Put It in Writing!
“THE house was not in the best condition,” recalls Frank.* “But, with a heating system, some bathroom tile and maybe a little decorating work here and there, it could be made livable.” So when Frank’s friend Dave said he’d be willing to do the necessary work, Frank was happy to let him and his family move in. Frank is sure Dave agreed to pay a nominal rent.
Dave, on the other hand, remembers no such agreement. In his view the house was “gutted and unlivable.” After spending hundreds of dollars to fix it up, Dave resented Frank’s pressing him to pay rent. “I felt in my heart that I really did not owe Frank any money,” confessed Dave.
While greed may be at the heart of many a dispute, not so in this case. There was no lease, no written agreement—nothing but two conflicting recollections. “Something in writing might have prevented this whole problem from occurring,” bemoaned Frank.
In view of the great number of lawsuits, even when there are written documents, one might wonder if it is worth the trouble to sign agreements. In the United States, for example, lawsuits have become such a way of life that recently The Wall Street Journal spoke of a “litigation explosion.” This, then, is all the more reason for you to protect your interests by putting legal agreements in writing. ‘But is it really necessary when dealing with friends?’ you may ask.
At times, normally businesslike people take dangerous liberties when dealing with friends. ‘I’d be embarrassed to ask a friend to sign a contract,’ some say. But is it wise to feel this way? Suppose you hire a neighbor to paint your home’s entranceway. He may misunderstand certain details. “Entranceway” to you encompasses steps, porch and doors, while to him it means only “doorway.” And what if he uses the wrong color paint? Surely it is better kindly to insist on putting the deal in writing! No mistrust is implied—just the possibility of failing memories.
“Whereas the Undersigned Have Agreed . . .”
When we say “contract” you may envisage pages of legal technicalities. But books on law show that a contract is merely “a mutual obligation between two people with a mutual right by either to demand its performance.” A mere promise is not necessarily a contract, for a contract is a legally enforceable agreement.
What, then, makes a promise “legally enforceable”? While laws vary according to locality, three elements usually must exist for a contract to be valid: (1) A legitimate offer. (2) Acceptance. (3) Mutual consideration.* (Both parties must contribute something, such as money, or a promise to do or not to do something.)
An account in the Bible at Genesis chapter 23 well illustrates these legal principles. Here we learn of Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot for his beloved wife, Sarah. The scene opens at the gate of the city where business was regularly transacted. Abraham begins by respectfully bowing down to the sons of Heth. He straightforwardly requests “the cave of Machpelah” belonging to Ephron and offers to pay “the full amount of silver.” Instead, Ephron offers to “give” not only the cave but also the surrounding field. But Abraham insists on paying. Possibly Ephron’s promise to “give” him the land could later have been challenged. So the price of “four hundred silver shekels” is agreed upon and paid.—Genesis 23:1-20.
In this real-life event both parties were respectful. The sale took place in front of witnesses and according to established legal procedures. And while it is not specifically stated that a written deed was signed, it does show that the boundaries of the land purchased were explicitly “confirmed.”—Genesis 23:17.
Abraham knew that relying on vague promises was no way to conduct business. Follow his example. For instance, if you want your neighbor friend to paint your entranceway, get together with him and work out the details. Specifically, what does “entranceway” encompass? What color? What kind of paint? When should the job be completed? At what price?
Putting It in Writing
A contract does not have to be written in difficult language to be legally binding or effective. Clear, simple words can be used. Unfortunately, contracts are often worded in ways that only experts can decipher. There was an insurance company president who could not comprehend parts of his own homeowner’s policy! So pompous words may cause confusion.
Likely you can handle the writing out of your simple contract by jotting down the points you have agreed upon, dating the document and signing it in duplicate. Bear in mind, however, that complex contracts, such as real-estate sales, are best left to professionals.
Before You Sign on the Dotted Line
You may be thrust into situations where you feel pressured to sign something. Hospitals, for example, often ask patients to sign many forms. Or a busy insurance agent asks you to sign a lengthy, detailed policy. However, it is important that you understand what you sign, as ignorance may not excuse you legally.
So ask questions. Does this form give the hospital permission to perform an operation you don’t want or to give you treatment that may in some way be objectionable? Does the insurance policy really fit your needs? Look out for phrases such as “not responsible.” It may mean just that! Make sure you understand the essential elements of any document you sign.
Suppose, for example, that an employer offers to give you certain training. Because such training makes you a potential competitor, he may ask you to sign an agreement stating that, upon quitting, you will refrain from doing certain work for a particular length of time in a defined area. Do the courts respect an employer’s right to protect his interests in this way? Say the authors of Making the Law Work for You: A Guide for Small Businesses: “In nearly all jurisdictions in the United States . . . a reasonably drafted noncompetition agreement is enforceable.” You had better count the cost before signing such an agreement.
“He Has Sworn to What Is Bad for Himself”
Sometimes the most judicious of people find themselves locked into an undesirable agreement. Some break their word rather than suffer a loss. Yet the Bible commends the person who has “sworn to what is bad for himself, and yet he does not alter.” (Psalm 15:4) This means being willing to accept the consequences of your bad agreement—chalking it up to experience.
However, there is some recourse. Note the principle embodied in Proverbs 6:1-3 according to Today’s English Version of the Bible: “Son, have you promised to be responsible for someone else’s debts? Have you been caught by your own words, trapped by your own promises? Well then, son, . . . this is how to get out of it: hurry to him, and beg him to release you.” Your persistent efforts may result in your being freed from the unwise agreement. If not, Jesus’ counsel to let your “Yes mean Yes” will likely help you accept the consequences with stoic calm.—Matthew 5:33-37.
The Best Laid Plans . . .
Even the most meticulously worded agreement can lead to problems. “Time and unforeseen occurrence” can make it impossible to follow through on promises made with the best of intentions. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Misunderstandings can still occur. But Christian love, a sense of fairness, generosity and mutual understanding can smother the fire of contention.—Philippians 2:3, 4.
Some Christians in the first century resorted to court litigation to settle disputes they had with fellow believers. But the Bible advises against doing so, asking: “Is it true that there is not one wise man among you that will be able to judge between his brothers?” (1 Corinthians 6:5) Likely you know a person experienced in such matters who could be of help if you cannot work out the problems on a personal basis. A neutral person, willing to look at both sides calmly and objectively, can often come up with a fresh insight. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in your contract. Interestingly, this basic approach, called arbitration in legal circles, has gained popularity, as it spares the expense, time and anxiety of a protracted court case.
We hope this information will help you avoid getting embroiled in controversy, suffering a financial loss or losing a friend. Take the time to handle matters properly—legally. Talk matters out. Plan thoroughly. And by all means—PUT IT IN WRITING!
The names of these individuals have been changed.
A book on business law states that “consideration in the conventional contract sense is peculiar to Anglo-American law.” In the United States there is some indication that consideration is losing “much of its importance as a contract requirement.”
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Do not be embarrassed to ask someone to sign a contract