The term “presumption” in the legal sense refers to a conclusion an individual makes based on a set of facts, coupled with his logic and reasoning, as well as the laws relevant to the case. In other words, a presumption is a rule that allows a court to assume a fact is true unless there is evidence to prove otherwise. An example of presumption is the legal conclusion that a person who has disappeared, and with whom no one has made contact in seven years, is most likely dead. To explore this concept, consider the following presumption definition.

Definition of Presumption


  1. A conclusion drawn from the facts at hand, based on logic and applicable laws, unless there is evidence provided to refute it.


1175–1225       Middle English

Presumption of Innocence

The presumption of innocence refers to the idea that someone is innocent of a crime by default unless someone can prove he is guilty. The Constitution provides for the right to a trial in the United States for an individual accused of a crime. Without a trial, anyone could make up a charge against an individual and throw him in prison indefinitely. By holding a trial, a court provides the prosecution with the opportunity to provide evidence proving the defendant’s guilt.

The defendant, of course, also has the opportunity to provide evidence of his innocence at trial, but he does not have to prove his innocence. When it comes to the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof lies with the person who makes the accusation. The prosecution must prove that a crime occurred; the defendant does not have to prove that it did not.

Rebuttable Presumption and Conclusive Presumption

A rebuttable presumption is the court’s assumption of a fact until someone can disprove that fact. In fact, every presumption is rebuttable unless someone comes forward with evidence to the contrary. For instance, a rebuttable presumption is that, if a woman is married and gives birth while married, the father of the child is her husband. Unless someone comes forward with proof that another man is that child’s father, the rebuttable presumption is that the woman’s husband is the father.

A conclusive presumption, on the other hand, is a presumption that no evidence or arguments can change. Other names for a conclusive presumption include an absolute presumption or an irrebuttable presumption. The reason why no one can disprove a conclusive presumption is because it does not exist. It is fictitious. For instance, a conclusive presumption, in the case of a sex crime, is that a minor is incapable of providing consent. There is no argument here because any claim that a minor could consent is simply not true.

Specific Presumptions

There are several, more specific presumptions covered in most common law courts. What follows are explanations of a few of these more specific examples of presumption.

Presumption of Death

The presumption of death refers to a situation wherein a person has disappeared a number of years ago, and so now the law presumes him or her to be dead. The amount of time that must pass before the presumption of death kicks in is currently seven years. However, the statute has modified this time period in the past and so may potentially do so again sometime in the future.

Presumption of Sanity

The presumption of sanity refers to the mental state of a person facing a criminal trial. Specifically, everyone is to believe the defendant is sane unless someone can prove the opposite. In the same vein, everyone is to believe the defendant can also testify at his own trial, unless someone can show evidence to the contrary.

Presumption of Constitutionality

The presumption of constitutionality refers to the idea that all statutes drafted by local, state, and federal governments meet the constitutional requirements set forth by federal and state law. If a situation arises where a person could interpret a statute as being either constitutional or unconstitutional, courts are to go in the direction that favors upholding the statute.

Presumption Example Involving an Invalid Conviction

An example of presumption – specifically, the presumption of innocence – occurred in the matter of Nelson v. Colorado, which the U.S. Supreme Court heard in 2017. In this case, the Court heard the combined lawsuits of two petitioners: Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden. Both petitioners received convictions on charges associated with child abuse. In connection with those convictions, as is the standard, both petitioners also received fines. For Nelson, those fines totaled over $8,000, and for Madden they were over $4,000.

Appeals Court

Both Madden and Nelson appealed their convictions, and the Appellate Court overturned both convictions, finding both defendants to be “factually innocent.” The Colorado Exoneration Act requires exonerated defendants to petition the Colorado District Court for an order to receive compensation for the fees they paid in connection with their convictions. Therefore, Madden and Nelson did exactly that.

The Colorado Court of Appeals found in their favor, ordering the state to return the fees both petitioners had paid. However, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the lower court, saying that the only way a petitioner can reclaim funds is to prove his case with “clear and convincing evidence.” The petitioners filed a writ of certiorari, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their case.

U.S. Supreme Court

The question that the U.S. Supreme Court had to answer in this case was: did the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision violate the Due Process Clause of the Constitution? The Court ultimately ruled nearly unanimously in a 6-1 decision in favor of the petitioners. Said the Court:

“Colorado’s scheme creates an unacceptable risk of the erroneous deprivation of defendants’ property. The Exoneration Act conditions refund on defendants’ proof of innocence by clear and convincing evidence, but defendants in petitioners’ position are presumed innocent. Moreover, the Act provides no remedy for assessments tied to invalid misdemeanor convictions. And when, as here, the recoupment amount sought is not large, the cost of mounting a claim under the Act and retaining counsel to pursue it would be prohibitive.

Colorado argues that an Act that provides sufficient process to compensate a defendant for the loss of her liberty must suffice to compensate a defendant for the lesser deprivation of money. But Nelson and Madden seek the return of their property, not compensation for its temporary deprivation. Just as restoration of liberty on reversal of a conviction is not compensation, neither is the return of money taken by the State on account of the conviction. Other procedures cited by Colorado—the need for probable cause to support criminal charges, the jury-trial right, and the State’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—do not address the risk faced by a defendant whose conviction has been overturned that she will not recover funds taken from her based solely on a conviction no longer valid. Pp. 8–10.

Colorado has no interest in withholding from Nelson and Madden money to which the State currently has zero claim of right. The State has identified no equitable considerations favoring its position, nor indicated any way in which the Exoneration Act embodies such considerations.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a person has filed a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties are given notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to state their case.
  • Minor – An individual who is not of age to have legal responsibility.
  • Prosecution – The lawyer or lawyers who charge and try a case against a person accused of having committed a crime.
  • Statute – A written law passed by a legislature on the state or federal level.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.