Breaking down confusing legal divorce terms – Part 1 

When you’re dealing with the emotional and physical turmoil of getting a divorce, the last thing you need is to learn a whole new confusing divorce legal language. Working with a qualified family law attorney means you’ll have help all throughout your divorce case, but it’s important to understand some legal terms that relate to your situation.

Terms related to spousal maintenance, child custody, and visitation (now called Allocation of Parental Responsibilities and Parenting Time) may continue to be relevant even after your divorce is settled. Getting the definitions down means you’ll have an easier time taking in information and protecting the interests of yourself and your children.

Spousal maintenance vs. alimony vs. post-separation support

When two married people decide to separate and divorce, the judge overseeing their case may order one spouse to provide the other with financial support. This arrangement can be set for a specific period of time or may last indefinitely.

Post-separation support: When a couple files for a legal separation, a judge may order one spouse to provide the other with ongoing financial support in the form of regular payments. Post-separation support ends when the couple decides to remain married, or if the judge alters the agreement later during divorce proceedings.

Spousal maintenance: Also known commonly as “alimony,” spousal maintenance is the legal term for financial support that a judge orders one ex-spouse to pay the other on an ongoing, usually monthly, basis. Spousal maintenance continues until an endpoint is dictated within the divorce decree or may be reviewable on a certain date.

Prenuptial (premarital) agreement vs. postnuptial agreement

Many people are familiar with prenuptial agreements, while probably fewer people know about postnuptial agreements. They both deal with what assets and property each person wants to remain outside the legal bonds of marriage, and may also include terms related to spousal maintenance and child support. Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements often greatly reduce the length of divorce cases.

Prenuptial agreement: Sometimes referred to as a “premarital agreement,” this is a legal document agreed upon and signed by both parties before they get married. It allows each person to protect and direct their assets in case of divorce or death. A prenuptial agreement may shield certain assets from becoming marital property, and therefore subject to division during divorce proceedings.

Couples can outline their agreement for spousal maintenance within a prenuptial agreement, and also how marital assets would be divided in divorce. One or both spouses might want to set aside assets specifically for their children in case of their death, and can do so in a prenuptial agreement.

Postnuptial agreement: Working similarly to a prenuptial agreement, the legal document called a postnuptial agreement is created and signed by a couple who are already married. Postnuptial agreements often include the same types of provisions related to assets and debts, allowing the couples to detail what’s included in their marital property. Creating a postnuptial agreement doesn’t necessarily mean the couple anticipates a divorce but can be precipitated by other life changes.

Separation vs. legal separation

When a married couple decides to separate, they can decide whether it’s for a while or forever. Within the spectrum of these decisions, couples may also choose to keep their separation informal or make it legal with the court.

Informal separation: During an informal separation, two people sever their lives as a married couple, often discontinuing intimate relations, social outings and other mutual activities. They may continue to live together or separately. There are no legal obligations imposed in an informal separation but assets and debts keep accumulating to be addressed in the event of a divorce.

Legal separation: In a legal separation, a married couple separates and asks the court to officially recognize their new arrangement. In order to be granted a legal separation, the couple must be physically living apart from one another. They can create a separation agreement, in which they might line out terms of spousal maintenance or child custody and support.

Legal custody vs. physical custody  (custody is now known as “allocation of parental responsibility)

Child custody issues can be the most contentious a married couple faces during their divorce proceedings, and the legal terms surrounding their arrangement are critical to understanding for negotiation. The umbrella term “custody” now known in Illinois as parental responsibilities includes a number of concerns regarding a child’s living arrangements, health care, education, extracurricular activities, and religion.

Parenting time, formerly known as visitation in Illinois, is the schedule adhered to by parents to determine when each parent will care for their child.

Learning the terminology used in the divorce process is sometimes hard but it is necessary to fully comprehend what needs to be addressed.

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You may message us here, complete the form below to email our office, or call 815-600-8950 and one of our team members will be able to assist you.


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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