operation of law

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A way in which someone gets certain rights (or sometimes responsibilities) automatically under the law without taking action, requiring cooperation from another person, or being the subject of a court order.  This situation usually arises from the happening of an event, such as a death, that triggers a change in human affairs as created by functions of the law.  Some examples of such actions by operation of law include a joint tenancy where any surviving joint tenants get title to the jointly owned property automatically when one joint tenant dies; asset transfers when someone dies without a will and that person's legal heirs automatically inherit property from their estate; or the transfer of property from the debtor to a bankruptcy estate pursuant to the Bankruptcy Code. Just as the death in the first two examples automatically triggers the transfer of property title or assets, in the third example the mere commencement of the bankruptcy case triggers the transfer without the need for any transfer-related activity by the debtor.

Operation of law can also describe what a person can or cannot do, or what rights or interests a person has.  For example, a prohibition created by statute, a business license granted by an agency, or a property rights determined by the judicial interpretation of a will.  In each case, the outcome or effect is created by operation of law.

[Last updated in August of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]