Family Law Jargon – Some Common Terms Explained

We’re well aware that sometimes our clients are a little bemused by some of the terms that lawyers like to use. Indeed, it can often seem as though the numerous clauses and sub-clauses that are inserted into legal documents are primarily designed to obscure the real meaning of what’s being said.

As lawyers, of course, we understand the need for this type of writing. But as people, we also understand how difficult it can be for non-lawyers to get to grips with some of the jargon that gets used.

So here’s an overview of some of the more common terms you’ll come across when dealing with issues related to family law.


The “biggie” when it comes to family law terms. People often say they’ve “had a divorce” or “are divorced”. In legal terms, though, divorce is actually the process you go through when you want to end your marriage contract. Fundamentally, from a legal perspective, marriage is a contract between 2 people. And divorce is simply the means of terminating that contract.


The equivalent of the divorce process for people who are registered as civil partners.

Decree Nisi

An order made by a court when it is satisfied a marriage has irretrievably broken down. A decree nisi does not mean the marriage is over.

Decree Absolute

An order made by a court which signifies the termination of the marriage.

You can read more on our site about the legal definitions of divorce and dissolution.


A Separation Agreement is a legal document outlining various arrangements that have been made between a couple who have agreed to separate, yet remain married (at least for the time being). There are several reasons you may wish to separate instead of going through the process of divorce or dissolution. (More info at


Not a process attempting to result in reconciliation, mediation is a specific method of helping a separated couple to resolve arrangements regarding eg finances and children. Mediators operate in a manner that enables the couple to sort things out without having to go to court. (Find out more about mediation).

Collaborative Law

This is a process where all parties concerned agree to attempt to resolve their issues in a friendly and conciliatory manner. Collaborative lawyers work with the separating couple to come to suitable arrangements, without the necessity for going to court. (Read more about the collaborative law process).

Pre-nuptial Agreements

An agreement made before marriage, primarily aimed at setting out the terms of any later separation or divorce. Prenups don’t currently have a clear legally binding nature in England and Wales – find our more at our Prenuptial Agreements page.


While it’s not exactly romantic, in law a marriage is a legal contract between 2 people. Marriage comes with new legal rights and obligations for each party. Traditionally only available to opposite sex couples, since the introduction of the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, same sex partners are also able to get married.

Civil Partnership

Before same sex marriage was permitted by Law, civil partnerships were available solely to same sex couples giving practically the same legal rights and obligations of a married couple. (Read more about civil partnership law here).

Cohabitation Contract

Also known as a “living together agreement” or “cohabitation agreement”, this is a contract made between 2 non-married people who live together in the same home. The agreement is aimed at between couples who have decided not to marry or enter into a civil partnership – ie it is designed to be a contract between partners in a relationship, rather than being a simple contract between friends. (Read more about cohabitation agreements).


Might seem fairly obvious, but for family law purposes, a child is defined as a person under the age of 18.

Child Maintenance Service

People still refer to this as the Child Support Agency. The aim of the service is to ensure that a parent who is not the primary carer (or with whom a child primarily lives) continues to contribute to the financial maintenance of their child. The CMS should really only be used in circumstances where the parents can’t reach agreement by themselves.