Glossary of Legal Terms
ACTUAL MALICE: To win a defamation suit, public officials or prominent people, such as political candidates or movie stars, must prove that the offender made a false statement with actual malice. This means the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with serious doubts about whether it was true.
ADMINISTRATOR: Person appointed to oversee the handling of an estate when there is no will.
AFFIDAVIT: A written statement made under oath.
AGE OF MAJORITY: The age when a person acquires all the rights and responsibilities of being an adult. In most states, the age is 18.
ALIMONY: Also called maintenance or spousal support. In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage.
ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION: Methods for resolving problems without going to court.
AMICUS CURIAE: Latin for "friend of the court." Refers to a party that is allowed to provide information (usually in the form of a legal brief) to a court even though the party is not directly involved in the case at hand.
ANNULMENT: A legal decree that states that a marriage was never valid. Has the legal effect of wiping out a marriage as though it never existed.
ANSWER: In a civil case, the defendant's written response to the plaintiff's complaint. It must be filed within a specified period of time, and it either admits to or (more typically) denies the factual or legal basis for liability.
APPEAL: A request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to overturn the legal ruling of a lower court.
ARBITRATION: A method of alternative dispute resolution in which the disputing parties agree to abide by the decision of an arbitrator.
ARRAIGNMENT: The initial appearance before a judge in a criminal case. At an arraignment, the charges against the defendant are read, a lawyer is appointed if the defendant cannot afford one, and the defendant's plea is entered.
ARTICLES OF INCORPORATION: A document that must be filed with a state in order to incorporate. Among the things it typically must include are the name and address of the corporation, its general purpose and the number and type of shares of stock to be issued.
ASSIGNMENT: The transfer of legal rights, such as the time left on a lease, from one person to another.
ASSUMPTION OF RISK: A defense raised in personal injury lawsuits. Asserts that the plaintiff knew that a particular activity was dangerous and thus bears all responsibility for any injury that resulted.
ASYLUM SEEKER: A foreigner, already in the U.S. or at the border, who seeks refuge, claiming an inability or unwillingness to return to the home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution.
AT-WILL EMPLOYMENT: An employment relationship where the employer has the right to fire a worker for any cause at any time--usually without any notice.
BAD FAITH: Dishonesty or fraud in a transaction, such as entering into an agreement with no intention of ever living up to its terms, or knowingly misrepresenting the quality of something that is being bought or sold.
BAIL: The money a defendant pays as a guarantee that he or she will show up in court at a later date. For most serious crimes, a judge sets bail during the arraignment.
BAIL SCHEDULE: The list that sets the amount of bail a defendant is required to pay based on what the charge is. A judge may be able to reduce the amount.
BAILMENT: A legal relationship created when a person gives property to someone else for safekeeping. To create a bailment the other party must knowingly have exclusive control over the property. The receiver must use reasonable care to protect the property.
BANKRUPTCY: Insolvency; a process governed by federal law to help when people cannot or will not pay their debts.
BENCH TRIAL: Also called court trial. A trial held before a judge and without a jury.
BENEFICIARY: Person named in a will or insurance policy to receive money or property; person who receives benefits from a trust.
BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT: The highest level of proof required to win a case. Necessary to get a guilty verdict in criminal cases.
BIFURCATION: Splitting a trial into two parts: a liability phase and a penalty phase. In some cases, a new jury may be empaneled to deliberate for the penalty phase.
BILL OF RIGHTS: The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
BINDER: An outline of the basic terms of a proposed sales contract between a buyer and a seller.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS: The group of people elected by a corporation's shareholders to make major business decisions for the company.
BOND: A document with which one party promises to pay another within a specified amount of time. Bonds are used for many things, including borrowing money or guaranteeing payment of money.
BOOKING: Part of the process of being arrested in which the details of who a person is and why he or she was arrested are recorded into the police records.
BRIEF: A written document that outlines a party's legal arguments in a case.
BURDEN OF PROOF: The duty of a party in a lawsuit to persuade the judge or the jury that enough facts exist to prove the allegations of the case. Different levels of proof are required depending on the type of case.
BUY-SELL AGREEMENT: An agreement among business partners that specifies how shares in the business are to be transferred in the case of a co-owner's death.
BY-LAWS: A corporation's rules and regulations. They typically specify the number and respective duties of directors and officers and govern how the business is run.
BYPASS TRUST: Also called a marital life estate or an A-B trust. A trust designed to help couples with combined assets over $600,000 save money on estate taxes. A bypass trust allows each member of a couple to use the $600,000 estate tax exemption.
CAPITAL GAIN: The profit made from the sale of a capital asset, such as real estate, a house, jewelry or stocks and bonds.
CAPITAL LOSS: The loss that results from the sale of a capital asset, such as real estate, a house, jewelry or stocks and bonds. Also the loss that results from an unpaid, non-business (personal) loan.
CASE LAW: Also known as common law. The law created by judges when deciding individual disputes or cases.
CASE OF FIRST IMPRESSION: A novel legal question that comes before a court.
CAVEAT EMPTOR: Latin for "buyer beware." This rule generally applies to all sales between individuals. It gives the buyer full responsibility for determining the quality of the goods in question. The seller generally has no duty to offer warranties or to disclose defects in the goods.
CERTIORARI: Latin that means "to be informed of." Refers to the order a court issues so that it can review the decision and proceedings in a lower court and determine whether there were any irregularities. When such an order is made, it is said that the court has granted certiorari.
CHAPTER 7 BANKRUPTCY: A type of bankruptcy in which a person's assets are liquidated (collected and sold) and the proceeds are distributed to the creditors.
CHAPTER 13 BANKRUPTCY: A type of bankruptcy in which a person keeps his assets and pays creditors according to an approved plan.
CHALLENGE FOR CAUSE: Ask that a potential juror be rejected if it is revealed that for some reason he or she is unable or unwilling to set aside preconceptions and pay attention only to the evidence.
CHANGE OF VENUE: A change in the location of a trial, usually granted to avoid prejudice against one of the parties.
CHARGING LIEN: Entitles a lawyer who has sued someone on a client's behalf the right to be paid from the proceeds of the lawsuit, if there are any, before the client receives those proceeds.
CHILD ABUSE: Defined by state statutes. Usually occurs when a parent purposefully harms a child.
CHILD NEGLECT: Defined by state statutes. Usually arises from a parent's passive indifference to a child's well-being, such as failing to feed a child or leaving a child alone for an extended time.
CHILDREN'S TRUST: A trust set up as part of a will or outside of a will to provide funds for a child.
CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE: Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but doesn't directly prove it. If a man accused of embezzling money from his company had made several big-ticket purchases in cash around the time of the alleged embezzlement, that would be circumstantial evidence that he had stolen the money.
CLASS ACTION SUIT: A lawsuit in which one or more parties file a complaint on behalf of themselves and all other people who are "similarly situated" (suffering from the same problem). Often used when a large number of people have comparable claims.
CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE: The level of proof sometimes required in a civil case for the plaintiff to prevail. Is more than a preponderance of the evidence but less than beyond a reasonable doubt.
CLOSING: In a real estate transaction, this is the final exchange in which the deed is delivered to the buyer, the title is transferred, and the agreed-on costs are paid.
CODICIL: A supplement to a will.
COHABITATION AGREEMENT: Also called a living-together contract. A document that spells out the terms of a relationship and often addresses financial issues and how property will be divided if the relationship ends.
COLLATERAL: An asset that a borrower agrees to give up if he or she fails to repay a loan.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT: The contract that spells out the terms of employment between a labor union and an employer.
COMITY: A code of etiquette that governs the interactions of courts in different states, localities and foreign countries. Courts generally agree to defer scheduling a trial if the same issues are being tried in a court in another jurisdiction. In addition, courts in this country agree to recognize and enforce the valid legal contracts and court orders of other countries.
COMMON LAW: Also known as case law. The law created by judges when deciding individual disputes or cases.
COMMON-LAW MARRIAGE: In some states, a couple is considered married if they meet certain requirements, such as living together as husband and wife for a specific length of time. Such a couple has all the rights and obligations of a traditionally married couple.
COMMUNITY PROPERTY: Property acquired by a couple during their marriage. Refers to the system in some states for dividing the couple's property in a divorce or upon the death of one spouse. In this system, everything a husband and wife acquire once they are married is owned equally (fifty-fifty) by both of them, regardless of who provided the money to purchase the asset or whose name the asset is held in.
COMPARATIVE NEGLIGENCE: Also called comparative fault. A system that allows a party to recover some portion of the damages caused by another party's negligence even if the original person was also partially negligent and responsible for causing the injury. Not all states follow this system.
COMPENSATORY DAMAGES: Money awarded to reimburse actual costs, such as medical bills and lost wages. Also awarded for things that are harder to measure, such as pain and suffering.
COMPLAINT: In a civil action, the document that initiates a lawsuit. The complaint outlines the alleged facts of the case and the basis for which a legal remedy is sought. In a criminal action, a complaint is the preliminary charge filed by the complaining party, usually with the police or a court.
CONCURRENT SENTENCES: Criminal sentences that can be served at the same time rather than one after the other.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Refers to a situation when someone, such as a lawyer or public official, has competing professional or personal obligations or personal or financial interests that would make it difficult to fulfill his duties fairly.
CONSECUTIVE SENTENCES: Criminal sentences that must be served one after the other rather than at the same time.
CONSERVATOR: Person appointed to manage the property and finances of another. Sometimes called a guardian.
CONSIDERATION: Something of value that is given in exchange for getting something from another person.
CONTEMPT OF COURT: An action that interferes with a judge's ability to administer justice or that insults the dignity of the court. Disrespectful comments to the judge or a failure to heed a judge's orders could be considered contempt of court. A person found in contempt of court can face financial sanctions and, in some cases, jail time.
CONTINGENCY FEE: Also called a contingent fee. A fee arrangement in which the lawyer is paid out of any damages that are awarded. Typically, the lawyer gets between one-fourth and one-third. If no damages are awarded, there is no fee.
CONTRACT: An agreement between two or more parties in which an offer is made and accepted, and each party benefits. The agreement can be formal, informal, written, oral or just plain understood. Some contracts are required to be in writing in order to be enforced.
CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE: Prevents a party from recovering for damages if he or she contributed in any way to the injury. Not all states follow this system.
COPYRIGHT: A person's right to prevent others from copying works that he or she has written, authored or otherwise created.
CORPORATION: An independent entity created to conduct a business. It is owned by shareholders.
CREDITOR: A person (or institution) to whom money is owed.
CROSS EXAMINATION: The questioning of an opposing party's witness about matters brought up during direct examination.
CUSTODIAN: Under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, the person appointed to manage and dispense funds for a child without constricting court supervision and accounting requirements.
DAMAGES: The financial compensation awarded to someone who suffered an injury or was harmed by someone else's wrongful act.
DEBTOR: Person who owes money.
DECISION: The judgment rendered by a court after a consideration of the facts and legal issues before it.
DEED: A written legal document that describes a piece of property and outlines its boundaries. The seller of a property transfers ownership by delivering the deed to the buyer in exchange for an agreed upon sum of money.
DEFAMATION: The publication of a statement that injures a person's reputation. Libel and slander are defamation.
DEFAULT: The failure to fulfill a legal obligation, such as neglecting to pay back a loan on schedule.
DEFAULT JUDGMENT: A ruling entered against a defendant who fails to answer a summons in a lawsuit.
DEFENDANT: In criminal cases, the person accused of the crime. In civil matters, the person or organization that is being sued.
DEFINED BENEFIT PLAN: A type of retirement plan that specifies how much in benefits it will pay out to a retiree.
DEFINED CONTRIBUTION PLAN: Also called an individual account plan. A type of retirement plan in which the employer pays a specified amount of money each year, which is then divided among the individual accounts of each participating employee. Profit-sharing, employee stock ownership and 401(k) plans are all defined contribution plans.
DEPOSITION: Part of the pre-trial discovery (fact-finding) process in which a witness testifies under oath. A deposition is held out of court with no judge present, but the answers often can be used as evidence in the trial.
DIRECT EVIDENCE: Evidence that stands on its own to prove an alleged fact, such as testimony of a witness who says she saw a defendant pointing a gun at a victim during a robbery.
DIRECT EXAMINATION: The initial questioning of a witness by the party that called the witness.
DIRECTED VERDICT: A judge's order to a jury to return a specified verdict, usually because one of the parties failed to prove its case.
DISBURSEMENTS: Legal expenses that a lawyer passes on to a client, such as for photocopying, overnight mail and messenger services.
DISCOVERY: Part of the pre-trial litigation process during which each party requests relevant information and documents from the other side in an attempt to "discover" pertinent facts.
DISMISSAL WITH PREJUDICE: When a case is dismissed for good reason and the plaintiff is barred from bringing an action on the same claim.
DISMISSAL WITHOUT PREJUDICE: When a case is dismissed but the plaintiff is allowed to bring a new suit on the same claim.
DOUBLE JEOPARDY: Being tried twice for the same offense.
DUE PROCESS: The idea that laws and legal proceedings must be fair. The Constitution guarantees that the government cannot take away a person's basic rights to "life, liberty or property, without due process of law." Courts have issued numerous rulings about what this means in particular cases.
DUTY TO WARN: The legal obligation to warn people of a danger. Typically, manufacturers of hazardous products have a duty to warn customers of a product's potential dangers and to advise users of any precautions they should take.
EASEMENT: Gives one party the right to go onto another party's property. Utilities often get easements that allow them to run pipes or phone lines beneath private property.
ELECTIVE SHARE: Refers to probate laws that allow a spouse to take a certain portion of an estate when the other spouse dies, regardless of what was written in the spouse's will.
EMANCIPATION: When a minor has achieved independence from his or her parents, often by getting married before reaching age 18 or by becoming fully self-supporting.
EN BANC: French for "by the full court." When all the members of an appellate court hear an argument, they are sitting en banc.
ENCUMBRANCE: Any claim or restriction on a property's title.
EQUAL ACCESS ACT: A law passed by Congress in 1984. It requires public schools to allow students who to meet before and after classes for religious purposes, including prayer, if they want to do so. If all extracurricular activities are prohibited by a school, it can also nix the prayer meetings. Otherwise, it has to allow them.
EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE: Portion of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits discrimination by state government institutions. The clause grants all people "equal protection of the laws," which means that the states must apply the law equally and cannot give preference to one person or class of persons over another.
EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION: In a divorce, one of the ways in which property is divided. In states with equitable distribution systems, property acquired during a marriage is jointly owned by both spouses. Equitable distribution does not necessarily mean equal distribution, and ownership does not automatically split fifty-fifty. Rather, the distribution must be fair and just (equitable).
ESCROW: Money or documents, such as a deed or title, held by a third party until the conditions of an agreement are met. For instance, pending the completion of a real estate transaction, the deed to the property will be held "in escrow."
ESCROW ACCOUNT: A special account in which a lawyer or escrow agent deposits money or documents that do not belong to him or his firm.
ESCROW AGENT: In some states, this person conducts real estate closings and collects the money due the parties.
ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE: Portion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits government from "establishing" a religion.
ESTATE: All the property a person owns.
EVIDENCE: The various things presented in court to prove an alleged fact. Includes testimony, documents, photographs, maps and video tapes.
EXECUTOR: Person named in a will to oversee and manage an estate.
EXEMPT EMPLOYEES: Workers not entitled to overtime, generally workers in executive, administrative or professional positions.
EXEMPT PROPERTY: In a bankruptcy, the possessions that a person is allowed to keep.
EXIGENT CIRCUMSTANCES: Emergency conditions.
EX PARTE: Latin that means "by or for one party." Refers to situations in which only one party (and not the adversary) appears before a judge. Such meetings are often forbidden.
EXPERT WITNESS: A witness with a specialized knowledge of a subject who is allowed to discuss an event in court even though he or she was not present. For example, an arson expert could testify about the probable cause of a suspicious fire.
EXPRESS WARRANTY: An assertion or promise concerning goods or services. Statements such as "This air conditioner will cool a five-room house," or "We will repair any problems in the first year" are express warranties.
FAIR USE: The use of a portion of copyrighted material in a way that does not infringe the owner's rights. The use of a portion of material for educational purposes, literary criticism or news reporting is often considered a fair use.
FAULT AUTO INSURANCE SYSTEM: Refers to a system in which the party that bears the blame (fault) for an accident is liable for any damages.
FELONY: Serious crime punishable by incarceration for a year or more. Includes rape, murder, robbery, burglary, and arson.
FIDUCIARY DUTY: An obligation to act in the best interest of another party. For instance, a corporation's board member has a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, a trustee has a fiduciary duty to the trust's beneficiaries, and an attorney has a fiduciary duty to a client.
FIXTURES: All things that are attached to property, such as ceiling lights, awnings, window shades and doorknobs. Fixtures are automatically included in a sale, unless specifically mentioned in the contract as going to the seller.
FORECLOSURE: When a borrower cannot repay a loan and the lender seeks to sell the property.
FORESEEABILITY: A key issue in determining a person's liability. If a defendant could not reasonably have foreseen that someone might be hurt by his or her actions, then there may be no liability.
FRANCHISE: A business relationship in which an owner (the franchisor) licenses others (the franchisees) to operate outlets using business concepts, property, trademarks and tradenames owned by the franchisor.
GARNISHMENT: Also known as wage execution. A court-ordered method of debt collection in which a portion of a person's salary is paid to a creditor. Often used to collect child support payments.
GENERAL PARTNER: One of two kinds of partners in a limited partnership. A general partner has the right to participate in the management of the partnership and has unlimited personal liability for its debts.
GOOD FAITH: Honestly and without deception. An agreement might be declared invalid if one of the parties entered with the intention of defrauding the other.
GRAND JURY: A group of citizens convened in a criminal case to consider the prosecutor's evidence and determine whether probable cause exists to prosecute a suspect for a felony.
GRANTOR: The person who sets up a trust.
GREEN CARD: An immigrant visa. Allows an alien to become a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. and to work legally, travel abroad and return, bring in a spouse and children and become eligible for citizenship.
GROSS NEGLIGENCE: Failure to use even the slightest amount of care in a way that shows recklessness or willful disregard for the safety of others.
GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE: The legal reason (or reasons) a divorce is granted. There are two kinds of grounds: fault and no-fault.
GUARDIAN: Person assigned by the court to take care of minor children or incompetent adults. Sometimes called a conservator.
GUARDIAN AD LITEM: Latin for "guardian at law." The person appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of the child during the course of legal proceedings.
HABEAS CORPUS: Latin phrase meaning "you have the body." Prisoners often seek release by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully.
HEALTH CARE PROXY: Someone designated to make a broad range of decisions for a person who is not able to give informed consent.
HEARSAY: Secondhand information that a witness only heard about from someone else and did not see or hear himself. Hearsay is not admitted in court because it's not trustworthy, though there are many exceptions.
HEIRS: Persons who are entitled by law to inherit the property of the deceased if there is no will specifying how it's divided.
HOLOGRAPHIC WILL: An unwitnessed handwritten will. A few states allow such documents to be admitted to probate, but most courts are very reluctant to accept them.
HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Where a person is subject to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to such an extent that it alters the conditions of the person's employment and creates an abusive working environment.
HUNG JURY: A jury that is unable to reach a verdict.
IMMUNITY: Exemption from a legal duty, penalty or prosecution.
IMPAIRMENT: When a person's faculties are diminished so that his or her ability to see, hear, walk, talk and judge distances is below the normal level as set by the state. Typically, impairment is caused by drug or alcohol use, but can also be caused by mental illness. Even if a person's alcohol level is lower than the legal intoxication level, he can still be convicted if the state can show his abilities were impaired.
IMPLIED CONSENT LAWS: (also called express consent) Laws adopted by all states that apply to testing for alcohol in the blood, breath or urine (most states have such laws that apply to testing for the use of drugs). The principle underlying these laws is that any licensed driver who operates a vehicle has consented to submit to approved tests to show intoxication.
IMPLIED WARRANTY: A guarantee imposed by law in a sale. Even though the seller may not make any explicit promises, the buyer still gets some protection.
IMPLIED WARRANTY OF FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE: Warranty that exists when a seller should know that a buyer is relying on the seller's expertise.
IMPLIED WARRANTY OF HABITABILITY: Law that exists in most states which governs residential rentals and asserts that regardless of what a lease says, the landlord must provide premises that are safe and liveable (habitable) at some basic level. Problems with essential building services and cleanliness are often breaches of the implied warranty and the landlord will be required to correct them.
IMPLIED WARRANTY OF MERCHANTABILITY: Warranty that guarantees that goods are reasonably fit for their ordinary purpose.
IN CAMERA: Latin for "in chambers." Refers to a hearing or inspection of documents that takes places in private, often in a judge's chambers.
INDICTMENT: A formal accusation of a felony, issued by a grand jury after considering evidence presented by a prosecutor.
INDIGENT: Lacking in funds; poor.
INFORMATION: A formal accusation of a crime, issued by a prosecutor. An alternative to an indictment.
INFORMED CONSENT: Except in the case of an emergency, a doctor must obtain a patient's agreement (informed consent) to any course of treatment. Doctors are required to tell the patient anything that would substantially affect the patient's decision. Such information typically includes the nature and purpose of the treatment, its risks and consequences and alternative courses of treatment.
INFRACTIONS: Sometimes called violations. Minor offenses, often traffic tickets, which are punishable only by a fine.
INFRINGEMENT: Unauthorized use, typically of a patent or copyright.
INTERLOCUTORY ORDER: Temporary order issued during the course of litigation. Typically cannot be appealed because it is not final.
INTERROGATORIES: Part of the pre-trial discovery (fact-finding) process in which a witness provides written answers to written questions under oath. The answers often can be used as evidence in the trial.
INTESTATE: To die without a will.
IRREVOCABLE LIVING TRUST: A trust created during the maker's lifetime that does not allow the maker to change it.
JOINT AND SURVIVOR ANNUITY: A form of pension fund payment in which the retired participant gets a check every month. If and when the participant dies, the spouse continues to get a monthly check equal to one-half of the benefit for the rest of his or her life.
JOINT CUSTODY: When both parents share custody of a child after a divorce. There are two kinds of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Either or both may be joint.
JOINT PROPERTY: Sometimes called joint tenancy. Property that names a co-owner on its deed or title. Co-owners retain ownership of the property upon the death of a co-owner. A co-owner in a joint property arrangement cannot give away his or her share of the property.
JUDGMENT: A court's official decision on the matters before it.
JUDGMENT NON OBSTANTE VEREDICTO: Known also as a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. A decision by a trial judge to rule in favor of a losing party even though the jury's verdict was in favor of the other side. Usually done when the facts or law do not support the jury's verdict.
JURISDICTION: A court's authority to rule on the questions of law at issue in a dispute, typically determined by geographic location and type of case.
JURY CHARGE: The judge's instructions to the jurors on the law that applies in a case and definitions of the relevant legal concepts. These instructions may be complex and are often pivotal in a jury's discussions.
JUST CAUSE: A legitimate reason. Often used in the employment context to refer to the reasons why someone was fired.
LEGAL CUSTODY: In a divorce, one of two types of child custody. A parent who has legal custody has the right to be involved in all the decision making typically involved with being a parent, such as religious upbringing, education and medical decisions. Legal custody can be either sole or joint. Compare with physical custody.
LEGATEE: Also known as a beneficiary. Person named in a will to receive property.
LEMON LAWS: Laws that require manufacturers to repair defective cars. If the repairs are not made within a reasonable amount of time and number of attempts, the manufacturer is required to refund the purchase price, less a reasonable amount for the use of the car.
LESSER INCLUDED OFFENSES: Charges that contain elements of the most serious charge against a defendant. For instance, a person charged with first-degree murder (which requires premeditation) could be convicted of second-degree murder (a killing done without premeditation) or manslaughter (a killing done in the heat of passion)
LIABILITY: Any legal responsibility, duty or obligation.
LIBEL: Defamatory (false and injurious) written statements or materials, including movies or photographs.
LIEN: A claim against someone's property. A lien is instituted in order to secure payment from the property owner in the event that the property is sold. A mortgage is a common lien.
LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY: A business structure that is a hybrid of a partnership and a corporation. Its owners are shielded from personal liability and all profits and losses pass directly to the owners without taxation of the entity itself.
LIMITED PARTNER: One of two kinds of partners in a limited partnership. Is personally liable for the debts of the partnership only to the extent of his or her investment in it and has little to no voice in its management.
LIMITED PARTNERSHIP: A partnership with two kinds of partners: limited partners, who provide financial backing and have little role in management and no personal liability, and general partners, who are responsible for managing the entity and have unlimited personal liability for its debts.
LIQUIDATED DAMAGES: The amount of money specified in a contract to be awarded in the event that the agreement is violated.
LIVING-TOGETHER CONTRACT: See cohabitation agreement.
LIVING TRUST: A trust created during the maker's lifetime. Some living trusts are set up so that they can be changed during the maker's lifetime. These are called "revocable." Others, known as "irrevocable," are set up so that they can't be touched.
LIVING WILL: Also known as a medical directive or advance directive. A written document that states a person's wishes regarding life-support or other medical treatment in certain circumstances, usually when death is imminent.
MAINTENANCE: In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage.
MALPRACTICE: Improper or negligent behavior by a professional, such as a doctor or a lawyer. The failure of a professional to follow the accepted standards of practice of his or her profession.
MANDATORY SENTENCE: A criminal sentence set by a legislature that establishes the minimum length of prison time for specified crimes and thus limits the amount of discretion a judge has when sentencing a defendant.
MEDIATION: A method of alternative dispute resolution in which a neutral third party helps resolve a dispute. The mediator does not have the power to impose a decision on the parties. If a satisfactory resolution cannot be reached, the parties can pursue a lawsuit.
MINOR: A person who does not have the legal rights of an adult. A minor is usually defined as someone who has not yet reached the age of majority. In most states, a person reaches majority and acquires all of the rights and responsibilities of an adult when he or she turns 18.
MIRANDA WARNING: The statement recited to individuals taken into police custody. It warns of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney.
MISDEMEANOR: Crime that is punishable by less than one year in jail, such as minor theft and simple assault that does not result in substantial bodily injury.
MITIGATING FACTORS: Information about a defendant or the circumstances of a crime that might tend to lessen the sentence or the crime with which the person is charged.
MOTION: A request asking a judge to issue a ruling or order on a legal matter.
MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL: Request in which a losing party asserts that a trial was unfair due to legal errors that prejudiced its case.
MOTION FOR DIRECTED VERDICT: A request made by the defendant in a civil case. Asserts that the plaintiff has raised no genuine issue to be tried and asks the judge to rule in favor of the defense. Typically made after the plaintiff is done presenting his or her case.
MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT: A request made by the defendant in a civil case. Asserts that the plaintiff has raised no genuine issue to be tried and asks the judge to rule in favor of the defense. Typically made before the trial.
MOTION TO DISMISS: In a civil case, a request to a judge by the defendant, asserting that even if all the allegations are true, the plaintiff is not entitled to any legal relief and thus the case should be dismissed.
MOTION TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCE: A request to a judge to keep out evidence at a trial or hearing, often made when a party believes the evidence was unlawfully obtained.
NAMED PLAINTIFFS: The originators of a class action suit.
NEGLIGENCE: A failure to use the degree of care that a reasonable person would use under the same circumstances.
NO-FAULT AUTO INSURANCE SYSTEM: Under a no-fault system it doesn't matter which driver made the mistake that caused an accident. Each individual recovers from his or her own insurance carrier, regardless of who caused the accident.
NO-FAULT DIVORCE: A divorce in which it it doesn't matter who did what to whom that caused the marriage to break down; all that matters is that there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.
NON-EXEMPT EMPLOYEES: Workers who are entitled to overtime pay after working more than forty hours in a five day work week. Generally includes secretaries, factory workers, clerical workers and anyone paid by the hour.
NON-EXEMPT PROPERTY: In a bankruptcy, the possessions of a person that can be sold.
NONIMMIGRANT VISA: Visa granted to a foreigner who does not intend to stay in the U.S. permanently.
NOTARY PUBLIC: A person authorized to witness the signing of documents.
NOTICE OF APPEAL: The document a person must file with the trial court in order to pursue an appeal.
OFFICERS OF A CORPORATION: Those people with day-to-day responsibility for running the corporation, such as the chief executive, chief financial officer and treasurer.
OPEN ADOPTION: An adoption in which the birth mother may retain some visitation privileges.
OWN RECOGNIZANCE: Sometimes called personal recognizance. A person who promises to appear in court to answer criminal charges can sometimes be released from jail without having to pay bail. This person is said to be released on his or her own recognizance.
PARENS PATRIAE: Latin for "parent of his country." Used when the government acts on behalf of a child or mentally ill person. Refers to the "state" as the guardian of minors and incompetent people.
PAROLE: A system for the supervised release of prisoners before their terms are over. Congress has abolished parole for people convicted of federal crimes, but most states still offer parole.
PARTITION: A court action to divide property. Typically taken when a property is jointly owned and a dispute arises about how to divide it.
PARTNERSHIP: An association of two or more people who agree to share in the profits and losses of a business venture.
PATENT: A document issued to an inventor by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Contains a detailed description of what the invention is and how to make or use it and provides rights against infringors.
PENALTY PHASE: The second part of a bifurcated trial, in which the jury hears evidence and then votes on what penalty or damages to impose.
PENSION PLAN: An employer's program for providing retirement income to eligible employees.
PEREMPTORY CHALLENGES: Limited number of challenges each side in a trial can use to eliminate potential jurors without stating a reason. May not be used to keep members of a particular race or sex off the jury.
PERJURY: A crime in which a person knowingly makes a false statement while under oath in court. In some jurisdictions, making a false statement in a legal document can also be considered perjury.
PERSONAL GUARDIAN: Person appointed to take custody of children and provide for their care and upbringing. Distinguished from property guardian.
PERSONAL RECOGNIZANCE: Sometimes called own recognizance. A person who promises to appear in court to answer criminal charges can sometimes be released from jail without having to pay bail. This person is said to be released on his or her personal recognizance.
PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE: A person who manages the legal affairs of another, such as a power of attorney or executor.
PETIT JURY: The jurors empaneled to hear a civil or criminal trial. Distinguised from a grand jury.
PETITION: A written application to the court asking for specific action to be taken.
PETITION FOR PROBATE: The document that summarizes a will's provisions and names the heirs.
PETTY OFFENSES: Minor crimes, such as traffic violations, which are generally punishable by a fine or short jail term.
PHYSICAL CUSTODY: In a divorce, one of two types of child custody. A parent who has physical custody lives most of the time with the child. Compare with legal custody.
PIERCING THE CORPORATE VEIL: A legal concept through which a corporation's shareholders, who generally are shielded from liability for the corporation's activities, can be held responsible for certain actions.
PLAINTIFF: The person who initiates a lawsuit.
PLEA BARGAIN: An negotiated agreement between the defense and the prosecution in a criminal case. Typically the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a specified charge in exchange for an oral promise of a lower sentence.
PLEADINGS: In a civil case, the allegations by each party of their claims and defenses.
POWER OF ATTORNEY: The authority to act legally for another person.
PRECEDENT: A previously decided case that is considered binding in the court where it was issued and in all lower courts in the same jurisdiction.
PRELIMINARY HEARING: Legal proceeding used in some states in which a prosecutor presents evidence to a judge in an attempt to show that there is probable cause that a person committed a crime. If the judge is convinced probable cause exists to charge the person, then the prosecution proceeds to the next phase. If not, the charges are dropped.
PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE: The level of proof required to prevail in most civil cases. The judge or jury must be persuaded that the facts are more probably one way (the plaintiff's way) than another (the defendant's).
PRE-SENTENCING REPORT: A report prepared by a probation department for a judge to assist in sentencing. Typically contains information about prior convictions and arrests, work history and family details.
PRE-TRIAL DIVERSION: Also known as adjournment in contemplation of dismissal or conditional dismissal. A program in which a defendant essentially is put on probation for a set period of time and his or her case does not go to trial during that time. If the defendant meets the conditions set by the court, then the charge will be dismissed.
PRIMA FACIE: Latin for "at first view." Refers to the minimum amount of evidence a plaintiff must have to avoid having a case dismissed. It is said that the plaintiff must make a prima facie case.
PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION: Conversation that takes places within the context of a protected relationship, such as that between an attorney and client, a husband and wife, a priest and penitent, and a doctor and patient. The law often protects against forced disclosure of such conversations.
PRO SE: (pronounced pro say) Latin phrase that means "for himself." A person who represents himself in court alone without the help of a lawyer is said to appear pro se.
PROBABLE CAUSE: A reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime.
PROBATE: The legal process in which a court oversees the distribution of property left in a will.
PROBATION: The release into the community of a defendant who has been found guilty of a crime, typically under certain conditions, such as paying a fine, doing community service or attending a drug treatment program. Violation of the conditions can result in incarceration. In the employment context, probation refers to the trial period some new employees go through.
PROMISSORY NOTE: A written document in which a borrower agrees (promises) to pay back money to a lender according to specified terms.
PROPERTY GUARDIAN: Person appointed to oversee property left to a minor in a will. Distinguished from a personal guardian.
PROSECUTOR: The government lawyer who investigates and tries criminal cases. Typically known as a district attorney, state's attorney, or United States attorney.
PROTECTIVE ORDER: In litigation, an order that prevents the disclosure of sensitive information except to certain individuals under certain conditions. In a domestic dispute, an order that prevents one party from approaching another, often within a specified distance.
PUBLIC DEFENDER: A lawyer who works for a state or local agency representing clients accused of a crime who cannot afford to pay.
PUNITIVE DAMAGES: Money awarded to a victim that is intended to punish a defendant and stop the person or business from repeating the type of conduct that caused an injury. Also intended to deter others from similar conduct.
QUASH: To nullify, void or declare invalid.
QUID PRO QUO: Latin phrase that means what for what or something for something. The concept of getting something of value in return for giving something of value. For a contract to be binding, it usually must involve the exchange of something of value.
QUID PRO QUO SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Where an employee is threatened with a demotion (or promised a promotion) in exchange for "sexual favors." It usually comes from a supervisor or other person in a position of authority.
QUITCLAIM DEED: A deed that transfers the owner's interest to a buyer but does not guarantee that there are no other claims against the property.
REAL PROPERTY: Land and all the things that are attached to it. Anything that is not real property is personal property and personal property is anything that isn't nailed down, dug into or built onto the land. A house is real property, but a dining room set is not.
REASONABLE CARE: The level of care a typical person would use if faced with the same circumstances.
REASONABLE DOUBT: The level of certainty a juror must have to find a defendant guilty of a crime.
RE-CROSS EXAMINATION: Questioning a witness about matters brought up during re-direct examination.
RE-DIRECT EXAMINATION: Questioning a witness about matters brought up during cross examination.
REFUGEE: A person who applies to enter the U.S. from outside the country, claiming an inability or unwillingness to return to (or remain in) the home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution.
REMAND: When an appellate court sends a case back to a lower court for further proceedings.
REPLEVIN: Repossession. Action taken by a creditor to seize assets of a debtor.
RESIDUARY ESTATE: Also known as residue of the estate. Portion of the estate left after bequests of specific items of property are made. Often the largest portion.
RESIDUARY LEGATEE: The person or persons named in a will to receive any residue left in an estate after the bequests of specific items are made.
RES IPSA LOQUITUR: A Latin phrase, that means "the thing speaks for itself." Refers to situations when it's assumed that a person's injury was caused by the negligent action of another party because the accident was the sort that wouldn't occur unless someone was negligent.
RETAINER: Refers to the up front payment a client gives a lawyer to accept a case. The client is paying to "retain" the lawyer's services.
RETAINING LIEN: Gives a lawyer the right to hold on to your money or property (such as a deed) until you pay the bill.
REVOCABLE LIVING TRUST: A trust created during the maker's lifetime that can be changed. Allows the creator to pass assets on to chosen beneficiaries without going through probate.
RIGHT AGAINST SELF-INCRIMINATION: Granted by the Fifth Amendment. Allows a person to refuse to answer questions that would subject him or her to accusation of a criminal act.
RIGHT OF EMINENT DOMAIN: The government's right to acquire private property for public use.
RIGHT OF SURVIVORSHIP: In a joint-tenancy, the property automatically goes to the co-owners if one of the co-owners dies. A co-owner in a joint tenancy cannot give away his or her share of the property.
SECURITY AGREEMENT: A contract between a lender and borrower that states that the lender can repossess the property a person has offered as collateral if the loan is not paid as agreed.
SELF-PROVING WILL: A will accompanied by a sworn statement from witnesses and signed before a notary public. Many states accept such wills in order to avoid the cumbersome process of requiring an executor to track down the witnesses.
SEPARATION AGREEMENT: In a marital breakup, a document that outlines the terms of the couple's separation.
SERVICE OF PROCESS: The act of notifying the other parties that an action has begun and informing them of the steps they should take in order to respond.
SETTLEMENT: The resolution or compromise by the parties in a civil lawsuit.
SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT: In a civil lawsuit, the document that spells out the terms of an out-of-court compromise.
SHAREHOLDER: An owner or investor in a corporation.
SINGLE LIFE ANNUITY: A form of pension plan payment in which the retired person receives a monthly check from the time of retirement until death.
SLANDER: Defamatory (false and injurious) oral statements or gestures.
SOLE PROPRIETORSHIP: A form of business organization in which an individual is fully and personally liable for all the obligations (including debts) of the business, is entitled to all of its profits and exercises complete managerial control.
SPENDTHRIFT TRUST: A trust designed to keep money out of the hands of creditors. Often established to protect someone who is incapable of managing his or her financial affairs.
SPOUSAL RIGHT: The entitlement of one spouse to inherit property from the other spouse. The right varies from state to state.
STANDARD OF CARE: The degree of care a reasonable person would take to prevent an injury to another.
STANDING: The legal right to initiate a lawsuit. To do so, a person must be sufficiently affected by the matter at hand, and there must be a case or controversy that can be resolved by legal action.
STARE DECISIS: Latin for "to stand by that which is decided." Refers to the principle of adhering to precedent when deciding a case.
STATIONHOUSE BAIL: Bail that some defendants accused of misdemeanors may be allowed to pay at the police station. This allows them to be released prior to appearing before a judge.
STATUTES OF FRAUD: Laws in most states to protect against false claims for payment from contracts that were not agreed upon. The specific laws vary from state to state, but most require that certain contracts be in writing.
STATUTES OF LIMITATIONS: Laws setting deadlines for filing lawsuits within a certain time after events occur that are the source of a claim.
STRICT LIABILITY: Liability even when there is no proof of negligence. Often applicable in product liability cases against manufacturers, who are legally responsible for injuries caused by defects in their products, even if they were not negligent.
SUBLET: When a party agrees to rent a space from the main tenant for a portion of the time remaining on the lease.
SUBPOENA: An order compelling a person to appear to testify or produce documents.
SUMMATION: The closing argument in a trial.
SUMMONS: A legal document that notifies a party that a lawsuit has been initiated and states when and where the party must appear to answer the charges.
TANGIBLE PERSONAL PROPERTY: Anything other than real estate or money, including furniture, cars, jewelry and china.
TENANCY IN COMMON: A type of joint ownership that allows a person to sell his share or leave it in a will without the consent of the other owners. If a person dies without a will, his share goes to his heirs, not to the other owners.
TESTAMENTARY TRUST: A trust created by the provisions in a will. Typically comes into existence after the writer of the will dies.
TESTATOR: The person who makes a will.
TITLE: Ownership of property.
TITLE SEARCH: A review of the land records to determine the ownership and description of the property.
TORT: A civil wrong that result in an injury to a person or property.
TOTTEN TRUST: A bank account in your name for which you name a beneficiary. Upon the death of the named holder of the account the money transfers automatically to the beneficiary.
TRADEMARK: A word, name or symbol used to identify products sold or services provided by a business. Distinguishes the products or services of one business from those of others in the same field. A business using a trademark has the right to prevent other businesses from using it and can get money to compensate for its infringement.
TRADE NAME: The name used to identify a business.
TRUST: Property given to a trustee to manage for the benefit of a third person. Generally the beneficiary gets interest and dividends on the trust assets for a set number of years.
TRUSTEE: Person or institution that oversees and manages a trust.
UNIFORM COMMERCIAL CODE: A model statute covering things such as the sale of goods, credit, and bank transactions. All states have adopted and adapted the entire UCC, with the exception of Louisiana, which only adopted parts of it.
UNIFORM RECIPROCAL ENFORCEMENT OF SUPPORT ACT: Law that allows an order of child support issued in one state to be enforced in another state.
UNJUST TAKING: When the government acquires private property and fails to compensate an owner fairly. A taking can occur even without the actual physical seizure of property, such as when a government regulation has substantially devalued a property.
VALID CLAIM: A grievance that can be resolved by legal action.
VERDICT: The formal decision issued by a jury on the issues of fact that were presented at trial.
VESTED RIGHT: An absolute right. When a retirement plan is fully vested, the employee has an absolute right to the entire amount of money in the account.
VICARIOUS LIABILITY: When one person is liable for the negligent actions of another person, even though the first person was not directly responsible for the injury. For instance, a parent sometimes can be vicariously liable for the harmful acts of a child and an employer sometimes can be vicariously liable for the acts of a worker.
VISITATION RIGHT: The right granted to a parent or other relative to visit a child on a specified basis. Usually occurs during a divorce proceeding.
VOID MARRIAGE: One of two types of marriages that can be annulled. A void marriage is one that is void and invalid from its beginning. It is as though the marriage never existed and it requires no formality to terminate it. For instance, an incestuous marriage would likely be considered void.
VOIDABLE MARRIAGE: A valid marriage that can be annulled if challenged, but that otherwise remains legitimate. For instance, if one of the parties was a minor at the time of marriage, the marriage could be annulled if challenged. If it's never challenged, the marriage is considered valid.
VOIR DIRE: A French phrase that means "to speak the truth." The process of interviewing prospective jurors. Pronounced "vwa dear."
WARRANT: An official order authorizing a specific act, such as an arrest or the search of someone's home.
WARRANTY: A promise about a product made by either a manufacturer or a seller.
WITNESS: Person who comes to court and swears under oath to give truthful evidence.
WORKER'S COMPENSATION: A benefit paid to an employee who suffers a work-related injury or illness.
WRIT: A judicial order.
WRONGFUL DISCHARGE: When an employee is fired for reasons that are not legitimate, typically either because they are unlawful or because they violate the terms of an employment contract.
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