In terrorem, a Latin term that loosely translates as “to frighten,” is a legal term often used to describe a warning that legal action will be pursued if requests are not fulfilled. This concept is generally applied in cases of “cease and desist” communications, as well as in certain contractual agreements. An in terrorem letter or clause is essentially a means of legally threatening a person into certain actions.
In terrorem clauses are often found in wills in certain circumstances. If the person or trustees writing the will believes that beneficiaries may dispute the divisions or determinations of the document, a clause may be inserted to help prevent fighting or disputes. This clause generally states that any challenge to the will results in the automatic dismissal from any benefits enumerated in the will.
In some cases, an in terrorem clause may be challenged on the accusation that the person that wrote the will was mentally incapacitated at the time, thus unable to make fair or reasonable decisions about division of assets. Challenging this type of will may be risky; if the court upholds the will, the plaintiff will have to abide by the in terrorem clause. Thus, by challenging what appears to be an unfair division, a plaintiff can end up with nothing instead of an unfairly divided portion of the will.
The other main application of in terrorem is in the use of legal letters threatening action. These are common in copyright cases, where a copyright owner or legal representative may order an unauthorized user to cease and desist use or face legal action. The goal of such a letter is to avoid lawsuits, which may be expensive to all involved. It is very important, however, to make sure that threatening letters warn of nothing more than appropriate legal action. Threats of physical violence, financial ruination, or other consequences can be construed as harassment and may result in the dismissal of a copyright case or a counter lawsuit.
Some legal experts suggest that in terrorem can be badly misused in some cases. For instance, if a person receives a threatening letter from a large corporation known to have an substantial legal department, he or she may feel compelled to comply simply out of fear. This can result in unfair and unlawful situations where innocent defendants choose to pay settlements, cease providing important information, or otherwise forfeit legal rights out of fear of an enormous, expensive legal battle. If a person receives an in terrorem letter in what appears to be unfair circumstances, it is best to speak to a legal professional immediately to determine if the threat is lawful and enforceable before complying.