Obligation – a formal, binding agreement (bond) or acknowledgment of a liability to pay a certain amount, or to perform, or forbear from performing, a certain duty for a particular person(s), whether the duty is imposed by law, contract, promise, oath, duty, or moral responsibility

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n. (18c)

l. A legal or moral duty to do or not do something.  *  The word has many wide and varied meanings.  It may refer to anything that a person is bound to do or forbear from doing, whether the duty is imposed by law, contract, promise, social relations, courtesy, kindness, or morality.

2. A formal, binding agreement or acknowledgment of a liability to pay a certain amount or to do a certain thing for a particular person or set of persons; especially, a duty arising by contract. — aka (in sense 2) civil obligation.  See DUTY (1); LIABILITY (1).

3. Civil law. A legal relationship in which one person, the obligor, is bound to render a performance in favor of another, the obligee. La. Civ. Code Art. 1756. [1]

1. In an early and narrow sense, a bond or deed under seal wherein a person binds himself under penalty to do a thing.  In the modern and popular sense, that which binds, as an oath, vow, promise, contract, or debt.  Hargroves v Cooke, 15 Ga 321, 330.
     The word is derived from the Latin word “obligatio,” tying up; and that form the verb “obligo,” to bind or tie up; to engage by the ties of a promise or oath, or form of law; and obligo is compounded of the verb ligo, to tie or bind fast, and the preposition ob, which is prefixed to increase its meaning.  Edwards v Kernzey, 96 US 595, 24 L Ed 793, 796. [2]

1. That which binds a person, either legally, morally, or socially. (EXAMPLES: a promise; a contract; a debt; an oath; a duty; a moral responsibility.)
     See moral obligation; social duty.

2. That which a person is bound to do.

3. In the very narrowest sense, a bond or deed under seal.
     See contractual obligation; joint and several obligation; joint obligation; legal obligation; simple obligation.  See specialty. [3]

     Excerpt from Frederick Pollock’s A First Book of Jurisprudence (1896):

     “[I]n English speaking countries an unfortunate habit has arisen of using ’obligation’ in a lax manner as co-extensive with duties of every kind. [4]

     Excerpt from John Salmond’s Jurisprudence (Glanville L. Williams ed., 10th ed. 1947):

     “Obligation in its popular sense is merely a synonym far duty. its legal sense, derived from Roman law, differs from this in several respects. in the first place, obligations are merely one class of duties, namely, those which are the correlatives of rights in personam.  An obligation is the vinculum juris, or bond of legal necessity, which binds together two or more determinate individuals. . . . Secondly, the term obligatio is in law the name, not merely of the duty, but also of the correlative right.  It denotes the legal relation or vinculum juris in its entirety, including the right of the one party, no less than the liability of the other. Looked at from the point of view of the person entitled, an obligation is a right; looked at from the point of view of the person bound, it is a duty. . . . An obligation, therefore, may be defined as a proprietary right in personam or a duty which corresponds to such a right. [5]

     Excerpt from Saul Litvinoff’s Louisiana Civil Law Treatise: The Law of Obligations (2d ed. 2001):

     “[l]n its more general acceptation, the word ‘obligation’ means something that the law or morals command a person to do, a command that is made effective by the imposition of a sanction if the person fails to obey or comply.  When given that reference, the word ‘obligation’ is made synonymous with the word ‘duty.’  In that sense it is said, for example, that all citizens of a certain age are under an obligation to fulfill their military duties . . . .
“In another sense, the word ‘obligation’ means an instrument in writing, however informal, whereby one party contracts with another for the payment of a sum of money. in commercial law, for example, the word ‘obligation’ may mean a negotiable instrument , . . .
“in the technical terminology of the civil codes, however, the word ‘obligation’ means a legal bond that binds two persons in such a way that one of them, the creditor or obligee, is entitled to demand from the other, the debtor or obligor, a certain performance. [6]

Various Types of Obligations:

absolute obligation: (17c) An obligation requiring strict fulfillment according to the terms of the engagement, without any alternatives to the obligor.

alternative obligation: (18c) An obligation that can be satisfied in at least two different ways, at the choice of the obligor. — aka disjunctive obligation. Cf. facultative obligation.

bifactoral obligation: (1896) An obligation created by two parties.

community obligation: (1893) A debt or other obligation incurred by either spouse after marriage in a community-property state.  *  Such an obligation is presumed to be an obligation of the community and not of the individual spouse.

conditional obligation: ( 17c) An obligation that depends on an uncertain event. — aka dependent obligation.

conjunctive obligation: (1842) An obligation composed of multiple performances that can be separately rendered or enforced; especially, an obligation in which several objects are connected by and (not or) or are in some other way clearly meant to be separately included in the contract.  *  For example, a loan agreement’s conjunctive obligation may require payment of four loan installments and delivery of a deed of trust.  Each loan installment and the deed’s delivery is a separate, enforceable performance.

contractual obligation: (1869) An obligation arising from a contract or, agreement.

conventional obligation: (18c) An obligation that results from agreement” of the parties; a contractual obligation. — aka express obligation; civil obligation.  Cf. obedie‘ntial obligation.

correal obligation: (1871) Roman & civil law. A joint and several obligation.

     “A correal obligation means a plurality of obligations based on a community of obligation: a joint liability in respect of the whole of the same debt or a joint right in respect of the whole of the same claim. Rudolph Sohm, The Institutes: A Textbook of the History and System of Roman Private Law 361 (James Crawford Ledlie trans., 3d ed. 1907).

current obligation: (18c) An obligation that is presently enforceable, but not past due.

determinate obligation: (18c) An obligation that has a specific thing as its object.  *  For example, an obligation to deliver the 1491 Venice edition of Vocabularium Juris that once belonged to H.L.A. Hart can be discharged only by delivering the specified book. Cf. indeterminate obligation.

divisible obligation: (18c) An obligation that can be divided without the consent of the parties.  *  Either the performing party or the receiving party may unilaterally divide the obligation.

facultative obligation: (1894) Civil law. An obligation by which the debtor owes a single thing but may discharge the obligation by furnishing another specified thing in place of the one that is due.  Cf. alternative obligation.

heritable obligation: (18c) An obligation that may be enforced by a successor of the creditor or against a successor of the debtor. — aka inheritable obligation.


implied obligation of cooperation: (1961) Contracts. An understood duty to refrain from interfering with the other party’s performance. — aka obligation of noninterference.

independent obligation: (18c) An obligation whose performance does not rely on performance by another person or another’s readiness and willingness to perform.

indeterminate obligation: (1802) 1. An obligation by which the obligor is bound to deliver one of a certain species of items. 0 For example, an obligation to deliver a pre-1509 edition of Vocabularium Juris can be discharged by delivering any edition published before that date. 2. An obligation that is not specific in amount or form, or is subject to being changed by a third party.  Cf. determinate obligation.

joint obligation: (18c) 1. An obligation that binds two or more debtors to a single performance for one creditor. 2. An obligation that binds one debtor to a single performance for two or more creditors.

moral obligation: (18c) 1. An ethical imperative arising not from the law (and not legally enforceable) but from a universal or nearly universal View of what is good and right.  See MORAL. 2. A previously existing duty that has become inoperative by positive law, such as a statute of limitations.  *  In the law of contracts, a moral obligation in sense is sufficient to support an express promise as valuable consideration because it amounts to the voluntary revival or creation of a duty that existed once before but had been dispensed with. — aka imperfect obligation; natural obligation.

natural obligation: (16c) 1. Civil law. A moral duty that is not enforceable by judicial action.  *  Natural obligations are recognized in civil-law jurisdictions. While they are not enforceable by judicial action, something that has been performed under a natural obligation may not be reclaimed.  For example, if an indigent patient in a hospital has no legal obligation to pay for the treatment but does so anyway, that person cannot later reclaim the payments voluntarily made. — aka obligatio naturalis. 2. See moral obligation.

obediential obligation: (18c) An obligation imposed on a person because of a situation or relationship, such as an obligation of parents to care for their children. — aka implied obligation.  Cf. conventional obligation.

obligation of cooperation: (1932) 1. Int’l law. A nation’s responsibility to participate in concert with other nations to protect common interests. 2. Contracts. The responsibility to work with the other party to carry out the terms of an agreement.

perfect obligation: (17c) A legally enforceable obligation; one that is recognized and sanctioned by positive law.

personal obligation: (17c) 1. An obligation performable only by the obligor, not by the obligor’s heirs or representatives. 2. An obligation in which the obligor is bound to perform without encumbering his or her property for its performance.

primary obligation: (17c) 1. An obligation that arises from the essential purpose of the transaction between the parties.  *  For an attempt to distinguish two sets of correlative obligations — principal vs. accessorial as opposed to primary vs. secondary — see Herschel W. Arant, Handbook of the Law of Suretyship and Guaranty §§ 2-3, at 3-5 (1931). Cf. secondary obligation. 2. A fundamental contractual term imposing a requirement on a contracting party from which other obligations may arise. — aka principal obligation.

     “The term primary obligation indicates the existence of an accessorial promise that is conditioned on the primary obligor’s nonperformance of his duty. The terms principal and accessorial obligations and the terms primary and secondary obligations are not mutually exclusive. For example, where B signs a note with A to enable him to borrow money, A and B each assume a primary obligation, though B’s obligation is accessory. As to the creditor, whether he knows that A signs to enable B to obtain the loan or not, each owes him a similar duty. The duty of neither is conditioned on nonperformance of the other’s duty. Each is equally a debtor and the creditor’s remedy against each is the same; each is referred to as a primary debtor or a primary obligor; the promise of each is characterized in the cases as ‘direct,’ ‘original,’ ‘unconditional,’ or ‘primary.’” Herschel W. Arant, Handbook of the Law of Suretyship and Guaranty 4 (1931).

primitive obligation: (17c) The obligation designated as the first to be satisfied.

pure obligation: (17c) Scots law. An absolute obligation already due and immediately enforceable. — aka pure debt.

secondary obligation: (17c) A duty, promise, or undertaking that is incident to a primary obligation; esp., a duty to make reparation upon a breach of contract.  *  For example, a mortgage to secure payment of a bond is a secondary obligation.  The primary obligation is to pay the bond itself. — aka accessory obligation; accessorial obligation.

several obligation: (17c) 1. An obligation that binds two or more debtors to separate performances for one creditor. 2. An obligation that binds one debtor to separate performances for two or more creditors.

simple obligation: (17c) An obligation that does not depend on an outside event; an unconditional obligation. — aka independent obligation.

single obligation: (17c) An obligation with no penalty attached for nonperformance, as when one party simply promises to pay 20 dollars to another.

solidary obligation: (1818) Roman & civil law. An obligation that binds each of two or more debtors for the entire performance at the option of the creditor.  *  Solidary obligations are analogous to common-law joint and several obligations.

     “A solidary obligation means the separate liability of several persons in respect of one and the same object. The normal case of a solidary obligation is a joint delict, as when two or more persons, acting jointly, do damage to property or commit a theft.  So far as the obligation creates a duty to pay damages, it is solidary.  Each of the co-delinquents is liable to make good the whole of the same damage.” Rudolph Sohm, The Institutes: A Textbook of the History and System of Roman Private Law 361-62 (James Crawford Ledlie trans., 3d ed. 1907).

statutory obligation: (18c) An obligation — whether to pay money, perform certain acts, or discharge duties — that is created by or arises out of a statute, rather than based on an independent contractual or legal relationship.

substitute obligation: (1946) Civil law. An obligation that takes the place of an extinguished obligation by novation.  See NOVATION.

unifactoral obligation: (1896) An obligation created by one party.

obligation, mutuality of. See MUTUALITY OF OBLIGATION.

obligationcs innominuti. Sec INNOMlNATE OBLIGATIONS.

obligation of contract: (18c) A duty, or more generally the collective duties, imposed by a legally enforceable agreement, especially as considered against the constitutional prohibition of a state law that impairs such a duty or duties.  See CONTRACT CLAUSE.

obligations erga omnes [Latin f‘duties toward all”] Int’l law. A country’s duties that concern issues affecting the international community at large, hot just the country’s neighboring states. -Also termed erga omnes obliga~ tions; erga omnes partes obligations.

obligatory: adj. (14c) 1. Legally or morally binding <an obngatory promise>. 2. Required by a law, a rule, etc.; andatory <attendance is not obligatory>. 3. Creating or recording an obligation <a writing obliga tory>. -Also termed (rarely) obligational.

vb. (14c)

1. To bind by legal or moral duty; OBLIGATE.

2. To bind by doing a favor or service.


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[1]: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black & Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-62130-6

[2]: Ballantine’s Law Dictionary with Pronunciations
Third Edition
 by James A. Ballantine (James Arthur 1871-1949).  Edited by William S. Anderson.  © 1969 by THE LAWYER’S CO-OPERATIVE PUBLISHING COMPANY.  Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 68-30931

[3]: Ballantine’s Law Dictionary Legal Assistant Edition
by Jack Ballantine 
(James Arthur 1871-1949).  Doctored by Jack G. Handler, J.D. © 1994 Delmar by Thomson Learning.  ISBN 0-8273-4874-6.

[4]: Frederick Pollock, A First Book of Jurisprudence 8 (1896).

[5]: John Salmond, Jurisprudence 460 (Glanville L. Williams ed., 10th ed. 1947).

[6]: Saul Litvinoff, 5 Louisiana Civil Law Treatise: The Law of Obligations 1-2 (2d ed. 2001).


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