Glossary of Legal Terms

The glossary of legal terms listed on this page is provided for your reference and to help you better understand the specific meaning of certain legal terms you may see on this website or have previously heard. 

The listing of legal terms provided here contains the most commonly used terms along with their legal description.

It is important to have a clear understanding of any legal terms that may be discussed regarding any legal matters you are possibly involved in.  In so doing, you will better understand the circumstances involved with your own situation and the legal actions that may come about as a result of your attorney’s recommendations.

For a comprehensive listing of legal terms, please click here.

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Abatement  1) the removal of a problem which is against public or private policy, or endangers others, including nuisances such as weeds that might catch fire on an otherwise empty lot; 2) an equal reduction of recovery of debts by all creditors when there are not enough funds or assets to pay the full amount; 3) an equal reduction of benefits to beneficiaries (heirs) when an estate is not large enough to pay each beneficiary in full

Appurtenant  adj. pertaining to something that attaches. In real property law this describes any right or restriction which goes with that property, such as an easement to gain access across the neighbor’s parcel, or a covenant (agreement) against blocking the neighbor’s view. Thus, there are references to appurtenant easement or appurtenant covenant.

Mediation  n. the attempt to settle a legal dispute through active participation of a third party (mediator) who works to find points of agreement and make those in conflict agree on a fair result. Mediation differs from arbitration, in which the third party (arbitrator) acts much like a judge in an out-of-court, less formal setting but does not actively participate in the discussion. Mediation has become very common in trying to resolve domestic relations disputes (divorce, child custody, visitation) and is often ordered by the judge in such cases. Mediation also has become more frequent in contract and civil damage cases. There are professional mediators or lawyers who do some mediation for substantial fees, but the financial cost is less than fighting the matter out in court and may achieve early settlement and an end to anxiety. However, mediation does not always result in a settlement

Bad Faith  1) n. intentional dishonest act by not fulfilling legal or contractual obligations, misleading another, entering into an agreement without the intention or means to fulfill it, or violating basic standards of honesty in dealing with others. Most states recognize what is called “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing” which is breached by acts of bad faith, for which a lawsuit may be brought (filed) for the breach (just as one might sue for breach of contract). The question of bad faith may be raised as a defense to a suit on a contract. 2) adj. when there is bad faith then a transaction is called a “bad faith” contract or “bad faith” offer.

Breach of Contract  n. failing to perform any term of a contract, written or oral, without a legitimate legal excuse. This may include not completing a job, not paying in full or on time, failure to deliver all the goods, substituting inferior or significantly different goods, not providing a bond when required, being late without excuse, or any act which shows the party will not complete the work (“anticipatory breach”). Breach of contract is one of the most common causes of law suits for damages and/or court-ordered “specific performance” of the contract.

Burden of Proof  n. the requirement that the plaintiff (the party bringing a civil lawsuit) show by a “preponderance of evidence” or “weight of evidence” that all the facts necessary to win a judgment are presented and are probably true. In a criminal trial the burden of proof required of the prosecutor is to prove the guilt of the accused “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a much more difficult task. Unless there is a complete failure to present substantial evidence of a vital fact (usually called an “element of the cause of action”), the ultimate decision as to whether the plaintiff has met his/her burden of proof rests with the jury or the judge if there is no jury. However, the burden of proof is not always on the plaintiff. In some issues it may shift to the defendant if he/she raises a factual issue in defense, such as a claim that he/she was not the registered owner of the car that hit the plaintiff, so the defendant has the burden to prove that defense. If at the close of the plaintiff’s presentation he/she has not produced any evidence on a necessary fact (e.g. any evidence of damage) then the case may be dismissed without the defendant having to put on any evidence.

Cause of Action  n. the basis of a lawsuit founded on legal grounds and alleged facts which, if proved, would constitute all the “elements” required by statute. Examples: to have a cause of action for breach of contract there must have been an offer of acceptance; for a tort (civil wrong) there must have been negligence or intentional wrongdoing and failure to perform; for libel there must have been an untruth published which is particularly harmful; and in all cases there must be a connection between the acts of the defendant and damages. In many lawsuits there are several causes of action stated separately, such as fraud, breach of contract, and debt, or negligence and intentional destruction of property.

Confession of Judgment  n. a written agreement in which the defendant in a lawsuit admits liability and accepts the amount of agreed-upon damages he/she must pay to plaintiff (person suing him/her), and agrees that the statement may be filed as a court judgment against him/her if he/she does not pay or perform as agreed. This avoids further legal proceedings and may prevent a legal judgment being entered (filed) if the terms are fulfilled by the defendant.

Conflict of Laws  n. a situation in which both state and federal laws or courts, or laws of more than one state, are applicable to a potential lawsuit or interpretation of a document and seem to be inconsistent or in conflict. The plaintiff’s attorney’s first problem is to decide in what state or federal court the lawsuit should be filed. This can apply to a dead person’s estate with property in several states, when people earn income in several states, are involved in business in several states, or violate both state and federal laws in one scheme. Also to be considered is the issue of federal preemption, which may dictate that the federal statutes have been given a monopoly on the subject (pre-empted the field) and that a federal court must try the case, but that it will apply the laws of the state where the controversy arose.

Negligence  n. failure to exercise the care toward others which a reasonable or prudent person would do in the circumstances, or taking action which such a reasonable person would not. Negligence is accidental as distinguished from “intentional torts” (assault or trespass, for example) or from crimes, but a crime can also constitute negligence, such as reckless driving. Negligence can result in all types of accidents causing physical and/or property damage, but can also include business errors and miscalculations, such as a sloppy land survey. In making a claim for damages based on an allegation of another’s negligence, the injured party (plaintiff) must prove: a) that the party alleged to be negligent had a duty to the injured party-specifically to the one injured or to the general public, b) that the defendant’s action (or failure to act) was negligent-not what a reasonably prudent person would have done, c) that the damages were caused (“proximately caused”) by the negligence. An added factor in the formula for determining negligence is whether the damages were “reasonably foreseeable” at the time of the alleged carelessness. If the injury is caused by something owned or controlled by the supposedly negligent party, but how the accident actually occurred is not known (like a ton of bricks falls from a construction job), negligence can be found based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor (Latin for “the thing speaks for itself”). Furthermore, in six states (Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland) and the District of Columbia, an injured party will be denied any judgment (payment) if found to have been guilty of even slight “contributory negligence” in the accident. This archaic and unfair rule has been replaced by “comparative negligence” in the other 44 states, in which the negligence of the claimant is balanced with the percentage of blame placed on the other party or parties (“joint tortfeasors”) causing the accident. In automobile accident cases in 16 states the head of the household is held liable for damages caused by any member of the family using the car under what is called the “family purpose” doctrine. Nine states (California, New York, Michigan, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Rhode Island) make the owner of the vehicle responsible for all damages caused by a driver given permission to use the car, whether or not the negligent driver has assets or insurance to pay a judgment. Eight states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia) allow the owner to rebut a presumption that the driver was authorized to use the car. Negligence is one of the greatest sources of litigation (along with contract and business disputes) in the United States.

Consumer protection laws  n. almost all states and the federal government have enacted laws and set up agencies to protect the consumer (the retail purchasers of goods and services) from inferior, adulterated, hazardous or deceptively advertised products, and deceptive or fraudulent sales practices. Federal statutes and regulations govern mail fraud, wholesome poultry and meat, misbranding and adulteration of food and cosmetics, truth in lending, false advertising, the soundness of banks, securities sales, standards of housing materials, flammable fabrics, and various business practices. The Magnuson-Moss Act (1973) sets minimum standards for product warranties, makes a company that financed the sale responsible for product defects, and creates liability (financial responsibility) for “implied” warranties (when the circumstances show that a warranty of lack of defects was intended) as well as express (specific) warranties. Mail fraud may include fake contests, “low-ball” price traps (bait and switch), supposed credit for referrals of your friends, phoney home improvement loans with huge final payments, and swamp land sales. Some states’ laws regulate and give some protection against high-pressure door-to-door sales, false labeling, unsolicited merchandise, abusive collection practices, misleading advertising and referral and promotional sales. Almost all states have agencies set up to actively protect the consumer.

Easement  n. the right to use the real property of another for a specific purpose. The easement is itself a real property interest, but legal title to the underlying land is retained by the original owner for all other purposes. Typical easements are for access to another property (often redundantly stated “access and egress,” since entry and exit are over the same path), for utility or sewer lines both under and above ground, use of spring water, entry to make repairs on a fence or slide area, drive cattle across and other uses. Easements can be created by a deed to be recorded just like any real property interest, by continuous and open use by the non-owner against the rights of the property owner for a statutory number of years, typically five (“prescriptive easement”), or to do equity (fairness), including giving access to a “land-locked” piece of property (sometimes called an “easement of necessity”). Easements may be specifically described by boundaries (“24 feet wide along the northern line for a distance of 180 feet”), somewhat indefinite (“along the trail to the northern boundary”) or just for a purpose (“to provide access to the Jones property” or “access to the spring”) sometimes called a “floating easement.” There is also a “negative easement” such as a prohibition against building a structure which blocks a view. Title reports and title abstracts will usually describe all existing easements upon a parcel of real property. Issues of maintenance, joint use, locking gates, damage to easement and other conflicts clog the judicial system, mostly due to misunderstandings at the time of creation.

Ejectment  n. a lawsuit brought to remove a party who is occupying real property. This is not the same as an unlawful detainer (eviction) suit against a non-paying or unsatisfactory tenant. It is against someone who has tried to claim title to the property. Example: George Grabby lives on a ranch which he claims he has inherited from his great uncle, but Betty Benefield sues for ejectment on the basis that, in fact, she was entitled to the property through her parents.

Eviction  n. a generic word for the act of expelling (kicking out) someone from real property either by legal action (suit for unlawful detainer), a claim of superior (actual) title to the property, or actions which prevent the tenant from continuing in possession (constructive eviction). Most frequently eviction consists of ousting a tenant who has breached the terms of a lease or rental agreement by not paying rent or a tenant who has stayed (held over) after the term of the lease has expired or only had a month-to-month tenancy.

FAPE  “free appropriate public education.” Provision as required under IDEA.

Foreclosure  n. the system by which a party who has loaned money secured by a mortgage or deed of trust on real property (or has an unpaid judgment), requires sale of the real property to recover the money due, unpaid interest, plus the costs of foreclosure, when the debtor fails to make payment. After the payments on the promissory note (which is evidence of the loan) have become delinquent for several months (time varies from state to state), the lender can have a notice of default served on the debtor (borrower) stating the amount due and the amount necessary to “cure” the default. If the delinquency and costs of foreclosure are not paid within a specified period, then the lender (or the trustee in states using deeds of trust) will set a foreclosure date, after which the property may be sold at public sale. Up to the time of foreclosure (or even afterwards in some states) the defaulting borrower can pay all delinquencies and costs (which are then greater due to foreclosure costs) and “redeem” the property. Upon sale of the property the amount due is paid to the creditor (lender or owner of the judgment) and the remainder of the money received from the sale, if any, is paid to the lender. There is also judicial foreclosure in which the lender can bring suit for foreclosure against the defaulting borrower for the delinquency and force a sale. This is used in several states with the mortgage system or in deed of trust states when it appears that the amount due is greater than the equity value of the real property, and the lender wishes to get a deficiency judgment for the amount still due after sale. This is not necessary in those states which give deficiency judgments without filing a lawsuit when the foreclosure is upon the mortgage or deed of trust.

Fraud  n. the intentional use of deceit, a trick or some dishonest means to deprive another of his/her/its money, property or a legal right. A party who has lost something due to fraud is entitled to file a lawsuit for damages against the party acting fraudulently, and the damages may include punitive damages as a punishment or public example due to the malicious nature of the fraud. Quite often there are several persons involved in a scheme to commit fraud and each and all may be liable for the total damages. Inherent in fraud is an unjust advantage over another which injures that person or entity. It includes failing to point out a known mistake in a contract or other writing (such as a deed), or not revealing a fact which he/she has a duty to communicate, such as a survey which shows there are only 10 acres of land being purchased and not 20 as originally understood. Constructive fraud can be proved by a showing of breach of legal duty (like using the trust funds held for another in an investment in one’s own business) without direct proof of fraud or fraudulent intent. Extrinsic fraud occurs when deceit is employed to keep someone from exercising a right, such as a fair trial, by hiding evidence or misleading the opposing party in a lawsuit. Since fraud is intended to employ dishonesty to deprive another of money, property or a right, it can also be a crime for which the fraudulent person(s) can be charged, tried and convicted. Borderline overreaching or taking advantage of another’s naiveté involving smaller amounts is often overlooked by law enforcement, which suggests the victim seek a “civil remedy” (i.e., sue). However, increasingly fraud, which has victimized a large segment of the public (even in individually small amounts), has become the target of consumer fraud divisions in the offices of district attorneys and attorneys general.

Individualized Education Program  IEPs are mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). An IEP is designed to meet the unique educational needs of one child, who may have a disability, as defined by federal regulations. The IEP is intended to help children reach educational goals more easily than they otherwise would.

Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.

Implied Warranty  n. an assumption at law that products are “merchantable,” meaning they work and are useable as normally expected by consumers, unless there is a warning that they are sold “as is” or second-hand without any warranty. A grant deed of real property carries the implied warranty of good title, meaning the grantor (seller) had a title (ownership) to transfer.

Landlord  n. a person who owns real property and rents or leases it to another, called a “tenant.”

Lease  1) n. a written agreement in which the owner of property (either real estate or some object like an automobile) allows use of the property for a specified period of time (term) for specific periodic payments (rent), and other terms and conditions. Leases of real property describe the premises (often by address); penalties for late payments, termination upon default of payment or breach of any significant conditions; increases in rent based on cost of living or some other standard; inclusion or exclusion of property taxes and insurance in rent; limitations on use (for a butcher shop, a residence for the family only, no pets); charges for staying on beyond the term (holding over); any right to renew the lease for another period; and/or a requirement for payment of attorneys’ fees and costs in case of the need to enforce the lease (including eviction). A lease is distinguished from a mere renting of the premises on a month-to-month basis and cannot exceed a year unless agreed to in writing. A “triple net” lease includes both taxes and insurance in the rent. 2) v. to rent out real property or an object pursuant to a written agreement.

Notice to Quit  n. the notice given by a landlord (owner) to a tenant to leave the premises (quit) either by a certain date (usually 30 days) or to pay overdue rent or correct some other default (having pets, having caused damage, too many roommates, using the property for illegal purposes, etc.) within a short time (usually three days). A notice to quit must contain certain information, such as: names of the persons to leave, whether their tenancy is by written or oral agreement, an amount of any financial delinquency and the period it covers, and to whom they should surrender the premises. If the tenant is month-to-month, a notice to quit without reference to default usually requires no reason. Although state laws vary, generally the notice must be served personally on the tenant or posted in a prominent place like the front door with a copy sent by certified mail. Such notice and failure of the tenant to quit (leave) is a requirement to bring a lawsuit for unlawful detainer (often referred to as “eviction”).

Real Estate  n. land, improvements and buildings thereon, including attached items and growing things. It is virtually the same as “real property,” except real property includes interests which are not physical such as a right to acquire the property in the future.

Tenancy  n. the right to occupy real property permanently, for a time which may terminate upon a certain event, for a specific term, for a series of periods until cancelled (such as month-to-month), or at will (which may be terminated at any time). Some tenancy is for occupancy only as in a landlord-tenant situation, or a tenancy may also be based on ownership of title to the property.

Unlawful Detainer  n. 1) keeping possession of real property without a right, such as after a lease has expired, after being served with a notice to quit (vacate, leave) for non-payment of rent or other breach of lease, or being a “squatter” on the property. Such possession entitles the owner to file a lawsuit for “unlawful detainer,” asking for possession by court order, unpaid rent and damages. 2) a legal action to evict a tenant or other occupier of real property in possession, without a legal right, to declare a breach of lease, and/or a judgment for repossession, as well as unpaid rent and other damages. Such lawsuits have priority over most legal cases and therefore will be calendared for trial promptly.