Natural Person

The term “natural person” refers to a living human being, with certain rights and responsibilities under the law. By contrast,  a “legal person,” or an “artificial person,” is a group of people that is considered by law to be acting as a single individual. Both natural and legal persons are entitled to sue other parties and sign contracts. They can also both be on the receiving end of a lawsuit. To explore this concept, consider the following natural person definition.

Definition of Natural Person

Noun

  1. An individual human being, with consciousness of self
  2. A human being, as opposed to a “legal” person, which is an entity or group considered collectively as a single individual for legal purposes.

Origin

1175-1225       Latin    persōna

What is a Natural Person

A natural person is an actual human being, which is different from an “artificial person,” which is a distinction under the law to establish whether a person is acting or appearing as himself, acting or appearing on behalf of a business or other entity. This is because a legal or artificial person is not a person at all, but is instead a collective of people that is being considered as one single entity for the purposes of a legal action. For example, a natural person is different from a legal person, which might be a company, a trust, a partnership, or some other group.

Difference Between Natural Person and Legal Person

There are several differences between a natural person and a legal person. For starters, a natural person is a real living human being, a person with a distinct personality. He generally has the power to think his own thoughts and make his own choices, though a person who is not competent to make his own decisions is still a natural person.

The law considers a legal person to be an entity that is seen in the eyes of the law as having certain rights and privileges; that, while not human, is permitted to assert a legal claim, or be subjected to legal duties. For instance, a partnership or a corporation is considered a legal person, for the purposes of applying the law. A natural person can also be considered a legal person and can perform the functions of both. A legal person, of course, can only perform its functions through natural persons.

Another important difference between a natural person and a legal person is that a natural person has a limited lifespan. Typically, a natural person does not live longer than 100 years or so. A legal person, on the other hand, can live on for longer than a natural person, in that a corporation can be inherited by its president’s successors, or a trust may continue to the benefit of generations of people. The corporation or trust can continue to operate long after the person who established it has passed away.

Yet another difference between a natural person and a legal person is that a natural person can only be classified as a living, breathing human being. The legal person definition can be used to refer to a host of organizations. For example, natural persons differ from legal persons in that the latter consist of deceased persons, unborn persons, partnerships, corporations, universities, societies, and companies, to name a few. Legal persons can also be referred to as “fictitious,” “artificial,” or “moral” persons.

Following is a list of the individual characteristics of natural and legal persons:

Natural Person

  • A human being; a real and living person
  • Possessing the power of thought and choice
  • May also be a legal person, and perform the organization’s functions
  • Lives for a limited period, meaning he or she will die at some point

Legal Person

  • A being, real or imaginary, created by the law, or which the law regards as capable of certain rights or duties
  • Also referred to as “fictitious,” “juristic,” “artificial” or “moral”
  • Includes deceased persons, corporations, companies, trusts, and other organizations
  • Can only perform their functions through natural persons
  • Does not die, but may be disbanded or done away with.

Natural Person and Fetal Rights

The issue of whether an unborn fetus is considered a natural person, with all of the rights and protections associated with that status, has been a hot-button issue for a very long time. In the U.S., this issue is commonly referred to as “fetal rights,” and deals with not only issues of right to life (anti-abortion), but with protections related to the health and safety of the child from conception to birth. This is a complicated issue, with some people attempting to place a fetal age at which the baby can be considered “viable,” or alive; and others claiming that the baby has a right to life and protection from the moment of conception.

Human Rights of a Natural Person

While a natural person and a legal person are entitled to many of the same rights, certain rights apply only to a natural person. For example, a natural person is protected by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution against self-incrimination. Self-incrimination is the act of admitting certain facts that may either confirm someone’s guilt in a particular matter, or lead a jury to believe that he was somehow criminally responsible in some aspect of the case.

When considering the very basics, a natural person is guaranteed a set of basic human rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, the human rights of a natural person also include the ability to marry, vote, or hold public office. Most of the human rights of a natural person go into full effect when the person reaches the age of 18, with some – such as the legal drinking age – only applying once the person turns 21. This is an easy place to see the difference between a natural and a legal person, in that a legal person (corporation, trust, organization) does not have the right to get married, vote, or run for office.

In the United States, both natural and legal persons are afforded the right to freedom of speech. It is just as important for legal persons to enjoy free speech as it is for natural persons. For instance, a newspaper, considered a “legal person,” has the right to print stories and opinions that may not always coincide with the thoughts of the country’s government. However, freedom of expression has its limits for both natural and legal persons, and both can be sued in a court of law on grounds of defamation or libel.

Natural and legal persons are entitled to due process. The government cannot seize the property or a person or a company without due process, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. differs from other countries in that it affords many of the same human rights of a natural person to a legal person under the law.

Critics have argued that this is not necessarily a good thing, as corporations have a significantly larger amount of resources and can therefore better defend their rights than can most private citizens in similar situations. Similarly, critics have argued that corporations have used their legal person status to protect themselves from being regulated and held accountable by the government. The issue of the rights that are afforded to a legal person is controversial and is often hotly contested in a court of law.

Natural Person Example Involving the TVPA

Azzam Rahim immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, and eventually became a citizen of this country. In 1995, while visiting the West Bank, Rahim was arrested by intelligence officers with the Palestinian Authority. They imprisoned him in Jericho, where he was tortured and ultimately killed. The following year, the U.S. Department of State issued a report which concluded that Rahim had died while in the officers’ custody.

In 2005, Rahim’s relatives filed a lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, citing claims of torture and extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA). The TVPA authorizes the filing of such a lawsuit for conditions such as these.

The District Court granted the organizations’ motion to dismiss, holding that the TVPA’s authorization of this kind of lawsuit only extended liability to natural persons, so that the organizations themselves (considered “legal persons”) could not be sued.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision on the same grounds. Rahim’s relatives filed a writ of certiorari, which was granted by the Supreme Court, to challenge whether the TVPA did indeed authorize lawsuits to be filed against organizations that could not be defined as “natural persons.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed with both lower courts, holding that the term “individual” as defined by the TVPA only refers to natural persons. Further, the Court held that the TVPA does not allow for liability to be imposed against organizations. Specifically, the Court wrote:

“The ordinary, everyday meaning of ‘individual’ refers to a human being, not an organization, and Congress in the normal course does not employ the word any differently. The Dictionary Act defines ‘person’ to include certain artificial entities ‘as well as individuals,’… thereby marking ‘individual’ as distinct from artificial entities. Federal statutes routinely distinguish between an ‘individual’ and an organizational entity … And the very Congress that passed the TVPA defined ‘person’ in a separate Act to include ‘any individual or entity.’ “

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties will be given notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to be heard.
  • Extrajudicial – Not authorized by law.
  • Legal Entity – An individual, company, association, trust, or other organization that is legally recognized in the eyes of the law. A legal entity is able to enter into contracts, take on obligations, pay debts, be sued, and be held responsible for its actions.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.

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