agencies and promulgates court rules and procedures.


Parties to Cases:

Defendant: The person against whom the original action is brought.

Plaintiff: The person who is starting the action. In modifications, the plaintiff will be whoever initiated the original action.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL): An attorney or mental health professional who represents the interests of the child in parental rights or divorce cases.

Dependents: Adults or children whom the client is financially responsible for.


Paperwork and Service:

Complaint: Paperwork that outlines the facts that led to the legal action. This is submitted by the plaintiff to the court and the opposing party to begin a case.

Summons: Served to the opposing party to explain the necessary response to the complaint.

Answer (Entry of Appearance): The defendant’s formal response to the complaint and summons.

Service: Giving notice to the defendant that the plaintiff is filing a motion with the court. There are four ways to serve: in person, by certified mail, through a sheriff, or by publication.

File: This is the formal submission of paperwork to the court by either the plaintiff or defendant. This step must be completed after service and before the court will take any action.

Fee Waiver: Clients can apply for a waiver of fees associated with service, mediation, and trial. The form is available at district courthouses.

Docket Number: This is the code of numbers and letters in the top right-hand corner of court documents.


In Court:

Hearing: When the party/parties appear(s) in court before a judge to share information on the case.

Interim Order: A temporary order put in place until a final decision is made. PFA’s, divorces, and parental rights can all have interim orders.

Judgement/Order: The final decision issued by the court.

Pro Se: Self-representation in a court proceeding.

Ex Parte: Motions, hearings, or orders granted on the request of and for the benefit of one party only.

Default Judgement: If the opposing party fails to appear, the judge will make a decision based on the information presented by the present party/parties.


Family Law Terms to Know

Marital Property: Any property bought or acquired during the marriage, excluding gifts and inheritances.

Marital Debt: All debts assumed by either party during the marriage.

Spousal Support (Alimony): Court-ordered payments made by one party to an ex-spouse (or spouse while divorce is pending).

Partition Action: A legal process through which unmarried couples wishing to end their relationship may address the mutual assets and/or debts they hold.

Primary Physical Residence: The household where the children spend more than half of the time and where the parent provides the primary care and makes daily decisions.

Parental Rights and Responsibilities: The major decision-making regarding the child/children.

Shared Parental Rights and Responsibilities: Both parents share in the major decision-making necessary for guiding a child into adulthood.

Allocated Parental Rights and Responsibilities: Major decision-making is divided up and each parent has certain, distinct rights and responsibilities.

Sole Parental Rights and Responsibilities: All rights and responsibilities are awarded to one parent.

Parent-Child Contact (Visitation): A determined schedule of visitation by which the non-custodial parent (the parent without primary residence) may visit his/her child/children.

Child Support: Court-determined and court-ordered weekly payments that the non-custodial parent must pay to the custodial parent to support his/her children.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL): An attorney or mental health professional who represents the interests of the child in parental rights or divorce cases.

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS): A federal agency that works to support and improve the health and wellbeing of families and individuals, especially those in need of financial assistance.

DHHS Child Protective Services: A branch of DHHS which may be involved if one parent is negligent or is suspected of being a threat to the child/children.

Best Interest of the Child Standard: The court considers, above all else, the safety and wellbeing of the child when making decisions regarding the child’s residence and parent-child contact.

Family Law Magistrate: An officer of the court and quasi-judge who performs certain duties in a family law action, such as finalizing an uncontested matter.

Case Management Conference: A conference run by a Family Law Magistrate in which the Magistrate works to discover points of agreement and contention between the parties and acts in the best interest of the child. An interim order or temporary agreement may result from a CMC.

Mediation: A conference intended to help the parties determine their own outcome in a divorce or parental rights and responsibilities proceeding with the assistance of a neutral person (the mediator).

Status Conference: A post-mediation conference in which the Magistrate meets with the parties to determine the status of the agreement between the parties.

Interim Hearing: A hearing held to address true emergencies and provide for the welfare and safety of any mutual minor children until a final order can be issued.

Pre-Trial Conference: A conference that the Magistrate may hold prior to the final hearing in order to determine if the parties have reached agreement on the remaining issues that would be contested at trial. If the parties have not reached agreement, the Magistrate will ask the parties how many witnesses they expect to call and how long they will need for a hearing.

Final Hearing: A formal hearing during which a decision is made about any remaining points of contention between the parties and during which the divorce or unmarried parental rights action is finalized.

Motion to Modify: An action in which one party is attempting to change parts of a final divorce order or final unmarried parental rights order.

Motion to Enforce: An action in which one party is attempting to enforce a final divorce order or final unmarried parental rights order against the opposing party. The party bringing the motion bears the burden of proving that the other party is disobeying the order.

Motion for Contempt: An action in which one party is attempting to prove that the other party is disobeying a final order or final unmarried parental rights order and that the other party has the ability to obey the order.

Protection from Abuse (PFA) Orders: An order commonly known as a restraining order which is intended to provide the plaintiff with safety from abusive behavior by the defendant and also prohibits the defendant from directly or indirectly contacting the plaintiff.


Bankruptcy Terms to Know

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy: The debtor loses everything except limited protected property but has no responsibility for paying back accrued debts. There are three basic steps

  1. Liquidation: The court sells any of the debtor’s property not protected by the law
  2. Payment: Proceeds of the sale are used to pay as much of the debt as possible.
  3. Discharge: The debtor is relieved of responsibility for remaining debts.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy:The debtor has the opportunity to retain his/her personal property by establishing a payment plan that would eliminate debt in 3-5 years.

Bankruptcy Trustee: A representative of a bankruptcy estate who exercises statutory powers, principally for the benefit of the unsecured creditors, under the general supervision of the court and the direct supervision of the United States Trustee or Bankruptcy Administrator.

Creditor: A person to whom or business to which the debtor owes money or that claims to be owed by the debtor.

Creditor (341) Meeting: A meeting of creditors at which time the debtor is questioned under oath by creditors, a trustee, examiner, or the United States Trustee about his/her financial affairs.

Collection Proof: Income from which creditors cannot lawfully require repayment (includes SSI, SSDI, TANF). Assets may still be vulnerable.

Money Management International (Formerly Consumer Credit Counseling Services): A non-profit organization that offers services about budgeting, daily money management, and debt reductions.

Debtor: A person who has filed a petition for relief under the bankruptcy laws.

Discharge: A release of a debtor from personal liability for certain dischargeable debts. (A discharge releases a debtor from personal liability for certain debts known as dischargeable debts (defined below) and prevents the creditors owed those debts from taking any action against the debtor or the debtor’s property to collect the debts. The discharge also prohibits creditors from communicating with the debtor regarding the debt, including telephone calls, letters, and personal contact.

Dischargeable Debt: Debt that can be eliminated in bankruptcy, which may include credit card debt, medical bills, or back rent.

Non-Dischargeable Debt: Debt that cannot be eliminated in bankruptcy, such as child support, alimony, or most income tax debts.

Reaffirmation Agreement: An agreement by a chapter 7 debtor to continue paying a dischargeable debt after the bankruptcy, usually for the purpose of keeping collateral or mortgaged property that would otherwise be subject to repossession.

Secured Creditor: An individual or business holding a claim against the debtor that is secured by a lien on property of the estate or that is subject to a right of setoff.


Foreclosure Terms to Know

General Terms

Equity Value: The value of a debtor’s interest in property that remains after liens and other creditors’ interests are considered. This would mean the market value of the house minus the amount still owed. (Example: If the market value of the house is $100,000 but you still owe $70,000 the equity value of the house is $30,000).

Lien:A form of security interest placed on a piece of property in order to guarantee debt is paid.

Predatory Lending: Excessive fees, high prepayment penalties, kickbacks to brokers, steering a borrower into an unfair or expensive loan, requiring mandatory arbitration, and offering the borrower products they do not need are all good indicators that predatory lending is occurring.

Taking out a Loan

Adjustable Rate Mortgage: A mortgage with an interest rate that is periodically adjusted. ARMs are attractive, because they allow borrowers to lower their initial payments. However, they are risky, because interest rates rise and fall throughout the life of the mortgage.

Balloon Payment: When a borrower makes relatively small monthly payments for several years and suddenly is required to make a very large payment.

Fixed Rate Mortgage: A mortgage in which the interest rate remains the same throughout the life of the loan.


Behind in Payments

Pre-Acceleration Notice: This notice precedes an acceleration notice and gives a borrower warning that the mortgage holder may require the entire amount of the loan to be paid immediately.

Acceleration Notice: This notice allows the mortgage holder to state that the entire amount of the loan is due and that the loan must be paid immediately.

Foreclosure Complaint: After a notice of default is issued and 30 days have passed, the borrower will be served with a summons and complaint. The borrower has 20 days to file an answer with the court. If the borrower does not answer, the court will enter a default judgement.