When clients come to our offices to ask about estate planning, they sometimes confuse some basic legal concepts that their lawyer takes for granted. Understanding some essential legal concepts is necessary if you want to be sure to get the most out of the estate planning process. To that end, we’ve come up with a brief list of concepts you might want to review.
Concept 1: Civil or Criminal Law
The difference between civil and criminal law is one of the most important, and commonly misunderstood, differences in the law. A criminal case occurs when local, state, or federal prosecutor accuses someone of committing a crime. The person accused of the crime, known as the defendant, faces the possibility of jail, fines, and other criminal penalties if convicted. Criminal cases are, at their heart, about punishment. Most estate planning situations do not involve criminal issues.
Civil law, on the other hand, encompasses all the other legal conflicts that can arise. Disputes about contract terms, personal injuries, negligently produced products, and other similar situations are all covered under civil law. In civil law, the heart of the case involves compensation. Civil cases don’t involve a state accusing someone of violating a criminal law, but rather, involve private citizens demanding that another person or organization compensate them for a harm for which the law allows compensation.
Concept 2: Lawsuits
Lawsuits are civil legal disagreements taken before a court for resolution. When someone believes that someone else has caused them damage, that person can take the other person to court by filing a lawsuits. You can file a lawsuit for almost anything, but they are basically disputes that the parties cannot resolve on their own.
Estate planning can involve lawsuits, though it isn’t common. If you want to create an estate plan, you normally don’t have to sue anyone. All you have to do is make choices through tools that the law recognizes.
Concept 3: Courts
There are a lot of different types of courts, but most people are familiar with trial courts. Trial courts are responsible for hearing legal disputes and making a ruling about who wins and loses. Trial courts can hear either civil or criminal cases. They also make decisions about legal arguments or procedural questions that arise in any case.
Creating an estate plan usually doesn’t involve going to court. The documents and planning elements you create don’t have to be approved by a court. However, should someone ever challenge your plan or a problem arises, you must be able to make sure that the planning pieces you create meet the relevant legal requirements so a court will determine that your estate plan is legal.