The Law Dictionary

Your Free Online Legal Dictionary • Featuring Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd Ed.

DEBT Definition & Legal Meaning

Definition & Citations:

A debt is a sum of money due by contract. It is most frequently due by a certain and express agreement, which fixes the amount, independent of extrinsic circumstances. But it is not essential that the contract should be express, or that it should fix the precise amount to be paid. U. S. v. Colt, 1 Pet. C C. 145, Fed. Cas. No. 14.S39. Standing alone, the word “debt” is as applicable to a sum of money which lias been promised at a future day. as to a sum of money now due and payable. To distinguish between the two. It may be said of the former that it is a debt owing, and of the latter that it is a debt due. Whether a claim or demand is a debt or not is in no respect determined by a reference to the time of payment. A sum of money which is certainly and in all events payable is a debt, without regard to the fact whether it be payable now or at a future time. A sum payable upon a contingency, however, is not a debt, or does not become a debt until the contingency has happened. People v. Arguello. 37 Cal. 524. The word “debt” is of large import, including not only debts of record, or judgments,and debts by specialty, but also obligations arising under simple contract, to a very wide extent; and in its popular sense includes all that is due to a man under any form of obligation or promise. Gray v. Bennett, 3 Mete. (Mass.) 522, 520. “Debt” has been differently defined, owing to the different subject-matter of the statutes in which it has been used. Ordinarily, it imports a sum of money arising upon a contract, express or implied. In its more general sense, it is defined to be that which is due from one person to another, whether money, goods, or services; that which one person is bound to pay or perform to another. Under the legal-tender statutes, it seems to import any obligation by contract, express or implied, which may be discharged by money through the voluntary action of the party bound. Wherever he may be at liberty to perform his obligation by the payment of a specific sum of money, the party owing the obligation is subject to what, in these statutes, is termed “debt.” Kimpton v. Bronson, 45 Barb. (N. Y.) 618. The word is sometimes used to denote an aggregate of separate debts, or the total sum of the existing claims against a person or company. Thus we speak of the “national debt,” the “bonded debt” of a corporation, etc. Synonyms. The term “demand” is of much broader import than “debt,” and embraces rights of action belonging to the debtor beyond those which could appropriately be called “debts.” In this respect the term “demand” Is one of very extensive import. In re Denny, 2 Hill (N. Y.) 223. The words “debt” and “liability” are not synonymous. As applied to the pecuniary relations of parties, liability is a term of broader significance than debt. The legal acceptation of debt is a sum of money due by certain and express agreement. Liability is responsibility; the state of one who is bound in law and justice to do something which may be enforced by action. This liability may arise from contracts either express or implied, or in consequence of torts committed. McElfresh v. Kirkendall. 36 Iowa, 226. “Debt” is not exactly synonymous with “duty.” A debt is a legal liability to pay a specific sum of money; a duty is a legal obligation to perform some act. Allen v. Dickson, Minor (Ala.) 120. In practice. The name of a common-law action, which lies to recover a certain specific sum of money, or a sum that can readily be reduced to a certainty. 3 Bl. Comm. 154; 3 Steph. Comm. 461; 1 Tidd. Pr. 3. It is said to lie in the debet and detinet, (when it is stated that the defendant owes and detains.) or in the detinet, (when it is stated merely that he detains.) Debt in the detinet for goods differs from detinue, because it is not essential in this action, as in detinue, that the specific property in the goods should have been vested in the plaintiff at the time the action is brought. Dyer, 246.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.