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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part law French, even part Anglo-Saxon. And all confusing.

The pace of life continues to pick up as The Legal Genealogist heads into the summer institute season so…

Snippets. When, as and if time allows.

2022 snippet 7

Though this may be a tad longer than a snippet.

So… a reader asked what exactly is meant in records that state they involve a legal obligation.

Um… you may be sorry, dear reader, that you asked.

According to the original Black’s Law Dictionary, we could simply say it’s a “legal duty, by which a person is bound to do or not to do a certain thing.”1

But the law is never quite that simple, is it?

It turns out there’s much more to the term than that: there are “various sorts of obligations” that can be classified into 12 different categories:

• They are either perfect or imperfect. A perfect obligation is one recognized and sanctioned by positive law; one of which the fulfillment can be enforced by the aid of the law. But if the duty created by the obligation operates only on the moral sense, without being enforced by any positive law, it is called an “imperfect obligation,” and creates no right of action, nor has it any legal operation.

• They are either natural or civil. A natural obligation is one which cannot be enforced by action, but which is binding on the party who makes it in conscience and according to natural justice. A civil obligation is a legal tie, which gives the party with whom it is contracted the right of enforcing its performance by law.

• They are either express or implied; the former being those by which the obligor binds himself in express terms to perform his obligation; while the latter are such as are raised by the implication or inference of the law from the nature of the transaction.

• They are determinate or indeterminate; the former being the case where the thing contracted to be delivered is specified as an individual; the latter, where it may be any one of a particular class or species.

• They are divisible or indivisible, according as the obligation may or may not be lawfully broken into several distinct obligations without the consent of the obligor.

• They are joint or several; the former, where there are two or more obligors binding themselves jointly for the performance of the obligation; the latter, where the obligors promise, each for himself, to fulfill the engagement.

• They are personal or real; the former being the case when the obligor himself is personally liable for the performance of the engagement, but does not directly bind his property; the latter, where real estate, not the person of the obligor, is primarily liable for performance.

• They are heritable or personal. The former is the case when the heirs and assigns of one party may enforce the performance against the heirs of the other; the latter, when the obligor binds himself only, not his heirs or representatives.

• They are either principal or accessory. A principal obligation is one which is the most important object of the engagement of the contracting parties; while an accessory obligation depends upon or is collateral to the principal.

• They may be either conjunctive or alternative. The former is one in which the several objects in it are connected … in any … manner which shows that all of them are severally comprised in the contract. … But where the things which form the object of the contract are separated by a disjunctive, then the obligation is alternative. A promise to deliver a certain thing or to pay a specified sum of money is an example of this kind of obligation.

• They are either simple or conditional. Simple obligations are such as are not dependent for their execution on any event provided for by the parties, and which are not agreed to become void on the happening of any such event. Conditional obligations are such as are made to depend on an uncertain event.

• They may be either single or penal; the latter, when a penal clause is attached to the undertaking, to be enforced in case the obligor fails to perform; the former, when no such penalty is added.2


Much obliged.

Not that easy at all, is it?

(I warned you.)

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Much obliged,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 6 June 2022).


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 840, “obligation.”
  2. Ibid., 840-841, “obligation.”
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