Illinois Lawyer Referrals and Legal Guidance
Illinois Legal Terms Dictionary
We try to provide "plain English" meanings for common legal terms that appear in Illinois cases on a regular basis. We continuously update this directory so please check back for updates. If there is a term that you have a question about that you don't see on this list, please do not hesitate to call us at (312) 346-5320 or (800) 517-1614 or fill out our contact us form and we will contact you.
Acknowledgment of paternity: This is a voluntary form that establishes that someone is the legal father of a child. Once signed, the father can assert his rights by seeking custody and visitation, and he can be ordered to pay child support. The form is signed by both the mother and the father. Either parent can withdraw the form within 60 days.
Action: An action is a legal term for a judicial or legal proceeding.
Administrator: An administrator is also called an executor. An administrator is a person appointed by the court to manage the assets and estate of someone who dies without a will.
Affidavit: An affidavit is a written statement made under oath. It is like testifying in court, but on paper. Affidavits are used in court, as well as in routine transactions, such as buying real estate. When you sign an affidavit, you are verifying that the information contained in it is true and accurate.
Allegation: An allegation is the actual declaring or asserting of something to be true, particularly in a legal pleading. The individual is claiming the event or action in question to be factual.
Amended complaint: A complaint is the first document filed with a court at the start of a case. If there is a problem or error in the complaint, the court may allow you to fix the problem and file an amended complaint.
Answer: This is a document filed in response to a lawsuit. If someone files a complaint and you are the defendant, you will file an answer. In the answer you will admit or deny the allegations made by the plaintiff in the complaint. You also will list any defenses that you may have. There is a deadline for filing an answer. If you miss the deadline, you could lose the case automatically.
Application for adjustment of claim: This form is used to file an official claim for workers’ compensation in Illinois. You have three years from the date of a work injury to file this form with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, or two years from the date you last received any benefits.
Arbitration: Arbitration is a method of alternative dispute resolution. Instead of going to court, the parties chose arbitration. A neutral party or parties are involved to help make a decision which can be either binding or advisory.
Arraignment: Process by which a criminal defendant is officially read the charges against him.
Articles of incorporation/organization: These documents are the first step in establishing a corporation or LLC in Illinois. They are fill-in-the-blank forms, which are available on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website. You will have to list names, addresses, the registered agent, the purpose of the corporation or LLC, etc. There is a filing fee. You may be able to file online.
Bill of sale: This is a legal document that transfers ownership of something from one person to another. The seller prepares the bill of sale for the buyer and both parties sign. It is a basic document that includes the names of the seller and buyer, the date, the location, the item sold and the amount paid. A bill of sale is used for everything from complex real estate transactions to selling a car to a friend.
Circuit Court: Circuit courts are located throughout the states. They have jurisdiction over several counties or districts within the state. Circuit courts act within these counties or districts.
Civil Case: A civil case is a non-criminal litigation brought by an individual to protect or preserve a civil or private right or matter.
Claim: Filing a claim or making a claim is a way of asserting your right to something. You can file a claim for social security disability, a claim for workers’ compensation, an insurance claim, etc. A claim is also a term for an allegation made in a lawsuit.
Complaint: A complaint starts a lawsuit. It describes who the plaintiff is suing and what they are suing about. The complaint is filed with the court and in most cases there is a filing fee. The defendant(s) must then be properly notified (served).
Consumer Fraud: Fraud is defined as a deception deliberately done to secure unfair or unlawful gain. Consumer fraud cases generally involve the wrongful conduct of an insurance company or a finance company that intentionally deceives an individual in order to unlawfully profit.
Damages: Damages are monetary compensations paid through the courts to individuals that have suffered an injury or detriment due to the negligence or omission of another. Damages are court ordered.
Decedent: Decedent is a legal term that is used to describe a deceased person, usually someone who has recently died.
Deed: A deed transfers title (ownership) of real estate. There are different types, including warranty deeds and quitclaim deeds, discussed below. Deeds are filed in the county where the property is located. They are public record.
Estate: An estate is the extent of interest a person may have in real and personal property. This generally includes the property and assets that one owns.
Evidence: Evidence is a type of proof that can be legally presented at trial; it is used to establish or disprove a fact. Evidence can be in many forms. The actions of the parties involved in the trial can be evidence. People, called witnesses, can testify at trial and their testimony may be considered evidence. Evidence also comes in the forms of records, documents, exhibits and concrete objects.
Federal Crimes: Federal crimes are acts which have been made criminal by federal law. Most federal crimes may be found in Title 18 of the United States Code. Some examples are RICO offenses, tax evasion and interstate kidnapping. Federal crimes are prosecuted in federal courts.
Fee agreement: When you hire an attorney, you will be presented with a fee agreement. It is a contract that states the type of fee (hourly, contingency or flat fee) and the relevant amount of that fee. It also may explain who is responsible for paying court fees and other costs of a case. Make sure you completely understand the fee arrangement before you sign.
Felony: A felony is a crime that is more "grave" than a misdemeanor.
Guardianship: A guardianship is a legal arrangement where one person (the guardian) has the legal right and duty to care for another person and that person's property. Most people create a guardianship because of the inability of that person to legally act on his or her own behalf. Someone may lack this ability because of a mental or physical incapacity or because they are not or age yet.
General warranty deed: This document transfers title, or ownership, of real property. For example, if you are buying a house in Illinois, you will likely receive a general warranty deed from the seller. This document also is a guarantee, or promise, from the buyer that the title is good, meaning they were the legal owner with the power to transfer it. The seller (“grantor”) also promises to defend the buyer (“grantee”) against anyone else who comes forward to claim an interest in the property. General warranty deeds are filed and are public record.
Heirs: An heir is a legal term used to describe the person who is the successor to property either by will or by law. Many people refer to the heir of an estate, which simply means the heir is the person, or one of the people, who will receive the property and assets of a recently deceased person.
Judgment: A judgment is a final decision of a court. The judgment states the rights or obligations of the parties. For example, it might state the damages that must be paid by the defendant, or it might name the rightful owner of certain property after a dispute, etc. If you fail to appear in court or respond to the lawsuit, there may be a default judgment ordered against you, which basically means that you have lost the case.
Jurisdiction: Jurisdiction refers to the power and authority of a court to hear a case. A court needs jurisdiction in regards to the subject matter of the case and also the location of the claim.
Living will: A living will allows you to refuse death-delaying procedures (such as ongoing life support) if you are terminally ill or injured. In other words, if you are in a coma and cannot make decisions for yourself, your physician and family members turn to your living will to understand what you would have wanted. It’s a very simple, basic form that you fill out and give to your doctor, spouse and others you trust. You do not need an attorney in order to prepare a living will.
Letter of intent: This is a document that states someone’s intent to do something. It usually comes up in large transactions, such as when a business is being sold. It’s not binding contract but a show of good faith from a buyer that helps the deal move forward. The letter often includes a date when the sale is supposed to occur.
Marital settlement agreement: This document includes the specific terms of a divorce, such as who gets what property, who pays which debts, who gets custody of the children, how visitation will work, whether maintenance (alimony) or child support will be paid and how much, etc. It is presented to the court. If the judge approves, it becomes part of the final decision of the court that makes the divorce official. Each party should have their own attorney review the agreement before signing.
Misdemeanor: In most states, a misdemeanor is any charge that does not qualify as a felony. Jail time for a misdemeanor in Illinois is up to 364 days.
Motion: A motion is when a party makes a request to the court during a lawsuit. The motion usually asks the court to do something specific, such as exclude certain evidence. When one side files a motion, the other side has a certain amount of time to file a response. After both sides have made their arguments, the judge makes a decision.
Motion to dismiss: This type of motion asks the court to dismiss a case for a specific reason. The reasons are limited – you can’t ask the court to dismiss a case for just any reason.
Motion for summary judgment: This type of motion asks the court to decide the case in your favor without a trial. You’re basically telling the court that a trial isn’t needed because the facts are clear (if you’re the plaintiff) or there is no case (if you’re the defendant). A court will grant or deny summary judgment, or it can grant partial summary judgment on just a portion of the case.
Negligence: When someone commits an act of negligence, they fail to do what a person exercising ordinary care would do under similar circumstances.
Non-compete agreement: This is a contract between an employer and employee. The employee agrees to not reveal confidential information or trade secrets or do anything to hurt the employer’s interests if they leave the company. For example, it might prevent an employee from working for a competitor or bringing client lists with them. Non-compete agreements are invalid if they are too broad, either in the activities they limit or the geographic area in which the activities are prohibited, or if the amount of time is unreasonable.
Non-Economic Damages: Non-economic damages are damages for things such as pain, suffering, and loss of companionship. Non-economic damages can be compared to economic damages, such as loss of wages, medical bills, and damage to property. Economic damages have specific monetary values, whereas non-economic damages do not.
Notice of appeal: If you lose your civil or criminal case and wish to appeal, you will need to file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the final judgment. This is the first step in the appeals process.
Order: A court order tells someone to do (or not do) something. It is a written document that is signed by the judge. The judge can issue an order during the case, or at the end as part of the final decision in the case, or any time for that matter. If you violate a court order you can be held in contempt of court.
Partnership agreement: This document defines the relationship between business partners in a partnership and sets out specifics, such as each partner’s percentage of ownership, how the profits and losses are distributed, and each person’s management responsibilities. The agreement should also spell out how the partnership can be terminated.
Petition: A petition is a formal written request presented to a court or other official. Generally, this is the first legal step when filing a claim.
Pleading: A pleading is a formal document, filed with the court during the beginning stages of a lawsuit, which explains the basis for the lawsuit or the defenses against it. There are a few types of pleadings, but complaints and answers are the most common.
Power of Attorney: Power of attorney refers to a form signed by a competent individual that designates another person to be an agent to make decisions for that individual. It is valid only during the lifetime of the individual giving the powers. There are two basic types or power of attorney. Power of attorney for financial gives the agent the power to make decisions relevant to financial matters. Power of attorney for health care gives the agent the power to make decisions relevant to health care decisions.
Power of attorney for health care: This simple document gives another person (your “agent”) power over health care decisions in the event you cannot make them for yourself. Specifically, you can direct your agent to keep you on life support or take you off life support. You do not need an attorney to fill out this document. You can find the free form here.
Power of attorney for property: This document allows a person of your choosing to take control over your property, including your finances, if you are incapacitated. Your agent will be able to access your safe deposit box, pay your bills, sell property, including real estate, etc. The power is fairly broad, but it can be narrowed. You do not need an attorney to fill out this document. You can find the free form here.
Probate: Probate is a procedure at court used to determine if a will is valid or not. You may also hear this word used as a term to define the process of administrating a decedent's estate. This process includes: collecting the decedent's assets, paying necessary bills and taxes, and distributing property to the decedent's heirs.
Promissory note: A promissory note is a written promise to pay a loan or debt. A promissory note should include details, such as the names of the parties, the amount of the debt, the payment schedule, the interest rate and what happens if you don’t pay. The note is signed by both parties. There are forms available online, but whether it’s the right form for you will depend on your state and your unique situation.
Prenuptial agreement: Also called a “prenup,” this document is an agreement between two people who plan to get married. It can address many issues, including how each person’s property or debt is categorized (separate or marital), what happens if there is a divorce, and even what a spouse would or would not inherit if the other dies. Each person should have their own attorney review the agreement before signing.
Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are used to punish the defendant or to set an example of him or her because of his or her outrageous or intentional conduct and often serve as a deterrent from preventing that conduct in the future.
Quitclaim deed: This document transfers interest in real property from one person to another. However, unlike a general warranty deed, the seller (also called the grantor) is not making any promises. They are merely passing along whatever interest they might have in the property. There is no guarantee that the title is valid, meaning someone else might come along and claim ownership. Quitclaim deeds are useful, however, in situations where there history of the property is known, such as when two people are divorcing and one spouse is handing over ownership to the other.
Release: A release is a document that releases someone from liability, meaning when you sign it you are agreeing that you won’t sue them. Releases are not without limits. For example, if someone acts negligently and you get hurt you can probably sue despite having signed a release. You might also come across this term if you are asked to sign a release of medical records. If you sign this, you’re agreeing to allow a health care provider to share your records with someone else, often an insurance company. It’s a good idea to check with an attorney before signing a release because it may not be in your best interest.
Severance agreement: This is an agreement between an employer and an employee. It’s also called a termination or separation agreement. Basically, the employee agrees not to sue the employer and the employer in turn gives the employee severance pay. Be careful about what rights you are waiving. It’s a good idea to have an attorney read over the agreement before you sign.
Small Claims: Small claims usually refer to the collection of small debts and accounts. Small claims court is special court, which hears only small claims, and is less expensive and less formal than a typical court.
Small estate affidavit: An affidavit is a statement or group of statements signed under oath. A small estate affidavit is used to establish that an estate is small enough to avoid the formal probate process. In order to qualify, the value of the estate must be less than a certain amount and it cannot include real estate. The affidavit is then used to distribute the property without going through the courts. It may be required when transferring title to a car, for example.
Special needs trust: A special needs trust holds property (managed by a trustee) for the benefit of someone with special needs (the beneficiary). The purpose is to put money, such as a lawsuit settlement or an inheritance, into a trust so that the disabled person can still qualify for government assistance. This kind of trust is often used by parents for the future care of a disabled child. The trust can only be used for certain expenses, such as education, counseling, medical expenses, special equipment or services, etc.
Statute of Limitations: A statute of limitation is a statute declaring a time period in which is case must be brought in court. The time period may be different depending on the claim or charge. After the time period has expired, no legal action can be brought.
Statutory Summary Suspension: A statutory summary suspension is an administrative procedure providing for the automatic driver's license suspension of a driver arrested for DUI who fails chemical testing (a test showing a BAC of .08 percent or more or any amount of cannabis, controlled substance or intoxicating compound) or who refuses to submit to or fails to complete testing.
Subpoena: A subpoena is a court order requiring someone – usually a witness – to come to court and testify or present evidence. There are penalties for ignoring a subpoena, which can include fines and jail time. The sheriff, or any adult, can deliver a subpoena, which must include a check for the witness fee plus mileage costs.
Subpoena duces tecum: This type of subpoena requires a person to appear in court and bring specific documents or other evidence with them. Failure to do so can result in penalties, such as fines and jail time.
Summons: A summons is an official notice of a lawsuit, which is served upon the defendant to let them know they are being sued. A summons is usually delivered, or served, by the sheriff or a private process server. In order to be valid, it must be handed to the defendant or left with someone 13 or older who lives with them. If the defendant ignores the summons they can lose the case.
Trust: There are several kinds of trusts, but generally speaking they hold assets (real estate, stocks, bonds, CDs, etc.) in order to protect them from things like taxes and probate. A trust is managed by a trustee, for the benefit of a beneficiary. Even after your death, a trust can continue to carry out your wishes. It can distribute income, or portions of the assets, to certain people at certain times.
Waiver: When you sign one of these, you are waiving a right, often your right to sue someone if you get hurt. People often are asked to sign a waiver before doing something that can be dangerous like sky diving or having surgery. While a waiver protects a business or individual from some liability, it does not protect them completely.
Will: This document gives specific instructions about what happens to your assets and property at your death. It can also establish guardianship for children or create a trust. You can change your will anytime during your life if you are mentally competent. At death, your will is filed with the court. There are form wills available online, but they are generic and do not address the specifics of your situation.
Workers' Compensation Commission: Formerly known as the Illinois Industrial Commission, this is the state body that administers workers' compensation claims in Illinois. They do not provide attorneys, but rather have Arbitrators whose job it is to resolve disputes in Illinois workers compensation disputes.
There are hundreds of legal forms and documents out there. If you have a question about one you don’t see here, or want to know more about one that is listed, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Be especially careful when using a legal form without the advice of an attorney. The form may not be right for your particular situation and there may be legal implications of which you’re not aware.
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