A declaratory judgment is the legal determination of a court as to the legal position of litigants in cases where there is doubt as to their position in law. It is a form of legally binding preventive adjudication by which a party involved in an actual or possible legal matter can ask a court to conclusively rule on and affirm the rights, duties, or obligations of one or more parties in a civil dispute (subject to any appeal). Although generally a statutory rather than equitable remedy in the United States, declaratory relief is historically related to, and behaves in legal terms similarly to, other equitable reliefs and declarations such as those for quiet title or paternity. A declaratory judgment does not by itself order any action by a party, or imply damages or an injunction, although it may be one part of a broader ruling which does. Declaratory relief and declaratory ruling are almost synonymous with declaratory judgment and at times used interchangeably, although declaratory relief refers to the actual relief sought or provided within the declaratory judgment rather than the judgment per se, and a declaratory ruling also covers decisions of regulatory agencies.
A declaratory judgment is generally distinguished from an advisory opinion because the latter does not resolve an actual case or controversy. Declaratory judgments can provide legal certainty to each party in a matter when this could resolve or assist in a disagreement. Often an early resolution of legal rights will resolve some or all of the other issues in a matter.
A declaratory judgment is typically requested when a party is threatened with a lawsuit but the lawsuit has not yet been filed; or when a party or parties believe that their rights under law and/or contract might conflict; or as part of a counterclaim to prevent further lawsuits from the same plaintiff (for example, when only a contract claim is filed, but a copyright claim might also be applicable). In some instances, a declaratory judgment is filed because the statute of limitations against a potential defendant may pass before the plaintiff incurs damage (for example, a malpractice statute applicable to a certified public accountant may be shorter than the time period the IRS has to assess a taxpayer for additional tax due to bad advice given by the C.P.A.).
Declaratory judgments are authorized by statute in most common-law jurisdictions. In the United States, the federal government and most states enacted statutes in the 1920s and 1930s authorizing their courts to issue declaratory judgments.
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