Glossary of Common Family Law Terms

Minor Child

This term may seem like it would have a very obvious definition. However, depending on the context in which it is being used, it actually can mean two different things.

When defining legal decision making authority or parenting time rights (which will be discussed, below), a child is a “Minor Child” so long as they are under the age of 18 years.

However, when defining the term for a child support obligation, the line gets a little more blurry. In the State of Arizona, a child remains a Minor Child for purposes of child support until they turn 18 or until they graduate from high school, whichever is later. Child support will end at age 19 regardless of whether the child is still enrolled in high school unless the Court has determined that the child has special needs such that they are unlikely to be self-sufficient even as an adult. For most, but not all cases, the “18 or high school graduation” rule will apply to define what a Minor Child is for purposes of child support.

Legal Decision Making Authority

Legal decision making authority defines how major decisions in a child’s life will be determined. There are presently two kinds of legal decision making authority designations recognized by Arizona statute: Sole Legal Decision Making Authority and Joint Legal Decision Making Authority. Depending on the legal decision making authority designation, one or both parents will have the right to make choices for the children with regard to their non-emergency medical care, education (i.e. what school to enroll them in), and religious training. If the parents do not agree on a legal decision making authority designation, the Court must make this decision after considering the best interests of the minor children as defined by statute.

Sole legal decision making authority is the condition under which one parent has the right to make major decisions for the children and only has to keep the other parent informed about those decisions. There is no requirement that the parties agree on any of these decisions (however, even in a sole legal decision making authority situation, a parent may be under an obligation to notify the other parent before moving far away within the state or out of state with the minor children therefore, it is extremely important to contact an attorney if contemplating a relocation with your children). The designated sole legal decision making authority has to make decisions that are in the best interests of the minor children or they may face a legal challenge from the non-designated parent.

Joint legal decision making authority is the condition under which both parents have the right to make decisions for their children. The parents have to discuss and agree on a course of action that is in their children’s best interests. Of course, parents will not always agree and, usually, there will be a requirement that parents seek mediation to try and resolve their differences before initiating a court action. The State of Arizona has a policy preference towards awarding joint legal decision making authority where possible and in the children’s best interests. If there is a serious concern about the other parent’s ability to co-parent (i.e. drug use, significant domestic violence, criminal history), it may be cause to advocate for a sole custody plan.

Legal decision making authority is logically connected to the next topic, parenting time, however, it is important to note that even the non-designated legal decision making authorized parent will be entitled to parenting time in most circumstances. That is, sole legal decision making authority designation to one parent does not mean zero parenting time to the other parent.

Parenting Time

Parenting time is the schedule which controls when each parent gets to see the children. Parties may be familiar with the terms “visitation” or “physical custody” which are older ways of defining the currently used term of parenting time.

Parenting time works on a variety of different schedules – there is no one “right way” to do it. Some parents work on the very familiar “every other weekend” kind of schedule while others work on an equal-parenting time arrangement. It is a strong policy in the State of Arizona to maximize each parent’s time with the minor children where at all possible to do so. In situations where there are concerns for parental fitness and/or a parent has gone an extremely long time without seeing the children, parenting time may even be supervised by another person.

If the parents cannot reach an agreement on a parenting time schedule for their minor children without assistance, they can try to use one of a number of court-offered programs to do so with some help. Ultimately, if no agreement is reached, the Court will determine a parenting plan after considering the minor children’s best interests.


This is an older term that has been replaced by the term “Parenting Time.” Please see the discussion on parenting time.

Physical Custody

This is an older term that has been replaced by the term “Parenting Time.” Please see the discussion on parenting time.

Full Custody – Now Referenced as Legal Decision Making Authority (Sole or Joint)

“Full custody” does not, strictly speaking, exist in Arizona law. Often times, when referencing this term, people may be referring to Sole Legal Custody. Please see the discussions on Legal Decision Making Authority and Parenting Time.

Primary Residential Parent

The primary residential parent designation is used mostly when one parent has more parenting time than the other. It does not mean that the primary residential parent has more “power” or “say so” over the other parent unless the primary residential parent also has Sole Legal Decision Making Authority. Because legal decision making authority is really the driving force in parental authority, the primary residential parent designation may be of little to no consequence as it is simply a label to say which parent has more time than the other. Conversely, the designation may be tremendously meaningful if a parent is seeking state aid such as food stamps or cash assistance which may have requirements that a parent carry the primary residential parent designation in order to qualify for services.

Final Decision Making Authority

Recently, a growing trend has arisen to award a parent “Final Decision Making Authority” over the other parent even in a Joint Legal Decision Making Authority situation. That is, the parents would still be under an obligation to try and agree on major decisions for their children, however, if they are unable to agree, the parent with Final Decision Making Authority may be able to trump the other parent’s position by making a decision that the parent does not agree with subject to review by a Court if the non-Final Decision maker wants to challenge the decision. This is typically reserved for very contentious co-parenting relationships or parents with a history of deadlocking on issues.

Child Support

Child Support is support paid by one parent to the other for the benefit of the minor children. In Arizona, child support is calculated using the Arizona Child Support Guidelines which consider factors such as the parents’ incomes, parenting time, the cost of medical insurance, and the cost of day care.

The structure of our Guidelines is what is known as an “Income Shares Model” which attempts to prevent the minor child from having wildly different financial resources in each of their parents’ homes. It is important to note that child support will not necessarily be spent on items that are only for the minor child. That is, it is perfectly acceptable for a parent receiving child support to use that child support to pay rent, an electric bill, on groceries, or even on clothes for that parent. There is no rule about what actually has to be paid with that money. It is money to help balance the experience of the minor child in each house.

Child Support also determines which parent gets to claim a minor child for tax purposes and how unreimbursed expenses like medical co-pays and extra-curricular activities will get paid.

Child Support will be calculated in any family law matter that involves a minor child. In nearly all cases, child support will be paid by wage assignment from the support-paying party’s wages. Parents are free to agree on a figure but the Court reserves the ultimate discretion to determine if the parents’ agreement is in the minor child’s best interests. The Court also retains jurisdiction to modify child support of circumstances impacting how much should be paid change (for example, a parent gets a new job, a parent has another child, parenting time changes).

Community Property

Arizona is a Community Property state. This means that any property and any debt that either of the two spouses acquire during their marriage will be just as much the asset or obligation of the acquiring spouse as it is the non-acquiring spouse. There are certain exceptions to this blanket rule (including, for example, an item of property received as a gift or inheritance by one party during the marriage). How title is taken to the property or in whose name a debt appears usually will not determine whether something is community property or not, although, it can be some evidence of how the parties intended to own the property or apportion the debt.

Upon dissolution, the Court must divide property and debts fairly and equitably. Typically, this means equally but that is not the case in all situations as there may be reasons to divide property and debt unequally in order to achieve fairness and equity.

Legal Separation / Annulment / Dissolution

Legal Separation is the process by which the Court orders a division of property and debts, makes provisions for the payment of spousal maintenance and child support, if applicable, and enters orders for the custody and parenting time of minor children. The process defines that the spouses, while still legally married, are now separated for the purposes of acquiring additional property or debt. The process and the issues involved look very similar to a divorce, however, at the end of the case, the two people are still legally married and may not marry anyone else. Common reasons to select a legal separation instead of a divorce include religious convictions or because one party needs to stay on their spouse’s health insurance. A legal separation may become a divorce either during the legal separation process or after a Decree of Legal Separation is entered. A legal separation is not required before a Court will grant a dissolution.

An annulment is a declaration by a Court that a purported marriage never validly existed. This is different from a dissolution which recognizes that a valid marriage existed, however, it has now come to an end and will be terminated. An annulment can only be granted if there was an impediment to the marriage recognized by law. Annulments are relatively uncommon but are important to understand particularly since, if granted, an annulment will prevent a “spouse” from receiving spousal maintenance and will affect entitlements to property and debt obligations.

Dissolution is the formal and statutory label for a divorce. During a dissolution proceeding, a Court will enter orders about property division, debt division, child custody, parenting time, child support, spousal maintenance, and other relevant matters. The Court will also restore the parties to the status of single persons such that they are each free to marry other people. This is the biggest distinction between a dissolution and a legal separation, as discussed above. In Arizona, neither spouse has to prove fault on the part of the other spouse in order to be granted a dissolution (unless the parties entered into a covenant marriage as defined by statute); they only have to prove that the marriage is irretrievably broken, a finding which is generally adopted by the Court after a party testifies to that fact.

Spousal Maintenance

Spousal maintenance is known in other places, and also historically known, as “alimony.” It is support paid by one spouse to the other upon divorce or legal separation. It may be paid in addition to child support, if applicable. An award of spousal maintenance is governed by Arizona statute. However, there is not a strict rule about how long someone has to be married before they are entitled or any hard and fast mathematical rule associated with determining an amount or duration of a spousal maintenance award. Spousal maintenance is highly discretionary from judge to judge and no two cases are exactly alike. If your case involves a claim for spousal maintenance, it is very important to discuss this with a qualified attorney skilled in dealing with spousal maintenance awards.

Temporary Orders / Pendente Lite Orders

During any family law action, either party may request the Court enter certain orders on a temporary basis which means during the litigation and until a final decree or other final order is entered. Parties may want to consider requesting temporary orders for child custody, parenting time and support, spousal maintenance, exclusive use of the marital residence, attorney’s fees and costs, or temporary payment of debts, as some examples.

If a parent has a concern about a minor child’s immediate health, safety or welfare while in the care of the other parent, they can request temporary orders on an emergency basis. Typically, there has to be an immediate risk that could be considered a “life or limb” emergency before emergency temporary orders are granted.