Doctrine of Constructive Notice: Definition & History

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Constructive notice allows someone to be notified of a legal action without actually being given notice. In this lesson, you will learn how this doctrine applies and a brief history of its origins.

Why Important Today

Your eccentric aunt died and left you all her riches. This of course makes you happy. However, as soon as you start sporting all your new bling, your black sheep brother shows up demanding his share. You think that's unfair as you went through all the attorney meetings, court hearings and proceedings, and he just shows up after the fact wanting his take. This is a great time to use the doctrine of constructive notice.

Constructive v. Actual Notice

Most legal dictionaries say that constructive notice is a fiction that a person got notice even though actual notice was not personally delivered to them. Actual notice is where knowledge of the matter was actually given to the person. We've all seen the movies where the process server poses as a prize patrol and tricks the unwitting soul into accepting a legal notice (usually a divorce complaint). Constructive notice allows the courts to rule that legal notice was given even when actual notice is not possible. But before that happens, it must be shown that it's reasonable that the person would have known about the proceeding under the circumstances. This can be evidenced by legal notices posted in the newspaper, on the property in question, the courthouse legal notice board or community billboards. Today many of these are online as well. Basically, it boils down to whether it's reasonable that if the person was in the community, he or she would have general knowledge of the proceeding.

How It Works

So for the newly rich niece it would work like this: The brother comes back home and learns about his aunt's death and that you got all her money. He tells the judge that he didn't get notice of any proceedings, and since the law requires notice, he should be entitled to his share. When all courtroom eyes look accusingly at you, you can reply with constructive notice. You can say that the hearing notices were published along with notices of all the estate sales and related court proceedings. Letters were sent to all last known addresses, and there was plenty of time from the date of the death until the final court hearing. So even if he didn't know, he should have been aware because it was public knowledge.

Without constructive notice, then actual notice would have to be proven in every case where notice was the law. That would mean a divorce could never happen if one person left and couldn't be found. A business might have to shut down if a dead partner's heirs can't be found, or an adoption couldn't take place if a deadbeat legal parent doesn't want to be found.

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