A common term for a legal action, sometimes referred to as a “suit”, started by a plaintiff (complainant) against a defendant (respondent) based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty which resulted in harm to the plaintiff; the determination of merit and/or award to be decided in a court of law.  Refer to Cause of Action or Litigation.


A person who has attained a law degree (Juris Doctorate – J.D. or Bachelor of Laws – L.L.B.) granted upon graduation from an accredited university law school, but has not received certification (licensure) from an approved independent professional governing association to practice law in the state; however often used interchangeably with attorney.  Refer to Attorney at Law.

Legal Costs:

An allowance for expenses in prosecuting or defending a lawsuit that do not ordinarily include attorney fees.  Legal costs generally comprise filing fees, charges for serving summons and subpoenas, court reporter charges for depositions, court transcripts, copying paper, exhibits and other miscellaneous administrative expenses.  Attorneys’ fees can be included as court costs only if there is a statute providing for attorneys’ fee awards in a particular type of case or if the case involved a contract which had an attorney’s fee clause.  Refer to Attorney Fees.

Legal Custody:

A legal status or “custodianship” vesting authority to approve all major decisions affecting a minor child. Joint custody or shared parenting legally supports both parents’ collaboration and approval of major health, safety and welfare decisions affecting the life of the child(ren). Refer to Custody, Joint Legal Custody or Shared Parenting.

Legal Ethics:

            Refer to Ethics Rules.

Legal Grounds:

The reason or basis upon which a court may grant a divorce.  Essentially there are two kinds of grounds: no-fault (irreconcilable differences) and fault, of which the latter (fault) may have many justifications (adultery, abuse, etc.) for approving a divorce as defined by statute. 

Legal Majority:

The age at which a minor child reaches adulthood in the eyes of the law and becomes entitled to most legal rights and obligations.  In most states, the age of majority is reached on the 18th birthday of the minor and generally allows parents to stop making ordered child support payments.  However in some states, the financial child support may be extended, or some rights or privileges of adulthood may be withheld until a later date.  Refer to Age of Majority or Emancipation.

Legal Malpractice:

The failure to deliver a standard of expertise (negligence or incompetence) or exercise a standard of conduct (violation of the Cannons of Ethics) that is recognized by the legal profession as reasonable, and upon which a client may make reliance, that results in harm because of error.  Refer to Ethics Rules.

Legal Notice:

The procedure for informing a party that a legal action or motion is pending before a court.  With the exception of ex parte motions, the court will not hear a complaint without first serving due notice.  The rules of civil procedure governing the serving process and related time requirements to make a response are more specifically determined by statute for each state.  Refer to Ex Parte, Service of Process, or Notice of Hearing.

Legal Rights of Marriage:

Additional to the spiritual rights conferred by marriage, married couples generally receive several legal rights, including more favorable income tax laws, the creation of marital life estate trusts, the right to a spouse’s Social Security, disability, and other pension or public assistance benefits, the right to sue someone for harming or killing a spouse, better insurance rates, citizenship to aliens, the right to make medical decisions about a spouse, and the right to the marital privilege in court.  Refer to Marriage, Civil Union or Privileged Communication.

Legal Separation:

An agreement approved by court order, sometimes called a Pendente Lite Order, declaring that a married couple is no longer living together, and provides for support and other financial conditions (child custody, access, financial child support, spousal maintenance, distribution of property, attorney fees, etc.) until a final judgment of divorce is made, but the marital status of the couple remains unchanged.  In some instances, only a legal separation may be sought by a couple who wish to stay legally married to protect significant religious, financial, social or legal interests.  However in some states, adultery during legal separation may have significant ramifications in the instance of a subsequently later divorce action.  Refer to Limited Divorce, Pendente Lite or Decree.


A form of defamation made as an untruthful statement about a person, published in writing, that injures the person's reputation or standing in the community. Because libel is a tort (a civil wrong), the injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. Refer to Defamation or Slander.


In its widest meaning, the right to retain the lawful possession of the property of another, whether real or personal until a financial obligation or legal duty is properly executed; every such charge being denominated a lien on the property. In a more limited sense, a lien is defined as detaining the property of another until some claim be satisfied. Liens that pledge property to guarantee repayment are called security interests, and include mortgages, home equity loans, car loans and personal loans.  Liens made involuntarily without contractual consent are called nonconsensual liens and include judgment liens (finding by a court judgment in favor of the plaintiff); tax liens (an administrative determination by a government agency); and mechanics liens (filings by a contractor who has performed work but was not compensated).  Refer to Attachment, Injunction, Judgment, or Marital Property.

Limited Divorce:

A temporary, formal agreement approved by the court that recognizes the separation between spouses and provides for spousal maintenance or financial child support.  It does not permit remarriage nor does it terminate property claims.  Refer to Legal Separation, Pendente Lite or Decree.

Lis Pendens:

A Latin term meaning “suit pending”, altering a potential purchaser or lender that a lawsuit has been filed concerning real estate, involving either the title to the property or a claimed ownership interest in it.  Not to be confused with a pendente lite order in a lawsuit.  Refer to Pendente Lite.


Designation to any party to a lawsuit including plaintiff, defendant, petitioner, respondent, cross-complainant, and cross-defendant; however does not apply to a witness, attorney or judge.


An adversarial contest (case, controversy, lawsuit) authorized by law in a court of justice, for the purpose of determining a legal question or matter to otherwise enforce a right.  Refer to Cause of Action or Lawsuit.

Living Trust:

An estate planning method designed to simply the distribution of property to avoid the probate process.  A living will allows for the transfer of property into a trust during the life of the benefactor which passes directly to the trust beneficiaries upon death of the benefactor, without requiring court involvement. The successor trustee (the person appointed to handle the trust upon death of the benefactor) simply transfers legal ownership to the beneficiaries named in the trust.  Refer to Inter Vivos Trust, Heirs at Law, Inheritance, or Beneficiary.

Living Will:

In some states also called a Health Care Directive, Advance Directive, Declaration or Directive to Physicians; a legal document in which a person expresses instructions regarding certain kinds of medical treatments and life-prolonging procedures, and identifies the person to make sure stated preferences are carried out.  A living will takes effect to execute those instructions in the instance the person becomes unable to communicate their own health care decisions.

Long Arm Jurisdiction:

A lawful provision that permits a state to claim personal jurisdiction over someone who lives in another state, based on a meaningful connection between the person and the state or district that is asserting jurisdiction to validate legal authority beyond normal jurisdictional borders. If a Long Arm Statute is not in effect between the states, then the State must undertake a Two-State Action under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) guidelines for certain actions, such as establishing a support order in which the non-custodial parent (NCP) is not a resident. Other actions, such as Direct Income Withholding, are allowed by UIFSA in such a way that neither a Two-State Action nor Long Arm Jurisdiction is required. Refer to UIFSA (Uniform Interstate Family Support Act).

Lord Mansfield’s Rule:

A rule enunciated by Lord Mansfield in 18th century England which became the legal presumption that any child born to a woman during her marriage is the child of her husband; excepting the instance a husband did not have access to the wife during the probable time of conception.  However, due to the reliability and availability of genetic testing, the rule has last favor with the court.  Refer to Presumed Father.

Lower Court:

Refer to Trial Court.

Lump Sum:

One time payment as opposed to a series of payments over time or an installment or structured settlement. The lump sum may be less than all of the payments made over time because the so-called time value of money is taken into account, thus creating a discount. In divorce cases a lump sum payment may be used to pay off all of the alimony obligations or may be used to secure a discount for a spouse’s share of future income such as rents or proceeds from an installment sale to a third party.  Refer to Alimony, Temporary, Permanent or Rehabilitative Spousal Support.