Glossary of Basic Legal Terms – Definitions


Adjournment: is a temporary postponement to a case

Administrator: the person appointed to oversee an estate in the event that no will is written

Affidavit: A sworn written statement

Alimony: also known as “maintenance” and “spousal support”, alimony is the money paid by one spouse to another following a divorce

Annul: to void

Annulment: is a legal decree stating that a marriage was not valid – not to be confused with “divorce”

Appeal: a request to a higher court to overturn the judgment of a lower one

Arbitration: a method of amicable dispute resolution

Arraignment: the initial appearance before a judge in a criminal case – it is at this hearing that a defendant can enter a plea, ask to post bail, and, if the defendant cannot afford one, have a court lawyer appointed

Article of Incorporation: is a document filed with the state incorporating a limited liability company

Assignment: is the transfer of legal rights from one person to another – not the same as an novation, which is the transfer of legal obligations from one person to another

Award: a decision, usually by an arbitrator, in favor of a plaintiff or defendant, as the case may be


Bail: money paid to the court to guarantee the defendant’s attendance at court at a later date. Money paid is more commonly known as a bail bond

Bankruptcy: a process governed by federal law where a person cannot pay bills when due and payable – chapter 7 and chapter 13 bankruptcy actions

Beneficiary: the person named as such in a will or insurance policy. A beneficiary may also be the equitable named person under a trust, where the legal owner is the trustee

Board of Directors: a group of individuals who run a company on behalf of the shareholders

Brief: a legal document that sets out the legal arguments in a lawsuit

Burden of Proof : is the duty, in law, to show, according to the facts, that the allegations to the lawsuit are either false or true – depending on the nature of the case


Capital Gain / Loss: the profit or loss, as the case may be, from the sale of an asset – such as your home. Ordinarily, but not always, capital gain will be taxed

Cause of Action: is the reason/grounds on which the legal action is being submitted/brought

Caveat Emptor: Latin meaning “buyer beware”, this legal doctrine means that if you do not take due care when buying something, you cannot take your case before the courts

Certified Copy: also known as “certified true copy”, this is a document signed as being a true copy of the original

Certify: to testify in writing

Class Action Lawsuit: is where two or more plaintiffs join together to bring a case against another

Collateral : is the security you agree to put down on a loan and which you will have to forfeit in the event that you cannot repay the loan – also known as “security”

Complaint: is a civil law action that initiates a lawsuit

Condition: are circumstances which are essential to the ascertain of a right; for example, it may be a condition to a loan that you give security, without giving security, you do not have the right to the loan

Conflict of Interest: means that you have competing interests in something that would make it difficult or impossible for you to fulfill your duty impartially

Consideration: is the thing, usually money, which you pay, under a contract, in exchange for getting something else

Contract: is a legal agreement entered into between two or more persons, known as “parties to the contract”, whereby an offer is made and accepted

Costs: the sum awarded to the successful party to a lawsuit – and usually amount to the “costs”, including legal fees, of having brought the case

Counsel: legal representative: lawyer or attorney

Creditor: someone to whom you owe money

Custodian: person appointed to manage and disperse funds on behalf of a child – unlike a trustee, a custodian is normally a court order persons


Damages: money paid to someone who has suffered injury or loss as a result of an action by a third party

Debtor: someone who owes money to a creditor

Decision: the verdict of a court in a case

Deed : a written legal document describing a piece of property and setting out the boundaries of that property

Default: is the failure to do something required of you under contract – an obligation. Ordinarily the obligation is to pay money, which is you do not pay, would mean you are in default of the contract

Defendant is the person who has charges to answer (criminal), or is being sued (civil)

Defined Benefit/Contribution Plan: essentially both a defined benefit plan and a defined contribution plan are forms of 401(k) retirement plans

Deposition is where a witness testifies under oath and you have pre-trial discovery to determine whether or not the deposition is in fact true

Discovery: the process, pre-trial, where each party to a case will ask for documentation and information relevant to their case

Dismissal: the termination of a case

Double Jeopardy: is the process of being tried twice for the same crime/offence

Due Process: is a legal doctrine that a person’s trial proceeding be fair


Easement: a right given to one person to enter the property of another without having to ask permission each time – for example, the telephone/cable lines going into your home are an easement right

Encumbrance: is a claim on your property title – for example, a mortgage

Escrow: money paid into an account in the name of a third party which is then released once certain conditions have been fulfilled

Escrow Agent: the person appointed to look after the escrow account

Estate: all of the property of a deceased person

Evidence : documents, etc. that prove a claim as to facts

Executor: person named in a will to dispense the estate

Exempt Property: property which cannot form part of a bankruptcy lawsuit – usually work related property, such as the tools needed for work

Exhibit: document, evidence, provided to a court to support a claim


Fault: to be at “fault” means that you are to blame for something

Felony: a crime the nature of which is serious enough for you to spend one or more years in jail

Fiduciary Duty: is where you have an obligation to act in the best interest of a third party

Fine: punishment imposed for an offence

Foreclosure: occurs when a borrower cannot repay their debts and the creditor forecloses and sells the property – such as a house

Franchise: a business relationship whereby the owner of a business licenses others to use the name of his business


Good Faith: is to act honestly and without deception

Grand Jury: is a group of civilians convened to determine whether or not a criminal case has enough merit to proceed to trial

Grantor: the person who establishes a trust on behalf of the beneficiaries

Guarantee: a legal agreement under which a person agrees to guarantee the obligations of another

Guarantor: the person who provide a guarantee on behalf of another


Heirs : person entitled by law to inherit the estate of a deceased person


Implied: means to give the appearance – thus, you have “implied warranty”, which means that you have given the appearance that there was a warranty, even if there was not one

Incompetency: to lack legal qualification or fitness to discharge a legal duty

Indemnity: to provide an undertaking to secure against loss or damages in the event of certain events – in other words: “compensation”

Injunction: a court order requiring you to stop doing something

Intestate: means to die without having left a will


Joint Custody: means that both parent have equal rights to a child following a divorce

Joint and Several Liability : means that you agree to be jointly and individual liable for a debt with another person

Judgment: the official decision given by a court

Jurisdiction: the court’s authority to hear your case

Jury: group of twelve citizens charged with hearing your case


Lease: a legal agreement to lend/hire something to a third party.

Lemon Laws: laws that require manufactures to repair defective cars

Lessee: the person who hires something from a lessor

Lessor: the person who leases something

Liability: a duty or obligation for which you’re a legally responsible

Lien: is a charge over your property = such as a mortgage

Limited Liability Company : is a business that has shareholders who are limited in liability to the contribution of the fully paid up share

Living Will : is a legal document that sets out a person’s wishes should they become incapacitated


Maintenance: money paid to a spouse in the event of a divorce (also known as alimony)

Minor: a person under the legal age of consent (18)

Motion: a request made to a judge asking him to rule on an issue of law


Natural Person: an individual – as opposed to a company or partnership

Negligence: a failure to use a degree of care

Notary Public: person authorized to witness documents


Oath: to swear to tell the truth

Order: direction (written or oral) of a court


Petition: written application to the court asking the court to take action on a specific matter

Plaintiff: the person who starts/commences a lawsuit

Pleadings: applies in civil cases and are the allegations made by each of the parties to the case

Power of Attorney: a legal document authorizing another to act on you behalf

Probate: the legal process where the court oversees the distribution of property under a will

Proceedings: the process of a lawsuit

Promissory Note: a written document under which a person promises to pay another money on a given date and pursuant to specified terms set out in the promissory note (also known as a “PN”)


Quid Pro Quo: is a Latin term which means you’ll get something for having given something


Real Property: means land and all things attached to the land

Reasonable: means a level that an ordinary person would be expected to have, e.g. “reasonable care” means the level of care expected from a reasonable person

Reply: a plaintiff’s response to a defendant’s answer


Security Agreement: means a contract under which you agree to give security as collateral for a loan in the event that the loan is not repaid

Settlement: is an agreement or decision in a civil case

Shareholder: someone who hold shares in a limited company

Standard of Care: degree of care required to prevent injury to another

Statute of Limitations: is the period prescribed by law within which you have to file a lawsuit, otherwise you forfeit your right to being an action

Strict Liability: means that even if there is no proof of negligence, you can still be found guilty of an offence

Subpoena : legal order compelling you to appear in court

Summons: a legal document notifying you that a lawsuit has been initiated against you and how and where you must answer the claim


Testator: person who make a will

Tort : a civil wrong

Trust: property given to a trustee to manage on behalf of beneficiaries

Trustee: person charged with looking after property under trust


Verdict: formal decision by a jury/court on the facts of a case


Witness : a person who gives evidence in court under oath or who signs a document to testify/certify that the person who signed the document was who he claimed to be

Worker’s Compensation: paid to a worker who suffers a work related injury or illness

Writ: a judicial order

Categories Law & Legal

4 thoughts on “Glossary of Basic Legal Terms – Definitions”

  1. Your explanation of legal terms is quite helpful. But a non-lawyer may still find some of your explanations too technical to comprehend e.g. lien. Keep up the good work.

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