Definition of DEBT in Black's Law Dictionary 4th Edition – Legal dictionary – Glossary of legal terms.

Definition of DEBT

A sum of money due by certain and express agreement; as by bond for a determinate sum, a bill or note, a special bargain, or a rent reserved on a lease, where the amount is fixed and specific, and does not depend upon any subsequent valuation to settle it. 3 Bl.Comm. 154; Hagar v. Reclamation Dist., 111 U.S. 701, 4 S.Ct. 663, 28 L.Ed. 569; Neilson v. Title Guaranty & Surety Co., 101 Or. 262, 199 P. 948, 951; Shultz v. Ritterbusch, 38 Okl. 478, 134 P. 961, 968; W. S. Tyler Co. v. Deutsche Dampfschifffahrts Gesellschaft Hansa, Bremen, Germany, D.C.Ohio, 276 F. 134, 136.

Ail unconditional promise to pay a fixed sum at a specified time. Lowery v. Fuller, 221 Mo.App. 495, 281 S.W. 968, 972. A contractual obligation to pay in the future for considerations received in the present. Lesser v. Warren Borough, 237 Pa. 501, 85 A. 839, 841, 43 L.R.A.,N.S., 839. The word "debt" carries with it the requirement of certainty, the foundation of promise by express contract, and necessarily implies legality. Clinton Mining & Mineral Co. v. Beacon, C.C.A.Pa., 266 F. 621, 622, 14 A.L.R. 263.

The word "debt," in the definition of a mortgage as a hypothecation or pledge of property as security for a debt, means a duty or obligation to pay, for the enforcement of which an action lies. Stollenwerck v. Marks & Gayle, 188 Ala. 587, 65 So. 1024, 1027, Ann.Cas.1917C, 981; Gibson v. Hopkins, 80 W.Va. 756, 93 S.E. 826, 827.

Standing alone, the word "debt" is as applicable to a sum of money which has 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. 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..

A sum of money arising upon a contract, express or implied. Kimpton v. Bronson, 45 Barb. N.Y., 618; Johnson v. Garner, D.C.Nev., 233 F. 756, 767. Also, the obligation to pay a sum certain; Indian Refining Co. v. Taylor, 195 Ind. 223, 143 N.E. 682, 689; or a sum which may be ascertained by simple mathematical calculation from known facts; H. G. Kilbourne Co. v. Standard Stamp Affixer Co., 216 Mass. 118, 103 N.E. 469, 470; regardless of whether the liability arises by contract or is implied or imposed by law; State v. Latham, 136 Tenn. 30, 188 S.W. 534, 535; Lindstrom v. Spicher, 53 N.D. 195, 205 N.W. 231, 233, 41 A.L.R. 968.

A "debt" is a specified sum of money owing to one person from another, including not only the obligation of the debtor to pay, but the right of the creditor to receive and enforce payment. Angola Brick & Tile Co. v. Millgrove School Tp., Steuben County, 73 Ind.App. 557, 127 N.E. 855, 856; Dewey v. Denson, 31 Ga.App. 352, 120 S.E. 805, 807.

A fixed and certain obligation to pay money or some other valuable thing or things, either in the present or in the future. Burke v. Boulder Milling & Elevator Co., 77 Colo. 230, 235 P. 574, 575.

In a still more general sense, that which is due from one person to another, whether money, goods, or services. Holman v. Hollis, 94 Fla. 614, 114 So. 254, 255; State v. State Board of Examiners, 74 Mont. 1, 238 P. 316, 323.

A "debt" is an obligation arising otherwise than by sentence by a court for a breach of the public peace or for crime. Ruggles v. State, 120 Md. 553, 87 A. 1080, 1084.

In a broad sense, any duty to respond to another in money, labor, or service; it may even mean a moral or honorary obligation, unenforceable by legal action. U. S. Sugar Equalization Board v. P. De Ronde & Co., C.C.A.Del., 7 F.2d 981, 984.

Also, sometimes, 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.

The word "debt" has no fixed legal meaning; Electric Reduction Co. v. Lewellyn, C.C.A.Pa., 11 F.2d 493, 494; but takes shades of meaning from the occasion of its use . and color from accompanying words; Morrow v, Hayes, 226 Mich. 301, 197 N.W. 554, 555.

The word is of large import, including not only debts by specialty, and debts of record, or judgments (Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Johnson Shipyards Corporation, C.C.A.N.Y., 6 F.2d 752, 755; Schooley v. Schooley, 184 Iowa 835, 169 N. W. 56, 57, 11 A.L.R. 110; Bronson v. Syverson, 88 Wash. 264, 152 P. 1039, 1040, L.R.A.1916B, 993; Rosenberg v. Rosenberg, 152 Md. 49, 135 A. 840), 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. McCrea v. First Nat. Bank, 162 Minn. 455, 203 N.W.290; /Etna Ins. Co. v. Robertson, 126 Miss. 387, 88 So. 883, 890.


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.

Nevertheless, "debt" may be synonymous with "claim"; In re Littleton's Estate, 223 N.Y.S. 470, 479, 129 Misc. 845; and may include any kind of a just demand. Goldberg v. Parker, 87 Conn. 99, 87 A. 555, 557, 46 L.R.A.,N.S., 1097, Ann.Cas.1914C, 1059.

The word dues is equivalent to "debts," or that which is owing and has a contractual significance. State v. Mortgage Security Co., 154 Minn, 453, 192 N.W. 348, 350.

"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.

"Obligation" is a broader term than "debt." Bovee v. Boyle, 25 Colo.App. 165, 136 P. 467, 469. Every obligation is not a debt, though every debt is an obligation. Lindstrom v. Spicher, 53 N.D. 195, 205 N.W. 231, 233, 41 A.L.R. 968; In re Moorehead's Estate, 289 Pa. 542, 137 A. 802, 806, 52 A.L.R. 1251.

The words "debt" and "liability" are not necessarily synonymous. As applied to the pecuniary relations of parties, liability is a term of broader significance than debt. Coulter Dry Goods Co. v. Wentworth, 171 Cal. 500, 153 P. 939, 940. 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. "Liability" ordinarily means an obligation which may or may not ripen into a debt. Irving Bank-Columbia Trust Co. v. New York Rys. Co., D.C.N.Y., 292 F. 429, 433. Yet "debt" may sometimes include various kinds of liabilities. See Allen v. Cosmopolitan Trust Co., 247 Mass. 334, 142 N. E. 100, 103; Carroll v. Bowling, 151 Md. 59, 133 A. 851, 854.

In General

Active debt. One due to a person. Used in the civil law.

Ancestral debt. One of an ancestor which the law compels the heir to pay. Watkins v. Holman, 16 Pet. 25, 10 L.Ed. 873; A. & E. Encyc.

Debt by simple contract. A debt or demand founded upon a verbal or implied contract, or upon any written agreement that is not under seal.

Debt by specialty or special contract. A debt due, or acknowledged to be due, by some deed or instrument under seal; as a deed of covenant or sale, a lease reserving rent, or a bond or obligation. 2 Bl.Comm. 465; In re Harris, 101 N.J.Eq. 5, 137 A. 215, 216; Kerr v. Lydecker, 51 Ohio St. 240. 37 N.E. 267, 23 L.R.A. 842; Marriott v. Thompson, Willes, 189.

Debt ex mutuo. A species of debt or obligation mentioned by Glanville and Bracton, and which arose ex mutuo, out of a certain kind of loan. Glan. lib. 10, c. 3; Bract. fol. 99. See Mutuum; Ex Mutuo. Debt of record. A debt which appears to be due by the evidence of a court of record, as by a judgment or recognizance. 2 B1.Comm. 465.

Doubtful debt. One of which the payment is uncertain. Clef des Lois Romaines.

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 B1.Comm. 154; 3 Steph.Comm. 461; 1 Tidd, Pr. 3; Drennen Motor Car Co. v. Evans, 192 Ala. 150, 68 So. 303; Bullard v. Bell, 1 Mass. 243, Fed.Cas.No. 2,121; U. S. v. Claflin, 97 U.S. 546, 24 L.Ed. 1082; Baum v. Tonkin, 110 Pa. 569, 1 A. 535.

It is thus distinguished from assumpsit, which lies as well where the sum due is uncertain as where it is certain, and from covenant, which lies only upon contracts evidenced in a certain manner.

It is said to lie in the debit 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, 24b.

Existing debt. See Existing Debt.

Fraudulent debt. A debt created by fraud. Such a debt implies confidence and deception. It implies that it arose out of a contract, express or implied, and that fraudulent practices were employed by the debtor, by which the creditor was defrauded. Howland v. Carson, 28 Ohio St. 628.

Hypothecary debt. One which is a lien upon an estate. Judgment debt.

See Judgment Debt. Legal debts. Those that are recoverable in a court of common law, as debt on a bill of exchange, a bond, or a simple contract. Rogers v. Daniell, 8 Allen, Mass., 348; Guild v. Walter, 182 Mass. 225, 65 N.E. 68.

Liquid debt. One which is immediately and unconditionally due.

Mutual debts. Money due on both sides between two persons. Such debts must be due to and from same persons in same capacity. Dole v. Chattabriga, 82 N.H. 396, 134 A. 347, 348. Cross debts in the same capacity and right, and of the same kind and quality. Lippitt v. Thames Loan & Trust Co., 88 Conn. 185, 90 A. 369, 374.

Passive debt. A debt upon which, by agreement between the debtor and creditor, no interest is payable, as distinguished from active debt; i. e., a debt upon which interest is payable. In this sense, the terms "active" and "passive" are applied to certain debts due from the Spanish government to Great Britain. Wharton. In another sense of the wards, a debt is "active" or "passive" according as the person of the creditor or debtor is regarded; a passive debt being that which a man owes; an active debt that which is owing to him. In this meaning every debt is both active and passive,—active as regards the creditor, passive as regards the debtor.

Privileged debt. One which is to be paid before others in case a debtor is insolvent.

Public debt. That which is due or owing by the government of a state or nation. The terms "public debt" and "public securities," used in legislation, are terms generally applied to national or state obligations and dues, and would rarely, if ever, be construed to include town debts or obligations; nor would the term "public revenue" ordinarily be applied to funds arising from town taxes. Morgan v. Cree, 46 Vt. 773, 14 Am.Rep. 640.

Pure debt. In Scotch law. A debt due now and unconditionally is so called. It is thus distinguished from a future debt, —payable at a fixed day in the future, —and a contingent debt, which will only become due upon the happening of a certain contingency.

Simple contract debt. One where the contract upon which the obligation arises is neither ascertained by matter of record nor yet by deed or special instrument, but by mere oral evidence the most simple of any, or by notes unsealed, which are capable of a more easy proof, and therefore only better than a verbal promise. 2 Bl.Comm. 466.

Solvent debts. In Pennsylvania, the "solvent debts" which a city may deduct from its gross indebtedness pursuant to Act April 20, 1874, P.L. 65, in ascertaining its borrowing capacity, are debts due it directly, payment of which it can enforce as one of its quick assets for the liquidation of any of its obligations. McGuire v. City of Philadelphia, 245 Pa. 287, 91 A. 622, 623.

Specialty debt. See Debt by Specialty or Special Contract, supra.

That's the definition of DEBT in Black's Law Dictionary 4th Edition – Legal dictionary – Glossary of legal terms. Courtesy of