The term “willfully” means that an act is committed voluntarily and purposefully, with a clear intention to break the law. For example, willfully driving in a reckless manner means that the person who is driving recklessly intends to do so, despite knowing that what he is doing is dangerous and illegal, and that there may be consequences for his actions. A person is not acting “willfully” if he acts in good faith, and simply misunderstands what is required of him by law. To explore this concept, consider the following willfully definition.

Definition of Willfully


  1. To act with a voluntary and deliberate disregard for the law and its consequences.


1150-1200       Middle English

What is Willfully

In a legal context, to do something “willfully” is to deliberately and voluntarily behave with the specific intent to do something that is against the law, or to convince someone else to act in a way that disregards the law. If a person acts in good faith but simply misunderstands the law, and he or someone else suffers a consequence as a result, this is not “willful” conduct. This is because he did not set out with the intent to commit a wrongdoing.

It can be easy to confuse motive with intent. However, a motive is what inspires a person to behave in such a way – his “motivation.” Intent, on the other hand, is the state of mind a person is in when he decides to act in such a way. Intent is what the courts analyze when determining whether an action was performed willfully.

Consider the following example of willfully disobeying the law. Upon receiving a bill from the IRS, John chooses not to pay his taxes. If John is not paying his taxes because he truly believes himself to be exempt when, in fact, he is not, then he is acting in good faith even though his belief is incorrect. If, however, John is certain that he is not exempt and chooses not to pay his taxes anyway, then he is showing a willful disregard for the law and its consequences.

Willful Violation

When someone commits a willful violation in the workplace, he is committing the worst violation he can commit under the laws administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). A willful violation occurs when an employer is aware of a hazardous situation in its workplace, yet does nothing to fix the problem.

If an employer is issued repeated citations regarding the same or similar situations, these citations can be used as evidence of his willful violation. It is not necessary to prove that the employer acted with an evil intent for the violation to be deemed willful. It is enough to show that the violation was deliberate or intentional, as opposed to being accidental or negligent.

Willful Tort

A willful tort is a tort that is committed intentionally and knowingly, and is not the result of an accident or negligence. A willful tort is done with a deliberate intention, and may even be planned in advance. If a willful tort is proven in a court of law, the defendant will be held liable for more damages than in a case that does not involve a willful tort.

Willful Act and Criminal Intent

In criminal law, a willful act is defined as one that is committed with criminal intent. For instance, willful murder is the act of someone intentionally or purposely killing another person. If a person kills the another person in a car accident, for example, the act of driving is not illegal. However, the driver may have been intoxicated or otherwise driving recklessly, and so “willful” is used to refer to his intentional and purposeful conduct. He knew that drinking before getting behind the wheel, or driving at a high rate of speed, could get himself or another person killed, but he did it anyway. This is why his conduct was willful.

Crimes that are considered mala in se, or “evil in themselves,” as well as crimes of moral turpitude, are always considered to be willful. This is because one cannot accidentally rape someone, or accidentally embezzle funds from one’s employer.

Knowingly and Willfully

As per the Criminal Resource Manual, if a statement is made with the intention of deceiving another person, the statement is said to be made “knowingly and willfully,” and is deemed to be a false statement, or a lie. In order to prove that a statement was made “knowingly and willfully,” evidence must be provided that the individual acted deliberately, and while knowing full well that what he was saying wasn’t true.

For example:

Paul, owner of a used car lot, purchases a car at auction that needs a moderate amount of repair. When his mechanic checks it out, he advises Paul that, in addition to the body work, it appears whatever accident the car was in had damaged the transmission, which would need to be replaced. That would cost a lot of money, so Paul fixes up the car’s appearance and puts it up for sale on his lot.

A week later, Stephanie shows interest in the car, and Paul tells her that he had the car inspected by his mechanic, and that he had it’s a “gem,” with no mechanical problems. A week later, Stephanie realizes that she is having intermittent problems with the transmission not engaging. She takes it to her mechanic, who informs her that the transmission was obviously damaged in an accident, and it needs to be replaced. The new transmission will cost her $4,500.

Outraged, Stephanie researches the car’s history and discovers that the car had been in an accident shortly before the dealership took over ownership. The salesman had lied to her, telling her that the car was in tip-top shape, just to convince her to purchase the car. The salesman knew the car was seriously damaged by the accident, and therefore he “knowingly and willfully” lied to Stephanie in an attempt to land the sale.

Knowingly vs. Willfully

To prove that a person acted “knowingly,” it needs to be shown that he was thoroughly aware of what he was doing, and that the act did not result from a mistake or accident. However, he is not spared the consequences of his actions if he was unaware of something that could have easily been learned. For instance, if a person didn’t know that he would be fined or imprisoned for not paying his taxes, there are plenty of resources available to educate him. Such information is typically provided right in his tax documents, if only he were to read them.

To prove that a person committed an act “willfully,” all that needs to be shown is that the act was committed deliberately, and that the person was fully aware of what he was doing. Malice need not be shown here. An act is committed “willfully” if it is committed voluntarily and intentionally, and that the person specifically intended to do something illegal.

Willfully Example in a Criminal Case

An example of willfully disobeying the law can be found in a case that was heard in 1998, wherein Sillasse Bryan was criminally charged with conspiracy for “willfully” buying and selling weapons without having the required federal license. At his trial, the government presented evidence that proved Bryan did not have the license, that he was in fact buying and selling weapons, and that he knowingly engaged in unlawful conduct. However, no evidence was presented that proved that Bryan was aware of the federal law that bans people from doing this very thing without a license.

The law referred to herein concerns the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA), which was established to bar a person from “willfully” buying and selling guns without a license to do so. Bryan requested that the judge instruct the jury on the point that he could only be convicted if he knew about the licensing requirement but chose to deal in weaponry anyway. The judge refused, and instead instructed the jury that a person acts “willfully” when he intends to disobey the law, but that he does not need to know which law he is breaking to be found to have acted willfully.

The jury found Bryan guilty, and he appealed the conviction. The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed the jury’s decision, finding that the trial judge’s instructions were proper, and that the government had sufficiently proven that Bryan had acted willfully. Bryan then took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; however, he was denied there as well.

Here, the Court accepted the government’s evidence, and affirmed that there was no evidence to prove that Bryan knew about the federal law that prohibited him from buying and selling guns without a license. Further, the Court explained its four reasons for deciding not to reverse the lower Court’s decision. Specifically:

“First, petitioner did not object to that sentence, except insofar as he had argued that the jury should have been instructed that the Government had the burden of proving that he had knowledge of the federal licensing requirement. Second, in the context of the entire instructions, it seems unlikely that the jury was misled…

Third, petitioner failed to raise this argument in the Court of Appeals. Finally, our grant of certiorari was limited to the narrow legal question whether knowledge of the licensing requirement is an essential element of the offense. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Malice – The intention to do evil, inflict injury, or cause suffering of another.
  • Tort – An intentional or negligent act, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act, which causes harm to another.
  • 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 make a determination in a civil matter.