Obligation: Legal Definition, Types & Examples Video

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  • 0:04 Obligation
  • 2:06 Forms of Obligation
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Deona Cureton

I have taught honors English in high school, have an BA in Political Science and English, Master's in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, and completing my PhD in Public Administration & Policy with a concentration in Law & Public Policy

In this lesson, some different definitions of obligation are discussed. To further understand the term, examples of legal obligations and other forms of obligation are given.


You are walking your family dog down your street after dinner on a quiet Sunday evening. You look to your left and see someone breaking and entering into an elderly neighbor's home. Do you stop and call 911, give a description of the assailant, and wait until the authorities show because it is your moral duty to do so? Do you avert your eyes and continue walking home, acting as if you did not see anything because you feel you are not responsible to alert anyone about what is happening? Or do you leave an anonymous message close by so that you personally do not become involved?

As children, we begin to develop our moral standards of basic do's and don'ts that affect the ways we behave. We are taught rules, such as 'do unto others as you want done to you,' 'play nicely with others,' and 'if you see someone in need, you help.' These rules to live by help shape our moral standards and understanding that we, as human beings, have an obligation to help one another if we see someone or something in need of assistance.

The basic definition of the term obligation is a situation in which a person has an honorable, inherent, or legal duty to do something. The term is also used when referencing situations in which a promise is given, an oath to perform an act is taken, a law has to be upheld or is violated, or vows are exchanged. For example, Diana was walking across the street and saw that several kindergarten students needed to cross the street as well. Diana had an obligation as an older student to assist the kindergarten students across the street so that they would be safe.

The words 'obligation' and 'duty' have a tendency to be used interchangeably with one another. The legal definition of obligation is a binding tie which requires individuals involved to do something or pay for something under legal terms according to the law. For example, Eric has an obligation to pay for his speeding ticket within 60 days under the state law in North Carolina. If he does not, Eric will have to go to court.

Forms of Obligation

In legal terminology, there are several forms of obligation, including:

  1. absolute obligation
  2. contractual obligation
  3. express obligation
  4. moral obligation
  5. penal obligation

An absolute obligation is when an individual or a thing has to do something or perform an act because the duty has unconditional terms to it. For example, the government has an absolute obligation to execute all aspects of the Bill of Rights because all people are given these rights regardless of nationality, creed, color, or religious affiliation.

A contractual obligation means a person has to comply with the directives stated or given due to the agreement, promise, or verbal/written contract that is in place between the individuals involved. For example, Bernard has a contractual obligation to repay Michael his money back under the stipulation of their renter's agreement to the old apartment.

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