Legal Dictionary


Definition of distress


    From Middle English, from Old French destrecier ‎("to restrain, constrain, put in straits, afflict, distress") (French: détresse), from Medieval Latin as if *districtiare, an assumed frequentive form of Latin distringere ‎("to pull asunder, stretch out"), from dis- ‎("apart") + stringere ‎("to draw tight, strain").



distress ‎(uncountable)

  1. (law) A seizing of property without legal process to force payment of a debt.

  2. (law) The thing taken by distraining; that which is seized to procure satisfaction.

    • Spenser
      If he was not paid, he would straight go and take a distress of goods and cattle.

    • Blackstone
      The distress thus taken must be proportioned to the thing distrained for.

Further reading

Distraint or distress is "the seizure of someone's property in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed", especially in common law countries. Distraint is the act or process "whereby a person (the distrainor), traditionally even without prior court approval, seizes the personal property of another located upon the distrainor's land in satisfaction of a claim, as a pledge for performance of a duty, or in reparation of an injury." Distraint typically involves the seizure of goods (chattels) belonging to the tenant by the landlord to sell the goods for the payment of the rent. In the past, distress was often carried out without court approval. Today, some kind of court action is usually required, the main exception being certain tax authorities, such as HM Revenue and Customs in the United Kingdom and, in the United States, the Internal Revenue Service-agencies that retain the legal power to levy assets (by either seizure or distraint) without a court order.

Related terms


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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