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Glossary of Legal Terms


If you are seeking legal help, many of the terms used in the legal world may be words you have never heard before. We’re here to help, so we have identified some of the frequently used terms that you may encounter to help you understand your situation and what you can do about it. 

 

Before we get started, it is important to note that there is little difference between an attorney and a lawyer; these two terms are used interchangeably throughout the United States to refer to someone who has the legal knowledge, education, and professional designation to represent you inside or outside a court of law. The distinction between the two is that a lawyer practices law and has passed the necessary exams to certify their knowledge of the law, whereas an attorney is someone who represents another person in a court of law. 

 

Most of the time, individuals who help you with your legal problems are both lawyers and attorneys. Here at Court Buddy, we use the terms interchangeably, though any lawyer you connect with through Court Buddy will be duly licensed to practice by their State Bar.

 


1.    BUSINESS  

  • Business Agreement - A written agreement that is an understanding, which can be formal or informal, between one business and another on the terms of how they are going to do business together.
     
  • Contract - A formal business agreement, usually reduced to writing, between one business and another on the terms of how they are going to do business together.  
     
  • Commercial Litigation - Commercial litigation is the area of law that covers business disputes. When your business has a dispute with another business, an employee, or a customer and that dispute might be taken to court, a litigation or “trial” attorney can help.  
     
  • Copyright - An individual or business’s literary and artistic work, which often has monetary value and can be legally protected via copyright registration.
     
  • Intellectual Property - An individual or business’s creative work, which often has monetary value and can be legally protected for the benefit of the creator.  
     
  • License - A license gives someone the right to do something or use something for business purposes, often in exchange for fees or other money.  
     
  • Non-Disclosure Agreement (“NDA”) - When a business is contemplating a transaction, often the business will have the other party sign an agreement not to disclose any information about the business that the other party receives. These agreements protect a business’s information and intellectual property.   
     
  • Non-Compete - Some states allow employers to restrict their employees’ (or others who work with or for them) ability to work in the same field or for a direct competitor for a period of time after leaving their position by having them sign Non-Compete agreements. Non-compete agreements are not enforceable in every state.  
  • Patent - If an individual or business patents an invention, they receive the exclusive right to use their invention for a defined period of time in exchange for disclosing certain information about the invention in a patent application.  
     
  • Worker’s Compensation - If an employee is injured on the job, that employee might be eligible for worker’s compensation benefits, and as an employer, you need to understand your obligations to carry worker’s compensation insurance and process claims.  
     
  • Trademark - The “expressions” that a business entity uses to promote itself to customers have value and can be legally protected via trademark registration. Usually, these expressions are words and phrases, or designs and images, but they can take more unusual forms, such as colors, sounds, or smells, as well.   
     
  • Trade Dress - The visual appearance of a product, its packaging (or even the design or layout of a store or building) used so that customers will be able to readily identify the source of the product. Trade dress can be protected as a form of intellectual property.   
     
  • Trade Secrets - A business entity’s confidential information that derives value from the fact that it is kept confidential (and shared only on a “need to know” basis) is a form of protectable intellectual property.  
     
  • Unemployment - If a business terminates or lays off an employee, that employee might be eligible for unemployment benefits, depending on the circumstances, and as an employer, you will need to provide certain information to your state employment agency if requested to do so.  


2.    BUSINESS FINANCES, DEBT & COLLECTIONS  

  • Bankruptcy - A court-supervised process where debts are settled, usually for less than is due, and debts are discharged. All bankruptcies are filed in federal (not state) court and governed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.  
     
  • Consumer Protection Laws - Federal and state laws exist protecting debtors from deceptive, dishonest, unfair, or unreasonable debt collection practices. Businesses need to be aware of these laws when they attempt to collect debts from their customers.  
     
  • Debt Collection - The process of collecting on overdue debts from customers. This can take the form of contacting the customer directly and negotiating a resolution such as a payment plan, hiring a debt collection agency or even filing a court action.  
     
  • Debt Settlement - When one party owes overdue debts to another, they can negotiate and reach an agreement to settle and discharge the debt, typically, by extending the repayment period and/or accepting less than the full amount due.
 

3.    CRIMINAL DEFENSE  

  • Arrest - When the government asserts its authority to take you into custody.  
     
  • Criminal charges - A formal accusation by the government that you have committed a crime. You have only been accused or charged at this point; the government still needs to prove a case against you.  
     
  • Plea bargain - After you have been charged with a crime, you have to make a plea of guilty or not guilty. Often, an attorney can negotiate a plea bargain on your behalf, meaning the government might allow you to plead guilty to a lesser offense (and proceed to be sentenced) in order to avoid a trial.  
     
  • Criminal trial - If you are facing criminal charges, you have a right to a trial in front of a jury, during which the government will have to present evidence to prove you committed the crime.   
     
  • Conviction - If a judge declares in court or a jury finds after trial as part of its verdict that you are guilty of a crime, then you have been formally convicted of the crime.  
     
  • Sentencing Hearing - After you have entered a guilty plea or been found guilty of a crime after trial, the judge will hold a sentencing hearing to determine the punishment for the crime.  
     
  • Criminal record - The official information kept about your arrests and convictions. What is in a criminal record can vary between states, counties or municipalities.  
     
  • Probation - If you have been convicted of a crime, you might be given probation, meaning the chance to remain in the community instead of going to jail. You can also serve a sentence of partial jail time and then be released on probation. Probation requires that you comply with certain court-ordered rules and conditions under the supervision of a probation officer.  
     
  • Expungement - Depending on circumstances, such as your age and the nature of your record, you might be able to have your criminal record cleared or “expunged.”
     
  • Sealing - Depending on circumstances, such as your age and the nature of your record, you might be able to have your criminal record sealed so that it is not available to the public.  
     
  • Misdemeanors - Misdemeanors are crimes considered less serious than felonies, and are usually punishable by fines of up to $1,000 or less than one year in jail.  
     
  • Felonies - Felonies are crimes considered more serious than misdemeanors, punishable by significant fines and jail time.  
     
  • Capital Offenses - Capital offenses are crimes considered so serious that death is a possible punishment, at least in those states that allow the death penalty.  



4.    DUI /DWI  

  • Blood-Alcohol Content (“BAC”) - Your blood-alcohol content is a way of establishing whether or not you are legally drunk. Different states define drunk driving differently, but usually, you will be considered unsafe to drive if your blood-alcohol content is 0.08%.
     
  • Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) - The legal term for drunk driving in most states is Driving Under the Influence. If you are cited for a DUI, it usually is a misdemeanor or felony charge.  
     
  • Driving While Intoxicated (“DWI”) - The legal term for drunk driving in some states is Driving While Intoxicated. In those states, DWI charges are basically the same as DUI charges in the majority of states.  
     
  • Driving While Impaired (“DWI”) - The legal term for driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs. These are usually more serious charges than DUI charges.   



5.    WILLS & TRUSTS

  • Estate Planning - Estate planning is the process of planning how you want to take care of yourself in your old age, as well as how you want to treat your heirs and dispose of your assets in the event of your death. Proper estate planning can minimize the fees and taxes your heirs have to pay to settle your estate.  
     
  • Conservatorship - You can petition the court for a temporary or permanent conservatorship over an adult who is incapable of taking care of themselves.  
     
  • Will - A legal document that goes into effect when you die that disposes of your assets, provides for custody of any minor children or dependent adults and states other wishes you might have. A will needs to be administered through probate in some states, which imposes fees and taxes.  
     
  • Living Trust - A trust goes into effect while you are alive; essentially, you place your assets in trust for your benefit while you are alive and for those of your heirs after you die, and by doing this, you avoid probate, fees and certain estate taxes.  
     
  • Durable Financial Power of Attorney - A legal document that gives someone else power over your financial affairs.  
     
  • Trustee - A person appointed to administer your trust in keeping with your wishes.  
     
  • Executor - A person appointed to administer your will in keeping with your wishes.  
     
  • Health Care Directive - A health care directive states your medical preferences in case you are in a situation where you cannot speak for yourself.  
     
  • Probate - A legal process whereby a will is “proved” or settled in court or an estate is settled when someone dies without a will. The probate process varies from state to state but it takes time and has associated fees and taxes.  
     
  • Probate Fees - Probate fees vary from state to state, but can be significant, depending upon the size of the estate. Some states charge flat fees to go through probate; in other states, fees in the range of .5%-5% of the value of the estate are assessed. Proper estate planning can reduce or avoid probate fees.  
     
  • Estate Taxes - The federal government levies an estate tax on large estates. Additionally, many states levy estate taxes. Estate taxes vary from state to state, but can be significant, depending on the size of the estate. Finally, there are some states that levy inheritance taxes. Proper estate planning is necessary to reduce and/or plan for the tax burden on your heirs.  
     
  • Minor Children - Minor children, defined as those under the age of 18 in most states, will need to be provided for in case of your death. If you do not leave proper instructions a judge will decide who gets custody of your children.  
     
  • Dependent Adults - If you have adults who you care for but who are incapable of caring for themselves, then you will want to make legal provisions for them in the event of your death.  
     
  • Domestic Partners - A domestic partnership is a legal relationship between two individuals who live together and share a life together, but are not married. Domestic partnership rights vary from state to state, but they usually include some of the rights that come with marriage, such as rights of inheritance, etc. People have to register as domestic partners to take advantage of these rights.
     
  • Asset Trust - In certain circumstances you can place select assets in trust for your benefit while you are alive, shielding your assets from future creditors or legal judgments.   



6.    FAMILY LAW  

  • Marriage - State laws govern who can get married and at what age. Marriage creates a formal legal partnership and conveys certain default rights, including certain financial rights, rights to make medical decisions for each other and default inheritance rights, etc.  
     
  • Guardianship - A guardianship a legal designation that gives you rights to make decisions for a minor in your care without having to go through the legal process of terminating the minor’s parents’ rights and adopt the minor.  
     
  • Adoption - Adoption is the legal process of terminating existing parental rights and establishing new parental rights for minors.  
     
  • Domestic Partners - A domestic partnership is a legal relationship between two individuals who live together and share a life together, but are not married. Domestic partnership rights vary from state to state, but they usually include some of the rights that come with marriage, such as rights of inheritance, etc. People have to register as domestic partners to take advantage of these rights.  
     
  • Separation - When married people decide to live apart or separate, whether that be long-term or for a shorter period of time in anticipation of divorce, they can put legally-binding separation agreements in place to ease the transition.  
     
  • Divorce - The legal process of ending a marriage, dividing assets, and arriving at agreements concerning spousal support, child custody and child support, if needed.  
     
  • Prenuptial Agreements - Legally-binding agreements people make between themselves when they are contemplating getting married are called prenuptial agreements or “prenups.” Usually those agreements concern how they will treat finances, assets that they bring to the marriage, or assets they expect to acquire during the marriage.  
     
  • Marital Agreements - When parties are contemplating getting married, or during the time they are married, they can make legally binding agreements. Usually, those agreements concern how they will treat finances, assets that they bring to the marriage, or assets they acquire during the marriage. If they are made after marriage they are called “Post-marital Agreements.”
     
  • Mediation - Mediation is a voluntary process whereby people who would otherwise resolve their differences in court (for example, a divorcing couple) meet with a third-party who acts as a neutral dispute resolution facilitator to try to reach a voluntary agreement without having to go to court.  
     
  • Military Divorce - If one person in a marriage is serving in the military, divorce proceedings can be complicated by this. Sometimes the court proceedings are paused or “stayed” while the service member is completing an overseas tour of duty. It is important to consult with a lawyer in the case of a military divorce.  
     
  • Child Custody - This is the legal process through which parents who are not living together decide where their minor children are going to live. One parent can have “sole” custody, or custody can be shared or “joint.”  
     
  • Visitation - This is the term for how much time one parent (usually the non-custodial parent) is legally entitled to spend with their minor child.  
     
  • Spousal Support - When a couple divorces, sometimes the spouse who has a larger income or other assets is ordered to pay spousal support to the other person, either for a defined period or open-ended period of time. Spousal support obligations vary from state to state and depending on circumstances.  
     
  • Child Support - Any parent has a legal duty to provide financially for their child for as long as the child is a minor (and sometimes for a longer period of time, depending on state law). If a parent does not pay needed child support, the parent can be ordered to do so by a court.  
     
  • Paternity - Paternity is the legal process of establishing who is a child’s biological father, for purposes of imposing support obligations or allowing for visitation or bestowing other parental rights.  
     
  • Wage Garnishment - If one person has legal support obligations (to a former spouse or to a child) and is not making the payments, the court can order that the person’s wages be automatically docked or “garnished,” with the money going to the state or directly to the party due to receive it  
     
  • Domestic Violence Restraining Orders - If one person in an intimate or family relationship with another is physically abused, that person can apply to the court for a court order forbidding or “restraining” the abuser from being near, or contacting, the abused person. Those orders are called either Restraining Orders or Protective Orders.  
     
  • Protective Orders - If one person in an intimate or family relationship with another is physically abused, that person can apply to the court for a court order forbidding or “restraining” the abuser from being near, or contacting, the abused person. Those orders are called either Restraining Orders or Protective Orders.
 

7.    HOUSING /REAL ESTATE  

  • Landlord-tenant - The landlord is the owner of the property who decides to rent it out to another person, who is the tenant. Both landlord and tenants have rights and obligations to each other, which will vary state by state and municipality to municipality.  
     
  • Rent control - Rent control is a government-imposed rent cap or ceiling. Some rent control laws provide that rent cannot exceed a specified amount; others provide that rent cannot be increased more than a certain amount per year. Laws vary state by state and municipality to municipality.  
     
  • Eviction - The legal process through which a landlord forces a tenant to leave the property.  
     
  • Security Deposit - The amount of money a tenant pays in advance to a landlord when entering a lease, for the landlord to hold, return or account for when the tenant leaves the property.  
     
  • Small Claims - If a dispute involves a limited amount of money, usually those disputes are resolved in a streamlined manner in small claims court. The limits on the amount of money at stake and the procedures for small claims court vary state by state and municipality to municipality. In some states attorneys can represent you in small claims court, and in other states they can merely help you get organized and advise you.  
     
  • Foreclosures - When a property owner has a mortgage on the property and is behind on payments, the lender can go through the foreclosure process, which is a legal process whereby the lender seizes control of the property.  
     
  • Property Taxes - Every property owner has to pay property taxes; if you are a property owner, there are ways you can challenge your property assessment to reduce your taxes. If you are behind on your property taxes, a lawyer can help you negotiate debt relief and/or take other steps to help you retain control of your property.  
     
  • Commercial Real Estate - Commercial real estate is property used for a business purpose. Different laws apply to commercial real estate than residential real estate.  
     
  • Residential Real Estate - Residential real estate is property used to live in. Different laws apply to residential real estate than commercial real estate.  
     
  • Leases and Subleases - When a landlord rents property to a tenant, the contract they make concerning rent to be paid and the terms of occupancy, etc., is called a lease. If a tenant decides to rent out all or part of the space to another tenant for the duration of the lease, that contract is called a sub-lease.  
     
  • Unlawful Detainer - The legal process through which a landlord forces someone occupying their property to leave, on the grounds that the occupant has no legal right to be there.   


8.    IMMIGRATION  

  • Immigrate - Someone who immigrates travels to live in another country with the intent of living there permanently.
     
  • Deportation and Removal Proceedings - The legal process through which the government seeks to force an immigrant who is not a legal resident to leave the country.  
     
  • DACA - A person who has lived in the United States without official authorization since coming to the country as a minor might be eligible to remain in the country with a special status under the DACA program.  
     
  • US Visas - If you have a US Visa, it authorizes you to remain in the United States for a predetermined period of time. You are not a citizen, but you are authorized to stay in the United States for a set time for travel, education, work, or other purposes.  
     
  • US Green cards - If you have your US green card, it authorizes you to remain in the United States permanently. You are not a citizen, but you are a “Lawful Permanent Resident” under federal laws.  
     
  • Asylum - Asylum law is an area of federal law that allows people who have come to the United States, and who have a well-founded fear of being harmed if they are forced to return to their own country, to remain in the United States.   
     
  • Citizenship - U.S. citizens owe their allegiance to the United States and are entitled to its protection and to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens.  
     
  • Naturalization - Becoming a citizen through naturalization is a process in which a non-U.S. citizen voluntarily becomes an American citizen.  
     
  • Dreamer - A person who has lived in the United States without official authorization since coming to the country as a minor and who might be eligible to remain in the country with a special status under the DACA program is often called a “Dreamer.”  
     
  • Lawful Permanent Resident - If you have your US green card, it authorizes you to remain in the United States permanently. You are not a citizen, but you are a “Lawful Permanent Resident” under federal laws.    


9.    PERSONAL FINANCES, DEBT & COLLECTIONS  

  • Personal Debt - If you owe money as an individual, on a loan, on a credit card, or any other way, that is your personal debt.  
     
  • Debt Collection - If a creditor believes you have defaulted on your personal debt (because you are late on payments or have stopped repaying), they can institute formal collection activities against you, up to and including a court action.  
     
  • Creditor - A creditor is the person or business from which you borrowed money or from which you took out a finance loan. If you have personal debt, this is to whom you owe that debt.  
     
  • Debtor - A debtor is the person who is in debt. If you have borrowed money, you are the debtor.   
     
  • Personal Bankruptcy - There are a few different types of personal bankruptcy that you can file, which include Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and Chapter 13. Each of these types involve some sort of debt forgiveness with varying degrees of asset retention.  
     
  • Debt Settlement - When you owe money to a creditor, you may be able to enter into a debt settlement. This is an agreement in which you and the creditor agree that you only have to pay a portion of your debt to settle your obligation to the creditor.  
     
  • Credit Counseling - Credit counseling typically involves remedial financial education and training so that you understand how to budget and handle your finances so that you can reduce or eliminate debt.  
     
  • Credit Score - A credit score is a number that is assigned to you in order to reflect your financial responsibility and trustworthiness in your ability to repay debt.Credit scores are assessed by credit bureaus and reflected on your credit report. Generally, credit scores range as follows: 300-629 (Bad); 630-689 (Fair); 690-719 (Good); and 720-850 (Excellent).  
     
  • Credit Report - A credit report is a report of your financial history. It includes what loans you have taken out and are outstanding, what you have taken out and paid back, as well as any loans you have taken out and have defaulted on. Additionally, it includes financial events such as bankruptcies.  
     
  • Consumer Protection Laws - Consumer protection laws are put in place by the federal government to protect consumers from fraud, deception, and other nefarious trades. These laws are put in place to safeguard consumers and offer them an extra layer of protection from predatory financial companies.  
     
  • Statute of Limitations - This sets the time in which you have to initiate legal proceedings from the time of the event. Once that time has passed, you can no longer take action as the window of time to do so has closed or expired.  
     
  • Foreclosure - Foreclosure is the legal process that is initiated when a debtor fails to pay the debt of a home mortgage. These legal proceedings can result in repossession of the home from the to the bank as well as a negative mark on the debtor’s credit report.  
     
  • Taxes - These are fees that are levied onto an individual by the government, company, or financial institution and enforced by the government. Taxes are not optional and must be voluntarily paid.   


10.    TICKETS  

  • Parking ticket - You get a parking ticket (or a citation) for parking a vehicle in a restricted place or without permission.  
     
  • Speeding ticket - A speeding ticket (or a citation) is a type of traffic ticket; you get a speeding ticket for driving over the posted speed limits or at an unsafe speed.  
     
  • Traffic accident - A traffic accident involves damage to a vehicle or injury to a person resulting from a vehicle. Often, issues of who is at fault, whether the parties have insurance, and who will pay for damages or medical bills arises.  
     
  • Traffic school - Attending an approved traffic school removes certain types of tickets from your driving record so that your insurance premiums will not increase. Each state will have its own criteria for how you qualify for traffic school, but usually, you need to (1) have a valid driver's license, (2) not be driving commercially, and (3) have received a ticket for a relatively minor moving violation.  
     
  • Traffic ticket - Traffic tickets (or citations) are given for any type of violation of traffic laws, including, for example, speeding, cell phone violations, expired registrations and automobile equipment needing repair.
 
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