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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in November 2013. It is an excerpt from their course US Court Records  by C. Ann Staley, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Selected Terminology

Beware! One of the major pitfalls in courthouse research lies within the terminology. The term “dower,” for example, was used to describe the provision for allotting a life-interest in a portion of the land to a widow, but the amount will vary from state to state, e.g., one-third, one-half, one child’s portion.

The brief definitions that follow should be revisited in the laws and practices of the geographic area (state or territory) in which our research leads us. Study the state Codes (statutes) for a particular period of time.


Etc. Abbreviation for et cetera, and so forth.
§ Section
A.G.O. Adjutant General’s Office
abatement The reduction of the amount of an estate that a legatee is to receive as specified in a will and the amount actually received, generally due to property devaluation between the time the will was made and when the death occurred. Entry of a stranger into the estate after the death of the possessor but before the heir or devisee can take control.
ads. Abbreviation for ad sectam meaning “at the suit of” indicating the defendant.
adjudication The legal and demonstrative processing of casework to assure full compliance with the law and regulations, to determine rights.
administrator (administratrix) A person appointed by the court to handle the estate of an intestate proceeding. An administrator is a male while an administratrix is a female.
administrator cum testamento annexo (adminsitrator cta) This designation indicates that a will was written, but either the will did not name an executor, or the executor died (or refused to qualify, had moved, etc.) so that the court found it necessary to appoint an administrator for the estate.
administrator de bonis non (administrator dbn) An individual appointed by the court to handle the remainder of the estate upon the incomplete administration of the prior administrator.
affidavit A written statement of facts, confirmed by the oath of the party making the affidavit.
affirm To make a solemn and formal declaration that an affidavit is true, that the witness will tell the truth, etc. Substituted at times for an oath, especially by Quakers.
affirmed In the court of appeals, it means that the court has concluded that the lower court decision is correct and will stand as rendered by the lower court.
alienate To convey or transfer the title to property.
answer The written response (defense) to a complaint (or bill) by the defendant (or respondent).
appeal A request, made after a trial, to a supervisory court (usually the court of appeals) to overturn the legal ruling of a lower court.
appellant One who appeals a judicial decision in another court; plaintiff.
appellate court A court relating to appeals; having the power to review the judgment of another court.
appelee One who has been accused of a complaint; defendant.
appertaining Belonging or relating to...
appurtenance That which belongs to something else; an appendage—could include a right of way, barn, or easement.
arraignment The initial appearance before a judge in a criminal case.
assault and battery (AB) An assault places the victim in fear of harm, other than by just words, and battery indicates unlawful touching of another without justification or excuse.
assign To transfer to another.
bankruptcy The federal statutes and judicial proceedings involving persons or businesses that cannot pay their debts and thus seek the assistance of the court in getting a “fresh start.”
bastardy bond A guarantee by the father of an illegitimate child to pay for support of the child.
bench trial A trial without a jury in which the judge decides the facts.
beneficiary One who will benefit through the will.
bequeath To give personal property by will.
bill The written complaint in an equity case.
bill of sale Written evidence of the sale of goods, generally personal property.
bona fide In good faith; without fraud or deceit.
bond A guarantee of the performance of an obligation by an individual (guardian, administrator, etc.) which is generally secured by two or more bondsmen (securities).
bond, recognizance Sum liable to forfeiture upon a broken agreement, generally an obligation of record entered into before a court or magistrate.
bondsmen See bond.
brief A written statement submitted by the attorney for each side in an appellate case that explains to the judges why they should decide the case in favor of that lawyer’s client.
brother-in-law Sometimes the husband of a married sister-in-law, stepbrother, or adopted brother. Currently, the husband of a married sister.
capital offense A crime punishable by death.
caveat A warning to be careful.
certified copy A copy of a document which is signed and certified as a true copy by an officer in whose custody the original is entrusted.
certiorari Latin term meaning “to be informed of.” A written order issued by a higher court to a lower court to produce a certified record of a particular case.
chambers A judge’s office, typically including work space for the judge’s law clerks and secretary.
chattel An article of personal property (as distinguished from real property), sometimes called goods.
chief judge The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of a court; chief judges are determined by seniority.
citation An official summons to appear (as before a court) [When the location of one or more of the parties was unknown, the citation was published in at least one newspaper.]
civil law Law which is concerned with civil or private rights and remedies, as opposed to criminal laws.
clerk of court An officer appointed by the judges of the court to assist in managing the flow of cases through the court, maintain court records, handle financial matters, and provide other administrative support to the court.
common law Based on usage and precedents, common law is distinguished from statutory law which is created by legislation. In general it is a body of law that develops and derives through judicial decisions, as distinguished from legislative enactments.
community property Property held in common by husband and wife with each having an undivided one-half interest by virtue of their marital status. Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington are common property states. All others fall under a common law system which provides that each spouse owns what he or she earns.
complainant Party that files a complaint.
complaint Initial (original) pleading which starts a court action by setting forth the facts of a claim.
consanguinity Kinship or blood relationship. The connection of persons descended from a common ancestor.
consideration The cause, motive, price or compelling influence which induces the parties to enter into a contract.
contract An agreement between two or more persons to do or not do a particular action. Certain criteria must be met to make the contract valid.
convey To transfer or deliver to another party.
conviction A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.
co-respondent Normally, in a divorce suite, the person charged with having committed adultery with the defendant.
court An agency of government authorized to resolve legal disputes.
court of appeals See appellate court.
court of common pleas A court of civil actions.
court of Hustings In English law, the county court of London, held before the mayor, recorder, and sheriff. Formerly a local court in some parts of Virginia.
court of oyer and terminer A high criminal court in some U.S. states—formerly a court of criminal jurisdiction in the state of Pennsylvania.
court of record A court whose proceedings are required by law to be kept on permanent record.
coverture The status of a married woman under common law.
criminal law Law which pertains, in general, to state and federal statutes that define criminal offenses and specify corresponding fines and punishment.
curtesy An estate by which a man was entitled during his natural life, on the death of his wife, of the lands and tenements which she owned.
damages Money paid by defendants to successful plaintiffs in civil cases to compensate the plaintiffs for their injuries.
decree A declaration of the court announcing the court’s decision.
deed in fee A deed conveying the title to land in fee simple with the usual covenants.
deed of gift A deed executed and delivered without consideration.
deed of trust In some states a type of mortgage in which the land was deeded in trust to a trustee to secure the property.
defendant In a civil case, the person or organization against whom the plaintiff brings suit; in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.
demurrer A defendant’s allegation admitting to the facts in a complaint or bill, but claiming that those facts are not sufficient for the plaintiff to proceed or for the defendant to answer.
deponent The individual who makes a deposition.
deposition The testimony of a witness taken in answer to either oral or written questions.
detinue An action to recover personal chattels from someone who had lawfully acquired possession but who then retained it without a right to do so.
devise To give real property by will.
devisor Testator who bequeaths real property by will.
docket A formal book containing a minute, an abstract, or a brief entry of all the important acts or proceeding in a court of justice. Selected types: Appearance docket; Execution docket; Judgment docket.
doomage A penalty or fine for neglect.
dower The provision for allotting a life-interest in a portion of the land to a widow. The amount will vary from state to state, e.g., one-third, one-half, one child’s portion.
dower release A legal document in which a wife or widow relinquishes her rights to the real property of her husband. A widow may choose to release her dower in land, either for a price, or as a gift. Note: Clear title to land could be inhibited if a dower release has not been recorded.
easement The right of one land owner to use the land of another for a specific purpose (e.g. access to land from a highway or water).
emancipation That act of freeing someone from bondage or restraint.
endorsement When a holder of a negotiable instrument (a note, etc.) signs his name on it, thereby assigning or transferring it to someone else.
entail To limit the succession to real property, to a particular issue or class of issue rather than allowing an estate to be freely distributed or to descend to all of the heirs.
equity Justice administered according to fairness.
escheat The process by which a decedent’s property is delivered to the state because the decedent died without a will or heirs.
estate The property of a decedent.
estray Usually defined as a wandering animal whose ownership is not known.
et al. Abbreviation of the Latin term et alii meaning “and other persons”.
et ux. Abbreviation of the Latin term et uxor meaning “and wife”.
evidence Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case in favor of one side or the other.
execution Carrying out a court order until its completion.
extralegal Not regulated or sanctioned by law.
fee simple Typically, the words “fee simple” standing alone create an absolute estate in devisee—the owner can do with it what he pleases.
fee tail A freehold estate in which there is a fixed line of inheritable succession limited to the issue of the body of the grantee or devisee—the general succession of heirs at law is cut off.
felony A serious crime carrying a penalty of more than a year in prison.
feme covert A married woman.
feme sole A single woman, including those who had been married but whose marriage has been dissolved by death, divorce, or judicial separation.
feoffment The gift of any corporeal hereditament to another; the grant of lands as a fee, commonly accompanied by livery of siezin.
fieri facias “Fi Fa” A writ (order) directing the sheriff to satisfy a judgment, generally involving the seizure and sale of personal or real property.
folio A leaf or page of a manuscript.
freehold An estate held for life or an estate in fee (which included fee simple and fee tail).
garnishment An order to appear in court. Advance notice to a person who holds property belonging to another not to give it to him, but to account to the court for it.
grand jury A group of citizens who listen to evidence of criminal activity presented by the government in order to determine whether there is enough evidence to justify filing an indictment.
grant With reference to land, a transfer of land from a colonial or state government to an individual (sometimes called patents).
guardian An individual who is responsible for the real property of another, e.g. minor, free person of color, etc.
habeas corpus A court order (a writ) that is usually used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of his imprisonment or an proceeding instituted to determine whether a defendant is being unlawfully deprived of his liberty.



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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Court Records

offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com 

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

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