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What is a Rebuttable Presumption?

By Charity Delich
Updated: May 16, 2024

In a typical court case, each of the parties must present evidence to a judge or jury in order to sufficiently prove his or her side of the case. An exception, also called a presumption, to this rule exists in most jurisdictions. In general, a presumption is a legal notion that allows a judge or jury to assume a certain fact is true if another fact, or set of facts, can be proven by a party to the case. A legal presumption can be refuted if one of the parties is able to present evidence that effectively disproves it. This is known as a rebuttable presumption.

By and large, rebutting a presumption requires the objecting party to adequately demonstrate that the presumption is untrue. The party may do this by presenting testimony, documents, or records that support his or her position. Generally, the presumption will be deemed rebutted if a reasonable person of average intelligence could rationally decide that it doesn’t apply to the case at hand. Rebuttable presumptions extend to nearly all areas of law.

A common example of a rebuttable presumption is found in family law. As a general rule, if a woman is married when she gives birth to a child, her husband is presumed to be the father of the child. This assumption can be refuted if an involved party contests it and offers evidence proving that the husband is not in fact the father of the child. Many jurisdictions also adhere to a rebuttable presumption holding that, if domestic violence occurs between parents, the violent parent cannot have custody of the couple’s minor children.

In the area of criminal law, there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the defendant in many countries. In other words, a criminal defendant is considered innocent until he or she is proven guilty by the prosecution. Typically, the prosecuting lawyer must disprove this rebuttable presumption by presenting evidence at trial that shows the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt or some other level of legal proof.

The notion of a rebuttable presumption can also surface in corporate law. For instance, it is generally assumed that if two or more parties agree to share business profits, they have formed a general partnership. When a commercial contract is entered into, there is a rebuttable presumption that the contracting parties intended to create a legally binding arrangement. The burden of disproving this assumption ordinarily rests on the party who desires to reject the contract.

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Discussion Comments
By ddljohn — On Feb 14, 2013

The presumption of innocence must be one of the most important tenets of common law (the law system in the US).

My professor always says that it's better to free a criminal than to withhold an innocent. This belief must be the basis of this tenet.

Plus, it's rebuttable. If there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the criminal will not get away with it.

By fBoyle — On Feb 13, 2013

@burcidi-- No. In law, not all presumptions are rebuttable. Some presumptions are conclusive, meaning that they cannot be disproved with any evidence.

Let me give you some examples. By law, anyone under the age of seven cannot be prosecuted of a felony. So if it is proved that someone is under the age of seven, it is presumed that they did not commit a felony. There is no evidence that can rebut this fact. This is a conclusive presumption.

Again, by law, anyone who is missing for more than seven years is considered dead. But if this person is found after the seven year period, this presumption will be disproved. It is a rebuttable presumption.

Does it make sense now?

By burcidi — On Feb 13, 2013

I understand what a rebuttable presumption is. But aren't all legal presumptions rebuttable? I mean, if someone comes up with proof to the contrary, the presumption will be rebutted regardless. Right?

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