Lawful “Legally” Defined

The following definitions for “lawful” are taken from Ballantine’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition), Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (6th edition), Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd edition), and Webster’s Dictionary (1828):




According to law. In accord with the spirit of the law, not merely the forms of law [State ex rel. Van Nice v. Whealey, 5 SD 427, 431, 59 NW 211].

  • See legal, also words and phrases following beginning “lawful” and words and phrases beginning “legal.”



That which is not forbidden by law. Id omne lictium est, quod non est legibus prohibitum, quamobrem, quod, lege permittente, fit poenam non meretur. To be valid a contract must be lawful.



Legal; warranted or authorized by the law; having the qualifications prescribed by law; not contrary to nor forbidden by the law.

  • The principal distinction between the terms “lawful” and “legal” is that the former contemplates the substances of law, the latter the form of law. To say of an act that it is “lawful” implies that it is authorized, sanctioned, or at any rate not forbidden, by law. To say that it is “legal” implies that it is done or performed in accordance with the forms and usages of law, or in a technical manner. In this sense “illegal” approaches the meaning of “invalid.” For example, a contract or will, executed without the required formalities, might be said to be invalid or illegal, but could be described as lawful. Further, the word “lawful” more clearly implies and ethical content than does “legal.” The latter goes no further than to denote compliance, with positive, technical, or formal rules; while the former usually imports a moral substance or ethical permissibility. A further distinction is that the word “legal” is used as the synonym of “constructive,” which “lawful” is not. This “legal fraud” is fraud implied or inferred by law, or made out by construction. “Lawful fraud” would be a contradiction in terms. Again, “legal” is used as the antithesis of “equitable.” Thus, we speak of “legal assets,” “legal estate,” etc., but not of “lawful assets,” or “lawful estate.” But there are some connections in which the two words are used as exact equivalents. Thus, a “lawful” writ, warrant, or process is the same as a “legal” writ, warrant, or process.

  • Lawful age: full age; majority; generally the age of twenty-one years, though sometimes eighteen as to a female [see McKim v. Handy, 4 Md. Ch. 237].

  • Lawful authorities: the expression “lawful authorities” used in our treaty with Spain refers to persons who exercised the power of making grants by authority of the crown [Mitchel v. U.S., 9 Pet. 711. 9 L. Ed. 283].

  • Lawful discharge: such a discharge in insolvency as exonerates the debtor from his debts [Mason v. Haile, 12 Wheat. 370, 6 L. Ed. 660].

  • Lawful entry: an entry on real estate, by one out of possession, under claim or color of right and without force or fraud [see Stouffer v. Harlan, 68 Kan. 135, 74 Pac. 613, 64 L. R. A. 320. 104 Am. St. Rep. 396].

  • Lawful goods: whatever is not prohibited to be exported by the positive law of the country, even though it be contraband of war; for a neutral has a right to carry such goods at his own risk [Seton v. Low, 1 Johns. Cas. (N. Y.) 1; Skidmore v. Desdoity, 2 Johns. Cas. (N. Y.) 77; Juhel v. Rhinelander, 2 Johns. Cas. (N. Y.) 120].

  • Lawful heirs: see HEIR

  • Lawful man: a freeman, unattained, and capable of bearing oath; a legalis homo.

  • Lawful money: money which is a legal tender in payment of debts; e.g., gold and silver coined at the mint.




  1. Agreeable to law; conformable to law; allowed by law; legal; legitimate. That is deemed lawful which no law forbids, but many things are lawful which are not expedient.

  2. Constituted by law; rightful; as the lawful owner of lands.

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