A-B Trust:

see bypass trust.

Actual Malice:

To win a defamation suit, public officials or prominent people, such as political candidates or movie stars, must prove that the offender made a false statement with actual malice. This means the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with serious doubts about whether it was true.


Person appointed to oversee the handling of an estate when there is no will.

Advance Directive:

see living will.


a written statement made under oath.

Age of Majority:

The age when a person acquires all the rights and responsibilities of being an adult. In most states, the age is 18.


Also called maintenance or spousal support. In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage.

Alternative Dispute Resolution:

Methods for resolving problems without going to court.

Amicus Curiae:

Latin for "friend of the court." Refers to a party that is allowed to provide information (usually in the form of a legal brief) to a court even though the party is not directly involved in the case at hand.


a legal decree that states that a marriage was never valid. Has the legal effect of wiping out a marriage as though it never existed.


In a civil case, the defendant's written response to the plaintiff's complaint. It must be filed within a specified period of time, and it either admits to or (more typically) denies the factual or legal basis for liability.


a request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to overturn the legal ruling of a lower court.


a method of alternative dispute resolution in which the disputing parties agree to abide by the decision of an arbitrator.


The initial appearance before a judge in a criminal case. At an arraignment, the charges against the defendant are read, a lawyer is appointed if the defendant cannot afford one, and the defendant's plea is entered.

Articles of Incorporation:

a document that must be filed with a state in order to incorporate. Among the things it typically must include are the name and address of the corporation, its general purpose and the number and type of shares of stock to be issued.


The transfer of legal rights, such as the time left on a lease, from one person to another.

Assumption of Risk:

a defense raised in personal injury lawsuits. Asserts that the plaintiff knew that a particular activity was dangerous and thus bears all responsibility for any injury that resulted.

Asylum Seeker:

a foreigner, already in the U.S. or at the border, who seeks refuge, claiming an inability or unwillingness to return to the home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

At-Will Employment:

An employment relationship where the employer has the right to fire a worker for any cause at any time--usually without any notice.

Bad Faith:

Dishonesty or fraud in a transaction, such as entering into an agreement with no intention of ever living up to its terms, or knowingly misrepresenting the quality of something that is being bought or sold.


The money a defendant pays as a guarantee that he or she will show up in court at a later date. For most serious crimes, a judge sets bail during the arraignment.

Bail Schedule:

The list that sets the amount of bail a defendant is required to pay based on what the charge is. a judge may be able to reduce the amount.


a legal relationship created when a person gives property to someone else for safekeeping. To create a bailment the other party must knowingly have exclusive control over the property. The receiver must use reasonable care to protect the property.


Insolvency; a process governed by federal law to help when people cannot or will not pay their debts.

Bench Trial:

Also called court trial. a trial held before a judge and without a jury.


Person named in a will or insurance policy to receive money or property; person who receives benefits from a trust.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt:

The highest level of proof required to win a case. Necessary to get a guilty verdict in criminal cases.


Splitting a trial into two parts: a liability phase and a penalty phase. In some cases, a new jury may be empaneled to deliberate for the penalty phase.

Bill of Rights:

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.


An outline of the basic terms of a proposed sales contract between a buyer and a seller.

Board of Directors:

The group of people elected by a corporation's shareholders to make major business decisions for the company.


a document with which one party promises to pay another within a specified amount of time. Bonds are used for many things, including borrowing money or guaranteeing payment of money.


Part of the process of being arrested in which the details of who a person is and why he or she was arrested are recorded into the police records.


a written document that outlines a party's legal arguments in a case.

Burden of Proof:

The duty of a party in a lawsuit to persuade the judge or the jury that enough facts exist to prove the allegations of the case. Different levels of proof are required depending on the type of case.

Buy-Sell Agreement:

An agreement among business partners that specifies how shares in the business are to be transferred in the case of a co-owner's death.


a corporation's rules and regulations. They typically specify the number and respective duties of directors and officers and govern how the business is run.

Bypass Trust:

Also called a marital life estate or an A-B trust. a trust designed to help couples with combined assets over $600,000 save money on estate taxes. a bypass trust allows each member of a couple to use the $600,000 estate tax exemption.

Capital Gain:

The profit made from the sale of a capital asset, such as real estate, a house, jewelry or stocks and bonds.

Capital Loss:

The loss that results from the sale of a capital asset, such as real estate, a house, jewelry or stocks and bonds. Also the loss that results from an unpaid, non-business (personal) loan.

Case Law:

Also known as common law. The law created by judges when deciding individual disputes or cases.

Case of First Impression:

a novel legal question that comes before a court.

Caveat Emptor:

Latin for "buyer beware." This rule generally applies to all sales between individuals. It gives the buyer full responsibility for determining the quality of the goods in question. The seller generally has no duty to offer warranties or to disclose defects in the goods.


Latin that means "to be informed of." Refers to the order a court issues so that it can review the decision and proceedings in a lower court and determine whether there were any irregularities. When such an order is made, it is said that the court has granted certiorari.

Challenge For Cause:

Ask that a potential juror be rejected if it is revealed that for some reason he or she is unable or unwilling to set aside preconceptions and pay attention only to the evidence.

Change of Venue:

a change in the location of a trial, usually granted to avoid prejudice against one of the parties.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy:

a type of bankruptcy in which a person keeps his assets and pays creditors according to an approved plan.

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy:

a type of bankruptcy in which a person's assets are liquidated (collected and sold) and the proceeds are distributed to the creditors.

Charging Lien:

Entitles a lawyer who has sued someone on a client's behalf the right to be paid from the proceeds of the lawsuit, if there are any, before the client receives those proceeds.

Child Abuse:

Defined by state statutes. Usually occurs when a parent purposefully harms a child.

Child Neglect:

Defined by state statutes. Usually arises from a parent's passive indifference to a child's well-being, such as failing to feed a child or leaving a child alone for an extended time.

Children'S Trust:

a trust set up as part of a will or outside of a will to provide funds for a child.

Circumstantial Evidence:

Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but doesn't directly prove it. If a man accused of embezzling money from his company had made several big-ticket purchases in cash around the time of the alleged embezzlement, that would be circumstantial evidence that he had stolen the money.

Class Action Suit:

a lawsuit in which one or more parties file a complaint on behalf of themselves and all other people who are "similarly situated" (suffering from the same problem). Often used when a large number of people have comparable claims.

Clear And Convincing Evidence:

The level of proof sometimes required in a civil case for the plaintiff to prevail. Is more than a preponderance of the evidence but less than beyond a reasonable doubt.


In a real estate transaction, this is the final exchange in which the deed is delivered to the buyer, the title is transferred, and the agreed-on costs are paid.


a supplement to a will.

Cohabitation Agreement:

Also called a living-together contract. a document that spells out the terms of a relationship and often addresses financial issues and how property will be divided if the relationship ends.


An asset that a borrower agrees to give up if he or she fails to repay a loan.

Collective Bargaining Agreement:

The contract that spells out the terms of employment between a labor union and an employer.


a code of etiquette that governs the interactions of courts in different states, localities and foreign countries. Courts generally agree to defer scheduling a trial if the same issues are being tried in a court in another jurisdiction. In addition, courts in this country agree to recognize and enforce the valid legal contracts and court orders of other countries.

Common Law:

Also known as case law. The law created by judges when deciding individual disputes or cases.

Common-Law Marriage:

In some states, a couple is considered married if they meet certain requirements, such as living together as husband and wife for a specific length of time. Such a couple has all the rights and obligations of a traditionally married couple.

Community Property:

Property acquired by a couple during their marriage. Refers to the system in some states for dividing the couple's property in a divorce or upon the death of one spouse. In this system, everything a husband and wife acquire once they are married is owned equally (fifty-fifty) by both of them, regardless of who provided the money to purchase the asset or whose name the asset is held in.

Comparative Negligence:

Also called comparative fault. a system that allows a party to recover some portion of the damages caused by another party's negligence even if the original person was also partially negligent and responsible for causing the injury. Not all states follow this system.

Compensatory Damages:

Money awarded to reimburse actual costs, such as medical bills and lost wages. Also awarded for things that are harder to measure, such as pain and suffering.


In a civil action, the document that initiates a lawsuit. The complaint outlines the alleged facts of the case and the basis for which a legal remedy is sought. In a criminal action, a complaint is the preliminary charge filed by the complaining party, usually with the police or a court.

Concurrent Sentences:

Criminal sentences that can be served at the same time rather than one after the other.

Conditional Dismissal:

See adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

Conflict of Interest:

Refers to a situation when someone, such as a lawyer or public official, has competing professional or personal obligations or personal or financial interests that would make it difficult to fulfill his duties fairly.

Consecutive Sentences:

Criminal sentences that must be served one after the other rather than at the same time.


Person appointed to manage the property and finances of another. Sometimes called a guardian.


Something of value that is given in exchange for getting something from another person.

Contempt of Court:

An action that interferes with a judge's ability to administer justice or that insults the dignity of the court. Disrespectful comments to the judge or a failure to heed a judge's orders could be considered contempt of court. a person found in contempt of court can face financial sanctions and, in some cases, jail time.

Contingency Fee:

Also called a contingent fee. a fee arrangement in which the lawyer is paid out of any damages that are awarded. Typically, the lawyer gets between one-fourth and one-third. If no damages are awarded, there is no fee.


An agreement between two or more parties in which an offer is made and accepted, and each party benefits. The agreement can be formal, informal, written, oral or just plain understood. Some contracts are required to be in writing in order to be enforced.

Contributory Negligence:

Prevents a party from recovering for damages if he or she contributed in any way to the injury. Not all states follow this system.


a person's right to prevent others from copying works that he or she has written, authored or otherwise created.


An independent entity created to conduct a business. It is owned by shareholders.


a person (or institution) to whom money is owed.

Cross Examination:

The questioning of an opposing party's witness about matters brought up during direct examination.


Under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, the person appointed to manage and dispense funds for a child without constricting court supervision and accounting requirements.


The financial compensation awarded to someone who suffered an injury or was harmed by someone else's wrongful act.


Person who owes money.


The judgment rendered by a court after a consideration of the facts and legal issues before it.


a written legal document that describes a piece of property and outlines its boundaries. The seller of a property transfers ownership by delivering the deed to the buyer in exchange for an agreed upon sum of money.


The publication of a statement that injures a person's reputation. Libel and slander are defamation.


The failure to fulfill a legal obligation, such as neglecting to pay back a loan on schedule.

Default Judgment:

a ruling entered against a defendant who fails to answer a summons in a lawsuit.


In criminal cases, the person accused of the crime. In civil matters, the person or organization that is being sued.

Defined Benefit Plan:

a type of retirement plan that specifies how much in benefits it will pay out to a retiree.

Defined Contribution Plan:

Also called an individual account plan. a type of retirement plan in which the employer pays a specified amount of money each year, which is then divided among the individual accounts of each participating employee. Profit-sharing, employee stock ownership and 401(k) plans are all defined contribution plans.


Part of the pre-trial discovery (fact-finding) process in which a witness testifies under oath. a deposition is held out of court with no judge present, but the answers often can be used as evidence in the trial.

Direct Evidence:

Evidence that stands on its own to prove an alleged fact, such as testimony of a witness who says she saw a defendant pointing a gun at a victim during a robbery.

Direct Examination:

The initial questioning of a witness by the party that called the witness.

Directed Verdict:

a judge's order to a jury to return a specified verdict, usually because one of the parties failed to prove its case.


Legal expenses that a lawyer passes on to a client, such as for photocopying, overnight mail and messenger services.


Part of the pre-trial litigation process during which each party requests relevant information and documents from the other side in an attempt to "discover" pertinent facts.

Dismissal With Prejudice:

When a case is dismissed for good reason and the plaintiff is barred from bringing an action on the same claim.


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