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Court glossary terms: S-Y

Learn important glossary terms when it comes to your court matters.

Table of Contents


SAFE KEEPING OF WILL - The deposit of a will with the Probate and Family Court in the county in which the testator/rix lives to keep until the testator/rix either dies or wishes to change the will. A fee is charged.

SATISFACTION - A written acknowledgment of receipt of payment or performance of a judgment which is filed with the court.

SATISFY A JUDGMENT - Pay the damages ordered as part of a judgment in a civil case.

SEALED RECORD OR FILE - An adult criminal or juvenile delinquency record which is closed and cannot be examined by anyone except by order of the court. See EXPUNGE.

SEARCH WARRANT - A written order issued by a judge or clerk-magistrate which allows the police to search a specific place for specific evidence. To get the warrant, the police must show that there is probable cause to believe that the object(s) sought will be found in the place(s) to be searched. With limited exceptions, evidence discovered by the police searching without a warrant cannot be used in court.

SECTION 35 COMMITMENT - A commitment to a drug treatment facility made when a court determines that a person's alcohol or drug abuse is a danger to him- or herself or to others and requires a safe and secure intervention. Family members, blood relatives, police officers and physicians can petition a court for this commitment.

SENTENCE - The punishment imposed following a conviction in a criminal proceeding.

SEPARATION - A judgment by a court that two married people may live separately while remaining husband and wife, and declaring the rights and obligations of the parties while they are separated.

SEPARATION AGREEMENT - A contract between spouses who have separated documenting their agreement on issues relating to child custody, property division, child support, alimony, etc. This contract is usually submitted to the court by the parties to a divorce case for approval by the court.

SEPARATION OF POWERS - The principle that government powers should be allocated to three separate branches of government - the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches - so that no one branch of government has all of the power. The United States Constitution and all of the state constitutions include separation of powers provisions.



  1. Sequestration of jury: An order directing that a jury be isolated from contact with the public and the media during a trial and/or during deliberations, designed to prevent jurors from being improperly influenced by factors outside of the control of the court.
  2. Sequestration of witnesses: An order directing that a witness to stay outside the courtroom and not discuss testimony with others until the witness is called to testify, designed to prevent witnesses from being influenced by the testimony of other witnesses.

SERVICE OF PROCESS - The delivery of writs, orders or other documents to the party to whom they are addressed, usually by a process server (a constable or a deputy sheriff.) Forms of service include:

  1. In-hand service: Delivering the documents directly into the hand of the addressee.
  2. Last and usual service: Leaving the documents at the last and usual residence of the addressee.
  3. Service by publication: Publishing the summons or other notice as a legal advertisement in a designated newspaper, used when the party to be served is absent or is a nonresident.

SERVICE PLAN - A plan drawn up by the Department of Children and Families describing the services to be provided to a family to resolve a crisis. Service plans are often introduced into evidence in termination of parental rights, care and protection and adoption cases to show the efforts the Department has made to keep the family together.

SERVICE MEMBERS CIVIL RELIEF ACT (SCRA) - A federal statute (formerly known as the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act) that protects people in the military from being sued while in active military service of their country and for up to a year after active duty. Because of the SCRA, certain additional steps are required in some cases in Massachusetts courts. For example, when a bank wishes to foreclose a mortgage, it must file a petition under the Act in state court to establish whether the property owner is in the military; if so, the proceeding will be suspended. Similarly, in certain matters in the Probate and Family Court, the plaintiff must file a military affidavit stating the military status of the other party or parties to the case.

SESSIONS CLERK - A court employee who works in the courtroom assisting the judge running the court session.

SESSION LAW - A law passed by the legislature that is not of general application and is not included in the Massachusetts General Laws.

SETTLEMENT - The resolution of a case or dispute before going to trial.

SHARED CUSTODY - In a domestic relations proceeding, one or both of the following:

  1. the children live with one parent part of the time and with the other parent part of the time (usually referred to as "joint physical custody"); and/or
  2. the parents make decisions on important issues dealing with the children together (usually referred to as "shared legal custody.")

SHERIFF - An elected county law enforcement officer who has the authority to execute all lawful writs, process, and orders, and to appoint deputies to act in the same capacity. The sheriff also operates the county jail and house of correction, and in some counties operates a community corrections center.

SHOW CAUSE HEARING - A hearing conducted by a clerk-magistrate or judge in which the complainant in a criminal case, usually a police officer, is required to show sufficient facts to establish that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that therefore a criminal complaint should be issued against a defendant.

SIMULTANEOUS INTERPRETATION C A process of converting spoken words from one language to another in which the interpreter converts the words spoken from language A to language B as they are being spoken, so that the speaker does not need to pause to wait for the interpretation to occur.

SINGLE JUSTICE - Justices of the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court sit alone in a "single justice session" in addition to sitting in panels and sitting en banc. The single justice may review and decide a variety of cases, including interlocutory orders, orders for injunctive relief and matters within the SJC's original jurisdiction, such as bar admissions and discipline, extraordinary writs, etc. A single justice may report a matter to the full bench and a party unhappy with the single justice's decision may appeal to the full bench. Associate Justices typically sit as single justice for a month at a time. The Chief Justice does not sit as a single justice.


SLANDER - Injury to a person's character or reputation by the spoken word. See DEFAMATION, LIBEL.


SMALL CLAIMS - A special process for resolving civil cases in which the amount of damages claimed usually does not exceed $7,000.00. Small claims cases are heard by a clerk-magistrate or assistant clerk-magistrate, without a jury and usually without attorneys. The defendant may appeal the decision to a judge.



SPECIAL LAW - A law of limited applicability not intended for inclusion in the General Laws.

SPECIALTY COURT - A court session addressing a specific issue or condition, for example, substance abuse, mental health or homelessness, in a focused way, with intensive supervision and active involvement by the judge, probation, treatment and service providers, attorneys and others, sometimes referred to as “problem-solving courts.”

SPECIFIC PERFORMANCE ORDER - An order directing a party to a contract to do what the party contracted to do. Generally used when the thing or service contracted for is unique, such as real estate, so that money damages for breach of contract would be inadequate.

SPENDTHRIFT - A person who by excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, or debauchery of any kind spends, wastes, or lessens his or her estate and exposes himself or herself or his or her family to want or suffering, or exposes the state to charges or expenses for the support of himself or herself or his or her family.

SPENDTHRIFT TRUST - A trust created to provide for a spendthrift while at the same time protecting the funds from his or her improvidence or incapacity.

SPOUSAL ELECTION - A surviving spouse's choice between accepting the provisions of a will or claiming instead the portion of the estate for by statute.

SPOUSAL SUPPORT - A sum of money that a court orders paid by one spouse to the other for support, aid, or maintenance in a separation or divorce. An award of spousal support does not include child support. Also known as "alimony."

SPOUSE - Gender-neutral term for husband or wife.

STALKING - Willful repeated or continuing harassment of another person that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested, and that actually causes the victim to feel that way.

STANDARD OF REVIEW - The legal standard applied by an appellate court to decide whether the court or administrative agency whose ruling or decision is being reviewed should be reversed. Some common standards:

  1. Clear Error: A trial judge's finding of fact will not be reversed in the absence of clear error, because those findings are based on the judge's assessment of the credibility of the witnesses who were seen and heard by the judge and not by the appellate court.
  2. Abuse of Discretion: A trial judge's judgment will not be reversed when it is reasonable, even though an appellate court might have ruled otherwise, since the ruling is a "judgment call" that is for the judge to make.
  3. Error of Law: A trial judge will be reversed for an error of law in some circumstances.

STANDING - A litigant with "standing" is someone who has a legally protected interest in the case.


STATE PRISON - A correctional facility (Massachusetts Correctional Institution or MCI) operated by the Department of Corrections. Only the Superior Court can sentence someone to state prison.

STATUS OFFENSE - An activity that would not be considered a violation of the law if committed by an adult, but that may cause a minor to be brought before the Juvenile Court, such as being a runaway, being truant from school, etc.

STATUTE OF FRAUDS - A legal rule that certain types of contracts, such as real estate sales agreements, must be in writing or they will not be enforced by the courts.


  1. In civil cases: A law requiring that a civil case must be begun within a certain period of time after the alleged injury or damage occurred.
  2. In criminal cases: A law requiring that a prosecution for a criminal act must be begun within a certain period of time after the alleged crime occurred.

STATUTE OF REPOSE - A statute setting out the time limits within which an action for damages arising out of any deficiency or neglect in the design, planning, construction or general administration of an improvement to real estate must be begun.

STATUTES - Laws enacted by a legislature. In Massachusetts, state statutes are collected in the Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) or Massachusetts General Laws Annotated (MGLA). Federal statutes are found in the United States Code (USC) or United States Code Annotated (USCA).

STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION - The process of determining the meaning of a legislative act through the application of accepted legal principals. See RULES OF STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION.

STAY - The suspension of a judicial proceeding by court order. For example, a stay pending appeal stops the execution of a sentence or judgment until an appellate court has reviewed the matter.


STIPULATION - An agreement between opposing parties on any matter relating to the proceedings, e.g., to extend the time to answer, to adjourn the trial date, to admit certain facts at the trial, to dismiss the case, etc. The stipulation may require court approval to be effective. Facts that are stipulated need not be proved by evidence at trial. Sometimes referred to as a "stip."

STRATEGIC LAWSUIT AGAINST PUBLIC PARTICIPATION - Litigation intended to discourage or punish dissent or disagreement, commonly referred to as a SLAPP suit. In Massachusetts, the anti-SLAPP statute is G.L. c. 231, '59H.

SUA SPONTE - Latin for "on its own." A court acts sua sponte when it takes action voluntarily, without first being requested to act by a party to the case.

SUBPOENA - Latin for "under penalty." A writ or order to require attendance by a witness or the production of documents at a hearing or a deposition, with a penalty for failure to do so.


SUBROGATION - The substitution of one person in the place of another in connection with a legal right. Most commonly used in civil cases where an injured person has been paid by an insurance company (subrogee); the insurance company can then use the policy holder's right to recover damages to seek reimbursement from the party that caused the damage for which the insurance company paid.


SUBSTANCE ABUSE - As administratively defined by the Supreme Judicial Court, substance abuse is the "chronic and habitual ingestion of drugs or alcohol to the extent that (i) such use substantially injures a person's health or substantially interferes with his or her social or economic functioning, or (ii) a person has lost the power of self-control over the use of drugs or alcohol. It is a chronic, relapsing disorder requiring ongoing rather than episodic intervention. It is predictable, progressive, symptomatic and treatable." (Supreme Judicial Court, Standards on Substance Abuse, Introduction; Adopted March 30, 1995).

SUBSTITUTED JUDGMENT HEARING - A hearing to determine whether a person is competent to make medical decisions, including a decision to reject medical treatment. If the court determines that the person is incompetent, the court will make a decision regarding medical treatment by substituting its judgment for that of the incompetent person, after determining what decision the incompetent person would make if he or she were competent.

SUCCESSOR - A person who replaces or follows another, taking over all functions, rights, and responsibilities.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT - A pre-trial procedure in which a party tries to avoid a civil trial by showing that there is no genuine conflict about the facts of the case requiring a judge or jury to determine what the facts are and that, assuming those facts to be true, the law entitles that party to a favorable judgment.

SUMMARY PROCESS C - The process by which a landlord terminates a tenancy and evicts the tenant from rental property. Summary process cases are usually heard in Housing Court or District Court, though the Superior Court also has jurisdiction if the landlord claims that the tenant owes more than $25,000 in rent.

SUMMONS - A notice to a party stating that a case has been filed and that the party must appear in court on a specific date and at a specific time to answer the complaint. The summons also describes the consequences of failing to comply.

SUPERIOR COURT - The Superior Court, one of the seven Trial Court Departments, is the Commonwealth's court of general jurisdiction. It operates sessions in fourteen counties of the Commonwealth. It has fifteen elected clerks (Suffolk County has a civil clerk and a criminal clerk.) Civil cases seeking more than $25,000.00 and cases in which equitable relief is sought must be brought in Superior Court. First degree murder cases must be brought in Superior Court, which also has jurisdiction over all other criminal cases, though most cases involving less significant crimes are heard in other courts, such as the District Court, the Boston Municipal Court or the Juvenile Court. The Superior Court has original jurisdiction in actions involving labor disputes where injunctive relief is sought; the exclusive authority to convene medical malpractice tribunals; and appellate jurisdiction over certain administrative agency proceedings.

SUPPLEMENTARY PROCESS - A civil procedure used by a creditor to enforce a judgment against a debtor, in which the court determines whether the debtor has the ability to pay the judgment and, if so, issues a payment order.

SUPPORT ORDER - In a domestic relations proceeding, an order for payment of money to meet the ongoing financial needs of a child, spouse, or former spouse. Support may also include health care and educational expenses.


SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT (SJC) - The highest appellate court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the only "constitutional" court, that is, the only court established by the state constitution rather than by statute. The SJC has final authority regarding the decisions of all lower courts, and has "superintendency" power over the administration of the lower courts. The SJC has a chief justice and six associate justices who generally sit in panels of five to hear and decide cases. The SJC also runs a single justice session in which one justice, assigned on a rotating basis, hears certain types of appeals.

SURETY - A person or corporation who agrees to fulfill another person's financial obligation if the other person, known as the principal, fails to fulfill it.


TAKE - As used in probate law, to acquire title or to be entitled to an estate, such as when a person is entitled to "take" under a will.


  1. The appropriation of privately owned property by the state for public use, also known as "eminent domain."
  2. The appropriation of real estate by a city or town because the owner has not paid real estate taxes on the property.


TEMPORARY ORDER - An order issued in the early stages of a domestic relations case to ensure that any children involved are cared for appropriately and that both parties have enough money to take care of themselves and any children. The order remains in effect until there is a trial or an agreement that results in a judgment that divides any assets, orders spousal support and/or child support, and establishes custody and visitation arrangements.


TENANT - A person who rents or occupies real estate belonging to another for a temporary period.

TENANT-AT-WILL - A tenant who occupies rental property without a written lease, paying the landlord an agreed-upon rent. Unlike a tenancy under a lease, which terminates when the term of the lease terminates, a tenancy-at-will continues indefinitely, until either the landlord or the tenant gives notice to the other party that the tenancy is being terminated.

TENANT-AT-SUFFERANCE - A tenant who has been ordered evicted by a court but who stays in the property temporarily. For example, a court may order the tenancy terminated and the tenant evicted but give the tenant thirty days to move out. During that thirty-day period, the tenant is a tenant-at-sufferance and is expected to pay for the use and occupancy of the premises. May also refer to a tenant who stays in the property after a lease ends.


  1. The holding of an office.
  2. Guaranteed permanent employment after a probationary period, usually in the area of higher education.


  1. The fixed or limited period for which an individual is intended to hold a particular office or position.
  2. The length of time for which a prison or house of correction sentence is imposed.

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS - A proceeding to determine if a person's right to parent a child should be terminated, making the child legally free for adoption, or terminating the parent's right to notice of any custody proceedings involving the child. These cases are commonly referred to as "210 cases" after G.L. c. 210, '3, the statute that governs them.

TESTATE - Died having made a will. See INTESTATE.

TESTATE SUCCESSION - Inheritance of a decedent's property as stated in the decedent's will.

TESTATOR (MALE), TESTATRIX (FEMALE) - Someone who has made a will.

TESTIMONY - The statement of a witness, made under the penalties of perjury, which is offered as evidence.

THIRD-PARTY COMPLAINT - A procedure in a civil case which allows a defendant to implead, or bring in, another party who may be liable to the defendant to pay or help pay any judgment for the plaintiff in the case. The procedure avoids a separate action by the defendant against the third party by combining both cases in one.


  1. Ownership of property. A person who owns property is said to have title to it.
  2. A division of a code or collection of statutes or regulations. For example, the U.S. Code is divided into groups of statutes on a particular topic, each with a separate title.

TITLE IV-D - A federally-supported program to ensure that child support is paid, administered through the Department of Revenue's Child Support Enforcement Division.

TORT - An injury or wrong committed against the person or property of another, in violation of a duty established by law, such as a personal injury case. Tort cases are civil cases.

TRANSCRIPT - The verbatim (word-for-word) written record of proceedings in a trial or hearing.

TRANSLATOR - Someone who converts a written document from one language to another.

TRIAL - A hearing before a judge and/or a jury at which evidence is taken and witnesses are examined with the aim of resolving the issues between the parties.


  1. The court where a trial takes place, as opposed to an appellate court, which reviews the actions of the trial court to determine whether it was in compliance with the law.
  2. In Massachusetts, the umbrella organization that combines seven trial-level departments into a single administrative entity. The seven departments that comprise the Massachusetts Trial Court are the Boston Municipal Court, the District Court, the Superior Court, the Probate and Family Court, the Juvenile Court, the Housing Court and the Land Court.



TRUST - The right to real or personal property held by one party (the trustee) for the benefit of another (the beneficiary).

TRUSTEE - The person legally responsible for holding the right to property established by a trust.

TRUSTEE PROCESS - A form of attachment in which the plaintiff/creditor seeks to secure property of the defendant/debtor which is held by a third party, such as a bank, in order to ensure that the property is available to satisfy a judgment.



UNCONTESTED - A case or motion which is not opposed.

UNCONSTITUTIONAL - A law or governmental act which violates applicable constitution principles.

UNDER ADVISEMENT - Under consideration. When a matter has been heard by a judge but the judge has not yet rendered a decision, the judge is said to have taken the matter "under advisement."


UNIFORM INTERSTATE FAMILY SUPPORT ACT (UIFSA) - A federal statute requiring all states to use similar procedures in child support actions that involve parents living in different states or on tribal lands.

US CODE - The collection of federal statutes.




  1. A vacate order requires one party to move out of a home shared with the other party., often issued as part of a 209A order or in the course of a divorce.
  2. An order or judgment is vacated when it is annulled or otherwise removed, either by the issuing judge or by an appellate court.

VENDEE - A buyer; a person to whom something is sold.

VENDOR - A seller; a person who sells something.

VENIRE - Latin for "to come." Technically, a writ summoning prospective jurors; popularly refers to the group of jurors summoned from which a jury is selected.

VENUE - The jurisdiction (county or other geographical area) in which court proceedings may be instituted.


VERDICT - Latin for a "true declaration." A final decision by a jury. The equivalent term for a judge's decision is "judgment."

VERIFICATION - A person's declaration under penalty of perjury that statements of fact in a document or pleading are true.

VERIFIED STATEMENT - A statement that contains a verification by the party submitting it.

VERSUS - Latin for "toward" or "against". Usually abbreviated as "v." or "vs" in case names, e.g., Commonwealth v. Smith.

VICTIM-WITNESS ADVOCATE - An employee of the District Attorney's Office who assists the victim of a crime and/or witnesses to a crime during the prosecution of the case.

VISITATION - The court-ordered right to spend specified amounts of time with a child.

VOID - Null; with no legal or binding effect.

VOIDABLE - Effective unless rejected or voided; something which because of a legal defect may be voided but does not have to be voided; which may be accepted despite that defect.

VOIR DIRE - French for "to speak the truth." The preliminary examination of the qualifications and potential biases of prospective witnesses or jurors.



WAIVE, WAIVER - To give up a right, claim, or privilege.


WARRANT - A written order issued by a court permitting law enforcement personnel to arrest a person or search a place. Kinds of warrants include arrest warrants, bench warrants, fugitive warrants, search warrants and warrants of apprehension.

WARRANT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM (WMS) - A computerized database maintained by the Trial Court containing all arrest and default warrants issued by the Trial Court. WMS can be accessed by individual courts and by law enforcement officers, to determine whether a particular individual is wanted by any court in the Commonwealth. WMS is being integrated into MassCourts as MassCourts gets implemented throughout the Trial Court.

WARRANT OF APPREHENSION - A warrant permitting the police to bring a person before the court if it is reasonable to believe (1) that the person would not appear if summoned and (2) that any further delay would present an immediate danger to the physical well-being of the person. Usually issued in the context of mental health or substance abuse commitment proceedings.

WARRANT RECALL - A procedure for removing a cancelled warrant from the Warrant Management System to avoid repeated or mistaken arrests.

WARRANTY - A guarantee.

  1. Warranty of Fitness: A guarantee by a seller that goods are suitable for the purpose of the buyer.
  2. Warranty of Habitability: A landlord's guarantee that premises are fit for habitation.
  3. Warranty of Merchantability: Seller's guarantee that the product sold is reasonably fit for its ordinary use.

WARRANTY DEED - A deed that guarantees a clear title to the purchaser of real estate.

WASTE - The abuse or destructive use of property by a person in rightful possession of that property.

WIDOW (FEMALE), WIDOWER (MALE) - A person whose spouse has died and who has not remarried.

WIDOW'S ALLOWANCE - A portion of an estate that the widow or widower may ask the court to advance before the estate is ready for distribution, for the care of him- or herself and/or the children.

WILL - A written document disposing of a person's property at the time of death. A will includes any codicil.

WISP (WRITTEN INFORMATION SECURITY PROGRAM) – The rules that prevent disclosure of non-public documents held by the Massachusetts courts that contain personal information.


WITHDRAWAL OF APPEARANCE - A document filed by an attorney to indicate that he or she will no longer be representing a party. In many situations, an attorney may not withdraw his or her appearance without permission from the court.


WITNESS - Someone who gives testimony under oath as to what he or she has seen, heard or otherwise observed. See EXPERT WITNESS.


WRIT - An order issued by a court requiring that something be done or giving authority to do a specified act.


YOUTHFUL OFFENDER - In Massachusetts, a person between the ages of fourteen and eighteen who has committed an offense that would be punishable by imprisonment in the state prison if the person were an adult and who has (a) previously been committed to the Department of Youth Services or (b) committed an offense which involves the infliction of or threat of serious bodily harm or (c) committed certain other offenses. A Youthful Offender may be subject to sentencing as an adult or as a juvenile. Often referred to as a "YO"