7 Legal Terms Every American Should Know

Home > Law

7 Legal Terms Every American Should Know

Chloe Seaman
Updated May 28, 2021

Statistically speaking, most Americans end up in a courtroom at some point during their lives. Even if you’re not among the nearly 80 million individuals in the FBI’s criminal database, you may have to appear before a judge for traffic violations, divorce and child custody matters, non-payment of debts, and other civil lawsuits—or at the very least, you’ll be called to serve on a jury.

That’s why it’s helpful to educate yourself on common legal terms. It’s nerve-racking enough to receive a court summons, but not understanding the terminology used in your case can make it even more difficult, especially if you’re not hiring a lawyer to represent you.

No matter what the circumstances for your next court appearance, here are a few essential legal phrases you should know and understands.


Anyone who’s gone through a divorce knows that alimony can be a contentious topic during the proceedings. Also known as “maintenance” or “spousal support,” alimony is a recurring sum of money paid to one’s former spouse to maintain their current lifestyle. It is often awarded in cases where one spouse significantly out-earns the other, and may be decided in advance by the divorcing couple or by a judge.


If a person is “in arrears,” it means they’re behind on payments or debt, including child support payments, mortgage or rent, utility bills and other debt repayment plans. While some arrangements include grace periods, the consequences (and potential court appearances) depend on the debt terms and your local laws.

Controlled Substance

Rapidly changing legislation surrounding cannabis use has made controlled substances a hot topic of conversation lately. Generally speaking, these drugs and chemicals are illegal for sale or use, except when dispensed under a physician’s prescription, and are categorized by “schedule” (I through IV) depending on its narcotic content and addictive properties. Possession of a controlled substance without the required permission often leads to criminal charges.


Embezzlement is a common charge among corrupt individuals in positions of power. This situation occurs when person who is entrusted to manage an organization’s or individual’s cash (such as an agent, executive, or employee) purposely misdirects those assets to themselves or a third party. Common examples of embezzlement include siphoning an establishment’s profits, falsifying payroll records, skimming donations, and government kickbacks to brokers.

Failure to Appear

If you purposely or unintentionally skip your scheduled court date for a criminal incident, you may be charged with failure to appear. It is typically considered a misdemeanor, and the accused may also be held in contempt of court. For civil lawsuits, failure to appear can lead to judgments in favor of the other party and a loss of your procedural rights.


Wage or property garnishment may be enacted when a person fails to pay a debt and does not qualify for bankruptcy. In most cases, creditors such as financial lenders or the IRS will redirect funds from the debtor’s wages until the debt is paid. Not only will this impact your credit score, but in some states, employers can legally fire you for multiple garnishments due to liability issues.


If you’ve purchased a car or property, you’ve li’en th’ “lien” and “lienholder” on your contract of sale. A lien is a claim on a property by a financial provider, which means the credit can reclaim the home or car if you fail to make payments.

Remember, anyone can end up in a legal situation at any time, even if it’s not a criminal charge. Brush up on the above legal terms before you head into the courtroom so you’re prepared.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.