Employee Benefits

Legal Terms and Definitions: Words to Know

2 min read
Oct 10, 2022

We break down some of the most common legal terms, so if and when you find yourself in a courtroom (or even watching one on TV), you’ll feel better equipped for whatever is thrown your way.


A verdict from the jury stating the defendant (accused) is not guilty, or that a judge finds there is not enough evidence to convict


A term describing evidence that is allowed to be used in court

Adversary proceeding

Refers to a lawsuit and the pursuant trial related to a bankruptcy case


The written statement made under oath regarding a lawsuit or trial; most often refers to witness statements used as evidence in court


The formal statement from the defendant in a civil case that declares there are grounds for defense


When a losing party in a trial requests that a higher court assess the situation and determine if it was handled correctly; an appeal acts as a second chance of sorts that could result in a reversal of the loss


The court proceeding in which the defendant is brought to court, told the charges against them, and pleads guilty or not guilty


  1. The release of someone accused of a crime under specific conditions that ensure the accused will appear in court when required
  2. The amount of money paid to the court for pretrial release of a defendant


A legal way to manage debt issues for both individuals and organizations that lowers the financial strain; filed under title 11 in the U.S. Code

Bench trial

A trial without a jury in which the judge alone determines the verdict

Burden of proof

The duty to prove your case and, in a criminal trial, the duty to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty

Circumstantial evidence

Indirect evidence, like witness testimony, that requires the judge and jury to make inferences to support the argument

Class action

A lawsuit drawn against an individual, group, or organization on behalf of a large group of people, all of whom will receive some type of reparations should they win the case

Contract of adhesion

A contract created by one party that is meant to be taken at face value by the second party and is non-negotiable; a “take it or leave it” contract


Money paid to plaintiffs by defendants in civil cases that is meant to compensate for injuries


The person being accused of a crime in a criminal suit and the party being sued in a civil suit


A statement from eyewitnesses to a crime, related parties, or character witnesses meant to examine credibility, benefit the case, and/or to gather evidence


The examination of evidence, facts, documents, and knowledge from the opposition by each attorney involved in a case to help them prepare for trial

Due process

The constitutional law that decrees a defendant will be given a fair and impartial trial and read their legal rights; ensures a fair process for those involved

Durable power of attorney

Ensures power of attorney is maintained in the instance that an individual cannot make decisions for themselves


The remains of a person’s property and money owned by a person; often applies to the planned distribution of those assets after death in an estate plan


Physical evidence—including documents, visual aids, weapons, photographs, recordings, and more—that is used in court to support each side’s claims


A crime with a penalty of more than a year in prison; higher caliber crimes than misdemeanors

Grand jury

A jury sitting on federal criminal cases that are prosecuted by lawyers from the U.S. Attorney's office

Habeas corpus

A written command requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court in order to determine whether there are lawful grounds to detain the accused or if they can be released until trial


The formal reading of the charges against a defendant that states there is enough evidence to justify a trial, usually reserved for felony cases


A court order prohibiting certain activities that could cause irreparable damage to a party or the court


  1. The legal authority of a court to try a case
  2. The geographical area in which the court, lawyer, or law enforcement has the authority to act  


The right of a person to keep possession of something belonging to another as collateral to be kept until a debt or obligation has been satisfied


The process of taking legal action, such as a lawsuit or court case

Magistrate judge

The judges or judicial officers who help U.S. district court judges prepare for trial


An offense punishable by less than a year of prison or jail time; also called a petty offense


An invalid trial due to an error in the proceedings; requires a full restart of the trial, including new jury selection


The early release of an inmate who is then supervised by a parole officer


The person or organization who files a complaint, sues, or presses charges in court


The defendant’s statement of guilty or not guilty; a plea bargain allows for a defendant to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence or dropped charges


A court decision from an earlier case similar to the case at hand which can be used to inform the decision of a current case


Short for prenuptial agreement. A written contract between two people prior to marriage in order to ensure each party receives their original properties should there be a divorce; typically, a prenup lists property, money, and debts held by each person

Pro se

Representing oneself in a civil or criminal lawsuit


The formal process of reading a will and distributing assets to beneficiaries


A sentencing option that releases a defendant or accused party back into the community under the condition that they do not repeat their crimes; monitored under the supervision of a probation officer


The rules and regulations set for the court, attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, and others involved in civil and criminal lawsuits


To charge someone with a crime; prosecutors try criminal cases on behalf of the government


A penalty or other consequence against a person or organization acting out of compliance with the law or procedure


The punishment determined by the court for a defendant found guilty of committing a crime


The process of keeping jurors away from outside influences during a trial and deliberation process

Standard of proof

The degree of proof required for a guilty conviction; “beyond a reasonable doubt”

Statute of limitations

The timeframe in which a lawsuit or criminal trial can be tried; differs by the crime charged or type of civil case


A contract that guarantees debts ranked higher will be paid first; usually refers to bankruptcy cases


A mandate that requires a witness to appear in court and give testimony, regardless of the subject’s willingness

Testamentary Trust

A trust that does not take effect until after the named party dies


The evidence presented orally by witnesses during a trial or case


An arrangement in which a person, called a trustee, holds property for safekeeping until the intended beneficiaries are to receive it

Voir dire

The jury selection process performed by questioning prospective jurors to determine if they can and should sit on a jury for a criminal case


The final decision of a judge or court


A legal document that coordinates asset distribution after the named party is deceased; a will ensures your assets are handled in the manor you prefer


A court order directing a person to act (or not act) in a certain way; an act that’s been forbidden by the court

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This article is intended to provide general information about insurance. It does not describe any Metropolitan Life Insurance company product or feature.

Group legal plans are administered by MetLife Legal Plans, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio. In California, this entity operates under the name MetLife Legal Insurance Services. In certain states, group legal plans are provided through insurance coverage underwritten by Metropolitan General Insurance Company, Warwick, RI. Payroll deduction required for group legal plans. For costs and complete details of the coverage, call or write the company.