What is Operation of Law?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2018
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Operation of law is a term used to describe situations where rights or liabilities are conferred automatically, instead of as the result of a specific legal action. A classic example of assignment of rights by operation of law can be seen when someone dies without leaving a will. Operation of law determines the heirs and transfers the property to them. This allows the estate to be handled and limits legal wrangling.

The law has a number of provisions in place designed to address situations when changes or transfers need to occur and there is no directive in place to determine what to do. Otherwise, issues could remain pending indefinitely. Some examples of situations where operation of law can come into play include cases in which people fail to file legal objections, judges do not rule on motions in a timely fashion, or people do not act to secure a right or avoid a liability.

People do not have to take any actions for assignment by operation of law to occur. In the example of a person who dies intestate, the property is transferred to the presumed heirs by default. The laws of inheritance spell out the hierarchy of heirs, allowing an appointed executor to determine who is first in line for the proceeds of the estate. If there is a dispute, such as a question about someone's relationship to the deceased, it can be brought up while the estate is processed.


Sometimes, it is possible to dispute a transfer or change of status that happens as a result of operation of law. In these cases, people must be able to demonstrate that they were genuinely not aware of the situation which necessitated the change. Not being aware, the person had no opportunity to take an appropriate action to address the situation. Legal remedies are sometimes available to reverse the change, as seen in cases where people forfeit the contents of an inactive bank account to the state and can later restore the funds under unclaimed property laws.

It is important for people to be aware of the role that operation of law can play in their own lives. Failure to act in a timely fashion on a matter of a legal nature may result in extinguishment of rights, as seen in cases of adverse possession. People can also be shouldered with liabilities if they do not pay close attention. People who can be vulnerable to assignments of liabilities or extinguishments of rights include property owners and certain professionals such as doctors.


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