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We hear this phrase used a lot in political ranting, to describe various purportedly corrupt forces that are determined to do or maintain something due to an identifiable incentive.

But it's just occurred to me that this is probably originally a legal term. What does it mean for an interested to be vested or unvested?

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A vested interest is a type of property interest. Black's Law Dictionary provides this definition:

Accrued; fixed; settled; absolute ; having the character or giving the rights of absolute ownership; not contingent; not subject to be defeated by a condition precedent.

In other words, a holder's interest in property is vested when he does not need to satisfy any further conditions before claiming his property. This is in contrast to a contingent interest which does not become vested until some condition is satisfied.

In the United States, the most familiar example may be in the retirement context. An employer may offer to match your contributions to your 401(k) plan, with the match vesting after one year.

In that case, your employer should deposit matching funds into an account in your name as soon as you begin work, but for the first 12 months, you do not actually have the right to access or use those funds. Once a year has passed, though, you are not required to do anything else to take control of the matching funds, so you are said to have a vested interest in those funds -- you may withdraw them if you please, and the employer no longer has any claim to them.

The colloquial sense of vested interest is therefore inconsistent with the legal definition. For instance, in reporting on San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin's reelection campaign, Fox News described writer Shaun King as having "a vested interest in the controversial DA," based on their mutual involvement in a nonprofit organization. But absent the repeal of the Thirteenth Amendment, it is not possible to have a vested interest in another person.

Likewise, reports that a politician has a vested interest in some policy, that an international organization has a vested interest in global economic development or that a coach has a vested interest in his players' health make no sense when applying the legal definition. None of these things are property to begin with, let alone property that these people could actually be said to hold an interest in with no preconditions.

It is likely that in the vast majority of cases, references to a "vested interest" should simply say "interest."

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  • Lol @ thirteenth amendment Jun 4, 2022 at 9:52
  • Is it fair to say that the colloquial sense is basically using it to mean "undeniable"? Jun 4, 2022 at 9:52
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    I would speculate that, colloquially, people interpret "vested" as similar to "invested", suggesting that someone has invested (time/effort/money) in something and therefore has an interest in what happens to it.
    – T Hummus
    Oct 9, 2022 at 22:41
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    @THummus, I would say a "vested interest" is a firm arrangement which a person is habituated to rely on for advantage, often with the implication that they are dug-in somehow and have had time to develop experience and means to defend those arrangements against change. This might be different from fleeting interests that come and go, or interests which exist only as potentials.
    – Steve
    Oct 11, 2022 at 18:27
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    @Steve That is a meaning of "vested" in a political sense, but in property law and tax law the meaning is more narrow and specific.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 11, 2022 at 20:14
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One example of its meaning may be found in the HMRC Trusts, Settlements and Estates Manual, at TSEM6210...vested interest - definition", which offers this:

‘Vested’ means that the interest either already is or will eventually come into the hands of the beneficiary. If this occurs after the beneficiary dies, it will go to the personal representatives of the beneficiary.

The future event must be certain to happen - for example, the death of another person. It does not matter if it is not possible to say when this will be.

If the event is not certain to occur the interest is contingent (TSEM6211) - not vested. For example, the event may be the beneficiary reaching the age of thirty.

Sometimes a trust may provide for a beneficiary to lose a vested interest if an event happens. Until then the interest is vested in possession. It is not contingent.

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