Definitions

Dismissal Without Prejudice:

When a case is dismissed but the plaintiff is allowed to bring a new suit on the same claim.

Double Jeopardy:

Being tried twice for the same offense.

Due Process:

The idea that laws and legal proceedings must be fair. The Constitution guarantees that the government cannot take away a person's basic rights to "life, liberty or property, without due process of law." Courts have issued numerous rulings about what this means in particular cases.

Duty To Warn:

The legal obligation to warn people of a danger. Typically, manufacturers of hazardous products have a duty to warn customers of a product's potential dangers and to advise users of any precautions they should take.

Easement:

Gives one party the right to go onto another party's property. Utilities often get easements that allow them to run pipes or phone lines beneath private property.

Elective Share:

Refers to probate laws that allow a spouse to take a certain portion of an estate when the other spouse dies, regardless of what was written in the spouse's will.

Emancipation:

When a minor has achieved independence from his or her parents, often by getting married before reaching age 18 or by becoming fully self-supporting.

En Banc:

French for "by the full court." When all the members of an appellate court hear an argument, they are sitting en banc.

Encumbrance:

Any claim or restriction on a property's title.

Equal Access Act:

a law passed by Congress in 1984. It requires public schools to allow students who to meet before and after classes for religious purposes, including prayer, if they want to do so. If all extracurricular activities are prohibited by a school, it can also nix the prayer meetings. Otherwise, it has to allow them.

Equal Protection Clause:

Portion of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits discrimination by state government institutions. The clause grants all people "equal protection of the laws," which means that the states must apply the law equally and cannot give preference to one person or class of persons over another.

Equitable Distribution:

In a divorce, one of the ways in which property is divided. In states with equitable distribution systems, property acquired during a marriage is jointly owned by both spouses. Equitable distribution does not necessarily mean equal distribution, and ownership does not automatically split fifty-fifty. Rather, the distribution must be fair and just (equitable).

Escrow:

Money or documents, such as a deed or title, held by a third party until the conditions of an agreement are met. For instance, pending the completion of a real estate transaction, the deed to the property will be held "in escrow."

Escrow Account:

a special account in which a lawyer or escrow agent deposits money or documents that do not belong to him or his firm.

Escrow Agent:

In some states, this person conducts real estate closings and collects the money due the parties.

Establishment Clause:

Portion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constituion that prohibits government from "establishing" a religion.

Estate:

All the property a person owns.

Evidence:

The various things presented in court to prove an alleged fact. Includes testimony, documents, photographs, maps and video tapes.

Ex Parte:

Latin that means "by or for one party." Refers to situations in which only one party (and not the adversary) appears before a judge. Such meetings are often forbidden.

Executor:

Person named in a will to oversee and manage an estate.

Exempt Employees:

Workers not entitled to overtime, generally workers in executive, administrative or professional positions.

Exempt Property:

In a bankruptcy, the possessions that a person is allowed to keep.

Exigent Circumstances:

Emergency conditions.

Expert Witness:

a witness with a specialized knowledge of a subject who is allowed to discuss an event in court even though he or she was not present. For example, an arson expert could testify about the probable cause of a suspicious fire.

Express Warranty:

An assertion or promise concerning goods or services. Statements such as "This air conditioner will cool a five-room house," or "We will repair any problems in the first year" are express warranties.

Fair Use:

The use of a portion of copyrighted material in a way that does not infringe the owner's rights. The use of a portion of material for educational purposes, literary criticism or news reporting is often considered a fair use.

Fault Auto Insurance System:

Refers to a system in which the party that bears the blame (fault) for an accident is liable for any damages.

Felony:

Serious crime punishable by incarceration for a year or more. Includes rape, murder, robbery, burglary, and arson.

Fiduciary Duty:

An obligation to act in the best interest of another party. For instance, a corporation's board member has a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, a trustee has a fiduciary duty to the trust's beneficiaries, and an attorney has a fiduciary duty to a client.

Fixtures:

All things that are attached to property, such as ceiling lights, awnings, window shades and doorknobs. Fixtures are automatically included in a sale, unless specifically mentioned in the contract as going to the seller.

Foreclosure:

When a borrower cannot repay a loan and the lender seeks to sell the property.

Foreseeability:

a key issue in determining a person's liability. If a defendant could not reasonably have foreseen that someone might be hurt by his or her actions, then there may be no liability.

Franchise:

a business relationship in which an owner (the franchisor) licenses others (the franchisees) to operate outlets using business concepts, property, trademarks and tradenames owned by the franchisor.

Garnishment:

Also known as wage execution. a court-ordered method of debt collection in which a portion of a person's salary is paid to a creditor. Often used to collect child support payments.

General Partner:

One of two kinds of partners in a limited partnership. a general partner has the right to participate in the management of the partnership and has unlimited personal liability for its debts.

Good Faith:

Honestly and without deception. An agreement might be declared invalid if one of the parties entered with the intention of defrauding the other.

Grand Jury:

a group of citizens convened in a criminal case to consider the prosecutor's evidence and determine whether probable cause exists to prosecute a suspect for a felony.

Grantor:

The person who sets up a trust.

Green Card:

An immigrant visa. Allows an alien to become a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. and to work legally, travel abroad and return, bring in a spouse and children and become eligible for citizenship.

Gross Negligence:

Failure to use even the slightest amount of care in a way that shows recklessness or willful disregard for the safety of others.

Grounds For Divorce:

The legal reason (or reasons) a divorce is granted. There are two kinds of grounds: fault and no-fault.

Guardian:

Person assigned by the court to take care of minor children or incompetent adults. Sometimes called a conservator.

Guardian Ad Litem:

Latin for "guardian at law." The person appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of the child during the course of legal proceedings.

Habeas Corpus:

Latin phrase meaning "you have the body." Prisoners often seek release by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. a writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully.

Health Care Proxy:

Someone designated to make a broad range of decisions for a person who is not able to give informed consent.

Hearsay:

Secondhand information that a witness only heard about from someone else and did not see or hear himself. Hearsay is not admitted in court because it's not trustworthy, though there are many exceptions.

Heirs:

Persons who are entitled by law to inherit the property of the deceased if there is no will specifying how it's divided.

Holographic Will:

An unwitnessed handwritten will. a few states allow such documents to be admitted to probate, but most courts are very reluctant to accept them.

Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment:

Where a person is subject to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to such an extent that it alters the conditions of the person's employment and creates an abusive working environment.

Hung Jury:

a jury that is unable to reach a verdict.

Immigrant Visa:

See green card.

Immunity:

Exemption from a legal duty, penalty or prosecution.

Impairment:

When a person's faculties are diminished so that his or her ability to see, hear, walk, talk and judge distances is below the normal level as set by the state. Typically, impairment is caused by drug or alcohol use, but can also be caused by mental illness. Even if a person's alcohol level is lower than the legal intoxication level, he can still be convicted if the state can show his abilities were impaired.

Implied Consent Laws:

(also called express consent) Laws adopted by all states that apply to testing for alcohol in the blood, breath or urine (most states have such laws that apply to testing for the use of drugs). The principle underlying these laws is that any licensed driver who operates a vehicle has consented to submit to approved tests to show intoxication.

Implied Warranty:

a guarantee imposed by law in a sale. Even though the seller may not make any explicit promises, the buyer still gets some protection.

Implied Warranty of Fitness For a Particular Purpose:

Warranty that exists when a seller should know that a buyer is relying on the seller's expertise.

Implied Warranty of Habitability:

Law that exists in most states which governs residential rentals and asserts that regardless of what a lease says, the landlord must provide premises that are safe and liveable (habitable) at some basic level. Problems with essential building services and cleanliness are often breaches of the implied warranty and the landlord will be required to correct them.

Implied Warranty of Merchantability:

Warranty that guarantees that goods are reasonably fit for their ordinary purpose.

In Camera:

Latin for "in chambers." Refers to a hearing or inspection of documents that takes places in private, often in a judge's chambers.

Indictment:

a formal accusation of a felony, issued by a grand jury after considering evidence presented by a prosecutor.

Indigent:

Lacking in funds; poor.

Information:

a formal accusation of a crime, issued by a prosecutor. An alternative to an indictment.

Informed Consent:

Except in the case of an emergency, a doctor must obtain a patient's agreement (informed consent) to any course of treatment. Doctors are required to tell the patient anything that would substantially affect the patient's decision. Such information typically includes the nature and purpose of the treatment, its risks and consequences and alternative courses of treatment.

Infractions:

Sometimes called violations. Minor offenses, often traffic tickets, which are punishable only by a fine.

Infringement:

Unauthorized use, typically of a patent or copyright.

Interlocutory Order:

Temporary order issued during the course of litigation. Typically cannot be appealed because it is not final.

Interrogatories:

Part of the pre-trial discovery (fact-finding) process in which a witness provides written answers to written questions under oath. The answers often can be used as evidence in the trial.

Intestate:

To die without a will.

Irrevocable Living Trust:

a trust created during the maker's lifetime that does not allow the maker to change it.

Joint And Survivor Annuity:

a form of pension fund payment in which the retired participant gets a check every month. If and when the participant dies, the spouse continues to get a monthly check equal to one-half of the benefit for the rest of his or her life.

Joint Custody:

When both parents share custody of a child after a divorce. There are two kinds of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Either or both may be joint.

Joint Property:

Sometimes called joint tenancy. Property that names a co-owner on its deed or title. Co-owners retain ownership of the property upon the death of a co-owner. a co-owner in a joint property arrangement cannot give away his or her share of the property.

Judgment:

a court's official decision on the matters before it.

Judgment Non Obstante Veredicto:

Known also as a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. a decision by a trial judge to rule in favor of a losing party even though the jury's verdict was in favor of the other side. Usually done when the facts or law do not support the jury's verdict.

Jurisdiction:

a court's authority to rule on the questions of law at issue in a dispute, typically determined by geographic location and type of case.

Jury Charge:

The judge's instructions to the jurors on the law that applies in a case and definitions of the relevant legal concepts. These instructions may be complex and are often pivotal in a jury's discussions.

Just Cause:

a legitimate reason. Often used in the employment context to refer to the reasons why someone was fired.

Legal Custody:

In a divorce, one of two types of child custody. a parent who has legal custody has the right to be involved in all the decision making typically involved with being a parent, such as religious upbringing, education and medical decisions. Legal custody can be either sole or joint. Compare with physical custody.

Legatee:

Also known as a beneficiary. Person named in a will to receive property.

Lemon Laws:

Laws that require manufacturers to repair defective cars. If the repairs are not made within a reasonable amount of time and number of attempts, the manufacturer is required to refund the purchase price, less a reasonable amount for the use of the car.

Lesser Included offenses:

Charges that contain elements of the most serious charge against a defendant. For instance, a person charged with first-degree murder (which requires premeditation) could be convicted of second-degree murder (a killing done without premeditation) or manslaughter (a killing done in the heat of passion)

Liability:

Any legal responsibility, duty or obligation.

Libel:

Defamatory (false and injurious) written statements or materials, including movies or photographs.

Lien:

a claim against someone's property. a lien is instituted in order to secure payment from the property owner in the event that the property is sold. a mortgage is a common lien.

Limited Liability Company:

a business structure that is a hybrid of a partnership and a corporation. Its owners are shielded from personal liability and all profits and losses pass directly to the owners without taxation of the entity itself.

Limited Partner:

One of two kinds of partners in a limited partnership. Is personally liable for the debts of the partnership only to the extent of his or her investment in it and has little to no voice in its management.

Limited Partnership:

a partnership with two kinds of partners: limited partners, who provide financial backing and have little role in management and no personal liability, and general partners, who are responsible for managing the entity and have unlimited personal liability for its debts.

Liquidated Damages:

The amount of money specified in a contract to be awarded in the event that the agreement is violated.

Living Trust:

a trust created during the maker's lifetime. Some living trusts are set up so that they can be changed during the maker's lifetime. These are called "revocable." Others, known as "irrevocable," are set up so that they can't be touched.

Living Will:

Also known as a medical directive or advance directive. a written document that states a person's wishes regarding life-support or other medical treatment in certain circumstances, usually when death is imminent.

Living-Together Contract:

See cohabitation agreement.

Maintenance:

See alimony. In a divorce or separation, the money paid by one spouse to the other in order to fulfill the financial obligation that comes with marriage.

Malpractice:

Improper or negligent behavior by a professional, such as a doctor or a lawyer. The failure of a professional to follow the accepted standards of practice of his or her profession.

Mandatory Sentence:

a criminal sentence set by a legislature that establishes the minimum length of prison time for specified crimes and thus limits the amount of discretion a judge has when sentencing a defendant.

Marital Life Estate:

See bypass trust.

Mediation:

a method of alternative dispute resolution in which a neutral third party helps resolve a dispute. The mediator does not have the power to impose a decision on the parties. If a satisfactory resolution cannot be reached, the parties can pursue a lawsuit.

Medical Directive:

See living will.

Minor:

a person who does not have the legal rights of an adult. a minor is usually defined as someone who has not yet reached the age of majority. In most states, a person reaches majority and acquires all of the rights and responsibilities of an adult when he or she turns 18.

Miranda Warning:

The statement recited to individuals taken into police custody. It warns of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney.

Misdemeanor:

Crime that is punishable by less than one year in jail, such as minor theft and simple assault that does not result in substantial bodily injury.

Pages

Subscribe to Definitions