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Contract Law

Interpretation Of Contracts

When interpreting contracts courts tend to avoid questions regarding the intent of the parties involved in the contract and rely on the contract itself, particularly when the contract is in written form. Under the "plain meaning" rule, the words of a contract are to be read according to their plain, everyday meanings, with the exception of terms that have been specifically defined in the contract. To discourage the drafting of deliberately ambiguous language, any ambiguous terms in a contract is interpreted in a way that penalizes the party that drafts the document. In other words, if "party X" deceptively drafts a contract with ambiguous language such that the terms of the contract benefit the interests of "party X" over "party Y," the ambiguous language of the contract will deliberately be interpreted to benefit "party Y."

Contracts are frequently modified to reflect a change in preference by one of the parties or because unforeseen circumstances arise. For instance, a person may contract with a builder to have a house constructed but during the course of construction he or she may desire that more rooms be included, or the builder may be forced to change the agreed-upon completion date due to problems with the weather. Both the initial contract and the subsequent modifications may be in written or oral form. Contracts can be designed to accommodate future complications by including provisions that leave matters open. For example, a contract may leave certain matters to be resolved at a later date to reflect future conditions such as changes in prices or availability of goods. Such modifications may be in writing but are more often simple oral agreements.

Interpreting contracts is often difficult because of the complexity and subjectivity of the agreement. To simplify the process a set of standard procedures for interpretation are usually followed. First, the latest and most final agreement of the parties is considered to be the valid contract. Second, written agreements are given much more weight than oral agreements. In fact, in cases involving written contracts, oral evidence that either contradicts or supplements a written agreement, may not be introduced if the written contract is deemed final and complete. Oral evidence may be considered when a contract is final but incomplete, but only as an addition to the contract; oral evidence in contradiction of the basic terms of the contract is not allowed.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesContract Law - What Is A Contract?, Sources Of Contract Law: The Statute Of Frauds, The Uniform Commercial Code