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Legal Glossary

ab initio

Latin for “from the beginning.” This term is used by lawyers intent upon getting their money’s worth from a liberal arts education by uttering such statements as “The judge was against me ab initio.”

AB trust

A trust that allows couples to reduce or avoid estate taxes. Each spouse puts his or her property in an AB trust. When the first spouse dies, his or her half of the property goes to the beneficiaries named in the trust — commonly, the grown children of the couple — with the crucial condition that the surviving spouse has the right to use the property for life and is entitled to any income it generates. The surviving spouse may even be allowed to spend principal in certain circumstances. When the surviving spouse dies, the property passes to the trust beneficiaries. It is not considered part of the second spouse’s estate for estate tax purposes. Using this kind of trust keeps the second spouse’s taxable estate half the size it would be if the property were left directly to the spouse. This type of trust is also known as a bypass or credit shelter trust.

abandonment (of a child)

A parent’s failure to provide any financial assistance to or communicate with his or her child over a period of time. When this happens, a court may deem the child abandoned by that parent and order that person’s parental rights terminated. Abandonment also describes situations in which a child is physically abandoned — for example, left on a doorstep, delivered to a hospital or put in a trash can. Physically abandoned children are usually placed in orphanages and made available for adoption.

abandonment (of a spouse)

See desertion.

abandonment (of trademark)

A situation in which the owner of a trademark or service mark does not use the mark for an extended period of time, fails to protest the unauthorized use of the mark by others or lets others use the mark without adequate supervision. If a trademark is abandoned, the owner loses her exclusive rights to the mark.


A reduction. After a death, abatement occurs if the deceased person didn’t leave enough property to fulfill all the bequests made in the will and meet other expenses. Gifts left in the will are cut back in order to pay taxes, satisfy debts or take care of other gifts that are given priority under law or by the will itself.

abstract of title

A short history of a piece of land that lists any transfers in ownership, as well as any liabilities attached to it, such as mortgages.

abstract of trust

A condensed version of a living trust document, which leaves out details of what is in the trust and the identity of the beneficiaries. You can show an abstract of trust to a financial organization or other institution to prove that you have established a valid living trust, without revealing specifics that you want to keep private. In some states, this document is called a “certification of trust.”


Misuse of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy remedy. This term is typically applied to Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings that should have been filed under Chapter 13, because the debtor appears to have enough disposable income to fund a Chapter 13 repayment plan.


Someone who intentionally helps another person commit a felony by giving advice before the crime or helping to conceal the evidence or the perpetrator. An accessory is usually not physically present during the crime. For example, hiding a robber who is being sought by the police might make you an “accessory after the fact” to a robbery. Compare accomplice.

accompanying relative

An immediate family member of someone who immigrates to the United States. In most cases, a person who is eligible to receive some type of visa or green card can also obtain green cards or similar visas for accompanying relatives. Accompanying relatives include spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21.


Someone who helps another person (known as the principal) commit a crime. Unlike an accessory, an accomplice is usually present when the crime is committed. An accomplice is guilty of the same offense and usually receives the same sentence as the principal. For instance, the driver of the getaway car for a burglary is an accomplice and will be guilty of the burglary even though he may not have entered the building.

accord and satisfaction

An agreement to settle a contract dispute by accepting less than what’s due. This procedure is often used by creditors who want to cut their losses by collecting as much money as they can from debtors who cannot pay the full amount.

accumulation trust

A trust in which the income is retained and not paid out to beneficiaries until certain conditions are met. For example, if Uncle Pierre creates a trust for Nick’s benefit but stipulates that Nick will not get a penny until he gets a Ph.D. in French; Nick is the beneficiary of an accumulation trust.

acknowledged father

The biological father of a child born to an unmarried couple who has been established as the father either by his admission or by an agreement between him and the child’s mother. An acknowledged father must pay child support.


A statement you make in front of a notary public or other person who is authorized to administer oaths stating that a document bearing your signature was actually signed by you.


A decision by a judge or jury that a defendant in a criminal case is not guilty of a crime. An acquittal is not a finding of innocence; it is simply a conclusion that the prosecution has not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

act of God

An extraordinary and unexpected natural event, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or even the sudden death of a person. An act of God may be a defense against liability for injuries or damages. Under the law of contracts, an act of God often serves as a valid excuse if one of the parties to the contract is unable to fulfill his or her duties — for instance, completing a construction project on time.

act of nature

See act of God.


Another term for a lawsuit. For example, a plaintiff might say, “I began this negligence action last fall after the defendant, Ms. Adams, struck me while I was crossing the street at Elm and Main.”

actual damages

See damages.

actus reus

Latin for a “guilty act.” The actus reus is the act which, in combination with a certain mental state, such as intent or recklessness, constitutes a crime. For example, the crime of theft requires physically taking something (the actus reus) coupled with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the object (the mental state, or mens rea).


See Americans With Disabilities Act.


See Age Discrimination in Employment Act.


The failure of a bequest of property in a will. The gift fails (is “adeemed”) because the person who made the will no longer owns the property when he or she dies. Often this happens because the property has been sold, destroyed or given away to someone other than the beneficiary named in the will. A bequest may also be adeemed when the will maker, while still living, gives the property to the intended beneficiary (called “ademption by satisfaction”). When a bequest is adeemed, the beneficiary named in the will is out of luck; he or she doesn’t get cash or a different item of property to replace the one that was described in the will. For example, Mark writes in his will, “I leave to Rob the family vehicle,” but then trades in his car in for a jet ski. When Mark dies, Rob will receive nothing. Frustrated beneficiaries may challenge an ademption in court, especially if the property was not clearly identified in the first place.

adjustable rate mortgage (ARM)

A mortgage loan with an interest rate that fluctuates in accordance with a designated market indicator — such as the weekly average of one-year U.S. Treasury Bills — over the life of the loan. To avoid constant and drastic fluctuations, ARMs typically limit how often and by how much the interest rate can vary.

administration (of an estate)

The court-supervised distribution of the probate estate of a deceased person. If there is a will that names an executor, that person manages the distribution. If not, the court appoints someone, who is generally known as the administrator. In some states, the person is called the “personal representative” in either instance.

administrative expenses

The trustee’s fee, the debtor’s attorney fees, and other costs of bringing a bankruptcy case that a debtor must pay in full in a Chapter 13 repayment plan. Administrative costs are typically 10% of the debtor’s total payments under the plan.


A person appointed by a probate court to handle the distribution of property of someone who has died without a will, or with a will that fails to name someone to carry out this task. administrator ad litem A person appointed by a probate court to represent an estate during a lawsuit. (Ad litem is Latin for “during the litigation.”) An administrator ad litem is appointed only if there is no existing executor or administrator of the estate, or if the executor or administrator has conflicting interests. For example, Jerry’s will leaves most of his property to his brother, Jeff, and also names Jeff as executor of the will. But Jerry’s sister, Janine, feels that Jerry made the will under improper pressure from Jeff, and brings a lawsuit to challenge it. The court appoints an administrator ad litem to represent Jerry’s estate while the lawsuit is in progress. Also known as administrator ad prosequendum, meaning administrator “during the prosecution.” administrator ad prosequendum See administrator ad litem.administrator cum testamento annexo See administrator with will annexed. administrator de bonis non (DBN) Latin for “administrator of goods not administered.” This term refers to the person appointed by a probate court to finish probate proceedings when the executor or previous administrator can’t finish the job.administrator de bonis non cum testamento annexo (DBNCTA) A baffling title for an administrator appointed by a probate court to take over probate proceedings when the named executor dies, leaving the job unfinished.administrator pendente lite Latin for “administrator pending litigation.” This term refers to the person appointed by a court to begin probate proceedings during a lawsuit that challenges the will. The administrator pendente lite takes an inventory of the deceased person’s property and handles the business affairs of the estate until the dispute is settled. Also called a special administrator.administrator with will annexed An administrator who takes the place of an executor under a will. The administrator steps in either when a will fails to nominate an executor or the named executor is unable to serve. Also called administrator cum testamento annexo or CTA, the Latin version of “with the will annexed.”


An outdated term for a female administrator — the person appointed by a court to handle probate on behalf of someone who died without a will. Now, whether male or female, this person is called the administrator.

admissible evidence

The evidence that a trial judge or jury may consider, because the rules of evidence deem it reliable. See evidence, inadmissible evidence.


(1) An out-of-court statement by your adversary that you offer into evidence as an exception to hearsay rule. (2) One side’s statement that certain facts are true in response to a request from the other side during discovery.


(1) To assume the legal relationship of parent to another person’s child. See also adoption. (2) To approve or accept something — for example, a legislative body may adopt a law or an amendment, a government agency may adopt a regulation or a party to a lawsuit may adopt a particular argument.

adopted child

Any person, whether an adult or a minor, who is legally adopted as the child of another in a court proceeding. See adoption.


A court procedure by which an adult becomes the legal parent of someone who is not his or her biological child. Adoption creates a parent-child relationship recognized for all legal purposes — including child support obligations, inheritance rights and custody.

adoptive parent

A person who completes all the requirements to legally adopt a child who is not his or her biological child. Generally, any single or married adult who is determined to be a “fit parent” may adopt a child. Some states have special requirements, such as age or residency criteria. An adoptive parent has all the responsibilities of a biological parent.


See alternative dispute resolution.


In most situations, any person 18 years of age or older.


Consensual sexual relations by a married person with someone other than his or her spouse. In many states, adultery is technically a crime, though people are rarely prosecuted for it. In states that have retained fault grounds for divorce, adultery is always sufficient grounds for a divorce. In addition, some states alter the distribution of property between divorcing spouses in cases of adultery, giving less to the “cheating” spouse.

advance directive

See living will.

adverse possession

A means by which one can legally take another’s property without paying for it. The requirements for adversely possessing property vary between states, but usually include continuous and open use for a period of five or more years and paying taxes on the property in question.


Someone who signs an affidavit.

affirmative action

Positive or constructive action rather than inaction. Affirmative action programs and regulations attempt to compensate for discriminatory practices that have in the past denied fair consideration to members of minority groups. For example, an all-white government office may take steps to hire people of color. Or, a mostly-male college program may seek to balance its admissions by giving preference to female applicants. Affirmative action programs are controversial in the present political climate — many have recently been eradicated or have come under attack — and the subject is likely to be hotly debated for many years to come.

affirmative defense

An explanation for a defendant’s actions that excuses or justifies his behavior. For example, acting in self-defense is a common affirmative defense to a charge of battery or homicide. Other affirmative defenses include insanity, duress and intoxication.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

A federal law that prohibits arbitrary discrimination against workers over the age of 40 in any employment decision, especially firing. The ADEA also provides that no worker can be forced to retire.

age of majority

Adulthood in the eyes of the law. After reaching the age of majority, a person is permitted to vote, make a valid will, enter into binding contracts, enlist in the armed forces and purchase alcohol. Also, parents may stop making child support payments when a child reaches the age of majority. In most states the age of majority is 18, but this varies depending on the activity. For example, in some states people are allowed to vote when they reach the age of eighteen, but can’t purchase alcohol until they’re 21.


A person authorized to act for and under the direction of another person when dealing with third parties. The person who appoints an agent is called the principal. An agent can enter into binding agreements on the principal’s behalf and may even create liability for the principal if the agent causes harm while carrying out his or her duties. See also attorney-in-fact.


To make more serious or severe.

aggravating circumstances

Circumstances that increase the seriousness or outrageousness of a given crime, and that in turn increase the wrongdoer’s penalty or punishment. For example, the crime of aggravated assault is a physical attack made worse because it is committed with a dangerous weapon, results in severe bodily injury or is made in conjunction with another serious crime. Aggravated assault is usually considered a felony, punishable by a prison sentence.


A meeting of the minds. An agreement is made when two people reach an understanding about a particular issue, including their obligations, duties and rights. While agreement is sometimes used to mean contract — a legally binding oral or written agreement — it is actually a broader term, including understandings that might not rise to the level of a legally binding contract.

alien registration receipt card (ARC)

The official name used in immigration law for a green card.


The money paid by one ex-spouse to the other for support under the terms of a court order or settlement agreement following a divorce. Except in marriages of long duration (ten years or more) or in the case of an ailing spouse, alimony usually lasts for a set period, with the expectation that the recipient spouse will become self-supporting. Alimony is also called “spousal support” or “maintenance.”


A statement by a party in a pleading describing what that party’s position is and what that party intends to prove.

Allen charge

See dynamite charge.

alternate beneficiary

A person, organization or institution that receives property through a will, trust or insurance policy when the first named beneficiary is unable or refuses to take the property. For example, in his will Jake leaves his collection of sheet music to his daughter, Mia, and names the local symphony as alternate beneficiary. When Jake dies, Mia decides that the symphony can make better use of the sheet music than she can, so she refuses (disclaims) the gift, and the manuscripts pass directly to the symphony. In insurance law, the alternate beneficiary, usually the person who receives the insurance proceeds because the initial or primary beneficiary has died, is called the secondary or contingent beneficiary.

alternative dispute resolution (ADR)

A catchall term that describes a number of methods used to resolve disputes out of court, including negotiation, conciliation, mediation and the many types of arbitration. The common denominator of all ADR methods is that they are faster, less formalistic, cheaper and often less adversarial than a court trial. In recent years the term Alternative Dispute Resolution has begun to lose favor in some circles and ADR has come to mean Appropriate Dispute Resolution. The point of this semantic change is to emphasize that ADR methods stand on their own as effective ways to resolve disputes and should not be seen simply as alternatives to a court action.

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

A federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with physical or mental disabilities in employment, public services and places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, hotels and theaters.


See amicus curiae.

amicus curiae

Latin for “friend of the court.” This term describes a person or organization that is not a party to a lawsuit as plaintiff or defendant but that has a strong interest in the case and wants to get its two cents in. For example, the ACLU often submits materials to support a person who claims a violation of civil rights even though that person is represented by a lawyer.

ancillary probate

A probate proceeding conducted in a different state from the one the deceased person resided in at the time of death. Usually, ancillary probate proceedings are necessary if the deceased person owned real estate in another state.

annual meeting

A term commonly used to refer to annual meetings of shareholders or directors of a corporation. Shareholders normally meet to elect directors or to consider major structural changes to the corporation, such as amending the articles of incorporation or merging or dissolving the corporation. Directors meet to consider or ratify important business decisions, such as borrowing money, buying real property or hiring key employees.


A purchased policy that pays a fixed amount of benefits every year — although most annuities actually pay monthly — for the life of the person who is entitled to those benefits. In a simple life annuity, when the person receiving the annuity dies, the benefits stop; there is no final lump sum payment and no provision to pay benefits to a spouse or other survivor. A continuous annuity pays monthly installments for the life of the retired worker, and also provides a smaller continuing annuity for the worker’s spouse or other survivor after the worker’s death. A joint and survivor annuity pays monthly benefits as long as the retired worker is alive, and then continues to pay the worker’s spouse for life.


A court procedure that dissolves a marriage and treats it as if it never happened. Annulments are rare since the advent of no-fault divorce but may be obtained in most states for one of the following reasons: misrepresentation, concealment (for example, of an addiction or criminal record), misunderstanding and refusal to consummate the marriage.


A defendant’s written response to a plaintiff’s initial court filing (called a complaint or petition). An answer normally denies some or all facts asserted by the complaint, and sometimes seeks to turn the tables on the plaintiff by making allegations or charges against the plaintiff (called counterclaims). Normally a defendant has 30 days in which to file an answer after being served with the plaintiff’s complaint. In some courts, an answer is simply called a “response.”


In patent law, a situation in which an invention is “anticipated” by being too similar to an earlier invention to be considered novel. Because novelty is a requirement for a patent, anticipated inventions are not patentable. Anticipation can occur when a prior invention or printed publication matches all of the primary characteristics of the invention, or it can happen when the invention is displayed or offered for sale more than a year prior to filing a patent application. For example, a bird owner invents a device to keep her bird from picking at its tail feathers. She applies for a patent, but her application is rejected on the ground that the same device was in use 3500 years ago in Egypt. In patent-speak, the inventor’s creation has been anticipated by previous developments (the prior art.)


A written request to a higher court to modify or reverse the judgment of a trial court or intermediate level appellate court. Normally, an appellate court accepts as true all the facts that the trial judge or jury found to be true, and decides only whether the judge made mistakes in understanding and applying the law. If the appellate court decides that a mistake was made that changed the outcome, it will direct the lower court to conduct a new trial, but often the mistakes are deemed “harmless” and the judgment is left alone. Some mistakes are corrected by the appellate court — such as a miscalculation of money damages — without sending the case back to the trial court. An appeal begins when the loser at trial — or in an intermediate level appellate court — files a notice of appeal, which must be done within strict time limits (often 30 days from the date of judgment). The loser (called the appellant) and the winner (called the appellee) submit written arguments (called briefs) and often make oral arguments explaining why the lower court’s decision should be upheld or overturned.


A party to a lawsuit who appeals a losing decision to a higher court in an effort to have it modified or reversed.

appellate court

A higher court that reviews the decision of a lower court when a losing party files for an appeal.


A party to a lawsuit who wins in the trial court — or sometimes on a first appeal — only to have the other party (called the appellant) file for an appeal. An appellee files a written brief and often makes an oral argument before the appellate court, asking that the lower court’s judgment be upheld. In some courts, an appellee is called a respondent.


A determination of the value of something, such as a house, jewelry or stock. A professional appraiser — a qualified, disinterested expert — makes an estimate by examining the property, and looking at the initial purchase price and comparing it with recent sales of similar property. Courts commonly order appraisals in probate, condemnation, bankruptcy or foreclosure proceedings in order to determine the fair market value of property. Banks and real estate companies use appraisals to ascertain the worth of real estate for lending purposes. And insurance companies require appraisals to determine the amount of damage done to covered property before settling insurance claims.


A person who is hired to determine the current value of real estate or other property.


An increase in value. Appreciated property is property that has gone up in value since it was acquired.


A non-court procedure for resolving disputes using one or more neutral third parties — called the arbitrator or arbitration panel. Arbitration uses rules of evidence and procedure that are less formal than those followed in trial courts, which usually leads to a faster, less-expensive resolution. There are many types of arbitration in common use: Binding arbitration is similar to a court proceeding in that the arbitrator has the power to impose a decision, although this is sometimes limited by agreement — for example, in “hi-lo arbitration” the parties may agree in advance to a maximum and minimum award. In non-binding arbitration, the arbitrator can recommend but not impose a decision. Many contracts — including those imposed on customers by many financial and healthcare organizations — require mandatory arbitration in the event of a dispute. This may be reasonable when the arbitrator really is neutral, but is justifiably criticized when the large company that writes the contract is able to influence the choice of the arbitrator.


See arbitration.


A persuasive presentation of the law and facts of a case or particular issue within a case to the judge or jury.


See adjustable rate mortgage.


A court appearance in which the defendant is formally charged with a crime and asked to respond by pleading guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere. Other matters often handled at the arraignment are arranging for the appointment of a lawyer to represent the defendant and the setting of bail.


Overdue alimony or child support payments. In recent years, state laws have made it difficult to impossible to get rid of arrearages; they can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, and courts usually will not retroactively cancel them. A spouse or parent who falls on tough times and is unable to make payments should request a temporary modification of the payments before the arrearages build up.


A situation in which the police detain a person in a manner that, to any reasonable person, makes it clear she is not free to leave. A person can be “under arrest” even though the police have not announced it; nor are handcuffs or physical restraint necessary. Questioning an arrested person about her involvement in or knowledge of a crime must be preceded by the Miranda warnings if the police intend to use the answers against the person in a criminal case. If the arrested person chooses to remain silent, the questioning must stop.

arrest warrant

A document issued by a judge or magistrate that authorizes the police to arrest someone. Warrants are issued when law enforcement personnel present evidence to the judge or magistrate that convinces her that it is reasonably likely that a crime has taken place and that the person to be named in the warrant is criminally responsible for that crime.

articles of incorporation

A document filed with state authorities (usually the Secretary of State or Corporations Commissioner, depending on the state) to form a corporation. As required by the general incorporation law of the state, the Articles normally include the purpose of the corporation, its principal place of business, the names of its initial directors who will control it, and the amounts and types of stock it is authorized to issue.


A crime that occurs when one person tries to physically harm another in a way that makes the person under attack feel immediately threatened. Actual physical contact is not necessary; threatening gestures that would alarm any reasonable person can constitute an assault. Compare battery.

assessment benefits

See stipulated insurance.


A person to whom a property right is transferred. For example, an assignee may take over a lease from a tenant who wants to permanently move out before the lease expires. The assignee takes control of the property and assumes all the legal rights and responsibilities of the tenant, including payment of rent. However, the original tenant remains legally responsible if the assignee fails to pay the rent.


A transfer of property rights from one person to another, called the assignee.

assignment (of copyright)

The unconditional transfer of all rights contained in a copyright from the owner to another person or entity.


A group of people who have joined together for a common purpose. Unlike a corporation, an association is not a legal entity. The law may treat an association like a corporation, however, if it has been operating in a corporate manner — for example, if it has a charter and shareholders.


A legal status granted to an individual who is in the United States and fears political persecution if he or she is forced to return to their home country.

at issue memorandum

A document that states that all parties to a case have been served, that the parties disagree (or are “at issue”) over one or more points to be resolved at trial, and how much time the parties estimate will be required for trial.

at will employment

The right of employers to fire employees for any reason, or for no reason at all. It also gives employees the legal right to quit their jobs at any time for any reason. Despite this legal doctine, employers may not fire employees in a way that discriminates, violates public policy or conflicts with written or implied promises they make concerning the length of employment or grounds for termination.


The act of watching someone sign a legal document, such as a will or power of attorney, and then signing your own name as a witness. When you witness a document in this way, you are attesting — that is, stating and confirming — that the person whom you watched sign the document in fact did so. Attesting to a document does not mean that you are vouching for its accuracy or truthfulness. You are only acknowledging that you watched it being signed by the person whose name is on the signature line.

attorney fees

The payment made to a lawyer for legal services. These fees may take several forms: hourly per job or service — for example, $350 to draft a will contingency (the lawyer collects a percentage of any money she wins for her client and nothing if there is no recovery), or retainer (usually a down payment as part of an hourly or per job fee agreement). Attorney fees must usually be paid by the client who hires a lawyer, though occasionally a law or contract will require the losing party of a lawsuit to pay the winner’s court costs and attorney fees. For example, a contract might contain a provision that says the loser of any lawsuit between the parties to the contract will pay the winner’s attorney fees. Many laws designed to protect consumers also provide for attorney fees — for example, most state laws that require landlords to provide habitable housing also specify that a tenant who sues and wins using that law may collect attorney fees. And in family law cases — divorce, custody and child support — judges often have the power to order the more affluent spouse to pay the other spouse’s attorney fees, even where there is no clear victor.

Attorney General

Head of the United States Department of Justice and chief law officer of the Federal government. The Attorney General represents the United States in legal matters, oversees federal prosecutors, and provides legal advice to the President and to heads of executive governmental departments. Each state also has an attorney general, responsible for advising the governor and state agencies and departments about legal issues, and overseeing state prosecuting attorneys.

attorney work product privilege

A rule that protects materials prepared by a lawyer in preparation for trial from being seen and used by the adversary during discovery or trial.

attorney-client privilege

A rule that keeps communications between an attorney and her client confidential and bars them from being used as evidence in a trial, or even being seen by the opposing party during discovery.


A person named in a written power of attorney document to act on behalf of the person who signs the document, called the principal. The attorney-in-fact’s power and responsibilities depend on the specific powers granted in the power of attorney document. An attorney-in-fact is an agent of the principal.

attractive nuisance

Something on a piece of property that attracts children but also endangers their safety. For example, unfenced swimming pools, open pits, farm equipment and abandoned refrigerators have all qualified as attractive nuisances.


An examination of the financial records of a person, business, or organization, typically done to correct careless or improper bookkeeping or to verify that proper records are being kept. Businesses and nonprofits often undergo an annual audit by an independent accounting firm. The IRS also conducts audits, mainly to assess taxes owed.

augmented estate

In general terms, an augmented estate consists of property owned by both a deceased person and his or her spouse. The concept of the augmented estate is used only in some states. Its value is calculated only if a surviving spouse declines whatever he or she was left by will and instead claims a share of the deceased spouse’s estate. (This is called taking against the will.) The amount of this “statutory share” or “elective share” depends on state law.


To offer testimony that tells the judge what an item of evidence is and its connection to the case.


In terms of copyright protection, either the person who creates the work, the person or business that pays another to create the work in an employment context or the person or business that commissions the work under a valid work for hire contract. For example, a songwriter may write a song, but if he is employed by a company to do so, the company is the author of that song for copyright purposes.

automatic stay

An injunction automatically issued by the bankruptcy court when a debtor files for bankruptcy. The automatic stay prohibits most creditor collection activities, such as filing or continuing lawsuits, making written requests for payment, or notifying credit reporting bureaus of an unpaid debt.


A physician’s examination of the body of a deceased person to determine the cause of death.


Any amount available to the owner of an insurance policy other than the actual proceeds of the policy. Avails include dividend payments, interest, cash or surrender value (the money you’d get if you sold your policy back to the insurance company) and loan value (the amount of cash you can borrow against the policy).


A direct statement or declaration. Also, a statement made by a witness after the judge has ruled that his or her testimony is not admissible at trial. This statement “preserves” the testimony so that it may be considered by the court if the trial’s outcome is an appeal.


The money paid to the court, usually at arraignment or shortly thereafter, to ensure that an arrested person who is released from jail will show up at all required court appearances. The amount of bail is determined by the local bail schedule, which is based on the seriousness of the offense. The judge can increase the bail if the prosecutor convinces him that the defendant is likely to flee (for example, if he has failed to show up in court in the past), or he can decrease it if the defense attorney shows that the defendant is unlikely to run (for example, he has strong ties to the community by way of a steady job and a family).

bail bond

The money posted by a “bondsman” for a defendant who cannot afford his bail. The defendant pays a certain portion, usually 10%. If the defendant fails to appear for a court hearing, the judge can issue a warrant for his arrest and threaten to “forfeit,” or keep, the money if the defendant doesn’t appear soon. Usually, the bondsman will look for the defendant and bring him back, forcefully if necessary, in order to avoid losing the bail money.


A court official usually classified as a peace officer (sometimes as a deputy sheriff, or marshal) and usually wearing a uniform. A bailiff’s main job is to maintain order in the courtroom. In addition, bailiffs often help court proceedings go smoothly by shepherding witnesses in and out of the courtroom and handing evidence to witnesses as they testify. In criminal cases, the bailiff may have temporary charge of any defendant who is in custody during court proceedings.


Someone who delivers an item of personal property to another person for a specific purpose. For example, a person who leaves a broken VCR with a repairman in order to get it fixed would be a bailor.

balloon payment

A large final payment due at the end of a loan, typically a home or car loan, to pay off the amount your monthly payments didn’t cover. Many states prohibit balloon payments in loans for goods or services that are primarily for personal, family or household use, or require the lender to let you refinance the balloon payment before forcing collection.


(1) A method or process of casting a vote, called voting “by ballot.” (2) The actual paper, card or machine you use to indicate your choices in an election. (3) The total number of votes cast in an election. (4) A list of candidates running for office.


A legal proceeding that relieves you of the responsibility of paying your debts or provides you with protection while attempting to repay your debts. There are two types of bankruptcies — liquidation, in which your debts are wiped out (discharged) and reorganization, in which you provide the court with a plan for how you intend to repay your debts. For both consumers and business, liquidation bankruptcy is called Chapter 7. For consumers, reorganization bankruptcy is called Chapter 13. Reorganization bankruptcy for consumers with an extraordinary amount of debt and for businesses is called Chapter 11. Reorganization bankruptcy for family farmers is called Chapter 12.

bankruptcy estate

All of the property you own when you file for bankruptcy, except for most pensions and educational trusts. The trustee technically takes control of your bankruptcy estate for the duration of your case.

bankruptcy trustee

A person appointed by the court to oversee the case of a person or business that has filed for bankruptcy. In a consumer Chapter 7 case, the trustee’s role is to gather the debtor’s nonexempt property, liquidate it and distribute it proportionally to her creditors. In a Chapter 13 case, the trustee’s role is to receive the debtor’s monthly payments and distribute them proportionally to her creditors.

bar examination

An examination for law school graduates who want a license to practice law. Once licensed in a particular state, an attorney can practice law in that state and in federal courts in that state. If the attorney moves to another state, he or she will need to take that state’s bar exam, unless the new state allows the attorney to practice without further examination after he or she has established legal residence. Lawyers from one state may occasionally practice in another with the consent of the court alone. Typically, bar exams are multi-day tests of endurance and knowledge, covering a wide range of legal topics.


For income and capital gains tax purposes, the value that is used to determine profit or loss when property is sold. Often the basis is what you paid for the property, “adjusted” to reflect improvements made or damage incurred while you own the property. See stepped-up basis, carryover basis.


A crime consisting of physical contact that is intended to harm someone. Unintentional harmful contact is not battery, no mater how careless the behavior or how severe the injury. A fist fight is a common battery; being hit by a wild pitch in a baseball game is not.


The seat (usually a comfy chair rather than a bench) where a judge sits in the courtroom during a trial or hearing. Sometimes the word “bench” is used in place of the word “judge” — for example, someone might say she wants a bench trial, meaning a trial by a judge without a jury.

bench trial

A trial before a judge with no jury. The term derives from the fact that the stand on which the judge sits is called the bench.


A person or organization legally entitled to receive benefits through a legal device, such as a will, trust or life insurance policy.

benevolent society benefits

See fraternal benefit society benefits.


A legal term sometimes used in wills that means “leave” — for example, “I bequeath my garden tools to my brother-in-law, Buster Jenkins.”


The legal term for personal property (anything but real estate) left in a will.

Berne Convention

An international treaty that standardizes basic copyright protection among all of the signatory countries, which currently number over 100. A member country will afford the same treatment to an author from another country as it does to authors in its own country. In addition, each member country is obligated to protect an author’s moral rights in her work.

best evidence rule

A rule of evidence that demands that the original of any document, photograph or recording be used as evidence at trial, rather than a copy. A copy will be allowed into evidence only if the original is unavailable.

best interests (of the child)

The test that courts use when deciding who will take care of a child. For instance, an adoption is allowed only when a court declares it to be in the best interests of the child. Similarly, when asked to decide on custody issues in a divorce case, the judge will base his or her decision on the child’s best interests. And the same test is used when judges decide whether a child should be removed from a parent’s home because of neglect or abuse. Factors considered by the court in deciding the best interests of a child include: age and sex of the child mental and physical health of the child mental and physical health of the parents lifestyle and other social factors of the parents emotional ties between the parents and the child ability of the parents to provide the child with food, shelter, clothing and medical care established living pattern for the child concerning school, home, community and religious institution quality of schooling, and the child’s preference.

beyond a reasonable doubt

The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. Reasonable doubt is sometimes explained as being convinced “to a moral certainty.” The jury must be convinced that the defendant committed each element of the crime before returning a guilty verdict.


To separate the issues in a case so that one issue or set of issues can be tried and resolved before the others. For example, death penalty cases are always bifurcated. The court or juryfirst hears the evidence of guilt and reaches a verdict, and then hears evidence about and decides upon which punishment to impose (death or life in prison without parole). Bifurcated trials are also common in product liability class action lawsuits in which many people claim that they were injured by the same defective product — the issue of liability is tried first, followed by the question of damages. Bifurcation is authorized by Rule 42(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

binding precedent

The decisions of higher courts that set the legal standards for similar cases in lower courts within the same jurisdiction.

blanket search warrant

An unconstitutionally broad authorization from a judge that allows the police to search multiple areas for evidence without specifying exactly what they are looking for.

blue law

A statute that forbids or regulates an activity, such as the sale of liquor on Sundays.

blue sky laws

The laws that aim to protect people from investing in sham companies that consist of nothing but “blue sky.” Blue sky laws require that companies seeking to sell stock to the public submit information to and obtain the approval of a state or federal official who oversees corporate activity.

board of directors

See director.


(1) A written agreement purchased from a bonding company that guarantees a person will properly carry out a specific act, such as managing funds, showing up in court, providing good title to a piece of real estate or completing a construction project. If the person who purchased the bond fails at his or her task, the bonding company will pay the aggrieved party an amount up to the value of the bond. (2) An interest-bearing document issued by a government or company as evidence of a debt. A bond provides pre-determined payments at a set date to the bond holder. Bonds may be “registered” bonds, which provide payment to the bond holder whose name is recorded with the issuer and appears on the bond certificate, or “bearer” bonds, which provide payments to whomever holds the bond in-hand.


A quaint phrase that refers to the recording of an arrested person’s name, age, address and reason for arrest when that person is brought to jail and placed behind bars. Nowadays, the book is likely to be a computer. Usually, a mug shot and fingerprints are taken, and the arrestee’s clothing and personal effects are inventoried and stored.

border patrol

The historical term for what is now called the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (“BCBP”), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. The primary functions of the BCBP/border patrol are to guard the borders from illegal entrants and to meet and question immigrants and visitors arriving at airports and other border stops.


A failure or violation of a legal obligation.

breach of contract

A legal claim that one party failed to perform as required under a valid agreement with the other party. For example you might say, “The roofer breached our contract by using substandard supplies when he repaired my roof.”


A document used to submit a legal contention or argument to a court. A brief typically sets out the facts of the case and a party’s argument as to why she should prevail. These arguments must be supported by legal authority and precedent, such as statutes, regulations and previous court decisions. Although it is usually possible to submit a brief to a trial court (called a trial brief), briefs are most commonly used as a central part of the appeal process (an appellate brief). But don’t be fooled by the name — briefs are usually anything but brief, as pointed out by writer Franz Kafka, who defined a lawyer as “a person who writes a 10,000 word decision and calls it a brief.”

bulk sales law

A law that regulates the transfer of business assets so that business owners cannot dispose of assets in order to avoid creditors. If a business owner wants to conduct a bulk sale of business assets — that is, get rid of an unusually large amount of inventory, merchandise or equipment — the business owner must typically publish a notice of the sale and give written notice to creditors. Then, the owner must set up an account to hold the funds from the sale for a brief period of time during which creditors may make claims against the money. The prohibition against bulk sales is spelled out in the Uniform Commercial Code — and laws modeled on the UCC have been generally adopted throughout the country.

burden of proof

A party’s job of convincing the decisionmaker in a trial that the party’s version of the facts is true. In a civil trial, it means that the plaintiff must convince the judge or jury “by a preponderance of the evidence” that the plaintiff’s version is true — that is, over 50% of the believable evidence is in the plaintiff’s favor. In a criminal case, because a person’s liberty is at stake, the government has a harder job, and must convince the judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.


The crime of breaking into and entering a building with the intention to commit a felony. The breaking and entering need not be by force, and the felony need not be theft. For instance, someone would be guilty of burglary if he entered a house through an unlocked door in order to commit a murder.

business records exception

An exception to the hearsay rule, which allows a business document to be admitted into evidence if a proper foundation is laid to show it is reliable.


The rules that govern the internal affairs or actions of a corporation. Normally bylaws are adopted by the shareholders of a profit-making business or the board of directors of a nonprofit corporation. Bylaws generally include procedures for holding meetings and electing the board of directors and officers. The bylaws also set out the duties and powers of a corporation’s officers.

bypass trust

A trust designed to lessen a family’s overall estate tax liability. An AB trust is the most popular kind of bypass trust.

failure of consideration

The refusal or inability of a contracting party to perform its side of a bargain.

failure of issue

A situation in which a person dies without children who could have inherited her property.

Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA)

A federal law that gives you rights when an error occurs on your credit card statement. You must notify the credit card company of the mistake within 60 days after it mailed the bill to you. The company must then correct the mistake, or at least acknowledge receipt of your letter within 30 days, and must correct the error within 90 days or explain why it believes the credit card statement is correct.

Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

A federal law that is designed to prevent inaccurate or obsolete information from entering or remaining in a credit report. The law requires credit bureaus to adopt reasonable procedures for gathering, maintaining and disseminating information and bars credit bureaus from reporting negative information that is older than seven years, except a bankruptcy, which may be reported for ten. If you notify a credit bureau of an error in your credit report, the FCRA requires the bureau to investigate your allegations within 30 days, review all information you provide, remove inaccurate and unverified information and adopt procedures to keep the information from reappearing. In addition, the law requires that creditors refrain from reporting incorrect information to credit bureaus.

Fair Debt Collections & Practices Act (FDCPA)

A federal law that outlaws unfair debt collection practices, including lying, harassing, misleading and otherwise abusing debtors, by debt collectors working for collection agencies. The law does not apply to creditors collecting their own debts. This law has greatly improved conditions for debtors, although more than a few debt collectors ignore the law. If a collection agency violates the law, debtors can contact the Federal Trade Commission for help.

Fair Housing Act & Fair Housing Amendments Act

Federal laws that prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of race or color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability. The federal Acts apply to all aspects of the landlord/tenant relationship, from refusing to rent to members of certain groups to providing different services during tenancy.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

A federal law that guarantees a worker’s right to be paid fairly. The FLSA defines the 40-hour workweek, sets out the federal minimum wage, states requirements for overtime and places restrictions on child labor.

fair use rule

A law that authorizes the use of copyrighted materials for certain purposes without the copyright owner’s permission. Generally, uses intended to further scholarship, education or an informed public are considered fair use, but recent years have seen severe limits placed on the amount of a work that can be reproduced under the fair use rule.

false arrest

See false imprisonment.

false imprisonment

Intentionally restraining another person without having the legal right to do so. It’s not necessary that physical force be used; threats or a show of apparent authority are sufficient. False imprisonment is a misdemeanor and a tort (a civil wrong). If the perpetrator confines the victim for a substantial period of time (or moves him a significant distance) in order to commit a felony, the false imprisonment may become a kidnapping. People who are arrested and get the charges dropped, or are later acquitted, often think that they can sue the arresting officer for false imprisonment (also known as false arrest). These lawsuits rarely succeed: As long as the officer had probable cause to arrest the person, the officer will not be liable for a false arrest, even if it turns out later that the information the officer relied upon was incorrect.

family allowance

A certain amount of a deceased person’s money to which immediate family members are entitled at the beginning of the probate process. The allowance is meant to help support the surviving spouse and children during the time it takes to probate the estate. The amount is determined by state law and varies greatly from state to state.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

A federal law that requires employers to provide an employee with 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a year’s time for the birth or adoption of a child, family health needs or personal illness. The employer must allow the employee to return to the same position or a position similar to that held before taking the leave. There are exceptions to the FMLA: the most notable is that only employers with 50 or more employees are covered–about half the workforce.

family court

A separate court, or more likely a separate division of the regular state trial court, that considers only cases involving divorce (dissolution of marriage), child custody and support, guardianship, adoption, and other cases having to do with family-related issues, including the issuance of restraining orders in domestic violence cases.

family pot trust

See pot trust.

fault divorce

A tradition that required one spouse to prove that the other spouse was legally at fault, to obtain a divorce. The “innocent” spouse was then granted the divorce from the “guilty” spouse. Today, 35 states still allow a spouse to allege fault in obtaining a divorce. The traditional fault grounds for divorce are adultery, cruelty, desertion, confinement in prison, physical incapacity and incurable insanity. These grounds are also generally referred to as marital misconduct.


See Fair Credit Billing Act.


See Fair Credit Reporting Act.


See Fair Debt Collections & Practices Act.

federal court

A branch of the United States government with power derived directly from the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts decide cases involving the U.S. Constitution, federal law–for example, patents, federal taxes, labor law and federal crimes, such as robbing a federally chartered bank–and cases where the parties are from different states and are involved in a dispute for $75,000 or more.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

A federal government agency established to regulate business practices and enforce antitrust laws. The FTC often shows up in the news when big businesses merge, but it also plays a role in protecting consumers from unfair business practices, including actions by collection agencies and credit bureaus. While the FTC generally does not have authority to intervene in individual consumer disputes, the FTC can take action against a company about which it has received numerous consumer complaints.


A serious crime (contrasted with misdemeanors and infractions, less serious crimes), usually punishable by a prison term of more than one year or, in some cases, by death. For example, murder, extortion and kidnapping are felonies; a minor fist fight is usually charged as a misdemeanor, and a speeding ticket is generally an infraction.

Feres doctrine

A legal doctrine that prevents people who are injured as a result of military service from successfully suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The doctrine comes from the U.S. Supreme Court case Feres v. United States, in which servicemen who picked up highly radioactive weapons fragments from a crashed airplane were not permitted to recover damages from the government. Also known as the Feres-Stencel doctrine or the Feres rule.

fictitious business name

See fictitious name.

fictitious name

Fictitious names are often used in conducting a business (see doing business as.) They may also be used when filing a lawsuit against a party whose real name is unknown or when it is appropriate to conceal the true name of the party.

fieri facias

Latin for “that you cause to be done.” This is a court document that instructs a sheriff to seize and sell a defendant’s property in order to satisfy a monetary judgment against the defendant.


A term commonly used to describe both the process of submitting a document to a court–for example, “I filed my small claims case today”–and to describe the physical location where these papers are kept. Traditionally, a court’s case files were kept indefinitely in one or more cardboard folders. Today many files–especially those for inactive cases–are stored by computer.

filing fee

A fee charged by a public official to accept a document for processing. For example, you must usually pay a filing fee to submit pleadings and other documents to the court in a civil matter, or to put a deed on file in the public records.

final beneficiary

The person or institution designated to receive trust property upon the death of a life beneficiary. For example, Jim creates a trust through which his wife Jane receives income for the duration of her life. Their daughter, the final beneficiary, receives the trust principal after Jane’s death.

financial guardian

See guardian of the estate.

finder’s fee

A fee charged by real estate brokers and apartment-finding services in exchange for locating a rental property. These fees are permitted by law. Some landlords, however, charge finder’s fees merely for renting a place. This type of charge is not legitimate and, in some areas, is specifically declared illegal.

fishing expedition

Legal grasping at straws; the use of pre-trial investigation (discovery) or witness questioning in an unfocused attempt to uncover damaging evidence you can use against your adversary.


The ability of a prospective adoptive parent to provide for the best interests of a child. A court may consider many aspects of the prospective parents’ lives in evaluating their fitness to adopt a child, including financial stability, marital stability, career obligations, other children, physical and mental health and criminal history.

fixed in a tangible medium of expression

A requirement before a work can be protected by a copyright. The work must be recorded in some physical medium, whether on paper, audio tape or computer disk. This means that spontaneous speech or musicianship that is not recorded, (a jazz solo, for instance) is not protected by copyright.

fixed rate mortgage

A mortgage loan that has an interest rate that remains constant throughout the life of the loan, so that the amount you pay each month remains the same over the entire mortgage term, typically 15, 20 or 30 years.


See Family and Medical Leave Act.

for sale by owner (FSBO)

Selling your house without a real estate broker. Doing so can save you a commission but requires that you devote time and energy not only to marketing and showing the house but also to learning and following the legal rules controlling sales of real estate in your area. The acronym FSBO is pronounced “fizzbo.”


Voluntarily refraining from doing something, such as asserting a legal right. For example, a creditor may forbear on its right to collect a debt by temporarily postponing or reducing the borrower’s payments.

forced share

See statutory share.


The forced sale of real estate to pay off a loan on which the owner of the property has defaulted.

foreign divorce

A divorce obtained in a different state or country from the place where one spouse resides at the time of the divorce. As a general rule, foreign divorces are recognized as valid if the spouse requesting the divorce became a resident of the state or country granting the divorce, and if both parties consented to the jurisdiction of the foreign court. A foreign divorce obtained by one person without the consent of the other is normally not valid, unless the nonconsenting spouse later acts as if the foreign divorce were valid, for example, by remarrying.


The loss of property or a privilege due to breaking a law. For example, a landlord may forfeit his or her property to the federal or state government if the landlord knows it is a drug-dealing site but fails to stop the illegal activity. Or, you may have to forfeit your driver’s license if you commit too many moving violations or are convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

form interrogatories

Printed or “canned” sets of questions that one party in a lawsuit asks an opposing party. Form interratories cover the issues commonly encountered in the kind of lawsuit at hand. For example, lawyers’ form books have sets of interrogatories designed for contract disputes, landlord-tenant cases and many others. Form interrogatories are often supplemented by questions written by the lawyers and designed for the particular issues in the case.


Refers to the court in which a lawsuit is filed or in which a hearing or trial is conducted.

forum nonconveniens

Latin for an inconvenient court. Because these days strict written rules of jurisdiction and venue are used to decide where a case can and cannot be properly filed, this term has largely lost any real meaning, except as yet another example of a confusing Latin term that lawyers take pleasure in using.

forum shopping

The process by which a plaintiff chooses among two or more courts that have the power–technically, the correct jurisdiction and venue–to consider his case. This decision is based on which court is likely to consider the case most favorably. In some instances, a case can properly be filed in two or more federal district courts as well as in the trial courts of several states–and this makes forum shopping a complicated business. It often involves weighing a number of factors, including proximity to the court, the reputation of the judge in the particular legal area, the likely type of available jurors and subtle differences in governing law and procedure.

foster care

Court-ordered care provided to children who are unable to live in their own homes, usually because their parents have abused or neglected them. Foster parents have a legal responsibility to care for their foster children, but do not have all the rights of a biological parent–for example, they may have limited rights to discipline the children, to raise them according to a certain religion or to authorize non-emergency medical procedures for them. The foster parents do not become the child’s legal parents unless the biological parents’ rights are terminated by a court and the foster parents adopt the child. This is not typically encouraged, as the goal of foster care is to provide temporary support for the children until they can be returned to their parents. See also foster child.

foster child

A child placed by a government agency or a court in the care of someone other than his or her natural parents. Foster children may be removed from their family home because of parental abuse or neglect. Occasionally, parents voluntarily place their children in foster care. See foster care.


The act of displaying another company’s web page within a bordered area of a website — similar to the “picture-in-picture” feature offered on some televisions. For example, when a user enters a search engine request, the search engine might display the contents of an online store within the search engine’s website, framed by the search engine’s text and logos. When a web page is framed within another website, the URL or domain name of the framed web page is not displayed and users are not able to bookmark that site.

fraternal benefit society benefits

These are benefits, often group life insurance, paid for by fraternal societies to their members. Elks, Masons or Knights of Columbus are common fraternal societies that provide benefits. Also called benefit society, benevolent society or mutual aid association benefits. Under bankruptcy laws, these benefits are virtually always considered exempt property.


Intentionally deceiving another person and causing her to suffer a loss. Fraud includes lies and half-truths, such as selling a lemon and claiming “she runs like a dream.”

fraudulent transfer

In a bankruptcy case, a transfer of property to another for less than the property’s value for the purpose of hiding the property from the bankruptcy trustee — for instance, when a debtor signs a car over to a relative to keep it out of the bankruptcy estate. Fraudulently transferred property can be recovered and sold by the trustee for the benefit of the creditors.


Majority shareholders in a company using their power to deprive one or more minority shareholders of their role in governing the company. This is done to force the minority shareholders to sell their stock at a reduced price and exit the company.

friendly suit

A lawsuit brought by two parties, not as adversaries, but as collaborators in order to resolve a legal question that affects them both. For example, two companies might bring a friendly suit to court in order to clarify a legal interpretation of a contract between them.

friendly witness

A witness whom you have called to testify, and whom you may not cross-examine. If the witness testifies in a way that hurts your case, you can ask the judge to declare him a “hostile witness,” which means that you can begin to cross-examine him with leading questions.


An employee detour that is so far removed from the purposes of employment that the employer will not be liable for any injury he causes while on the trip. For example, the U.S. Postal Service would not have been responsible for any injuries caused by Seinfeld’s Newman and Kramer when they used a U.S. Postal Service truck to cart bottles to Michigan for recycling.


See for sale by owner.


See Federal Trade Commission.

funding a trust

Transferring ownership of property to a trust.

future interest

A right to property that cannot be enforced in the present, but only at some time in the future. For example, John’s will leaves his house to his sister Marian, but only after the death of his wife, Hillary. Marian has a future interest in the house.


A court-ordered process that takes property from a person to satisfy a debt. For example, a person who owes money to a creditor may have her wages garnished if she loses a lawsuit filed by the creditor. Up to 25% of a person’s wages can be deducted.


See General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)

A comprehensive free-trade treaty signed in 1947 by 117 nations, including almost every developed country. The goal of GATT has been to promote global economic growth by encouraging and regulating world trade. Among other things, member countries are required to treat all other member countries equally in the application of import and export tariffs, offer basic copyright protection to authors from member countries, consult with each other about trade matters and attempt to resolve differences in a peaceful manner. GATT created an international regulatory body known as the World Trade Organization (WTO) to enforce compliance with the agreement.

general damages

See damages.

general partner

A person who joins with at least one other to own and operate a business for profit — and who (unlike a corporation’s owners), is personally liable for all the business’s debts and obligations. A general partner’s actions can legally bind the entire business. See also partnership, limited partnership.

general power of attorney

See power of attorney.

generation-skipping transfer tax

A federal tax imposed on money placed in a generation-skipping trust. Currently, there is a $1 million exemption to the GSTT; that is, each person may leave $1 million in a generation-skipping trust free of this tax. The GSST is imposed when the middle-generation beneficiaries die and the property is transferred to the third-generation beneficiaries. Every dollar over $1 million is subject to the highest existing estate tax rate–currently 55%–at the time the GSTT tax is applied.

generation-skipping trust

A trust designed to save on estate tax. The trust principal is preserved for the trust maker’s grandchildren, with his or her children receiving only income from the trust. Because the children (the middle generation) never legally own the property, it isn’t subject to estate tax at their death. See generation-skipping transfer tax.

generic mark

In trademark law, a word or symbol commonly used to describe an entire type of product or service rather than to distinguish one product or service from another. An example is “raisin bran,” used by several manufacturers of breakfast cereals to describe their products. Generic marks never receive protection because they don’t serve the basic function of marks, which is to distinguish goods and services in the marketplace.


Loss of trademark protection that occurs when a specific brand name becomes identified with the entire type of product or service. For example, Xerox was in danger of losing the trademark on its name when “to Xerox” something was equivalent to copying it.

gift taxes

Federal taxes assessed on any gift, or combination of gifts, from one person to another that exceeds $12,000 in one year. Several kinds of gifts are exempt form this tax: gifts to tax-exempt charities, gifts to your spouse (limited to $120,000 annually if the recipient isn’t a U.S. citizen) and gifts made for tuition or medical bills. In addition to the annual gift tax exclusion, there is a $1 million cumulative tax exemption for gifts. In other words, you can give away a total of $1 million during your lifetime — over and above the gifts you give using the annual exclusion — without paying gift taxes.

golden rule argument

During a jury trial, an attempt to persuade the jurors to put themselves in the place of the victim or the injured person and deliver the verdict that they would wish to receive if they were in that person’s position. For example, if the plaintiff in a personal injury case has suffered severe scarring, the plaintiff’s lawyer might ask the jury to come back with the verdict they themselves would want to receive had they been disfigured in such a manner. As a rule, judges frown upon this type of argument, because jurors are supposed to consider the facts of a case in an objective manner.

goods & chattels

See personal property.

grace period

A period of time during which you are not required to make payments on a debt. For example, most credit cards give you a grace period of 20-30 days before you have to pay interest on the amount of your purchases. Cash advances, however, usually have no grace period; interest begins to accumulate from the date of the withdrawal, even if you pay your bills on time. Also, some student loans give you a grace period after graduating or dropping out of school. During this time, you are not required to make payments on your loan.

grand jury

In criminal cases, a group that decides whether there is enough evidence to justify an indictment (formal charges) and a trial. A grand jury indictment is the first step, after arrest, in any formal prosecution of a felony.

grandfather clause

A provision in a new law that limits its application to people who are new to the system; people already in the system are exempt from the new regulation. For example, when Washington, D.C. raised its drinking age from 18 to 21, people between those ages, who could drink under the old law, were allowed to retain the right to legally consume alcohol under a grandfather clause.

grant deed

A deed containing an implied promise that the person transfering the property actually owns the title and that it is not encumbered in any way, except as described in the deed. This is the most commonly used type of deed. Compare quitclaim deed.


Someone who creates a trust. Also called a trustor or settlor.

grantor retained income trust

Irrevocable trusts designed to save on estate tax. There are several kinds; with all of them, you keep income from trust property, or use of that property, for a period of years. When the trust ends, the property goes to the final beneficiaries you’ve named. These trusts are for people who have enough wealth to feel comfortable giving away a substantial hunk of property. They come in three flavors: Grantor-Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), Grantor-Retained Unitrusts (GRUTs) and Grantor-Retained Income Trusts (GRITs).


The essential element of a lawsuit. For example, the gravamen of a lawsuit involving a car accident might be the careless driving of the defendant.

green card

The well-known term for an Alien Registration Receipt Card. This plastic photo identification card is given to individuals who are legal permanent residents of the United States. It serves as a U.S. entry document in place of a visa, enabling permanent residents to return to the United States after temporary absences. The key characteristic of a green card is that it allows the holder to live permanently in the United States. Unless you abandon your residence or violate certain criminal or immigration laws, your green card can never be taken away. Possession of a green card also allows you to work in the United States legally. Those who hold green cards for a certain length of time may eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. Green cards have an expiration date of ten years from issuance. This does not mean that your permanent resident status expires. You must simply apply for a new card.


A situation in which a person or entity buys enough stock in a company to threaten a hostile takeover. The person or entity can greenmail the victim company into buying back its stock at a higher price in order to avoid the takeover.

gross estate

For federal estate tax filing purposes, the total of all property owned at death, without regard to any debts or liens against the property or the costs of probate. Taxes are due only on the value of the property the person actually owned (the net estate) plus the amount of any taxable gifts made during life. In a few states, the gross estate is used when computing attorney fees for probating estates; the lawyer gets a percentage of the gross estate.

gross lease

A commercial real estate lease in which the tenant pays a fixed amount of rent per month or year, regardless of the landlord’s operating costs, such as maintenance, taxes and insurance. A gross lease closely resembles the typical residential lease. The tenant may agree to a “gross lease with stops,” meaning that the tenant will pitch in if the landlord’s operating costs rise above a certain level. In real estate lingo, the point when the tenant starts to contribute is called the “stop level,” because that’s where the landlord’s share of the costs stops.

grounds for divorce

Legal reasons for requesting a divorce. All states require a spouse who files for divorce to state the grounds, court and whether requesting a fault divorce or a no-fault divorce.

group life or group health insurance

A single policy under which individuals in a group–for example, employees–and their dependents are covered.

guaranteed reservation

A hotel or rental car reservation secured by a credit card number. In exchange for your card number, the hotel or rental agency promises to have a room or vehicle for you no matter when you show up. If you have a guaranteed reservation with a hotel, it must provide you with a room, either at that hotel or at another comparable establishment. If you have a guaranteed reservation with a car agency, it must provide you with a vehicle. The downside of a guaranteed reservation is that if you don’t show up and haven’t cancelled your reservation, you will be billed for one night in the room or one day’s use of the vehicle.


A person who makes a legally binding promise to either pay another person’s debt or perform another person’s duty if that person defaults or fails to perform. The guarantor gives a “guaranty,” which is an assurance that the debt or other obligation will be fulfilled.


When used as a verb, to agree to pay another person’s debt or perform another person’s duty, if that person fails to come through. As a noun, the written document in which this assurance is made. For example, if you cosign a loan, you have made a guaranty and will be legally responsible for the debt if the borrower fails to repay the money as promised. The person who makes a guaranty is called the guarantor. Also known as a guarantee or warranty.


An adult who has been given the legal right by a court to control and care for a minor or her property. Someone who looks after a child’s property is called a “guardian of the estate.” An adult who has legal authority to make personal decisions for the child, including responsibility for his physical, medical and educational needs, is called a “guardian of the person.” Sometimes just one person will be named to take care of all these tasks. An individual appointed by a court to look after an incapacitated adult may also be known as a guardian, but is more frequently called a conservator.

guardian ad litem

A person, not necessarily a lawyer, who is appointed by a court to represent and protect the interests of a child or an incapacitated adult during a lawsuit. For example, a guardian ad litem (GAL) may be appointed to represent the interests of a child whose parents are locked in a contentious battle for custody, or to protect a child’s interests in a lawsuit where there are allegations of child abuse. The GAL may conduct interviews and investigations, make reports to the court and participate in court hearings or mediation sessions. Sometimes called court-appointed special advocates (CASAs).

guardian of the estate

Someone appointed by a court to care for the property of a minor child that is not supervised by an adult under some other legal method, such as a trust. A guardian of the estate may also be called a “property guardian” or “financial guardian.” See also guardian.


A legal relationship created by a court between a guardian and his ward–either a minor child or an incapacitated adult. The guardian has a legal right and duty to care for the ward. This may involve making personal decisions on his or her behalf, managing property or both. Guardianships of incapacitated adults are more typically called conservatorships .

habeas corpus

Latin for “You have the body.” A prisoner files a petition for writ of habeas corpus in order to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continue to hold him. If the judge orders a hearing after reading the writ, the prisoner gets to argue that his confinement is illegal. These writs are frequently filed by convicted prisoners who challenge their conviction on the grounds that the trial attorney failed to prepare the defense and was incompetent. Prisoners sentenced to death also file habeas petitions challenging the constitutionality of the state death penalty law. Habeas writs are different from and do not replace appeals, which are arguments for reversal of a conviction based on claims that the judge conducted the trial improperly. Often, convicted prisoners file both.

habeas corpus ad subjiciendum

See habeas corpus.


See sexual harassment.

head of family

See head of household.

head of household

A person who supports and maintains, in one household, one or more people who are closely related to him by blood, marriage or adoption. Under federal income tax law, you are eligible for favorable tax treatment as the head of household only if you are unmarried and you manage a household which is the principal residence (for more than half of the year) of dependent children or other dependent relatives. Under bankruptcy homestead and exemption laws, the terms householder and “head of household” mean the same thing. Examples include a single woman supporting her disabled sister and her own children or a bachelor supporting his parents. Many states consider a single person supporting only himself to be a head of household as well.

health benefits

Benefits paid under health insurance plans, such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield, to cover the costs of healthcare.

healthcare directives

Legal documents that allow you to set out written wishes for your medical care–and to name a person to make sure those wishes are carried out. See living will; durable power of attorney for healthcare.

healthcare proxy

A person named in a healthcare directive or durable power of attorney for finances to make medical decisions for the person who signed the document, called the principal. A healthcare proxy may also be known as an attorney-in-fact, agent or patient advocate.


In the trial court context, a legal proceeding (other than a full-scale trial) held before a judge. During a hearing, evidence and arguments are presented in an effort to resolve a disputed factual or legal issue. Hearings typically, but by no means always, occur prior to trial when a party asks the judge to decide a specific issue–often on an interim basis–such as whether a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction should be issued, or temporary child custody or child support awarded. In the administrative or agency law context, a hearing is usually a proceeding before an administrative hearing officer or judge representing an agency that has the power to regulate a particular field or oversee a governmental benefit program. For example, the Federal Aviation Board (FAB) has the authority to hold hearings on airline safety, and a state Worker’s Compensation Appeals Board has the power to rule on the appeals of people whose applications for benefits have been denied.

hearsay rule

A rule of evidence that prohibits secondhand testimony at a trial. For example, if an eyewitness to an accident later tells another person what she saw, the second person’s testimony is hearsay. The reason for this rule is that the opposing party has no ability to confront and cross-examine the person who has firsthand knowledge of the event.


One who receives property from someone who has died. While the traditional meaning includes only those who had a legal right to the deceased person’s property, modern usage includes anyone who receives property from the estate of a deceased person.

heir apparent

One who expects to be receive property from the estate of a family member, as long as she outlives that person.

heir at law

A person entitled to inherit property under intestate succession laws.

high seas

International marine waters not included in the territorial waters of any country. Because the high seas are not owned by any country, they have their own set of laws.

hold harmless

In a contract, a promise by one party not to hold the other party responsible if the other party carries out the contract in a way that causes damage to the first party. For example, many leases include a hold harmless clause in which the tenant agrees not to sue the landlord if the tenant is injured due to the landlord’s failure to maintain the premises. In most states, these clauses are illegal in residential tenancies, but may be upheld in commercial settings.

holographic will

A will that is completely handwritten, dated and signed by the person making it. Holographic wills are generally not witnessed. Although it’s legal in many states, making a holographic will is never advised except as a last resort.

home study

An investigation of prospective adoptive parents to make sure they are fit to raise a child, required by all states. Common areas of inquiry include financial stability, marital stability, lifestyles and other social factors, physical and mental health and criminal history.

home warranty

A service contract that covers a major housing system–for example, plumbing or electrical wiring–for a set period of time from the date a house is sold. The warranty guarantees repairs to the covered system and is renewable.

homeowners’ association

An organization comprising neighbors concerned with managing the common areas of a subdivision or condominium complex. These associations take on issues such as salting and sanding a subdivision when it snows and collecting dues from residents. The homeowners’ association is also responsible for enforcing any covenants, conditions & restrictions that apply to the property.


(1) The house in which a family lives, plus any adjoining land and other buildings on that land. (2) Real estate which is not subject to the claims of creditors as long as it is occupied as a home by the head of the household. After the head of the family dies, homestead laws often allow the surviving spouse or minor children to live on the property for as long as they choose. (3) Land acquired out of the public lands of the United States. The term “homesteaders” refers to people who got their land by settling it and making it productive, rather than purchasing it outright.

homestead declaration

A form filed with the county recorder’s office to put on record your right to a homestead exemption. In most states, the homestead exemption is automatic–that is, you are not required to record a homestead declaration in order to claim the homestead exemption. A few states do require such a recording, however.


The killing of one human being by the act or omission of another. The term applies to all such killings, whether criminal or not. Homicide is considered noncriminal in a number of situations, including deaths as the result of war and putting someone to death by the valid sentence of a court. Killing may also be legally justified or excused, as it is in cases of self-defense or when someone is killed by another person who is attempting to prevent a violent felony. Criminal homicide occurs when a person purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another. Murder and manslaughter are both examples of criminal homicide.

hot pursuit

An exception to the general rule that a police officer needs an arrest warrant before he can enter a home to make an arrest. If a felony has just occurred and an officer has chased a suspect to a private house, the officer can forcefully enter the house in order to prevent the suspect from escaping or hiding or destroying evidence.

house closing

The final transfer of the ownership of a house from the seller to the buyer, which occurs after both have met all the terms of their contract and the deed has been recorded.


A person who supports and maintains a household, with or without other people. In bankruptcy law, a householder, housekeeper or head of household can claim a homestead exemption and possibly other exemptions relating to the maintenance of the household.


See householder.

Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is the agency responsible for enforcing the federal Fair Housing Act.


See Housing and Urban Development.

hung jury

A jury unable to come to a final decision, resulting in a mistrial. Judges do their best to avoid hung juries, typically sending juries back into deliberations with an assurance (sometimes known as a “dynamite charge”) that they will be able to reach a decision if they try harder. If a mistrial is declared, the case is tried again unless the parties settle the case (in a civil case) or the prosecution dismisses the charges or offers a plea bargain (in a criminal case).

I-94 card

A small green or white card given to all nonimmigrants when they enter the United States. The I-94 card serves as evidence that a nonimmigrant has entered the country legally. It is stamped with a date indicating how long the nonimmigrant may stay for that particular trip. It is this date–and not the expiration date of the visa–that controls how long a nonimmigrant can remain in the United States. A new I-94 card with a new date is issued each time the nonimmigrant legally enters the United States. Canadian visitors are not normally issued I-94 cards.


Against or not authorized by the law. Also called illicit or unlawful.


See illegal.

illusory promise

A promise that pledges nothing, because it is vague or because the promisor can choose whether or not to honor it. Such promises are not legally binding. For example, if you get a new job and promise to work for three years, unless you resign sooner, you haven’t made a valid contract and can resign or be fired at any time.

immigrant visa

A type of U.S. visa issued to those who qualify for green cards. An immigrant visa enables the holder to enter the United States, take up permanent residence and receive his or her green card.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)

Formerly, the federal agency in the Department of Justice that administered and enforced immigration and naturalization laws. In 2003, however, the INS officially ceased to exist, and its functions were taken over by various branches of the Department of Homeland Security, as follows:The new Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) handles immigration benefits, such as applications for asylum, work permits, green cards, and citizenship. The new Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) handles enforcement of the immigration laws within the U.S. borders. The new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP) handles U.S. border enforcement (including the land borders, airports, and seaports).


(1) To discredit. To impeach a witness’ credibility, for example, is to show that the witness is not believable. A witness may be impeached by showing that he has made statements that are inconsistent with his present testimony, or that he has a reputation for not being a truthful person. (2) The process of charging a public official, such as the President or a federal judge, with a crime or misconduct and removing the official from office.

implied warranty

A guarantee about the quality of goods or services purchased that is not written down or explicitly spoken. Virtually everything you buy comes with two implied warranties. One for “merchantability” and one for “fitness.” The implied warranty of merchantability is an assurance that a new item will work for its specified purpose. The item doesn’t have to work wonderfully, and if you use it for something it wasn’t designed for, say trimming shrubs with an electric carving knife, the warranty doesn’t apply. The implied warranty of fitness applies when you buy an item for a specific purpose. If you notified the seller of your specific needs, the item is guaranteed to meet them. For example, if you buy new tires for your bicycle after telling the store clerk that you plan to use them for mountain cycling and the tires puncture when you pass over a small rock, the tires don’t conform to the warranty of fitness.

implied warranty of habitability

A legal doctrine that requires landlords to offer and maintain livable premises for their tenants. If a landlord fails to provide habitable housing, tenants in most states may legally withhold rent or take other measures, including hiring someone to fix the problem or moving out. See constructive eviction.


To put a person in prison or jail or otherwise confine him as punishment for committing a crime.

in camera

Latin for “in chambers.” A legal proceeding is “in camera” when a hearing is held before the judge in her private chambers or when the public is excluded from the courtroom. Proceedings are often held in camera to protect victims and witnesses from public exposure, especially if the victim or witness is a child. There is still, however, a record made of the proceeding, typically by a court stenographer. The judge may decide to seal this record if the material is extremely sensitive or likely to prejudice one side or the other.

in propia persona

See pro per.

in terrorem

Latin meaning “in fear.” This phrase is used to describe provisions in contracts or wills meant to scare a person into complying with the terms of the agreement. For example, a will might state that an heir will forfeit her inheritance if she challenges the validity of the will. Of course, if the will is challenged and found to be invalid, then the clause itself is also invalid and the heir takes whatever she would have inherited if there were no will.

in toto

Latin for “in its entirety” or “completely.” For example, if a judge accepts a lawyer’s argument in toto, it means that he’s bought the whole thing, hook, line & sinker.

inadmissible evidence

Testimony or other evidence that fails to meet state or federal court rules governing the types of evidence that can be presented to a judge or jury. The main reason why evidence is ruled inadmissible is because it falls into a category deemed so unreliable that a court should not consider it as part of a deciding a case –for example, hearsay evidence, or an expert’s opinion that is not based on facts generally accepted in the field. Evidence will also be declared inadmissible if it suffers from some other defect–for example, as compared to its value, it will take too long to present or risks enflaming the jury, as might be the case with graphic pictures of a homicide victim. In addition, in criminal cases, evidence that is gathered using illegal methods is commonly ruled inadmissible. Because the rules of evidence are so complicated (and because contesting lawyers waste so much time arguing over them) there is a strong trend towards using mediation or arbitration to resolve civil disputes. In mediation and arbitration, virtually all evidence can be considered. See evidence, admissible evidence.


(1) A lack of physical or mental abilities that results in a person’s inability to manage his or her own personal care, property or finances. (2) A lack of ability to understand one’s actions when making a will or other legal document. (3) The inability of an injured worker to perform his or her job. This may qualify the worker for disability benefits or workers’ compensation.

incidents of ownership

Any control over property. If you give away property but keep an incident of ownership–for example, you give away an apartment building but retain the right to receive rent–then legally, no gift has been made. This distinction can be important if you’re making large gifts to reduce your eventual estate tax.


A conflict in personalities that makes married life together impossible. In a number of states, incompatibility is the accepted reason for a no-fault divorce. Compare irreconcilable differences; irremediable breakdown.


The inability, as determined by a court, to handle one’s own personal or financial affairs. A court may declare that a person is incompetent after a hearing at which the person is present and/or represented by an attorney. A finding of incompetence may lead to the appointment of a conservator to manage the person’s affairs. Also known as “incompetency.”


See incompetance.

incurable insanity

A legal reason for obtaining either a fault divorce or a no-fault divorce. It is rarely used, however, because of the difficulty of proving both the insanity of the spouse being divorced and that the insanity is incurable.

indecent exposure

Revealing one’s genitals under circumstances likely to offend others. Exposure is indecent under the law whenever a reasonable person would or should know that his act may be seen by others–for example, in a public place or through an open window–and that it is likely to cause affront or alarm. Indecent exposure is considered a misdemeanor in most states.

independent contractor

A legal category of worker defined by the Internal Revenue Service. The key to the definition is that, unlike employees, independent contractors retain control over how the work they are hired to do gets done; the person or company paying the independent contractor controls only the outcome–the product or service.

indispensable party

A person or entity (such as a corporation) that must be included in a lawsuit in order for the court to render a final judgment that will be just to everyone concerned. For example, if a person sues his neighbors to force them to prune a tree that poses a danger to his house, he must name all owners of the neighboring property in the suit.


The name of the document, sometimes called a criminal complaint or petition in which a prosecutor charges a criminal defendant with a crime, either a felony or a misdemeanor. The information tells the defendant what crime he is charged with, against whom and when the offense allegedly occurred, but the prosecutor is not obliged to go into great detail. If the defendant wants more specifics, he must ask for it by way of a discovery request. Compare indictment.

informed consent

An agreement to do something or to allow something to happen, made with complete knowledge of all relevant facts, such as the risks involved or any available alternatives. For example, a patient may give informed consent to medical treatment only after the healthcare professional has disclosed all possible risks involved in accepting or rejecting the treatment. A healthcare provider or facility may be held responsible for an injury caused by an undisclosed risk. In another context, a person accused of committing a crime cannot give up his constitutional rights–for example, to remain silent or to talk with an attorney–unless and until he has been informed of those rights, usually via the well-known Miranda warnings.


A minor violation of the law that is punishable only by a fine–for example, a traffic or parking ticket. Not all vehicle-related violations are infractions, however–refusing to identify oneself when involved in an accident is a misdemeanor in some states.

infringement (of copyright)

Any unauthorized use of a copyrighted work other than fair use. Uses can range from outright plagiarism to using a portion of a photograph in a CD-ROM. The copyright owner may file a lawsuit to stop the infringement and collect damages from the infringer, provided the owner has registered her copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.

infringement (of patent)

Violation of a patent, occurring when someone else is making, using, or selling the invention described in the patent, or a product that is functionally equivalent to the invention described in the patent, without the patent holder’s permission.

infringement (of trademark)

Unauthorized use of a protected trademark or service mark, or use of something very similar to a protected mark. The success of a lawsuit to stop the infringement turns on whether the defendant’s use causes a likelihood of confusion in the average consumer. If a court determines that the average consumer would be confused, the owner of the original mark can prevent the other’s use of the infringing mark and sometimes collect damages.


An entrance, or the act of entering. Compare egress.


To receive property from someone who has died. Traditionally, the word “inherit” applied only when one received property from a relative who died without a will. Currently, however, the word is used whenever someone receives property from the estate of a deceased person.

inheritance taxes

Taxes some states impose on people or organizations who inherit property from a deceased person’s estate. The taxes are based on the value of the inherited property.


Persons or organizations who receive property from someone who dies.


A court decision that is intended to prevent harm–often irreparable harm–as distinguished from most court decisions, which are designed to provide a remedy for harm that has already occurred. Injunctions are orders that one side refrain from or stop certain actions, such as an order that an abusive spouse stay away from the other spouse or that a logging company not cut down first-growth trees. Injunctions can be temporary, pending a consideration of the issue later at trial (these are called interlocutory decrees or preliminary injunctions). Judges can also issue permanent injunctions at the end of trials, in which a party may be permanently prohibited from engaging in some conduct–for example, infringing a copyright or trademark or making use of illegally obtained trade secrets. Although most injunctions order a party not to do something, occasionally a court will issue a “mandatory injunction” to order a party to carry out a positive act–for example, return stolen computer code.

injunctive relief

A situation in which a court grants an order, called an injunction, telling a party to refrain from doing something–or in the case of a mandatory injunction, to carry out a particular action. Usually injunctive relief is granted only after a hearing at which both sides have an opportunity to present testimony and legal arguments.


The act of displaying a graphic file from another company’s website. For example, inlining occurs if a user at site A can, without leaving site A, view a “cartoon of the day” featured on site B.


See Immigration and Naturalization Service.


See criminal insanity.

intangible property

Personal property that has no physical existence, such as stocks, bonds, bank notes, trade secrets, patents, copyrights and trademarks. Such “untouchable” items may be represented by a certificate or license that fixes or approximates the value, but others (such as the goodwill or reputation of a business) are not easily valued or embodied in any instrument. Compare tangible property.

integrated pension plan

A pension plan that is integrated with Social Security retirement benefits. In such plans, the monthly or yearly pension benefit is reduced by all, or some percentage of, the retiree’s Social Security check–although since 1988, the law has required that the plan leave at least half of the pension amount. These integrated plans work in one of two ways, either establishing a benefit goal for combined Social Security and pension benefits, or reducing your pension by a set percentage of your Social Security benefits.

intellectual property (IP) law

The area of law that regulates the ownership and use of creative works, including patent, copyright and trademark law.

intent-to-use application

A term used in trademark law. The Lanham Act permits a mark not yet used in commerce to be reserved for later registration by filing an intent-to-use application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). The initial reservation lasts for six months and can be extended for up to five additional six-month periods (for a total of 3 years) for good cause.

intentional tort

A deliberate act that causes harm to another, for which the victim may sue the wrongdoer for damages. Acts of domestic violence, such as assault and battery, are intentional torts (as well as crimes).

inter vivos trust

The Latin name, favored by some lawyers, for a living trust. “Inter vivos” is Latin for “between the living.”


A commission you pay a bank or other creditor for lending you money or extending you credit. An interest rate represents the annual percentage that is added to your balance. This means that if your loan or credit line has an interest rate of 8%, the holder adds 8% to the balance each year. More specifically, interest is calculated and added to your loan or credit line through a process called compounding. If interest is compounded daily, the balance will rise by 1/365th of 8% each day. If interest is compounded monthly, the balance will rise 1/12th of 8% at the start of each month.


In patent law, a procedure to resolve a conflict that occurs when two or more patent applications have been filed on the same invention. When this happens, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) examines a number of factors in order to determine who gets the patent, including who first conceived of the invention and worked on it diligently, who first built and tested the invention and who was first to file a patent application.

interlocutory decree

A court judgment that is not final until the judge decides other matters in the case or until enough time has passed to see if the interim decision is working. In the past, interlocutory decrees were most often used in divorces. The terms of the divorce were set out in an interlocutory decree, which would become final only after a waiting period. The purpose of the waiting period was to allow the couple time to reconcile. They rarely did, however, so most states no longer use interlocutory decrees of divorce.

Internet service provider (ISP)

A business that provides access to the Internet. An ISP may also offer services such as website hosting. An ISP can sometimes be held accountable for copyright violations for material posted by subscribers and users, but is often protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Communications Decency Act usually protects ISPs from the posting of obscenities or defamation by subscribers or users.


A term that describes vigorous questioning, usually by the police of a suspect in custody. Other than providing his name and address, the suspect is not obligated to answer the questions, and the fact that he has remained silent generally cannot be used by the prosecution to help prove that he is guilty of a crime. If the suspect has asked for a lawyer, the police must cease questioning. If they do not, they cannot use the answers against the suspect at trial.


Written questions designed to discover key facts about an opposing party’s case, that a party to a lawsuit asks an opposing party (but not a witness, who can only be questioned in person at a deposition). Interrogatories are part of the pretrial discovery stage of a lawsuit, and must be answered under penalty of perjury. Court rules tightly regulate how, when and how many interrogatories can be asked. Lawyers can write their own sets of questions, or can use form interrogatories, designed to cover typical issues in common lawsuits.


The condition of dying without a valid will. The probate court appoints an administrator to distribute the deceased person’s property according to state law.

intestate succession

The method by which property is distributed when a person dies without a valid will. Each state’s law provides that the property be distributed to the closest surviving relatives. In most states, the surviving spouse, children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and next of kin inherit, in that order.


To take effect, or to benefit someone. In property law, the term means “to vest.” For example, Jim buys a beach house that includes the right to travel across the neighbor’s property to get to the water. That right of way is said, cryptically, “to inure to the benefit of Jim.”


A complete listing of all property owned by a deceased person at the time of death. The inventory is filed with the court during probate. The executor or administrator of the estate is responsible for making and filing the inventory.


(1) To formally grant power or authority to someone. For example, when the President of the United States is inaugurated, he is invested with all the powers of that office. (2) To contribute money to a business venture, or to buy property or securities, with the intention and expectation of making a profit.


A person who makes investments. An investor may act either for herself or on behalf of others. A stock broker or mutual fund manager, for instance, makes investments for others who have entrusted her with their money.


A business guest, or someone who enters property held open to members of the public, such as a visitor to a museum. Property owners must protect invitees from dangers on the property. In an example of the perversion of legalese, social guests that you invite into your home are called “licensees.”


See intellectual property law.

ipse dixit

Latin for “he himself said it.” The term labels something that is asserted but unproved.

ipso facto

Latin for “by the fact itself.” This term is used by Latin-addicted lawyers when something is so obvious that it needs no elaboration or further explanation. For example, it might be said that a blind person, ipso facto, is not qualified to obtain to a driver’s license.

irreconcilable differences

Differences between spouses that are considered sufficiently severe to make married life together more or less impossible. In a number of states, irreconcilable differences is the accepted ground for a no-fault divorce. As a practical matter, courts seldom, if ever, inquire into what the differences actually are, and routinely grant a divorce as long as the party seeking the divorce says the couple has irreconcilable differences. Compare incompatibility; irremediable breakdown.

irremediable or irretrievable breakdown

The situation that occurs in a marriage when one spouse refuses to live with the other and will not work toward reconciliation. In a number of states, irremediable breakdown is the accepted ground for a no-fault divorce. As a practical matter, courts seldom, if ever, inquire into whether the marriage has actually broken down, and routinely grant a divorce as long as the party seeking the divorce says the marriage has fallen apart. Compare incompatibility; irreconcilable differences.

irresistible impulse test

A seldom-used test for criminal insanity that labels the person insane if he could not control his actions when committing the crime, even though he knew his actions were wrong.

irrevocable trust

A permanent trust. Once you create it, it cannot be revoked, amended or changed in any way.

IRS expenses

A table of national and regional expense estimates published by the IRS. Debtors whose current monthly income is more than their state’s median family income must use the IRS expenses to calculate their average net income in a Chapter 7 case, or their disposable income in a Chapter 13 case.


See Internet service provider.


A term generally meaning all your children and their children down through the generations, including grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. Also called “lineal descendants.”

joint custody

An arrangement by which parents who do not live together share the upbringing of a child. Joint custody can be joint legal custody (in which both parents have a say in decisions affecting the child) joint physical custody (in which the child spends a significant amount of time with both parents) or, very rarely, both.

joint tenancy

A way for two or more people to share ownership of real estate or other property. When two or more people own property as joint tenants and one owner dies, the other owners automatically own the deceased owner’s share. For example, if a parent and child own a house as joint tenants and the parent dies, the child automatically becomes full owner. Because of this right of survivorship, no will is required to transfer the property; it goes directly to the surviving joint tenants without the delay and costs of probate.

joint work

For copyright purposes, a collaboration between two or more authors in which their contributions are joined into a single cohesive work. Each author of a joint work has equal rights to register and enforce the copyright, regardless of how their shares in the work are divided.


A final court ruling resolving the key questions in a lawsuit and determining the rights and obligations of the opposing parties. For example, after a trial involving a vehicle accident, a court will issue a judgment determining which party was at fault and how much money that party must pay the other.

judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV)

Reversal of a jury’s verdict by a judge when the judge believes that there were insufficient facts on which to base the jury’s verdict, or that the verdict did not correctly apply the law. This procedure is similar to a situation in which a judge orders a jury to arrive at a particular verdict, called a directed verdict. In fact, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict is occasionally made when a jury refuses to follow a judge’s instruction to arrive at a certain verdict. Incidentally, for those of a scholarly bent, this term has its roots in the Latin “non obstante verdicto,” meaning notwithstanding the verdict.


The authority of a court to hear and decide a case. To make a legally valid decision in a case, a court must have both “subject matter jurisdiction” (power to hear the type of case in question, which is granted by the state legislatures and Congress) and “personal jurisdiction” (power to make a decision affecting the parties involved in the lawsuit, which a court gets as a result of the parties’ actions). For example, state court’s subject matter jurisdiction includes the civil and criminal laws that the state legislature has passed, but does not include the right to hear patent disputes or immigration violations, which Congress has decided may only be heard in federal courts. And no court can entertain a case unless the parties agree to be there or live in the state (or federal district) where the court sits, or have enough contacts with the state or district that it’s fair to make them answer to that court. (Doing business in a state, owning property there or driving on its highways will usually be enough to allow the court to hear the case.) The term jurisdiction is also commonly used to define the amount of money a court has the power to award. For example, small claims courts have jurisdiction only to hear cases up to a relatively low monetary amount–depending on the state, typically in the range of $2,000-$10,000. If a court doesn’t have personal jurisdiction over all the parties and the subject matter involved, it “lacks jurisdiction,” which means it doesn’t have the power to render a decision.

jurisdictional amount

The monetary amount that determines whether or not a particular court can hear a case. For example, under the law of a particular state, the jurisdictional amount of a justice, municipal or city court might be limited to cases involving less than $25,000. In federal court, cases involving citizens from different states must concern a dispute involving at least $75,000.


A person who serves on a jury. Lists of potential jurors are obtained from sources such as voter registration rolls and department of motor vehicles’ lists. In most states, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees who are called for jury duty–that is, they cannot demote or fire an employee for serving. And a few states require that the employer continue to pay the absent employee. Individuals who are selected to serve on a jury receive from the court a very small fee for their time and sometimes the cost of traveling from home to court.


Criminal Law Traffic TicketshomeGLOSSARY jury A group of people selected to apply the law, as stated by the judge, to the facts of a case and render a decision, called the verdict. Traditionally, an American jury was made up of 12 people who had to arrive at a unanimous decision. But today, in many states, juries in civil cases may be composed of as few as six members and non-unanimous verdicts may be permitted. (Most states still require 12-person, unanimous verdicts for criminal trials.) Tracing its history back over 1,000 years, the jury system was brought to England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The philosophy behind the jury system is that–especially in a criminal case–an accused’s guilt or innocence should be judged by a group of people from her community (“a jury of her peers”). Recently, some courts have been experimenting with increasing the traditionally rather passive role of the jury by encouraging jurors to take notes and ask questions.

jury nullification

A decision by the jury to acquit a defendant who has violated a law that the jury believes is unjust or wrong. Jury nullification has always been an option for juries in England and the United States, although judges will prevent a defense lawyer from urging the jury to acquit on this basis. Nullification was evident during the Vietnam war (when selective service protesters were acquitted by juries opposed to the war) and currently appears in criminal cases when the jury disagrees with the punishment–for example, in “three strikes” cases when the jury realizes that conviction of a relatively minor offense will result in lifetime imprisonment.

jus cogens

Principles of international law so fundamental that no nation may ignore them or attempt to contract out of them through treaties. For example, genocide and participating in a slave trade are thought to be jus cogens.

jus naturale

Latin for “natural law.” This is a system of legal principles ostensibly derived from universal divine truths.

justice system

A term lawyers use to describe the courts and other bureaucracies that handle American’s criminal legal business, including offices of various state and federal prosecutors and public defenders. Many people caught up in this system refer to it by less flattering names.


Under some state’s probate codes, all relatives of a deceased person.

labor certification

A required procedure for many foreign nationals who have a job offer from a U.S. employer. In many cases, a job offer alone is not enough to qualify a potential immigrant for a green card. First, the employer must prove that there are no qualified U.S. workers available and willing to take the job. To do so, the employer must turn to the U.S. Department of Labor for a labor certification.


The owner of any real estate, such as a house, apartment building or land, that is leased or rented to another person, called the tenant.

Lanham Act

The main federal statute governing trademarks, service marks and unfair competition. Its two basic purposes are to eliminate deception and unfair competition in the marketing of goods and services, and to protect marks against the use of confusingly similar marks by others.


Under a will, the failure of a gift of property. A gift lapses when the beneficiary dies before the person who made the will, and no alternate has been named. Some states have anti-lapse statutes, which prevent gifts to relatives of the deceased person from lapsing unless the relative has no heirs of his or her own. A lapsed gift becomes part of the residuary estate.


Another term for theft. Although the definition of this term differs from state to state, it typically means taking property belonging to another with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. If the taking is non forceful, it is larceny; if it is accompanied by force or fear directed against a person, it is robbery, a much more serious offense.

lawful issue

Formerly, statutes governing wills used this phrase to specify children born to married parents, and to exclude those born out of wedlock. Now, the phrase means the same as issue and “lineal descendant.”


An oral or written agreement (a contract) between two people concerning the use by one of the property of the other. A person can lease real estate (such as an apartment or business property) or personal property (such as a car or a boat). A lease should cover basic issues such as when the lease will begin and end, the rent or other costs, how payments should be made, and any restrictions on the use of the property. The property owner is often called the “lessor,” and the person using the property is called the “lessee.”

lease option

A contract in which an owner leases her house (usually for one to five years) to a tenant for a specific monthly rent, and which gives the tenant the right to buy the house at the end of the lease period for a price established in advance. A lease option is often a good arrangement for a potential home buyer because it lets him move into a house he may buy without having to come up with a down payment or financing at that time.


An outdated legal word meaning personal property left by a will. The more common term for this type of property is bequest. Compare devise.

legal action

See action.

legal custody

The right and obligation to make decisions about a child’s upbringing, including schooling and medical care. Many states typically have both parents share legal custody of a child. Compare physical custody.

legal papers

Documents containing a statement of legal status, identity, authority or ownership, or providing evidence of some type of obligation. Such documents include wills, deeds, leases, titles, birth certificates , and contracts. Legal papers may also refer to documents, such as a complaint or summons, prepared in order to pursue a legal cause of action.

legal risk placement

A type of adoption used by agencies to keep a child out of foster care during the adoption process. The child is placed with the adopting parents before the birthmother has legally given up her rights to raise the child. If she then decides not to relinquish her rights, the adopting parents must give the child back. This is a risk for the adopting parents, who may lose a child to whom they’ve become attached.

legislative immunity

A legal doctrine that prevents legislators from being sued for actions performed and decisions made in the course of serving in government. This doctrine does not protect legislators from criminal prosecution, nor does it relieve them from responsibility for actions outside the scope of their office, such as the nefarious activities of former Senator Bob Packwood.


A car that gives you serious trouble soon after you buy it. To qualify under state “lemon laws,” the defect must be substantial and must occur within a certain time or mileage period, usually 12,000 miles or one year. You usually have the option of getting a refund or a replacement vehicle for a lemon, though you may have to go to arbitration or court to exercise this option.

letters testamentary

The document given to an executor by the probate court, authorizing the executor to settle the estate according to either a will or the state’s intestate succession laws.


Any conduct that is considered indecent or offensive. Today the term is often used when referring to pornography, prostitution and indecent exposure.

lex loci

Latin for the “law of the place.” It means local law.


(1) The state of being liable–that is, legally responsible for an act or omission. Example:Peri hires Paul to fix a broken pipe in her bathroom, but the new pipe bursts the day after Paul installs it, ruining the bathroom floor. This raises the issue of liability: Who is responsible for the damage? Peri claims that Paul is responsible, and sues him for the cost of hiring another plumber to fix the pipe and replacing the floor. Paul, in turn, claims that the pipe manufacturer is responsible, because they supplied him with faulty materials. Both Peri and Paul must prove their claims in court; if Paul and/or the manufacturer is found liable, one or both will have to pay damages to Peri. (2) Something for which a person is liable. For example, a debt is often called a liability.

liability insurance coverage

Compensation to third parties who are injured or whose property is damaged due to the fault of the insurance holder. You may have liability insurance for your car or your home, or to cover actions you take in the course of your profession. Liability polices are sometimes called “third-party policies.”


Legally responsible. For example, a person may be liable for a debt, liable for an accident due to careless behavior, liable for failing do something required by a contract or liable for the commission of a crime. Someone who is found liable for an act or ommission must usually pay damages or, if the act was a criminal one, face punishment. See also liability.


An untruthful statement about a person, published in writing or through broadcast media, that injures the person’s reputation or standing in the community. Because libel is a tort (a civil wrong), the injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. Libel is a form of defamation , as is slander (an untruthful statement that is spoken, but not published in writing or broadcast through the media).

license (of invention, copyright or trademark)

A contract giving written permission to use an invention, creative work or trademark. A license provides a way to make money from your invention or creative work without having to manufacture and sell copies yourself. By licensing an invention or work to a company, you get money (often in the form of royalties) in return for allowing the company to use, produce and sell copies of your invention or work in the marketplace.


The right of a secured creditor to grab a specific item of property if you don’t pay a debt. Liens you agree to are called security interests, and include mortgages, home equity loans, car loans and personal loans for which you pledge property to guarantee repayment. Liens created without your consent are called nonconsensual liens, and include judgment liens (liens filed by a creditor who has sued you and obtained a judgment), tax liens and mechanics liens (liens filed by a contractor who worked on your house but wasn’t paid).

life beneficiary

A person who receives benefits, under a trust or by will, for his or her lifetime. For an example, see AB trust.

life insurance

A contract in which an insurance company agrees to pay money to a designated beneficiary upon the death of the policy holder. In exchange, the policyholder pays a regularly scheduled fee, known as the insurance premiums. The purpose of life insurance is to provide financial support to those who survive the policyholder, such as family members or business partners. When the policyholder dies, the insurance proceeds pass to the beneficiaries free of probate, though they are counted for federal estate tax purposes. group life insurance Life insurance available through an employer or association that covers participating employees and members under one master insurance policy. Most group life insurance policies are term insurance policies, that terminate when the member or employee reaches a certain age or leaves the organization and do not accumulate any cash surrender value. term life insurance No-frills life insurance, with neither cash surrender value nor loan value (an amount that can be used as collateral for a loan). Term life insurance provides a pre-set amount of coverage if the policyholder dies during the period of time specified in the policy. Policyholders usually have the option to renew at the end of the term for the period of years specified in the policy. Unlike whole life insurance, premiums generally increase as the insured person gets older and the risk of death increases.universal life insurance A type of whole life insurance that offers some additional features and advantages. Like whole life insurance, universal life insurance accumulates cash value through investment of the premium payments. The unique feature of universal life insurance is that it has variable premiums, benefits and payment schedules, all of which are tied to market interest rates and the performance of the investment portfolio. Also, universal life plicies normally provide you with more consumer information. For example, you are told how much of your policy payments goes for insurance company overhead expenses, reserves and policy proceed payments, and how much is retained and invested for your savings. This information isn’t usually provided with whole life policies.variable life insurance A type of whole life insurance in which the amount of death benefits varies, depending on the performance of investments. The insurance company places some or all of the fixed premium payments into an investment account; some companies let the insured person decide how the money is invested. The policyholder bears the risk of investment losses, though there is a guaranteed minimum benefit payment. One benefit of variable insurance is that interest and dividend income from the investment account is not taxed until it is paid out to the policyholder.variable universal life insurance A type of whole life insurance that provides greater potential for financial gain–and brings greater risks. Like universal life insurance, variable universal life insurance offers flexible premiums, payment schedules and benefits. But variable universal life policies are riskier because the premiums are invested in stocks, rather than more predictable money market accounts and bonds. Also called universal variable life insurance.whole life insurance Life insurance that provides coverage for the entire life of the policyholder, who pays the same fixed premium throughout his or her life. The policy builds up cash reserves that may be paid out to the policyholder when he or she surrenders or partially surrenders the policy or uses the cash reserves to fund low-interest loans. The annual increase in the cash value of the policy is not taxed. If the policyholder surrenders the policy, a portion of the payment is not taxable. Also called straight life insurance or ordinary life insurance.

life insurance avails

See avails.

life tenant

One who has a life estate in real property.

life-prolonging procedures

Medical procedures used to extend the life of someone who is terminally ill or permanently comatose. These procedures may include the administration of blood or blood products, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), diagnostic tests, dialysis, antibiotics, surgery or a respirator. Also called life-sustaining procedures.

life-sustaining procedures

See life-prolonging procedures.

limited equity housing

An arrangement designed to encourage low-and moderate-income families to purchase housing, in which the housing is offered at an extremely favorable price with a low down payment. The catch is that when the owner sells, she gets none of the profit if the market value of the unit has gone up. Any profit returns to the organization that built the home, which then resells the unit at an affordable price.

limited liability

The maximum amount a business owner can lose if the business is subject to debts, claims or other liabilities. An owner of a limited liability company (LLC) or a person who invests in a corporation (a shareholder) generally stands to lose only the amount of money invested in the business. This means that if the business folds, creditors cannot seize or sell an owner’s home, car, or other personal assets.

limited liability company (LLC)

A business ownership structure that offers its owners the advantage of limited liability (like corporations) and partnership-like taxation, in which profits are passed through to the owners and taxed on their personal income tax returns.

limited liability partnership (LLP)

A type of partnership recognized in a majority of states that protects a partner from personal liability for negligent acts committed by other partners or by employees not under his or her direct control. Many states restrict this type partnership to professionals, such as lawyers, accountants, architects and healthcare providers.

limited partnership

A business structure that allows one or more partners (called limited partners) to enjoy limited personal liability for partnership debts while another partner or partners (called general partners) have unlimited personal liability. The key difference between a general and limited partner concerns management decision making–general partners run the business, and limited partners, who are usually passive investors, are not allowed to make day-to-day business decisions. If they do, they risk being treated as general partners with unlimited personal liability.

limited personal liability

See limited liability.

limited power of attorney

See power of attorney.

lineal descendants

See issue.


A procedure in which the police place a suspect in a line with a group of other people and ask an eyewitness to the crime to identify the person he saw at the crime scene. The police are supposed to choose similar-looking people to appear with the suspect. If the suspect alone matches the physical description of the perpetrator, evidence of the identification can be attacked at trial. For example, if the robber is described as a Latino male, and the suspect, a Latino male, is placed in a lineup with ten white males, a witness’ identification of him as the robber will be challenged by the defense attorney.


Any component of a web page that connects to another web page or another portion of the same web page. Clicking on underlined text or a graphic image activates most links. For example, if a user clicks on the words Financial Calculator or an image of a calculator, the user will be transported to a page that contains a calculator. Links are sometimes called “hyperlinks.”

liquid assets

Business property that can be quickly and easily converted into cash, such as stock, bank accounts and accounts receivable.

liquidating partner

The member of an insolvent or dissolving partnership responsible for paying the debts and settling the accounts of the partnership.

lis pendens

(1) Latin for “a suit pending.” The term may refer to any pending lawsuit. (2) A written notice that a lawsuit has been filed concerning real estate, involving either the title to the property or a claimed ownership interest in it. The notice is usually filed in the county land records office. Recording a lis pendens against a piece of property alerts a potential purchaser or lender that the property’s title is in question, which makes the property less attractive to a buyer or lender. After the notice is filed, anyone who nevertheless purchases the land or property described in the notice takes subject to the ultimate decision of the lawsuit.


The process of bringing and pursuing (litigating) a lawsuit.

living trust

A trust you can set up during your life. Living trusts are an excellent way to avoid the cost and hassle of probate because the property you transfer into the trust during your life passes directly to the trust beneficiaries after you die, without court involvement. The successor trustee–the person you appoint to handle the trust after your death–simply transfers ownership to the beneficiaries you named in the trust. Living trusts are also called “inter vivos trusts.”

living will

A legal document in which you state your wishes about certain kinds of medical treatments and life-prolonging procedures. The document takes effect if you can’t communicate your own healthcare decisions. A living will may also be called a healthcare directive, advance directive or directive to physicians.


See limited liability company.


See limited liability partnership.

loan broker

A person who specializes in matching home buyers with appropriate mortgage lenders. For a fee–often paid by the lender–a loan broker provides any easy and effective way to find the cheapest mortgage rates.

loan consolidation

The combining of a number of loans into a single new loan. Consolidation typically extends your repayment period and lowers your monthly payments, thereby greatly increasing the amount of interest you pay over the life of your loan.

loss damage waiver (LDW)

Rental car insurance that makes the rental car company responsible for damage to or theft of a rental car. This insurance is a major consumer ripoff, as it often duplicates coverage provided by the renter’s regular car insurance and/or the credit card she uses to rent the car. Nevertheless, hard-sell practices by rental car agents often dupe people into buying LDWs they don’t really need. LDW is also called “collision damage waiver.”

Mail or Telephone Order Rule

A Federal Trade Commission rule that requires a seller to ship goods ordered by mail, phone, computer or fax to you within the time promised or, if no time was stated, within 30 days. If the seller cannot ship within that period, the seller must send you a notice with a new shipping date and give you the option of canceling your order and getting a refund.


(1) More than half of something, such as the votes cast in an election. (2) The age at which a person can exercise the legal rights of an adult, such as entering into contracts or voting. See age of majority.


Doing something that is illegal. This term is often used when a professional or public official commits an illegal act that interferes with the performance of his or her duties. For example, an elected official who accepts a bribe in exchange for political favors has committed malfeasance. Compare misfeasance.


The delivery of substandard care or services by a lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant or other professional. Generally, malpractice occurs when a professional fails to provide the quality of care that should reasonably be expected in the circumstances, with the result that her patient or client is harmed. In the area of legal malpractice, you need to prove two things to show that you were harmed: first, that your lawyer screwed up; and second, that if the lawyer had handled the work properly, you would have won your original case.


Latin for “we command.” A writ of mandamus is a court order that requires another court, government official, public body, corporation or individual to perform a certain act. For example, after a hearing, a court might issue a writ of mandamus forcing a public school to admit certain students on the grounds that the school illegally discriminated against them when it denied them admission. A writ of mandamus is the opposite of an order to cease and desist, or stop doing something. Also called a “writ of mandate.”


Required, compulsory or obligatory.

mandatory injunction

See injunction.

marital deduction

A deduction allowed by the federal estate tax laws for all property passed to a surviving spouse who is a U.S. citizen. This deduction (which really functions as an exemption) allows anyone, even a billionaire, to pass his or her entire estate to a surviving spouse without any tax at all.

marital life estate trust

See AB trust.

marital property

Most of the property accumulated by spouses during a marriage, called community property in some states. States differ as to exactly what is included in marital property; some states include all property and earnings dring the marriage, while others exclude gifts and inheritances.

Marital Settlement Agreement

See divorce agreement.

Marital Termination Agreement

See divorce agreement.


The legal union of two people. Once a couple is married, their rights and responsibilities toward one another concerning property and support are defined by the laws of the state in which they live. A marriage can only be terminated by a court granting a divorce or annulment. Compare common law marriage.

marriage certificate

A document that provides proof of a marriage, typically issued to the newlyweds a few weeks after they file for the certificate in a county office. Most states require both spouses, the person who officiated the marriage and one or two witnesses to sign the marriage certificate; often this is done just after the ceremony.

marriage license

A document that authorizes a couple to get married, usually available from the county clerk’s office in the state where the marriage will take place. Couples pay a small fee for a marriage license, and must often wait a few days before it is issued. In addition, a few states require a short waiting period–usually not more than a day–between the time the license is issued and the time the marriage may take place. And some states still require blood tests for couples before they will issue a marriage license, though most no longer do.

martial misconduct

See fault divorce.

McNaghten Rule

The earliest and most common test for criminal insanity, in which a criminal defendant is judged legally insane only if he could not distinguish right from wrong at the time he committed the crime. For example, a delusional psychotic who believed that his assaultive acts were in response to the will of God would not be criminally responsible for his acts.

means test

A formula that uses predefined income and expense categories to determine whether a debtor whose current monthly income is higher than the median family income for his or her state should be allowed to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

mechanic’s lien

A legal claim placed on real estate by someone who is owed money for labor, services or supplies contributed to the property for the purpose of improving it. Typical lien claimants are general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers of building materials. A mechanics’ lien claimant can sue to have the real estate sold at auction and recover the debt from the proceeds. Because property with a lien on it cannot be easily sold until the lien is satisfied (paid off), owners have a great incentive to pay their bills.

median family income

An annual income figure for which there are as many families with incomes below that level as there are above that level. The Census Bureau publishes median family income figures for each state and for different family sizes. A debtor whose current monthly income is higher than the median family income in his or her state must pass the means test in order to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and must commit all disposable income to a five-year repayment plan if filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.


A dispute resolution method designed to help warring parties resolve their own dispute without going to court. In mediation, a neutral third party (the mediator) meets with the opposing sides to help them find a mutually satisfactory solution. Unlike a judge in her courtroom or an arbitrator conducting a binding arbitration, the mediator has no power to impose a solution. No formal rules of evidence or procedure control mediation; the mediator and the parties usually agree on their own informal ways to proceed.


See mediation.


A program established by the federal government and administered by the states to help pay medical costs for financially needy people. Need is defined by the program of the state in which the applicant resides. Medicaid operates in addition to Medicare to help pay for some of the medical costs that Medicare does not cover.


A federal government program that assists older and some disabled people in paying their medical costs. The program is divided into two parts. Part A is called hospital insurance and covers most of the costs of a stay in the hospital, as well as some follow-up costs after time in the hospital. Part B, medical insurance, pays some of the cost of doctors and outpatient medical care.

meeting of creditors

A meeting held with the bankruptcy trustee about a month after you file for bankruptcy. You must attend. The trustee reviews your bankruptcy papers and asks a few questions. In a Chapter 7, the meeting of creditors lasts a few minutes and rarely do any creditors show up. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, one or two creditors may attend, especially if they disagree with some provision of your repayment plan.


(1) An informal written document. A memorandum may be used in any number of circumstances, but most lawyers are best acquainted with the interoffice memorandum–a document prepared by a junior associate in a law office or a judge’s law clerk outlining the facts, procedural elements and legal arguments involved in a particular legal matter. These memos are reviewed by senior lawyers and judges who use them to decide how to proceed with the case. (2) Any written record, including a letter or note, that proves that a contract exists between two parties. This type of memo may be enough to validate an oral (spoken) contract that would otherwise be unenforceable because of the statute of frauds. (Under the statute of frauds, an oral contract is invalid if it can’t be completed within one year from the date the contract is made.)

memorandum decision

A single, very brief paragraph setting out a court’s decision in a case. A memorandum decision does not usually include the court’s reasons for reaching its result; those details may appear later in a comprehensive written opinion.

mens rea

The mental component of criminal liability. To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act (the actus reus) in a certain mental state (the mens rea). The mens rea of robbery, for example, is the intent to permanently deprive the owner of his property.

mineral rights

An ownership interest in the minerals contained in a particular parcel of land, with or without ownership of the surface of the land. The owner of mineral rights is usually entitled to either take the minerals from the land himself or receive a royalty from the party that actually extracts the minerals.

minimum contacts

A requirement that must be satisfied before a defendant can be sued in a particular state. In order for the suit to go forward in the chosen state, the defendant must have some connections with that state. For example, advertising or having business offices within a state may provide minimum contacts between a company and the state.


In most states, any person under 18 years of age. All minors must be under the care of a competent adult (parent or guardian) unless they are “emancipated”–in the military, married or living independently with court permission. Property left to a minor must be handled by an adult until the minor becomes an adult under the laws of the state where he or she lives.

Miranda warning

A warning that the police must give to a suspect before conducting an interrogation, including the right to remain silent, the right to have an attorney present, the right to a court appointed attorney, and the fact that any statements made by the suspect can be used against him in court.


A crime, less serious than a felony, punishable by no more than one year in jail. Petty theft (of articles worth less than a certain amount), first-time drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident are all common misdemeanors.


Performing a legal action in an improper way. This term is frequently used when a professional or public official does his job in a way that is not technically illegal, but is nevertheless mistaken or wrong. Here are some examples of misfeasance in a professional context: a lawyer who is mistaken about a deadline and files an important legal document too late, an accountant who makes unintentional errors on a client’s tax return or a doctor who writes a prescription and accidentally includes the wrong dosage. Compare malfeasance.


A lie by one spouse before marriage that provides grounds for an annulment. For example, if a spouse failed to mention that he was still married or was incapable of having children, he has misrepresented himself.


A trial that ends prematurely and without a judgment, due either to a mistake that jeopardizes a party’s right to a fair trial or to a jury that can’t agree on a verdict (a hung jury) If a judge declares a mistrial in a civil case, he or she will direct that the case be set for a new trial at a future date. Mistrials in criminal cases can result in a retrial, a plea bargain or a dismissal of the charges.


A mistake by both spouses in a marriage that can serve as grounds for an annulment. For example, if one spouse went into the marriage wanting children while the other did not, they have a misunderstanding that will be judged serious enough for a court to terminate the marriage.


See Multiple Listing Service.

month-to-month tenancy

A rental agreement that provides for a one-month tenancy that is automatically renewed each month unless either tenant or landlord gives the other the proper amount of written notice (usually 30 days) to terminate the agreement. Some landlords prefer to use month-to-month tenancies because it gives them the right to raise the rent after giving proper notice. This type of rental also provides a landlord with an easy way to get rid of troublesome tenants, because in most states month-to-month tenancies can be terminated for any reason.

moral rights

In copyright law, rights guaranteed authors by the Berne Convention that are considered personal to the author and that cannot therefore be bought, sold or transferred. Moral rights include the right to proclaim authorship of a work, disclaim authorship of a work and object to any modification or use of the work that would be injurious to the author’s reputation. Moral rights are not recognized as such by U.S. Copyright law. The U.S. Copyright Office and the courts take the position that U.S. laws adequately protect artists under individual statutes. For example, Section 106 of the Copyright Act provides that the creator of a work of visual art can control whether her name is on the art and object if the integrity of the work is threatened, two items that fall under the traditional moral rights doctrine. It can be argued, however, that U.S. laws do not entirely protect authors from violations of moral rights. For instance, colorization of films is not addressed by U.S. law, nor is the removal or alteration of certain murals.

mortality charge

A monthly deduction from a universal life insurance policy that increases as the policyholder ages.


A loan in which the borrower puts up the title to real estate as security (collateral) for a loan. If the borrower doesn’t pay back the debt on time, the lender can foreclose on the real estate and have it sold to pay off the loan.


During a lawsuit, a request to the judge for a decision–called an order or ruling–to resolve procedural or other issues that come up during litigation. For example, after receiving hundreds of irrelevant interrogatories, a party might file a motion asking that the other side be ordered to stop engaging in unduly burdensome discovery. A motion can be made before, during or after trial. Typically, one party submits a written motion to the court, at which point the other party has the opportunity to file a written response. The court then often schedules a hearing at which each side delivers a short oral argument. The court then approves or denies the motion. Most motions cannot be appealed until the case is over.

motion for summary judgment

See summary judgment.

motion in limine

A request submitted to the court before trial in an attempt to exclude evidence from the proceedings. A motion in limine is usually made by a party when simply the mention of the evidence would prejudice the jury against that party, even if the judge later instructed the jury to disregard the evidence. For example, if a defendant in a criminal trial were questioned and confessed to the crime without having been read his Miranda rights, his lawyer would file a motion in limine to keep evidence of the confession out of the trial.

multiple listing service (MLS)

A computer-based service that provides real estate professionals with detailed listings of most homes currently on the market. Much of the information can now be obtained by the public through websites like www.realtor.com.

naked option

An opportunity to buy stock at a fixed price, offered by a seller who does not own the stock to back up the promise. If the buyer wants to exercise the option, the seller must purchase the stock at market price to make good on the offer.

natural person

A living, breathing human being, as opposed to a legal entity such as a corporation. Different rules and protections apply to natural persons and corporations, such as the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, which applies only to natural persons.


The process by which a foreign person becomes a U.S. citizen. Almost everyone who goes through naturalization must first have held a green card for several years. A naturalized U.S. citizen has virtually the same rights as a native-born American citizen.

negative amortization

See capitalized interest.

negative pregnant

A denial of wrongdoing in which a person actually admits more than she denies. For example, if a defendant who is accused of embezzling $2 million in 1996 denies that she embezzled $2 million during that year, the denial is pregnant with the possibility that she might have embezzled a different sum of money during a different time period.

negotiable instrument

A written document that represents an unconditional promise to pay a specified amount of money upon the demand of its owner. Examples include checks and promissory notes. Negotiable instruments can be transferred from one person to another, as when you write “pay to the order of” on the back of a check and turn it over to someone else.

net earnings

Earnings that remain after an employer subtracts mandatory deductions (such as income tax, union dues and Social Security contributions) from an employee’s gross income.

net estate

The value of all property owned at death less liabilities or debts.

net lease

A commercial real estate lease in which the tenant regularly pays not only for the space (as he does with a gross lease) but for a portion of the landlord’s operating costs as well. When all three of the usual costs–taxes, maintenance and insurance–are passed on, the arrangement is known as a “triple net lease.” Because these costs are variable and almost never decrease, a net lease favors the landlord. Accordingly, it may be possible for a tenant to bargain for a net lease with caps or ceilings, which limits the amount of rent the tenant must pay. For example, a net lease with caps may specify that an increase in taxes beyond a certain point (or any new taxes) will be paid by the landlord. The same kind of protection can be designed to cover increased insurance premiums and maintenance expenses.

net taxable estate

See taxable estate.

next friend

A person, usually a relative, who appears in court on behalf of a minor or incompetent plaintiff, but who is not a party to the lawsuit. For example, children are often represented in court by their parents as “next friends.”

next of kin

The closest relatives, as defined by state law, of a deceased person. Most states recognize the spouse and the nearest blood relatives as next of kin.

no-fault divorce

Any divorce in which the spouse who wants to split up does not have to accuse the other of wrongdoing, but can simply state that the couple no longer gets along. Until no-fault divorce arrived in the 1970s, the only way a person could get a divorce was to prove that the other spouse was at fault for the marriage not working. No-fault divorces are usually granted for reasons such as incompatibility, irreconcilable differences, or irretrievable or irremediable breakdown of the marriage. Also, some states allow incurable insanity as a basis for a no-fault divorce. Compare fault divorce.

no-fault insurance

Car insurance laws that require the insurance companies of each person in an accident to pay for medical bills and lost wages of their insured, up to a certain amount, regardless of who was at fault. The effect of no-fault insurance laws is to eliminate lawsuits in small accidents. The advantage is the prompt payment of medical bills and expenses. The downsides are that the amounts paid by no-fault policies are often not enough to fully cover a person’s losses and that no-fault does not compensate for pain and suffering.

nol. pros.

See nolle prosequi.

nolle prosequi

Latin for “we shall no longer prosecute.” At trial, this is an entry made on the record by a prosecutor in a criminal case stating that he will no longer pursue the matter. An entry of nolle prosequi may be made at any time after charges are brought and before a verdict is returned or a plea entered. Essentially, it is an admission on the part of the prosecution that some aspect of its case against the defendant has fallen apart. Most of the time, prosecutors need a judge’s permission to “nol-pros” a case. (See Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48a.) Abbreviated “nol. pros.” or “nol-pros.”


Latin for “I choose not to.” See nolo contendre.

nolo contendere

A plea entered by the defendant in response to being charged with a crime. If a defendant pleads nolo contendere, she neither admits nor denies that she committed the crime, but agrees to a punishment (usually a fine or jail time) as if guilty. Usually, this type of plea is entered because it can’t be used as an admission of guilt if a civil case is held after the criminal trial.

nominal damages

See damages.


See noncompetition agreement.

noncompetition agreement

An agreement, generally included in an employment contract or a contract for the sale of a business, where one party agrees not to compete with the other party for a specific period of time and within a particular area. Salespeople, for example, often sign noncompetition agreements that prevent them from using the contacts gained by one employer to benefit another employer. Or a salesperson may sign what is known as a “noncompete,” agreeing not to sell within a particular area, or even work in the same type of business. In some states, such as California, courts view noncompetition agreements with disfavor and will not enforce them unless the restrictions are very narrow. In other states, courts routinely uphold them.

nondischargeable debts

Debts that cannot be erased by filing for bankruptcy. If you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, these debts will remain when your case is over. If you file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the nondischargeable debts will have to be paid in full during your plan or you will have a balance at the end of your case. Examples of nondischargeable debts include alimony and child support, most income tax debts, many student loans and debts for personal injury or death caused by drunk driving. Compare dischargeable debts.

nondisclosure agreement

A legally binding contract in which a person or business promises to treat specific information as a trade secret and not disclose it to others without proper authorization. Nondisclosure agreements are often used when a business discloses a trade secret to another person or business for such purposes as development, marketing, evaluation or securing financial backing. Although nondisclosure agreements are usually in the form of written contracts, they may also be implied if the context of a business relationship suggests that the parties intended to make an agreement. For example, a business that conducts patent searches for inventors is expected to keep information about the invention secret, even if no written agreement is signed, because the nature of the business is to deal in confidential information.

nonexempt property

The property you risk losing to your creditors when you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy or when a creditor sues you and wins a judgment. Nonexempt property typically includes valuable clothing (furs) and electronic equipment, an expensive car that’s been paid off and most of the equity in your house. Compare exempt property.


People who come to the United States temporarily for some particular purpose but do not remain permanently. There are many types of nonimmigrants. Students, temporary workers and visitors are some of the most common.

nonimmigrant visa

A U.S. visa that allows an individual to come to the United States temporarily and for a limited purpose. Each nonimmigrant visa comes with a different set of privileges, such as the right to work or study. In addition to a descriptive name, a letter of the alphabet and a number identifies each type of nonimmigrant visa. Student visas, for example, are F-1 or M-1 and investors are E-2. Nonimmigrant visas also vary according to how long they permit you to stay in the United States. For example, on an investor visa, you can remain for many years, but on a visitor’s visa, you can stay for only six months at a time.


A requirement for obtaining a patent. An invention is nonobvious if it would be viewed as an unexpected or surprising development by someone skilled in the technology of the particular field. For example, Babe Ruth III invents an electronic device that can signal whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. Babe’s patent application is rejected on the ground that similar technology has been developed for television commentators and that Babe’s invention extending these prior art developments to the game itself is obvious (in patent-speak, it “lacks nonobviousness”) and is therefore not patentable.


The distribution of a deceased person’s property by any means other than probate. Many types of property pass free of probate, including property left to a surviving spouse and property left outside of a will through probate-avoidance methods such as pay-on-death designations, joint tenancy ownership, living trusts and life insurance. Property that avoids probate is sometimes described as the “nonprobate estate.” Nonprobate distribution may also occur if the deceased person leaves an invalid will. In that case, property will pass according to the particular state’s laws of intestate succession.

nonprofit corporation

A legal structure authorized by state law allowing people to come together to either benefit members of an organization (a club, or mutual benefit society) or for some public purpose (such as a hospital, environmental organization or literary society). Nonprofit corporations, despite the name, can make a profit, but the business cannot be designed primarily for profit-making purposes, and the profits must be used for the benefit of the organization or purpose the corporation was created to help. When a nonprofit corporation dissolves, any remaining assets must be distributed to another nonprofit, not to board members. As with for-profit corporations, directors of nonprofit corporations are normally shielded from personal liability for the organization’s debts. Some nonprofit corporations qualify for a federal tax exemption under § 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, with the result that contributions to the nonprofit are tax deductible by their donors.

nonrefundable ticket

An airline ticket for which you cannot get your money back if you decide not to travel. Each airline has its own policies and exceptions regarding nonrefundable tickets. For example, many airlines will allow you to apply the amount of an unused ticket towards a later flight, subject to a fee.

nontransferable ticket

An airline ticket that can be used only by the passenger whose name appears on the ticket. All airlines require passengers to show ID when they check in, and an airline can confiscate a ticket if the names on the ID and on the ticket don’t match.


Certification by a notary public to establish the authenticity of a signature on a legal document. Many legal documents, such as deeds and powers of attorney, are commonly notarized.

notary public

A licensed public officer who administers oaths, certifies documents and performs other specified functions. A notary public’s signature and seal is required to authenticate the signatures on many legal documents.


The substitution of a new contract for an old one. A novation may change one of the parties to the contract or the duties that must be performed by the original parties.


A requirement for obtaining a patent. To be novel, an invention must be physically different in some way from all previous inventions.


Something that interferes with the use of property by being irritating, offensive, obstructive or dangerous. Nuisances include a wide range of conditions, everything from a chemical plant’s noxious odors to a neighbor’s dog barking. The former would be a “public nuisance,” one affecting many people, while the other would be a “private nuisance,” limited to making your life difficult, unless the dog was bothering others. Lawsuits may be brought to abate (remove or reduce) a nuisance. See quiet enjoyment, attractive nuisance.

nuisance fees

Money charged by some credit card companies to increase their profits when you fail to use the card the way the creditor wants. Examples include late payment fees, inactivity fees and fees for not carrying a balance from month to month. It’s best to shop around and get rid of cards that have these fees attached.

nulla bona

Latin for “no goods.” This is what the sheriff writes when she can find no property to seize in order to pay off a court judgment.


An attestation that one will tell the truth, or a promise to fulfill a pledge, often calling upon God as a witness. The best known oath is probably the witness’ pledge “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” during a legal proceeding. In another context, a public official usually takes an “oath of office” before assuming her position, in which she declares that she will faithfully perform her duties.

oath of office

See oath.

obiter dictum

See dictum.

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

The primary federal law establishing safety standards in the workplace. Generally, OSHA requires employers to provide a safe workplace by informing employees about potential hazards, training them to deal with hazards and recording workplace injuries.

offensive collateral estoppel

A doctrine that prevents a defendant from re-litigating an issue after it has been lost. For example, if your neighbor sues you for putting up a fence on his land and the court rules that your fence extends beyond your property line, you can’t later file your own lawsuit seeking a declaration that the property line is incorrectly drawn.


A proposal to enter into an agreement with another person. An offer must express the intent of the person making the offer to form a contract, must contain some essential terms–including the price and subject matter of the contract–and must be communicated by the person making the offer. A legally valid acceptance of the offer will create a binding contract.

offer of proof

At trial, a party’s explanation to a judge as to how a proposed line of questioning, or a certain item of physical evidence, would be relevant to its case and admissible under the rules of evidence. Offers of proof arise when a party begins a line of questioning that the other side objects to as calling for irrelevant or inadmissible information. If the judge thinks that the questions might lead to proper evidence, the judge will stop the trial, ask the parties to “approach the bench,” and give the questioner a chance to show how, if allowed, the expected answers will be both relevant and admissible. This explanation is usually presented out of the jury’s hearing, but it does become part of the trial record. If the matter is later heard on appeal, the appellate court will use the record to decide whether the judge’s ruling was correct.


A person elected by a profit or nonprofit corporation’s board of directors, or by the manager of a limited liability company, to manage the day-to-day operations of the organization. Officers generally hold titles such as President or Treasurer. Many states and most corporate bylaws or LLC operating agreements require a corporation or LLC to have a president, secretary and treasurer. Election of a vice president may be required by state law.


See setoff.

Older Workers Benefit Protection Act

A federal law that makes it illegal for an employer to use an employee’s age to discriminate in benefits or for a company to target older workers for layoffs. This law also requires employers to allow employees at least 21 days to consider waivers not to sue offered by an employer in exchange for early retirement benefits.

one-year rule

The rule that requires a patent application to be filed within one year of the following: any public use of the invention by the inventor, a sale of the invention, an offer to sell the invention, or any description of the invention by the inventor in a published document. Failure to file a patent application within this one-year period results in the invention’s passing into the public domain, where it is no longer eligible for a patent.

open adoption

An adoption in which there is some degree of contact between the birthparents and the adoptive parents and sometimes with the child as well. As opposed to most adoptions in which birth and adoption records are sealed by court order, open adoptions allow the parties to decide how much contact the adoptive family and the birthparents will have.

opening statement

A statement made by an attorney or self-represented party at the beginning of a trial before evidence is introduced. The opening statement outlines the party’s legal position and previews the evidence that will be introduced later. The purpose of an opening statement is to familiarize the jury with what it will hear–and why it will hear it–not to present an argument as to why the speaker’s side should win; that comes after all evidence is presented as part of the closing argument.


See own recognizance.


A decision issued by a court. It can be a simple command–for example, ordering a recalcitrant witness to answer a proper question–or it can be a complicated and reasoned decision made after a hearing, directing that a party either do or refrain from some act. For example, following a hearing, the court may order that evidence gathered by the police not be introduced at trial; or a judge may issue a temporary restraining order. This term usually does not describe the final decision in a case, which most often is called a judgment.

order to show cause

An order from a judge that directs a party to come to court and convince the judge why she shouldn’t grant an action proposed by the other side or by the judge on her own (sua sponte). For example, in a divorce, at the request of one parent a judge might issue an order directing the other parent to appear in court on a particular date and time to show cause why the first parent should not be given sole physical custody of the children. Although it would seem that the person receiving an order to show cause is at a procedural disadvantage–she, after all, is the one who is told to come up with a convincing reason why the judge shouldn’t order something–both sides normally have an equal chance to convince the judge to rule in their favor.


A law adopted by a town or city council, county board of supervisors or other municipal governing board. Typically, local governments issue ordinances establishing zoning and parking rules and regulating noise, garbage removal, and the operation of parks and other areas that affect people who live or do business within the locality’s borders.

original work of authorship

Under U.S. copyright laws, any type of expression independently conceived by its creator. As long as a particular expression has been independently created, it need not be original in the sense of “new.” For example, if Thamas Dowel never heard of or read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, but somehow managed to write a play very similar to it, Dowel’s play would qualify as original, and would be protected by copyright law. Many creations qualify as works of authorship, including sheet music, movies, records, tape recordings, video disk productions, computer software, laser disk games, cartoons, designs, magazines, poems and books. The few categories that don’t qualify include titles of books, movies and songs; short phrases and slogans; printed forms; compilations of facts; and works consisting entirely of information that is public domain property–for example, lists and tables taken from public documents. Items in these categories are considered too short or too lacking in originality to qualify for copyright protection.


See Occupational Safety and Health Act.


A common practice whereby an airline, hotel or other company accepts more reservations than it has seats or rooms available, on the presumption that a certain percentage of people will not show up. Airlines have a legal right to overbook, while hotels do not. A hotel must find a room for everyone who has a reservation and shows up on time. An airline may be required to offer compensation for people involuntarily bumped from a flight, depending on several factors, including how long they must wait for another flight.

own recognizance (OR)

A way the defendant can get out of jail, without paying bail, by promising to appear in court when next required to be there. Sometimes called “personal recognizance.” Only those with strong ties to the community, such as a steady job, local family and no history of failing to appear in court, are good candidates for “OR” release. If the charge is very serious, however, OR may not be an option.

owners’ agreement

See buy-sell agreement

pain and suffering

The physical or emotional distress resulting from an injury. Though the concept is somewhat abstract, the injured plaintiff can seek compensation in the form of cold, hard cash. How much the defendant owes for pain and suffering is calculated separately from the amount owing for more direct expenses, such as medical bills or time lost from work — although sometimes these are factored in to arrive at a logical figure.


A non-legal term coined by journalists to describe the division of property or alimony-like support given by one member of an unmarried couple to the other after they break up.

par value

The face value of a stock, assigned by a corporation at the time the stock is issued. The par value is often printed on the stock certificate, but the market value of the stock may be much more or much less than par.


A person who does legal work but who is not licensed to practice law or dispense legal advice. Independent paralegals (those who work directly with the public, not for lawyers) assist their customers by providing forms, helping people fill them out correctly and filing them with the proper court.


When used without a qualifier such as “limited” or “limited liability,” usually refers to a legal structure called a general partnership. This is a business owned by two or more people (called partners or general partners) who are personally liable for all business debts. To form a partnership, each partner normally contributes money, valuable property or labor in exchange for a partnership share, which reflects the amount contributed. Partnerships are easy to form since no registration is required with any governmental agency to create a partnership (although tax registration and other requirements to conduct business may still apply). Although not required, it is an excellent idea to prepare a written partnership agreement between the partners to define items such as ownership percentages, how profits and losses will be divided and what happens if a partner dies or becomes disabled. Partnerships themselves do not pay federal or state income taxes; rather, profits are passed through to partners who report and pay income taxes on their personal returns. See also limited partnership; limited liability partnership.


A person, corporation or other legal entity that files a lawsuit (the plaintiff or petitioner) or defends against one (the defendant or respondent).


A legal monopoly, granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), for the use, manufacture and sale of an invention. Patents on useful devices, called utility patents, last for 20 years from the date the patent application was filed. Design patents last for 14 years from the date issued. And plant patents last for 17 years from the date issued.

Patent and Trademark Office (PTO)

An administrative branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce charged with overseeing and implementing the federal laws of patent and trademark.This agency is responsible for examining and issuing all patents and trademarks in the United States.

patent claim

A statement included in a patent application that describes the structure of an invention in precise and exact terms, using a long established formal style and precise terminology. Patent claims serve as a way for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to determine whether an invention is patentable, and as a way for a court to determine whether a patent has been infringed. In concept, a patent claim marks the boundaries of the patent in the same way as the legal description in a deed specifies the boundaries of the property.

patent deed

The official document sent to an inventor by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) when that office has issued a patent for the inventor’s creation.

patent drawing

Visual representations of an invention that are included in a patent application. Patent drawings must be included in the application unless the nature of the invention precludes such them, as would be the case with the formula for a new substance. Patent drawings should show all the features of the invention described in the application, including those features that distinguish it from prior art.

patent pending

The status of an invention between the time when:a utility patent application has been filed and when it is issued or rejected, or a provisional patent application has been submitted and when a subsequent patent application (filed within one year) is issued or rejected. Inventors often mark their devices “patent pending” to deter competitors from copying the idea or claim it as their own.

patent search

A search for documents that will determine whether a particular invention was novel and nonobvious when it was invented, and hence whether it may qualify for a patent. A patent search usually begins with a database of previously issued patents, and also covers other types of documents, such as journal articles and scientific papers, that describe unpatented inventions.

paternity suit

A lawsuit to determine the identity of the father of a child born outside of marriage, and to provide for the support of the child once the identity of the father has been determined.

pay-on-death (POD) designation

A way to avoid probate for bank accounts, government bonds, individual retirement accounts and, in many states, securities or a car. To create a pay-on-death designation, you simply name someone on the ownership document (such as the registration card for a bank account) to inherit the property at your death. You retain complete control of your property while you are alive, and you can change the beneficiary (payee) at any time. At your death, the property is transferred directly to the beneficiary, free of probate.


See Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

pendente lite

Latin for “while the action is pending.” This phrase is used to describe matters that are contingent upon the outcome of a lawsuit. For example, money may be deposited by the defendant with the court pendente lite in order to compensate the plaintiff if the defendant loses the case. If the defendant wins, she gets her money back.


A retirement fund for employees paid for or contributed to by some employers as part of a package of compensation for the employees’ work. Pensions became widespread during the Second World War, when they were commonly used as lures because there were more jobs than workers.

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC)

A public, nonprofit insurance fund that provides some limited coverage against bankrupt pension funds. Should a pension fund be unable to pay all its obligations to its retirees, the PBGC may pay some of the pension fund’s unfulfilled obligations. The PBGC covers only defined benefit retirement plans and only vested benefits.

per capita

Under a will, the most common method of determining what share of property each beneficiary gets when one of the beneficiaries dies before the willmaker, leaving children of his or her own. For example, Fred leaves his house jointly to his son Alan and his daughter Julie. But Alan dies before Fred, leaving two young children. If Fred’s will states that heirs of a deceased beneficiary are to receive the property per capita, Julie and the two grandchildren will each take a third. If, on the other hand, Fred’s will states that heirs of a deceased beneficiary are to receive the property per stirpes, Julie will receive one-half of the property, and Alan’s two children will share his half in equal shares (through Alan by right of representation).

per stirpes

Under a will, a method of determining who inherits property when a joint beneficiary has died before the willmaker, leaving living children of his or her own. For example, Fred leaves his house jointly to his son Alan and his daughter Julie. But Alan dies before Fred, leaving two young children. If Fred’s will states that heirs of a deceased beneficiary are to receive the property “per stirpes,” Julie will receive one-half of the property, and Alan’s two children will share his half in equal shares (through Alan by right of representation). If, on the other hand, Fred’s will states that the property is to be divided per capita, Julie and the two grandchildren will each take a third.

peremptory challenge

During jury selection, an opportunity for a party to a lawsuit to dismiss or excuse a potential juror without having to give a valid reason, as would be the case when a juror is challenged for cause. Depending on court rules, each party typically gets to make from five to 15 peremptory challenges. Although parties may generally use their peremptory challenges as they see fit, the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted to prohibit their use to eliminate all jurors of a particular race or gender from a jury.

permanent resident

A non-U.S. citizen who has been given permission to make his or her permanent home in the United States. If you acquire permanent residence, you will be issued a green card to prove it. The terms permanent resident and “green card holder” mean exactly the same thing. You cannot be a permanent resident without a green card and you cannot have a green card without being a permanent resident. As a permanent resident, you may travel as much as you like, but your place of residence must be the United States and you must keep that residence on a permanent basis. If you leave the United States and stay away for more than a year, you risk losing your green card.

personal injury

An injury not to property, but to your body, mind or emotions. For example, if you slip and fall on a banana peel in the grocery store, personal injury covers any actual physical harm (broken leg and bruises) you suffered in the fall as well as the humiliation of falling in public, but not the harm of shattering your watch.

personal injury recovery

The amount that comes from a lawsuit or insurance settlement to compensate someone for physical and mental suffering, including injury to body, injury to reputation or both.

personal property

All property other than land and buildings attached to land. Cars, bank accounts, wages, securities, a small business, furniture, insurance policies, jewelry, patents, pets and season baseball tickets are all examples of personal property. Personal property may also be called personal effects, movable property, goods and chattel, and personalty. Compare real estate.

personal representative

See executor.


A formal written request made to a court, asking for an order or ruling on a particular matter. For example, if you want to be appointed conservator for an elderly relative, you must file a petition with a court. See also complaint.

petition (immigration)

A formal request for a green card or a specific nonimmigrant (temporary) visa. In many cases, the petition must be filed by someone sponsoring the immigrant, such as a family member or employer. After the petition is approved, the immigrant may submit the actual visa or green card application.


A person who initiates a lawsuit. A synonym for plaintiff, used almost universally in some states and in others for certain types of lawsuits, most commonly divorce and other family law cases.

petitioner (immigration)

A U.S. resident or business who makes a formal request that a foreign national be allowed to enter the United States. The petitioner must be an immediate relative who is either a U.S. citizen or green card holder or your prospective U.S. employer. No one else may act as your petitioner. Almost all green card categories and some types of nonimmigrant visa categories require you to have a petitioner.

physical custody

The right and obligation of a parent to have his child live with him. Compare legal custody.

physical incapacity

The inability of a spouse to engage in sexual intercourse with the other spouse. In some states, physical incapacity is a ground for an annulment or fault divorce, assuming the incapacity was not disclosed to the other spouse before the marriage.

piercing the veil

A judicial doctrine that allows a plaintiff to hold otherwise immune corporate officers and directors personally liable for damages caused by a corporation under their control. The veil is pierced when officers have acted intentionally and illegally, or when their actions exceeded the power given them by the company’s articles of incorporation.


Passing off someone else’s work as your own, whether word for word or merely the creative ideas. This can amount to copyright infringement if permission has not been obtained from the copyright owner for use of the expressive elements of the work. Even if permission is granted, putting your name on someone else’s work is still plagiarism and is unethical within artistic, scientific, academic and political communities.


The person, corporation or other legal entity that initiates a lawsuit. In certain states and for some types of lawsuits, the term petitioner is used instead of plaintiff. Compare defendant, respondent.

plant patent

A patent issued for new strains of asexually reproducing plants. Plant patents last for 17 years from the date the patent issues.


The defendant’s formal answer to criminal charges. Typically defendants enter one of the following pleas: guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere. A plea is usually entered when charges are formally brought (at arraignment).

plea bargain

A negotiation between the defense and prosecution (and sometimes the judge) that settles a criminal case. The defendant typically pleads guilty to a lesser crime (or fewer charges) than originally charged, in exchange for a guaranteed sentence that is shorter than what the defendant could face if convicted at trial. The prosecution gets the certainty of a conviction and a known sentence; the defendant avoids the risk of a higher sentence; and the judge gets to move on to other cases.


A statement of the plaintiff’s case or the defendant’s defense, set out in generally accepted legal language and format. Today, in many states, the need to plead a case by drafting legal jargon — or borrowing from a legal form book — and printing it on numbered legal paper has been replaced by the use of pre-printed forms. In this case, creating a proper pleading consists principally of checking the correct boxes and filling in the requested information.


See private mortgage insurance.


See pay-on-death designation.

poison pill

A strategy for avoiding a hostile takeover. A company offers low-price stock to its current shareholders in order to make it more expensive for another company to buy them out.

post hoc

Part of the Latin phrase post hoc, ergo propter hoc, which means “after this, therefore because of this.” The phrase represents the faulty logic of assuming that one thing was caused by another merely because it followed that prior event in time.

pot trust

A trust for children in which the trustee decides how to spend money on each child, taking money out of the trust to meet each child’s specific needs. One important advantage of a pot trust over separate trusts is that it allows the trustee to provide for one child’s unforeseen need, such as a medical emergency. But a pot trust can also make the trustee’s life difficult by requiring choices about disbursing funds to the various children. A pot trust ends when the youngest child reaches a certain age, usually 18 or 21.

pour-over will

A will that “pours over” property into a trust when the will maker dies. Property left through the will must go through probate before it goes into the trust.

power of appointment

The legal authority to decide who will receive someone else’s property, usually property held in a trust. Most trustees can distribute the income from a trust only according to the terms of the trust, but a trustee with a power of appointment can choose the beneficiaries, sometimes from a list of candidates specified by the grantor. For example, Karin creates a trust with power of appointment to benefit either the local art museum, symphony, library or park, depending on the trustee’s assessment of need.

power of attorney

A document that gives another person legal authority to act on your behalf. If you create such a document, you are called the principal, and the person to whom you give this authority is called your attorney-in-fact. If you make a durable power of attorney, the document will continue in effect even if you become incapacitated. For examples, see durable power of attorney for finances; durable power of attorney for healthcare.


See provisional patent application.

prayer for relief

What the plaintiff asks of the court — for example, the plaintiff may ask for an award of monetary damages, an injunction to make the defendant stop a certain activity, or both.


A legal principle or rule created by one or more decisions of a state or federal appellate court. These rules provide a point of reference or authority for judges deciding similar issues in later cases. Lower courts must apply these rules when faced with similar legal issues. For example, if the Montana Supreme Court decides that a certain type of employment contract overly restricts the right of the employee to quit and get another job, all other Montana courts must apply this same rule.

predeceased spouse

In the law of wills, a spouse who dies before the will maker while still married to him or her.


A payment made by a debtor to a creditor within a defined period prior to filing for bankruptcy — within three months for arms-length creditors (regular commercial creditors) and within one year for insider creditors (friends, family members, and business associates). Because a preference gives the creditor who received the payment an edge over other creditors in the bankruptcy case, the trustee can recover the preference (the amount of the payment) and distribute it among all of the creditors.

preliminary injunction

See injunction.

premarital agreement

An agreement made by a couple before marriage that controls certain aspects of their relationship, usually the management and ownership of property, and sometimes whether alimony will be paid if the couple later divorces. Courts usually honor premarital agreements unless one person shows that the agreement was likely to promote divorce, was written with the intention of divorcing or was entered into unfairly. A premarital agreement may also be known as a “prenuptial agreement.”

prenuptial agreement

See premarital agreement.

presumed abuse

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, when the debtor’s current monthly income exceeds the family median income for his or her state and he or she cannot pass the means test, the court will presume that the debtor has sufficient income to fund a Chapter 13 plan. In this situation, the debtor will not be allowed to proceed with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy unless the debtor can prove that he or she is not abusing the Chapter 7 bankruptcy remedy.

presumption of innocence

One of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, each element of the crime charged.

pretermitted heir

A child or spouse who is not mentioned in a will and whom the court believes was accidentally overlooked by the person who made the will. For example, a child born or adopted after the will is made may be deemed a pretermitted heir. If the court determines that an heir was accidentally omitted, that heir is entitled to receive the same share of the estate as she would have if the deceased had died without a will. A pretermitted heir is sometimes called an “omitted heir.”

prima facie

Latin for “on its face.” A prima facie case is one that at first glance presents sufficient evidence for the plaintiff to win. Such a case must be refuted in some way by the defendant for him to have a chance of prevailing at trial. For example, if you can show that someone intentionally touched you in a harmful or offensive way and caused some injury to you, you have established a prima facie case of battery. However, this does not mean that you automatically win your case. The defendant would win if he could show that you consented to the harmful or offensive touching.


(1) When creating a power of attorney or other legal document, the person who appoints an attorney-in-fact or agent to act on his or her behalf. (2) In criminal law, the main perpetrator of a crime. (3) In commercial law, the total amount of a loan, not including any capitalized fees or interest. (4) In the law of trusts, the property of the trust, as opposed to the income generated by that property. The principal is also known as the trust corpus; that’s Latin for “body.” For example, Arthur establishes a new trust with $100,000, with interest and other income payable to Merlin; the $100,000 is the trust principal or corpus.

Principal Register

The list on which distinctive trademarks and service marks approved for federal regulation are placed. The benefits of getting a mark placed on the principal register include the notice to potential copiers that your mark is protected, the right to sue to stop copying, and the right to have the mark considered immune from legal challenge after five years. Registration also means that an infringer will be considered a willful infringer in case of an infringement lawsuit, which makes it a lot easier to collect large damages and possibly attorney fees.

prior art

All previous inventions in the field of an invention for which a patent is being sought. Prior art is used by the Patent and TM Office to decide whether the invention is sufficiently unique and non-intuitive to qualify for patent protection.

priority debt

A type of debt that is paid first if there are distributions made from the bankruptcy estate in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and must be paid in full in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Priority debts include alimony and child support, fees owed to the trustee and the attorney in the bankruptcy case, and wages owed to employees.

private mortgage insurance (PMI)

Insurance that reimburses a mortgage lender if the buyer defaults on the loan and the foreclosure sale price is less than the amount owed the lender (the mortgage plus the costs of the sale). A home buyer who makes less than a 20% down payment may have to purchase PMI.

privileged communication

See confidential communication.

pro hac vice

Latin meaning “for this one particular occasion.” The phrase usually refers to an out-of-state lawyer who has been granted special permission to participate in a particular case, even though the lawyer is not licensed to practice in the state where the case is being tried.

pro per

A term derived from the Latin in propria, meaning “for one’s self,” used in some states to describe a person who handles her own case without a lawyer. In other states, the term pro se is used. When a nonlawyer files his own legal papers, he is expected to write “in pro per” at the bottom of the heading on the first page.

pro se

A Latin phrase meaning “for himself” or “in one’s own behalf.” This term denotes a person who represents herself in court. It is used in some states in place of “in pro per” and has the same meaning.

probable cause

The amount and quality of information police must have before they can arrest or search without a warrant or that a judge must have before she will sign a search warrant allowing the police to conduct a search or arrest a suspect. Reliable information must show that it’s more likely than not that a crime has occurred and the suspect is involved.


The court process following a person’s death that includes proving the authenticity of the deceased person’s will appointing someone to handle the deceased person’s affairs identifying and inventorying the deceased person’s property paying debts and taxes identifying heirs, and distributing the deceased person’s property according to the will or, if there is no will, according to state law. Formal court-supervised probate is a costly, time-consuming process — a windfall for lawyers — which is best avoided if possible.

probate court

A specialized court or division of a state trial court that considers only cases concerning the distribution of deceased persons’ estate. Called “surrogate court” in New York and several other states, this court normally examines the authenticity of a will — or if a person dies intestate, figures out who receives her property under state law. It then oversees a procedure to pay the deceased person’s debts and to distribute her assets to the proper inheritors. See probate.

proceeds for damaged exempt property

In a bankruptcy proceeding, money collected through insurance, arbitration, mediation, settlement or a lawsuit to pay for exempt property that’s no longer exemptible because it has been damaged or destroyed.

professional corporation

A legal structure authorized by state law for a fairly narrow list of licensed professions, including lawyers, doctors, accountants, many types of higher-level health providers and often architects. Unlike a regular corporation, a professional corporation does not absolve a professional for personal liability for her own negligence or malpractice. The main reason why groups of professions choose this organizational structure is that, unlike a general partnership, owners are not personally liable for the malpractice of other owners. In some states, limited liability partnerships offer this same benefit and may be more desirable for other reasons.

promissory estoppel

See estoppel.


See personal property, real estate, community property, separate property.

property control trust

Any trust that imposes limits or controls over the rights of trust beneficiaries. These trusts include (1) special needs trusts designed to assist people who have special physical, emotional or other requirements, (2) spendthrift trusts designed to prevent a beneficiary from wasting the trust principal; and (3) sprinkling trusts that allow the trustee to decide how to distribute trust income or principal among the beneficiaries.

property guardian

See guardian of the estate.


When a local District Attorney, state Attorney General or federal United States Attorney brings a criminal case against a defendant.

Prosecuting Attorney

See District Attorney.


A lawyer who works for the local, state or federal government to bring and litigate criminal cases.

proving a will

Convincing a probate court that a document is truly the deceased person’s will. Usually this is a simple formality that the executor or administrator easily satisfies by showing that the will was signed and dated by the deceased person in front of two or more witnesses. When the will is holographic — that is, completely handwritten by the deceased and not witnessed, it is still valid in many states if the executor can produce relatives and friends to testify that the handwriting is that of the deceased.

provisional patent application (PPA)

The provisional patent application is a simple, inexpensive strategy to preserve your rights while you decide whether to file for a regular patent. It establishes an official U.S. patent application filing date for the invention and is much less expensive, and much easier to prepare, than a regular patent application.


The act of inciting another person to do a particular thing. In a fault divorce, provocation may constitute a defense to the divorce, preventing it from going through. For example, if a wife suing for divorce claims that her husband abandoned her, the husband might defend the suit on the grounds that she provoked the abandonment by driving him out of the house.


See Patent and Trademark Office.

public administrator

Someone appointed by a probate court to oversee probate proceedings when a person dies without a will or heirs, and his or her property is expected to pass to the state. Some states have public administrators who are responsible for temporarily preserving the assets of an estate if there are disputes about specific provisions in the will or about who will be appointed the regular administrator.

public defender

A lawyer appointed by the court and paid by the county, state, or federal government to represent clients who are charged with violations of criminal law and are unable to pay for their own defense.

public domain

A creative work, invention or logo that is available for use without permission from its owner. This typically occurs after patent, trademark or copyright protection has expired.

published work

An original work of authorship that is considered published for purposes of copyright law. A work is “published” when it is first made available to the public on an unrestricted basis. It is thus possible to display a work, or distribute it with restrictions on disclosure of its contents, without actually “publishing” it. Both published and unpublished works are entitled to copyright protection, but some of the rules differ.

punitive damages

See damages.

pur autre vie

Legal French meaning “for another’s life.” It is a phrase used to describe the duration of a property interest. For example, if Bob is given use of the family house for as long as his mother lives, he has possession of the house pur autre vie.

QDOT trust

A trust used to postpone estate tax when more than the amount of the personal federal estate tax exemption is left to a non-U.S. citizen spouse by the other spouse. QDOT stands for qualified domestic trust.


See Qualified Domestic Relations Order.


See Qualified Medical Child Support Order.

QTIP trust

A type of trust for wealthy married couples that allows a surviving spouse to postpone estate taxes. A QTIP trust allows the surviving spouse to make use of the trust property tax-free. Taxes are deferred until the surviving spouse dies and the trust property is received by the final trust beneficiaries, who were named by the first spouse to die.

Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)

A court order that uses pension or retirement benefits to provide alimony or child support, or to divide marital property, at divorce.This special order is necessary to comply with federal law governing retirement pay.

Qualified Medical Child Support Order (QMSCO)

A court order that provides health benefit coverage for the child of the noncustodial parent under that parent’s group health plan.

quantum meruit

The reasonable value of services provided, which a winning party may be able to recover from an opponent who broke a contract.

quasi-community property

A form of property owned by a married couple. If a couple moves to a community property state from a non-community property state, property they acquired together in the non-community property state may be considered quasi-community property. Quasi-community property is treated just like community property when one spouse dies or if the couple divorces.

quiet enjoyment

The right of a property owner or tenant to enjoy his or her property without interference. Disruption of quiet enjoyment may constitute a nuisance. Leases and rental agreements often contain a “covenant of quiet enjoyment,” expressly obligating the landlord to see that tenants have the opportunity to live undisturbed.

quitclaim deed

A deed that transfers whatever ownership interest the transferor has in a particular property. The deed does not guarantee anything about what is being transferred, however. For example, a divorcing husband may quitclaim his interest in certain real estate to his ex-wife, officially giving up any legal interest in the property. Compare grant deed.


A lawyer who drums up a lot of business for a law firm by bringing in clients.

reading on

In patent law, describing literally. A patent is infringed if the patent’s claims read on all elements of the infringing device.


An agreement that a debtor and a creditor enter into after a debtor has filed for bankruptcy, in which the debtor agrees to repay all or part of an existing debt after the bankruptcy case is over. For instance, a debtor might make a reaffirmation agreement with the holder of a car note that the debtor can keep the car and must continue to pay the debt after bankruptcy.

real estate

Land and the property permanently attached to it, such as buildings, houses, stationary mobile homes, fences and trees. In legalese, real estate is also called real property.

real estate agent

A foot soldier of the real estate business who shows houses and does most of the other nitty-gritty tasks associated with selling real estate. An agent must have a state license and be supervised by a real estate broker. Most agents are completely dependent upon commissions from sellers for their income, so it pays to find out which side the agent represents (buyer, seller or both) before you place too much trust in the agent’s opinion.

real estate broker

A real estate professional one step up from a real estate agent. A broker has more training and can supervise agents, but its still worth examining his or her loyalties.

real property

Another term for real estate. It includes land and things permanently attached to the land, such as trees, buildings, and stationary mobile homes. Anything that is not real property is termed personal property.


The process of filing a copy of a deed or other document concerning real estate with the land records office for the county in which the land is located. Recording creates a public record of changes in ownership of all property in the state.


A situation in which a judge or prosecutor is removed or steps down from a case. This often happens when the judge or prosecutor has a conflict of interest — for example, a prior relationship with one of the parties.

red herring

A legal or factual issue that is irrelevant to the case at hand.


The act of going over a document with a fine-toothed comb in order to find any ambiguities or areas that are not to your advantage.


In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, when the debtor obtains legal title to collateral for a debt by paying the creditor the replacement value of the collateral in a lump sum. For example, a debtor may redeem a car note by paying the lender the amount a retail vendor would charge for the car, considering its age and condition.


The act of changing a written contract when one of the parties can prove that the actual agreement was different than what’s written down. The changes are usually made by a court when both parties overlooked a mistake in the document, or when one party has deceived the other.


In the context of U.S. immigration law, people who have been allowed to live in the United States indefinitely to protect them from persecution in their home countries. Refugees get their status before coming to the U.S., while asylum seekers obtain their status after arrival. Refugees may eventually get green cards.


Someone who will inherit property in the future. For instance, if someone dies and leaves his home “to Alma for life, and then to Barry,” Barry is a remainderman because he will inherit the home in the future, after Alma dies.


A legal proceeding, commonly known as “deportation,” that is conducted before a special immigration judge to decide whether or not an immigrant will be allowed to enter or remain in the country. While, generally speaking, a person who is already in the U.S. cannot be expelled without first going through a removal hearing, someone arriving at the border or a port of entry can be forced to leave without a hearing or ever seeing a judge. Those who are deported are barred from returning to the United States for at least five years unless the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) grants a special waiver.

rent control

Laws that limit the amount of rent landlords may charge, and that state when and by how much the rent can be raised. Most rent control laws also require a landlord to provide a good reason, such as repeatedly late rent, for evicting a tenant. Rent control exists in some cities and counties in California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C.

replacement value

What it would cost to buy a particular item from a retail vendor, considering its age and condition — for instance, to buy a car from a used car dealer, furniture from a used furniture shop,or electronic equipment on eBay.


A type of legal action where the owner of movable goods is given the right to recover them from someone who shouldn’t have them. Replevin is often used in disputes between buyers and sellers — for example a seller might bring a replevin action to reclaim goods from a buyer who failed to pay for them.


A creditor’s taking property that has been pledged as collateral for a loan. Lenders will most often repossess cars when the owner has missed loan payments and has not attempted to work with the lender to resolve the problem. A repossessor can’t use force to get at your car, but he can legally hot-wire it and even drive it out of your unlocked garage.

request for admission

A discovery procedure, authorized by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the court rules of many states, in which one party asks an opposing party to admit that certain facts are true. If the opponent admits the facts or fails to respond in a timely manner, the facts will be deemed true for purposes of trial. A request for admission is called a “request to admit” in many states.

request to admit

See request for admission.

res ipsa loquitur

A Latin term meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” Res ipsa loquitur is a legal doctrine or rule of evidence that creates a presumption that a defendant acted negligently simply because a harmful accident occurred. The presumption arises only if (1) the thing that caused the accident was under the defendant’s control, (2) the accident could happen only as a result of a careless act and, (3) the plaintiff’s behavior did not contribute to the accident. Lawyers often refer to this doctrine as “res ips” or “res ipsa.”

res nova

Latin for “a new thing,” used by courts to describe an issue of law or case that has not previously been decided.

residuary beneficiary

A person who receives any property by a will or trust that is not specifically left to another designated beneficiary. For example, if Antonio makes a will leaving his home to Edwina and the remainder of his property to Elmo, then Elmo is the residuary beneficiary.

residuary estate

The property that remains in a deceased person’s estate after all specific gifts are made, and all debts, taxes, administrative fees, probate costs, and court costs are paid. The residuary estate also includes any gifts under a will that fail or lapse. For example, Connie’s will leaves her house and all its furnishings to Andrew, her VW bug to her friend Carl, and the remainder of her property (the residuary estate) to her sister Sara. She doesn’t name any alternate beneficiaries. Carl dies before Connie. The VW bug becomes part of the residuary estate and passes to Sara, along with all of Connie’s property other than the house and furnishings. Also called the residual estate or residue.


See residuary estate.


A term used instead of defendant or appellee in some states — especially for divorce and other family law cases — to identify the party who is sued and must respond to the petitioner’s complaint.


See answer.

responsive pleadings

See answer.

restraining order

An order from a court directing one person not to do something, such as make contact with another person, enter the family home or remove a child from the state. Restraining orders are typically issued in cases in which spousal abuse or stalking is feared — or has occurred — in an attempt to ensure the victim’s safety. Restraining orders are also commonly issued to cool down ugly disputes between neighbors.

restraint on alienation

A provision in a deed or will that attempts to restrict ownership of the property — for example, selling your house to your daughter with the provision that it never be sold to anyone outside the family. These provisions are generally unenforceable.


A fee paid in advance to a lawyer to secure her services. It acts as a down payment, ensuring that the lawyer won’t get stiffed and that the client will be represented.

retirement benefits

Under the Social Security system, an amount of money available to those who reach age 62 — equivalent to a small percentage of worklife earnings. For a single person first claiming retirement benefits in 1997, the average monthly benefit was about $750; $1,250 for a couple. A single person with a high earnings record claiming retirement benefits in 1997 at age 65 would receive about $1,250 per month; $1,800 for a couple. These benefits increase yearly with the cost of living — and the amount is higher the longer a person waits to claim the benefit, up to age 70.


A term used to describe a hard-nosed judge, inflexible in the application of the law.

right of representation

See per stirpes.

right of survivorship

The right of a surviving joint tenant to take ownership of a deceased joint tenant’s share of the property. See joint tenancy.

right to cancel (a contract)

See cooling-off rules.


A delayed tax that allows you to apply the profit you make selling your old house to pay for the new one without paying capital gains taxes on the profit. In order to rollover the profits, the new house must be more expensive than the old and the two sales must occur within two years of each other.

rule against perpetuities

An exceedingly complex legal doctrine that limits the amount of time that property can be controlled after death by a person’s instructions in a will. For example, a person would not be allowed to leave property to her husband for his life, then to her children for their lives, then to her grandchildren. The gift would potentially go to the grandchildren at a point too remote in time.

rule of doubt

The rule under which the U.S. Copyright Office allows object code to be deposited in connection with a computer program registration. The rule of doubt means there is an express understanding that doubt exists as to whether the code qualifies for copyright protection should litigation later occur. In essence, the U.S. Copyright Office is saying, “We will let you deposit object code, but since we can’t read or understand it, we won’t commit ourselves as to its copyrightability.” If the registration is accomplished under the rule of doubt, the copyright owner may be unable to claim the presumption of ownership — an important benefit of registration — should the issue end up in court because of an alleged copyright infringement.


Any decision a judge makes during the course of a lawsuit.

running with the land

A phrase used in property law to describe a right or duty that remains with a piece of property no matter who owns it. For example, the duty to allow a public beach access path across waterfront property would most likely pass from one owner of the property to the next.

S corporation

A term that describes a profit-making corporation organized under state law whose shareholders have applied for and received subchapter S corporation status from the Internal Revenue Service. Electing to do business as an S corporation lets shareholders enjoy limited liability status, as would be true of any corporation, but be taxed like a partnership or sole proprietor. That is, instead of being taxed as a separate entity (as would be the case with a regular or C corporation) an S corporation is a pass-through tax entity: income taxes are reported and paid by the shareholders, not the S corporation. To qualify as an S corporation a number of IRS rules must be met, such as a limit of 75 shareholders and citizenship requirements.

search warrant

An order signed by a judge that directs owners of private property to allow the police to enter and search for items named in the warrant. The judge won’t issue the warrant unless she has been convinced that there is probable cause for the search — that reliable evidence shows that it’s more likely than not that a crime has occurred and that the items sought by the police are connected with it and will be found at the location named in the warrant. In limited situations the police may search without a warrant, but they cannot use what they find at trial if the defense can show that there was no probable cause for the search.

secondary meaning

In trademark law, a mark that is not inherently distinctive becomes protected after developing a “secondary meaning”: great public recognition through long use and exposure in the marketplace. For example, though first names are not generally considered inherently distinctive, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has become so well known that it is now entitled to maximum trademark protection.

secret warranty program

A program under which a car manufacturer will make repairs for free on vehicles with persistent problems, even after the warranty has expired, in order to avoid a recall and the accompanying bad press. Secret warranties are rarely advertised by the manufacturer, so consumers must pursue the manufacturer to discover and take advantage of them. A few states require manufacturers to notify car buyers when they adopt secret warranty programs.

secured debt

A debt on which a creditor has a lien. The creditor can institute a foreclosure or repossession to take the property identified by the lien, called the collateral, to satisfy the debt if you default. Compare unsecured debt.

security deposit

A payment required by a landlord to ensure that a tenant pays rent on time and keeps the rental unit in good condition. If the tenant damages the property or leaves owing rent, the landlord can use the security deposit to cover what the tenant owes.


The taking of physical evidence or property by law enforcement officials. This runs the gamut from taking blood for a drug test to impounding a car used in a robbery. The police must generally obtain a search warrant, or court order, before they can seize personal property.


An affirmative defense to a crime. Self-defense is the use of reasonable force to protect oneself from an aggressor. Self-defense shields a person from criminal liability for the harm inflicted on the aggressor. For example, a robbery victim who takes the robber’s weapon and uses it against the robber during a struggle won’t be liable for assault and battery since he can show that his action was reasonably necessary to protect himself from imminent harm.


The making of statements that might expose you to criminal prosecution, either now or in the future. The 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from forcing you to provide evidence (as in answering questions) that would or might lead to your prosecution for a crime.

self-proving will

A will that is created in a way that allows a probate court to easily accept it as the true will of the person who has died. In most states, a will is self-proving when two witnesses sign under penalty of perjury that they observed the willmaker sign it and that he told them it was his will. If no one contests the validity of the will, the probate court will accept the will without hearing the testimony of the witnesses or other evidence. To make a self-proving will in other states, the willmaker and one or more witnesses must sign an affidavit (sworn statement) before a notary public certifying that the will is genuine and that all willmaking formalities have been observed.


Punishment in a criminal case. A sentence can range from a fine and community service to life imprisonment or death. For most crimes, the sentence is chosen by the trial judge; the jury chooses the sentence only in a capital case, when it must choose between life in prison without parole and death.

separate property

In community property states, property owned and controlled entirely by one spouse in a marriage. At divorce, separate property is not divided under the state’s property division laws, but is kept by the spouse who owns it. Separate property includes all property that a spouse obtained before marriage, through inheritance or as a gift. It also includes any property that is traceable to separate property — for example, cash from the sale of a vintage car owned by one spouse before marriage-and any property that the spouses agree is separate property. Compare community property and equitable distribution.


A situation in which the partners in a married couple live apart. Spouses are said to be living apart if they no longer reside in the same dwelling, even though they may continue their relationship. A legal separation results when the parties separate and a court rules on the division of property, such as alimony or child support — but does not grant a divorce.

service mark

A word, phrase, logo, symbol, color, sound or smell used by a business to identify a service and distinguish it from those of its competitors. If the business uses the name or logo to identify a product, such as a camera, it is called a trademark. In practice, the legal protections for trademarks and service marks are identical.

servient tenement

Property that is subject to use by another for a specific purpose. For example, a beachfront house that has a public walkway to the beach on its premises would be a servient tenement.


The distance between a property boundary and a building. A minimum setback is usually required by law.


A claim made by someone who allegedly owes money, that the amount should be reduced because the other person owes him money. This is often raised in a counterclaim filed by a defendant in a lawsuit. Banks may try to exercise a setoff by taking money out of a deposit account to satisfy past due payments on a loan or credit card bill. Such an act is illegal under most circumstances.


See grantor.

severability clause

A provision in a contract that preserves the rest of the contract if a portion of it is invalidated by a court. Without a severability clause, a decision by the court finding one part of the contract unenforceable would invalidate the entire document.

severance pay

Funds, usually amounting to one or two months’ salary, frequently offered by employers to workers who are laid off. No law compels employers to provide severance pay, although the employer may be legally obligated to do so if it was promised in a contract or employees’ handbook.

sexual harassment

Unwelcome sexual advances or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. Sexual harassing behavior ranges from repeated offensive jokes to a workplace full of pornography to outright sexual assault. Sexual harassment is prohibited by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1991 as well as state laws.

shared custody

See joint custody.

shared equity mortgage

A home loan in which the lender gets a share of the equity of the home in exchange for providing a portion of the down payment. When the home is later sold, the lender is entitled to a portion of the proceeds.


An owner of a corporation whose ownership interest is represented by shares of stock in the corporation. A shareholder — also called a stockholder — has rights conferred by state law, by the bylaws of the corporation and, if one has been adopted, by a shareholder’ s agreement (often called a buy-sell agreement). These include the right to be notified of annual shareholders’ meetings, to elect directors and to receive an appropriate share of any dividends. In large corporations, shareholders are usually investors whose shares are held in the name of their broker. On the other hand, in incorporated small businesses, owners often wear many hats — shareholder, director, officer and employee — with the result that distinctions between these legal categories become fuzzy.

shareholders’ agreement

See buy-sell agreement.

short sale (of house)

A sale of a house in which the proceeds fall short of what the owner still owes on the mortgage. Many lenders will agree to accept the proceeds of a short sale and forgive the rest of what is owed on the mortgage when the owner cannot make the mortgage payments. By accepting a short sale, the lender can avoid a lengthy and costly foreclosure, and the owner is able to pay off the loan for less than what he owes. See also deed in lieu (or foreclosure).

shotgun charge

See dynamite charge.

sick leave

Time off work for illness. Most employers provide for some paid sick leave, although no law requires them to do so. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, however, a worker is guaranteed up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave for severe or lasting illnesses.

sickness benefits

See disability benefits.


A type of defamation. Slander is an untruthful oral (spoken) statement about a person that harms the person’s reputation or standing in the community. Because slander is a tort (a civil wrong), the injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. If the statement is made via broadcast media — for example, over the radio or on TV — it is considered libel, rather than slander, because the statement has the potential to reach a very wide audience.

SLAPP suit

A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, in which a corporation or developer sues an organization in an attempt to scare it into dropping protests against a corporate initiative. SLAPP suits typically involve the environment–for example, local residents who are petitioning to change zoning laws to prevent a real estate development might be sued in a SLAPP suit for interference with the developer’s business interests. Many states have “anti-SLAPP suit” statutes that protect citizens’ rights to free speech and to petition the government.

small claims court

A state court that resolves disputes involving relatively small amounts of money — usually between $2,000 and $10,000, depending on the state. Adversaries usually appear without lawyers — in fact, some states forbid lawyers in small claims court — and recount their side of the dispute in plain English. Evidence, including the testimony of eye witnesses and expert witnesses, is relatively easy to present because small claims courts do not follow the formal rules of evidence that govern regular trial cases. A small claims judgment has the same force as does the judgment of any other state court, meaning that if the loser — now called the “judgment debtor” — fails to pay the judgment voluntarily, it can be collected using normal collection techniques, such as property liens and wage garnishments.

small entity

According to the U.S Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), a for-profit company with 500 or fewer employees, a nonprofit organization or an independent inventor. The PTO charges small entities half the fees charged large entities for filing a patent application and for issuing and maintaining the patent.

Social Security

& Retirement Changing Your Name Parenting & Adoption Marriage & Living Together Divorce & Child Custody Health Care & Elder Care Immigration & Green CardsRenters’ Rights Employee Rights Consumer Rights Go to Court or Mediate Personal Injury Criminal Law Traffic TicketshomeGLOSSARY Social Security The general term that describes a number of related programs, including retirement, disability, dependents and survivors benefits. These programs provide workers and their families with some monthly income when their normal flow of income shrinks because of retirement, disability, or death.

sole custody

An arrangement whereby only one parent has physical and legal custody of a child and the other parent has visitation rights.

sole proprietorship

A business owned and managed by one person (or for tax purposes, a husband and wife). For IRS purposes, a sole proprietor and her business are one tax entity, meaning that business profits are reported and taxed on the owner’s personal tax return. Setting up a sole proprietorship is cheap and easy since no legal formation documents need be filed with any governmental agency (although tax registration and other permit and license requirements may still apply). Once you file a fictitious name statement (assuming you don’t use your own name) and obtain any required basic tax permits and business licenses, you’ll be in business. The main downside of a sole proprietorship is that its owner is personally liable for all business debts.

sound mind

A requirement for anyone making a legal document, such as a will or healthcare directive. For example, although he can be eccentric or forgetful, a person writing a will must know what he owns, the identities of his family and close friends, and how the will distributes his property. If a person isn’t of sound mind, and someone later challenges the validity of the document in a lawsuit, the judge could rule that the document is invalid and has no legal effect. (Such lawsuits are quite rare.)

sound recording copyright

A right in a work resulting from the fixation of a series of musical or other sounds (including narration or spoken words). A sound recording copyright protects the way that the composition is performed. The performer, producer, or recording company usually claims copyright in a sound recording.


Internet slang for unsolicited bulk email, primarily unsolicited commercial email (UCE). Spam has been linked with fraudulent business schemes, chain letters, and offensive sexual and political messages.

special administrator

(1) In the law of wills and estates, a person appointed by the court to take charge of only a designated portion of an estate during probate. For example, a special administrator with particular expertise on art might be appointed to oversee the probate of a wealthy person’s art collection, but not the entire estate. (2) A person appointed to be responsible for a deceased person’s property for a limited time or during an emergency, such as a challenge to the will or to the qualifications of the named executor. In such cases, the special administrator’s duty is to maintain and preserve the estate, not necessarily to take control of the probate process

special damages

See damages.

special power of attorney

See power of attorney.


See damages.

specific bequest

A specific item of property that is left to a named beneficiary under a will. If the person who made the will no longer owns the property when he dies, the bequest fails. In other words, the beneficiary cannot substitute a similar item in the estate. Example: If John leaves his 1954 Mercedes to Patti, and when John dies the 1954 Mercedes is long gone, Patti doesn’t receive John’s current car or the cash equivalent of the Mercedes. See ademption.

specific intent

An intent to produce the precise consequences of the crime, including the intent to do the physical act that causes the consequences. For example, the crime of larceny is the taking of the personal property of another with the intent to permanently deprive the other person of the property. A person is not guilty of larceny just because he took someone else’s property; it must be proven that he took it with the purpose of keeping it permanently.

specific performance

A remedy provided by a court that orders the losing side to perform its part of a contract rather than, or possibly in addition to, paying money damages to the winner.


In patent law, the narrative portion of a patent application, which includes descriptions of the purpose, structure and operation of the invention, as well as a discussion of any relevant prior art. Essentially, the specification must provide enough information about the invention so that a person proficient in the area of expertise involved in the invention could build and operate it without having to be overly creative.

spendthrift trust

A trust created for a beneficiary the grantor considers irresponsible about money. The trustee keeps control of the trust income, doling out money to the beneficiary as needed, and sometimes paying third parties (creditors, for example) on the beneficiary’s behalf, bypassing the beneficiary completely. Spendthrift trusts typically contain a provision prohibiting creditors from seizing the trust fund to satisfy the beneficiary’s debts. These trusts are legal in most states, even though creditors hate them.

spite fence

An unsightly fence erected for no other purpose than to irritate a neighbor. Such a fence may be illegal under local fence height and appearance regulations or state laws that specifically bar spite fences. Even if it doesn’t violate regulation or laws, the fence may still be illegal if it was built with malicious intent.

split custody

A custody arrangement in the case of multiple children, awarding sole custody of one child to one parent and sole custody of another child to the other parent. This arrangement is generally disfavored by judges because they are reluctant to split up siblings.


See petitioner (immigration).

spousal support

See alimony.

springing durable power of attorney

A durable power of attorney that takes effect only when and if the principal becomes incapacitated.

sprinkling trust

A trust that gives the person managing it (the trustee) the discretion to disburse its funds among the beneficiaries in any way he or she sees fit.

stare decisis

Latin for “let the decision stand,” a doctrine requiring that judges apply the same reasoning to lawsuits as has been used in prior similar cases.


A court that decides cases involving state law or the state constitution. State courts have jurisdiction to consider disputes involving individual defendants who reside in that state or have minimum contacts with the state, such as using its highways, owning real property in the state or doing business in the state. State courts have very broad power to hear cases involving all subjects except those involving federal issues and laws, which are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal courts. State courts are often divided according to the dollar amount of the claims they can hear. Depending on the state, small claims, justice, municipal or city courts usually hear smaller cases, while district, circuit, superior or county courts (or in New York, supreme court) have jurisdiction over larger cases. Finally, state courts are also commonly divided according to subject matter, such as criminal court, family court and probate court.

State’s Attorney

See District Attorney.

status (immigration)

The name for the visa category you’re assigned and group of privileges you receive when you become a permanent resident or a nonimmigrant (temporary visa holder). For example, a green card shows that the holder has the status of a permanent resident and the privilege of living and working in the United States on a permanent basis. An F-1 or M-1 visa indicates that the holder has the status of a student and the privilege of attending school in the United States until the study program is completed.


A written law passed by Congress or a state legislature and signed into law by the President or a state governor. (In fairly rare circumstances, a legislative act can become law without the approval of the head of the executive branch of government.) Statutes are often gathered into compilations called “codes,” large sets of books that can be found in many public and all law libraries, or sometimes on the Internet.

statute of limitations

The legally prescribed time limit in which a lawsuit must be filed. Statutes of limitation differ depending on the type of legal claim, and often the state. For example, many states require that a personal injury lawsuit be filed within one year from the date of injury — or in some instances, from the date when it should reasonably have been discovered — but some allow two years. Similarly, claims based on a written contract must be filed in court within four years from the date the contract was broken in some states and five years in others. Statute of limitations rules apply to cases filed in all courts, including federal court.

statutory damages

See damages.

statutory share

The portion of a deceased person’s estate that a spouse is entitled to claim under state law. The statutory share is usually one-third or one-half of the deceased spouse’s property, but in some states the exact amount of the spouse’s share depends on whether or not the couple has young children and, in a few states, on how long the couple was married. In most states, if the deceased spouse left a will, the surviving spouse must choose either what the will provides or the statutory share. Sometimes the statutory share is known by its more arcane legal name, dower and curtesy, or as a forced or elective share.

statutory subject matter

Requirement for a utility patent . To qualify, an invention must fit into at least one of five categories defined in 35 United States Code, Section 101. These categories include: compositions of matter, manufactures, machines, processes, and new and useful improvements of any of the above categories. Taken together, these categories are called statutory subject matter.


A child born to your spouse before your marriage whom you have not legally adopted. If you adopt the child, he or she is legally treated just like a biological offspring. Under the Uniform Probate Code, followed in some states, a stepchild belongs in the same class as a biological child and will inherit property left “to my children.” In other states, a stepchild is not treated like a biological child unless he or she can prove that the parental relationship was established when he or she was a minor and that adoption would have occurred but for some legal obstacle.

stepparent adoption

The formal, legal adoption of a child by a stepparent who is living with a legal parent. Most states have special provisions making stepparent adoptions relatively easy if the child’s noncustodial parent gives consent, is dead or missing, or has abandoned the child.

stepped-up basis

For tax purposes, a value that is used to determine profit or loss when property is sold. If someone inherits property that has increased in value since the deceased person acquired it, the tax basis of the new owner is “stepped-up” to the market value of the property at the time of death. The stepped-up basis means that when the property is eventually sold, there will be less taxable gain.

stipulated insurance

An insurance policy that allows the insurance company to assess an amount on the insured, above the standard premium payments, if the company experiences losses worse than had been calculated into the standard premium. This is a way for both the insurance company and the policy-holder to gamble on the risk, mutually betting on low losses. Also called assessment, mutual assessment or mutual life insurance. Example: A shipping company buys an insurance policy to protect against loss or damage to its cargo. During the first few years, the company never pays more than the low fixed premiums because it suffers no losses. Later, however, the company’s luck turns and one of its shipping liners sinks in the Bermuda Triangle. In response to the huge losses, the insurance company assess penalty payments and higher premiums.


A term used in wills that refers to descendants of a common ancestor or branch of a family.

sua sponte

Latin for “on its own will or motion.” This term is most commonly used to describe a decision or act that a judge decides upon without having been asked by either party.


A rental agreement or lease between a tenant and a new tenant (called a sublessee) who will either share the rental or take over from the first tenant. The sublessee pays rent directly to the tenant. The tenant is still completely responsible to the landlord for the rent and for any damage, including that caused by the sublessee. Most landlords prohibit subleases unless they have given prior written consent. Compare assignment.


The modern spelling of subpoena. A subpena is a court order issued at the request of a party requiring a witness to appear in court.

subpena duces tecum

A type of subpena, usually issued at the request of a party, by which a court orders a witness to produce certain documents at a deposition or trial. However, when one party wants an opposing party to produce documents, a different discovery device, called a Request for Production of Documents, is often used instead.


See subpena.


A taking on of the legal rights of someone whose debts or expenses have been paid. For example, subrogation occurs when an insurance company that has paid off its injured claimant takes the legal rights the claimant has against a third party that caused the injury, and sues that third party.

substituted service

A method for the formal delivery of court papers that takes the place of personal service. Personal service means that the papers are placed directly into the hands of the person to be served. Substituted service, on the other hand, may be accomplished by leaving the documents with a designated agent, with another adult in the recipient’s home, with the recipient’s manager at work or by posting a notice in a prominent place and then using certified mail to send copies of the documents to the recipient.

substitution of parties

A replacement of one of the sides in a lawsuit because of events that prevent the party from continuing with the trial. For example, substitution of parties may occur when one party dies or, in the case of a public official, when that public official is removed from office.


The passing of property or legal rights after death. The word commonly refers to the distribution of property under a state’s intestate succession laws, which determine who inherits property when someone dies without a valid will. When used in connection with real estate, the word refers to the passing of property by will or inheritance, as opposed to gift, grant, or purchase.

successor trustee

The person or institution who takes over the management of trust property when the original trustee has died or become incapacitated.

sui generis

Latin for “of its own kind,” used to describe something that is unique or different.

summary adjudication of issues

A partial summary judgment motion, in which the judge is asked to decide only one or some of the legal issues in the case. For example, in a car accident case there might be overwhelming and uncontradicted evidence of the defendant’s carelessness, but conflicting evidence as to the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff might ask for summary adjudication on the issue of carelessness, but go to trial on the question of injuries.

summary judgment

A final decision by a judge that resolves a lawsuit in favor of one of the parties. A motion for summary judgment is made after discovery is completed but before the case goes to trial. The party making the motion marshals all the evidence in its favor, compares it to the other side’s evidence, and argues that a reasonable jury looking at the same evidence could only decide the case one way–for the moving party. If the judge agrees, then a trial would be unnecessary and the judge enters judgment for the moving party.

summary probate

A relatively simple probate proceeding available for “small estates,” as that term is defined by state law. Every state’s definition is different, and many are complicated, but a few examples include estates worth up to $100,000 in California; New York estates where property, excluding real estate and amounts that must be set aside for surviving family members, is worth $20,000 or less; and Texas estates where the value of property doesn’t exceed what is needed to pay a family allowance and certain creditors.


A paper prepared by the plaintiff and issued by a court that informs the defendant that she has been sued. The summons requires that the defendant file a response with the court — or in many small claims courts, simply appear in person on an appointed day — within a given time period or risk losing the case under the terms of a default judgment.

sunset law

A law that automatically terminates the agency or program it establishes unless it is expressly renewed. For example, a state law establishing and funding a new drug rehabilitation program within state prisons may provide that the program will shut down in two years unless it is reviewed and approved by the state legislature.

sunshine laws

Statutes that provide public access to governmental agency meetings and records.

superior court

The main county trial court in many states, mostly in the west. See state court.

Supplemental Register

The list on which non-distinctive trademarks or service marks are placed if federal registration has been sought. Descriptive marks, surnames and marks consisting primarily of geographical terms are usually placed on this register, which offers limited protection for marks.

Supremacy clause

Provision under Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, providing that federal law is superior to and overrides state law when they conflict.

Supreme Court

America’s highest court, which has the final power to decide cases involving the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, certain legal areas set forth in the Constitution (called federal questions) and federal laws. It can also make final decisions in certain lawsuits between parties in different states. The U.S. Supreme Court has nine justices — one of whom is the Chief Justice — who are appointed for life by the President and must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Most states also have a supreme court, which is the final arbiter of the state’s constitution and state laws. However, in several states — most notably New York and Maryland, where it’s called the “Court of Appeals,” and Massachusetts, where it’s called the “Supreme Judicial Court” — the highest state court uses a different name.

surrender value

See avails.

surrogate court

See probate court.

surviving spouse

A widow or widower.

surviving spouse’s trust

If a couple has created an AB trust, the revocable living trust (Trust B) of the surviving spouse, after the first spouse has died.

survivors benefits

An amount of money available to the surviving spouse and minor or disabled children of a deceased worker who qualified for Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

swearing match

A case that turns on the word of one witness versus another. The outcome of a swearing match usually depends on whom the jury finds most trustworthy.


See eminent domain.

taking against the will

A procedure under state law that gives a surviving spouse the right to demand a certain share (usually one-third to one-half) of the deceased spouse’s property. The surviving spouse can take that share instead of accepting whatever he or she inherited through the deceased spouse’s will. If the surviving spouse decides to take the statutory share, it’s called “taking against the will.” Dower and curtesy is another name for the same legal process.

tangible personal property

Personal property that can be felt or touched. Examples include furniture, cars, jewelry and artwork. However, cash and checking accounts are not tangible personal property. The law is unsettled as to whether computer data is tangible personal property. Compare intangible property.

tax basis

See basis.

temporary restraining order (TRO)

An order that tells one person to stop harassing or harming another, issued after the aggrieved party appears before a judge. Once the TRO is issued, the court holds a second hearing where the other side can tell his story and the court can decide whether to make the TRO permanent by issuing an injunction. Although a TRO will often not stop an enraged spouse from acting violently, the police are more willing to intervene if the abused spouse has a TRO.

tenancy by the entirety

A special kind of property ownership that’s only for married couples. Both spouses have the right to enjoy the entire property, and when one spouse dies, the surviving spouse gets title to the property (called a right of survivorship). It is similar to joint tenancy, but it is available in only about half the states.

tenancy in common

A way two or more people can own property together. Each can leave his or her interest upon death to beneficiaries of his choosing instead of to the other owners, as is required with joint tenancy. In some states, two people are presumed to own property as tenants in common unless they’ve agreed otherwise in writing.


Anyone, including a corporation, who rents real property, with or without a house or structure, from the owner (called the landlord). The tenant may also be called the “lessee.”

tenants in common

See tenancy in common.

tender offer

A public offer to purchase stock at a specified price per share, usually done to gain a controlling interest in a corporation.

testamentary disposition

Leaving property in a will.

testamentary trust

A trust created by a will, effective only upon the death of the willmaker.


The circumstance of dying after making a valid will. A person who dies with a will is said to have died “testate.” Compare intestate.


Someone who makes a will.


To provide oral evidence under oath at a trial or at a deposition.

third degree instruction

See dynamite charge.


See Truth in Lending Act.


Evidence of ownership of real estate.

title company

A company that issues title insurance.

title insurance

Insurance issued by a title company that protects a property owner against loss if it is later discovered that title is imperfect.


An injury to one person for which the person who caused the injury is legally responsible. A tort can be intentional — for example, an angry punch in the nose — but is far more likely to result from carelessness (called “negligence”), such as riding your bicycle on the sidewalk and colliding with a pedestrian. While the injury that forms the basis of a tort is usually physical, this is not a requirement — libel, slander and the “intentional infliction of mental distress” are on a good-sized list of torts not based on a physical injury.

tortious interference

The causing of harm by disrupting something that belongs to someone else — for example, interfering with a contractual relationship so that one party fails to deliver goods on time.

Totten trust

Another term for a payable-on-death bank account.

toxic tort

A personal injury caused by exposure to a toxic substance, such as asbestos or hazardous waste. Victims can sue for medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.

trade dress

The distinctive packaging or design of a product that promotes the product and distinguishes it from other products in the marketplace — for example, the shape of Frangelico liqueur bottles. Trade dress can be protected under trademark law if a showing can be made that the average consumer would likely be confused as to product origin if another product were allowed to appear in similar dress.

trade name

The official name of a business, the one it uses on its letterhead and bank account when not dealing with consumers.

trade secret

In most states, a formula, pattern, physical device, idea, process, compilation of information or other information that 1) provides a business with a competitive advantage, and 2) is treated in a way that can reasonably be expected to prevent the public or competitors from learning about it, absent improper acquisition or theft.


A word, phrase, logo, symbol, color, sound or smell used by a business to identify a product and distinguish it from those of its competitors. If the business uses the name or logo to identify a service, such as photo copying, it is called a service mark. In practice, the legal protections for trademarks and service marks are identical.

trademark ownership

In the United States, trademark ownership arising from “first use” of a mark. First use can be established by actual use or by application with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for registration on an intent to use basis. If the same mark has been in use by different businesses in different parts of the country without causing customer confusion, the mark may be owned by both businesses in their respective regions. If the mark owners then come into conflict in another part of the country, ownership for the purpose of that region will be determined according to who was the first user and which business could most likely consider the region as a natural zone of expansion.

trademark registration

Federal registration of a mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) requires that the mark be used in commerce and the filing of a registration application. Once a mark is registered, the owner should always place the trademark registration symbol (®) or “Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.” next to the mark. Without this designation, it may be hard to collect damages from one who infringes the mark.

trademark search

An investigation to discover potential conflicts between a proposed trademark or service mark and any marks already in use in the marketplace. Preferably done before a proposed mark is used, a trademark search reduces the possibility of inadvertently infringing a mark belonging to another. Businesses can conduct trademark searches themselves, either manually in a Patent and Trademark Depository library, through a computer in one of the online trademark databases (for a fee) or by hiring a search firm to do the search for them.

treble damages

See damages.

triple net lease

See net lease.


See temporary restraining order.

trust corpus

Latin for “the body” of the trust. This term refers to all the property transferred to a trust. For example, if a trust is established (funded) with $250,000, that money is the corpus. Sometimes the trust corpus is known as the “res,” a Latin word meaning “thing.”

trust deed

The most common method of financing real estate purchases in California (most other states use mortgages). The trust deed transfers the title to the property to a trustee — often a title company — who holds it as security for a loan. When the loan is paid off, the title is transferred to the borrower. The trustee will not become involved in the arrangement unless the borrower defaults on the loan. At that point, the trustee can sell the property and pay the lender from the proceeds.

trust merger

Under a trust, the situation that occurs when the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary are the same person or institution. Then, there’s no longer the separation between the trustee’s legal ownership of trust property from the beneficiary’s interest. The trust “merges” and ceases to exist.


The person who manages assets owned by a trust under the terms of the trust document. A trustee’s purpose is to safeguard the trust and distribute trust income or principal as directed in the trust document. With a simple probate-avoidance living trust, the person who creates the trust is also the trustee.

trustee powers

The provisions in a trust document defining what the trustee may and may not do.


See grantor.

Truth in Lending Act (TILA)

A federal law that requires credit and charge card companies to disclose interest rates and other information about an account. It also requires lenders to disclose the terms of a loan, including the total amount of the loan, the annual interest rate and the number, amount and due dates of all payments necessary to repay the loan. The TILA requires additional disclosures and places many restrictions on mortgages.

U.S. Copyright Office

See Copyright Office.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

See Patent and Trademark Office.

ultra vires

Latin for “beyond powers.” It refers to conduct by a corporation or its officers that exceeds the powers granted by law.

unclean hands

A legal doctrine that prevents a plaintiff who has acted unethically in relation to a lawsuit from winning the suit or from recovering as much money as she would have if she had behaved honorably. For example, if a contractor is suing a homeowner to recover the price of work he did on the home, his failure to perform the work as specified would leave him with unclean hands.


A seller’s taking advantage of a buyer due to their unequal bargaining positions, perhaps because of the buyer’s recent trauma, physical infirmity, ignorance, inability to read or inability to understand the language. The unfairness must be so severe that it is shocking to the average person. It usually includes the absence of any meaningful choice on the part of the buyer and contract terms so one-sided that they unreasonably favor the seller. A contract will be terminated if the buyer can prove unconscionability.

uncontested divorce

A divorce automatically granted by a court when the spouse who is served with a summons and complaint for divorce fails to file a formal response with the court. Many divorces proceed this way when the spouses have worked everything out and there’s no reason for both to go to court — and pay the court costs.


A situation in which a company does not have enough cash available to carry on its business.


Another term for an insurer, one who assumes the risk of another’s loss and compensates for the loss under the terms of an insurance policy.

undue hardship

The circumstances in which a debtor may discharge a student loan in bankruptcy. For example, a debtor who has no income and little chance of earning enough in the future to pay off the loan may be able to show that repayment would be an undue hardship.

unemployment insurance (UI)

A program run jointly by federal and state governments that provides money benefits for a specified time — usually 26 weeks — after you’ve been laid off from a job. The amount of your unemployment check will be less than your former pay. Also called unemployment compensation, UI covers most employees, provided that they worked at least six months during the year prior to losing the job and earned the minimum amount of money required under the program’s regulations.

unfair competition

An overarching term describing any commercial activity that tends to confuse or deceive the public about the sale of products or services. It covers such diverse activities as trademark infringement, false advertising and theft of trade secrets. If a court finds that an activity constitutes unfair competition, it will generally prevent that activity from occurring in the future and award money damages to the person or company harmed by the activity.

Uniform Gifts to Minors Act

See Uniform Transfers to Minors Act.

Uniform Resource Locator (URL)

The Internet address of a Web page, file or other online resource. URLs usually contain a domain name and a description of the material sought. For example, http://www.nolo.com/patents.html is the URL for an article on patents on Nolo’s website.

Uniform Transfer-on-Death Security Act

A statute that allows people to name a beneficiary to inherit stocks or bonds without probate. The owner of the securities can register them with a broker using a simple form that names a person to receive the property after the owner’s death. Every state but Texas has adopted the statute.

Uniform Transfers to Minors Act

A statute, adopted by almost all states, that provides a method for transferring property to minors and arranging for an adult to manage it until the child is old enough to receive it. See custodian.

uninsured motorist coverage

The portion of car insurance that compensates you for any injuries resulting from an accident with an uninsured motorist or a hit-and-run driver. Damage to your vehicle in such a situation is compensated by the collision coverage portion of your car insurance.

United States Attorney

The prosecutor in charge of enforcing the federal criminal laws of the United States. The U.S. Attorney can also enforce selected federal civil statutes, such as the Civil Rights Act. U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President and the job is considered a political plum. Typical cases brought by the U.S. Attorney and Assistant U.S. Attorneys are immigration violations, drug importation, securities fraud and bank robberies. Any offense committed on federal property (such as a military base or national park) may be prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney.

unjust enrichment

A legal doctrine stating that if a person receives money or other property through no effort of his own, at the expense of another, the recipient should return the property to the rightful owner, even if the property was not obtained illegally. Most courts will order that the property be returned if the party who has suffered the loss brings a lawsuit.


See illegal.

unlawful detainer

An eviction lawsuit.

unsecured debt

A debt that is not tied to any item of property. A creditor doesn’t have the right to grab property to satisfy the debt if you default. The creditor’s only remedy is to sue you and get a judgment. Compare secured debt.


See Uniform Resource Locator.

use tax

A tax imposed by a state to compensate for the sales tax lost when an item is purchased outside of the state, but is used within the state. For example, you buy your car in a state that has no sales tax, but you live across the border in a state that does have a sales tax. When you bring your car home and register it in your state, the state taxing authority will bill you for the sales tax it would have collected had you bought the car within the state.


In patent law, the requirement that an invention have some purpose, or in the case of design patents, be ornamental. The purpose can be solely for amusement or a minor improvement on an existing design — not every invention has to be a groundbreaking feat like the telephone.


The right to use property — or income from property — that is owned by another.

utility patent

A patent issued for inventions that perform useful functions. Most inventions fall into this category. A utility patent lasts for 20 years from the patent application’s filing date.


An exception to a zoning ordinance, usually granted by a local government. For example, if you own an oddly shaped lot that could not accommodate a home in accordance with your city’s setback requirement, you could apply at the appropriate office for a variance allowing you to build closer to a boundary line.


People who are summoned to the courthouse so that they may be questioned and perhaps chosen as jurors in trials of civil or criminal cases.


State laws or court rules that establish the proper court to hear a case, often based on the convenience of the defendant. Because state courts have jurisdiction to hear cases from a wide geographical area (for example, California courts have jurisdiction involving most disputes arising between California residents), additional rules, called rules of venue, have been developed to ensure that the defendant is not needlessly inconvenienced. For example, the correct venue for one Californian to sue another is usually limited to the court in the judicial district where the defendant lives, an accident occurred or a contract was signed or to be carried out. Practically, venue rules mean that a defendant can’t usually be sued far from where he lives or does business, if no key events happened at that location. Venue for a criminal case is normally the judicial district where the crime was committed.

vertical privity

A legal relationship in corporate law that exists between companies in the chain of distribution of a product. This relationship creates responsibilities between the companies involved, including being liable for defects in the product. For example, vertical privity exists between the manufacturer of a car and the dealership that sells it. Therefore, both the dealer and the manufacturer are liable for defects in cars sold by the dealership.

vested remainder

An unconditional right to receive real property at some point in the future. A vested interest may be created by a deed or a will. For example, if Julie’s will leaves her house to her daughter, but the daughter gains possession only after Julie’s husband dies, the daughter has a vested remainder in the house.

view ordinance

A law adopted by some cities or towns with desirable vistas — such as those in the mountains or overlooking the ocean — that protects a property owner from having his or her view obstructed by growing trees. View ordinances don’t cover buildings or other structures that may block views.


A stamp placed in a foreign national’s passport by an official at a U.S. consulate outside of the United States. All visas allow their holders to enter the United States. Visas can be designated as either immigrant visas or nonimmigrant visas.

visa waiver program

A program that allows nationals from certain countries to come to the United States without a visa as tourists for 90 days. Persons coming to the United States under this program receive green-colored I-94 cards. They are not permitted to extend their stay or change their statuses.

visitation rights

The right to see a child regularly, typically awarded by the court to the parent who does not have physical custody of the child. The court will deny visitation rights only if it decides that visitation would hurt the child so much that the parent should be kept away.

volenti non fit injuria

Latin for “to a willing person, no injury is done.” This doctrine holds that a person who knowingly and willingly puts himself in a dangerous situation cannot sue for any resulting injuries.


See search warrant or arrest warrant.


See guaranty.

warranty adjustment program

See secret warranty program.

warranty deed

A seldom-used type of deed that contains express assurances about the legal validity of the title being transferred.

warranty of fitness

See implied warranty.

warranty of merchantability

See implied warranty.

wash sale

The selling and repurchasing of an asset, usually stock, within a very short time frame. People used to do this to realize a loss for tax purposes, but the IRS caught on and made such losses non-deductible for most taxpayers.


A document in which you specify what is to be done with your property when you die and name your executor. You can also use your will to name a guardian for your young children.

willful tort

A harmful act that is committed in an intentional and conscious way. For example, if your neighbor builds an ugly new fence and you intentionally run it down with your truck, that’s a willful tort. But accidentally backing into the fence as you pull out of your driveway is not willful, though it’s still a tort.

winding up

The process of paying off expenses and creditors, settling accounts, and collecting and distributing (to shareholders and owners) whatever assets then remain, all with the ultimate goal of liquidating or closing down a corporation or partnership.


Eavesdropping on private conversations by connecting listening equipment to a telephone line. To be legal, wire tapping must be authorized by a search warrant or court order.

with prejudice

A final and binding decision by a judge about a legal matter that prevents further pursuit of the same matter in any court. When a judge makes such a decision, he dismisses the matter “with prejudice.”


A person who testifies under oath at a deposition or trial, providing firsthand or expert evidence. In addition, the term also refers to someone who watches another person sign a document and then adds his name to confirm (called “attesting”) that the signature is genuine.


Legal jargon meaning “to take notice of,” used in phrases such as “On this day I do hereby witnesseth the signing of this document.”

words of procreation

Language used to leave property to a person and his or her descendants, which typically take the form “to A, and the heirs of his body,” where A is the person receiving the property.

work for hire

See work made for hire.

work made for hire

A work created by an employee within the scope of employment or a work commissioned an author under contract. With a work for hire, the author and copyright owner of a work is the person who pays for it, not the person who creates it. The premise of this principle is that a business that authorizes and pays for a work owns the rights to the work. There are two distinct ways that a work will be classified as “made for hire.”the work is created by an employee within the scope of employment; or the work is commissioned, is the subject of a written agreement, and falls within a special group of categories (a contribution to a collective work, a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, a translation, a supplementary work, a compilation, an atlas, an instructional text, a test, or as answer material for a test). The work made for hire status of a work affects the length of copyright protection and termination rights.

workers’ compensation

A program that provides replacement income and medical expenses to employees who are injured or become ill due to their jobs. Financial benefits may also extend to workers’ dependents and to the survivors of workers who are killed on the job. In most circumstances, workers’ compensation pays relatively modest amounts and prevents the worker or dependents from suing the employer for the injuries or death.

workmen’s compensation

See workers’ compensation.


A debtor’s plan to take care of a debt, by paying it off or through loan forgiveness. Workouts are often created to avoid bankruptcy or foreclosure proceedings.

wrongful death

Death caused by the fault of another. Examples of wrongful conduct that may lead to death include drinking and driving, manufacturing a deficient product, building an unstable structure or failing to diagnose a fatal disease.

wrongful death recoveries

After a wrongful death lawsuit, the portion of a judgment intended to compensate a plaintiff for having to live without a deceased person. The compensation is intended to cover the earnings and the emotional comfort and support the deceased person would have provided.

yellow-dog contract

An employment contract in which the employer forbids the employee to join a labor union. Yellow-dog contracts are not legally enforceable.


The laws dividing cities into different areas according to use, from single-family residences to industrial plants. Zoning ordinances control the size, location, and use of buildings within these different areas.

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