What Does That Mean? A Glossary of Terms For Divorce and Custody Proceedings in South Dakota


During a South Dakota family law case, you may see words that you don't understand. Here are some legal terms, explained in plain English by our family law attorneys.

Affidavit means a written sworn statement where you say, under oath, that the statement is true. You must sign an affidavit in front of a notary public.

Complaint is one of the court documents you file and serve to start your case.

Contested hearing is a formal court hearing, held when the parties do not agree on one or more issues. A judge hears both parties tell their stories and then makes a decision. You can speak for yourself, bring witnesses, and present documents. Court rules of evidence and procedure are followed.

Defendant is the person who gets the court papers (including the complaint and summons) from the plaintiff.  

Final order is the last step of your case (unless you appeal). This order is where the judge states in writing each party's ongoing rights and responsibilities.

Guardian ad litem, or GAL, is a person appointed by the court to "protect and promote the best interests" of a child. A court will appoint a GAL when it wants a trained, independent third party to look into child-related issues. The court will specify in a court order what issues the GAL is assigned to investigate. Typically, the GAL interviews the child, the parents, and others involved with the child. Then the GAL reports back to the court about what she has learned and what she thinks is best for the child. 

Interim Hearing and Order is a procedure to decide emergency issues that can't wait until your case is completed. The court tries to take care of your children’s urgent needs while your cases is pending. Later, a final order will take the place of this order.  

Judgment is the final order you get from the court in your case. In a divorce, this is also sometimes called the “divorce decree.” 

Mediator is a person who helps you figure out whether there are issues you can agree upon. The mediator cannot order you to do anything. However, the court may require both parties to make a "good faith" effort to mediate.

Motion is a paper you file with the court, asking the judge to decide an issue.

Notary public is a person who can be a witness when you sign papers that have to be "sworn to" or "notarized." 

Parental Rights and Responsibilities is the term South Dakota courts sometimes use instead of using terms like “custody.” Parental Rights include the right to: 1) make important decisions regarding the child’s welfare, 2) live with the child, and 3) have contact with the child. Responsibilities include a parent’s duty to financially provide for a child.  

Plaintiff is the person who files and serves the court papers to start the case.

Pre-trial or pre-trial conference is when the court will ask you questions, including what issues you have not resolved, how long your court hearing will need to be, and how many witnesses you plan to call.

Pro se means doing your own court case without a lawyer.

Serve (or "service") means giving the court papers to the other party. Court rules say how this must be done.

Spousal support or “alimony” is money given to a former spouse to help support them.

Spouse means your husband or wife.

Status conference is a meeting with the court to go over what is happening in your case and to outline next steps. 

Subpoena is a paper that orders a person to go to a court hearing to testify.

Summons is one of the court documents you file and serve to start your case. 

Brooke Swier Schloss
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Family Law and Estate Planning attorney helping families across South Dakota plan and protect their loved ones