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Elements Of A Contract

The requisites for formation of a legal contract are an offer, an acceptance, competent parties who have the legal capacity to contract, lawful subject matter, mutuality of agreement, consideration, mutuality of obligation, and, if required under the STATUTE OF FRAUDS, a writing.

Offer An offer is a promise that is, by its terms, conditional upon an act, forbearance, or return promise being given in exchange for the promise or its performance. It is a demonstration of willingness to enter into a bargain, made so that another party is justified in understanding that his or her assent to the bargain is invited and will conclude it. Any offer must consist of a statement of present intent to enter a contract; a definite proposal that is certain in its terms; and communication of the offer to the identified, prospective offeree. If any of these elements are missing, there is no offer to form the basis of a contract.

Preliminary negotiations, advertisements, invitations to bid Preliminary negotiations are clearly distinguished from offers because they contain no demonstration of present intent to form contractual relations. No contract is formed when prospective purchasers respond to such terms, as they are merely invitations or requests for an offer. Unless this interpretation is employed, any person in a position similar to a seller who advertises goods in any medium would be liable for numerous contracts when there is usually a limited quantity of merchandise for sale.

An advertisement, price quotation, or catalogue is customarily viewed as only an invitation to a customer to make an offer and not as an offer itself. The courts reason that an establishment might not have sufficient stock to satisfy potential demand and that it would not be reasonable for a customer to expect to form a binding contract by responding to advertisements that are intended to make consumers aware of a product for sale. In addition, the courts have held that an advertisement is an offer for a unilateral contract that can be revoked at the will of the offeror, the business enterprise, prior to performance of its terms.

An exception exists, however, to the general rule on advertisements. When the quantity offered for sale is specified and contains words of promise, such as "first come, first served," courts enforce the contract where the store refuses to sell the product when the price is tendered. Where the offer is clear, definite, and explicit, and no matters remain open for negotiation, acceptance of it completes the contract. New conditions may not be imposed on the offer after it has been accepted by the performance of its terms.

An advertisement or request for bids for the sale of particular property or the erection or construction of a particular structure is merely an invitation for offers that cannot be accepted by any particular bid. A submitted bid is, however, an offer, which upon acceptance by the offeree becomes a valid contract.

Mistake in sending offer If an intermediary, such as a telegraph company, errs in the transmission of an offer, most courts hold that the party who selected that method of communication is bound by the terms of the erroneous message. The same rule applies to acceptances. In reaching this result, courts regard the telegraph company as the agent of the party who selected it. Other courts justify the rule on business convenience. A few courts rule that if there is an error in transmission, there is no contract, on the grounds that either the telegraph company is an INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR and not the sender's agent, or there has been no meeting of the minds of the parties. However, an offeree who knows, or should know, of the mistake in the transmission of an offer may not take advantage of the known mistake by accepting the offer; he or she will be bound by the original terms of the offer.

Termination of an offer An offer remains open until the expiration of its specified time period or, if there is no time limit, until a reasonable time has elapsed. A reasonable time is determined according to what a reasonable person would consider sufficient time to accept the offer.

The death or insanity of either party, before an acceptance is communicated, causes an offer to expire. If the offer has been accepted, the contract is binding, even if one of the parties dies thereafter. The destruction of the subject matter of the contract; conditions that render the contract impossible to perform; or the supervening illegality of the proposed contract results in the termination of the offer.

When the offeror, either verbally or by conduct, clearly demonstrates that the offer is no longer open, the offer is considered revoked when learned by the offeree. Where an offer is made to the general public, it can be revoked by furnishing public notice of its termination in the same way in which the offer was publicized.

Irrevocable offers An option is a right that is purchased by a person in order to have an offer remain open at agreed-upon price and terms, for a specified time, during which it is irrevocable. It constitutes an exception to the general rule that an offer may be withdrawn prior to acceptance. The offeror may not withdraw this offer because that party is bound by the consideration given by the offeree. The offeree is free, however, to decide whether or not to accept the offer.

Most courts hold that an offer for a unilateral contract becomes irrevocable as soon as the offeree starts to perform the requested act, because that action serves as consideration to prevent revocation of the offer. Where it is doubtful whether the offer invites an act (as in the case of a unilateral contract) or a promise (as in the case of a bilateral contract), the presumption is in favor of a promise, and therefore a bilateral contract arises. If an offer to form a unilateral contract requires several acts, it is interpreted as inviting acceptance by completion of the initial act. Performance of the balance constitutes a condition to the offeror's duty of performance. Where such an offer invites only a single act, it includes by implication a subsidiary promise to keep the offer open if the offeree will commence performance. Some courts hold that an offer for a unilateral contract may be revoked at any time prior to completion of the act bargained for, even after the offeree has partially performed it.

Rejection of an offer An offer is rejected when the offeror is justified in understanding from the words or conduct of the offeree that he or she intends not to accept the offer, or to take it under further advisement. Rejection might come in the form of an express refusal to accept an offer by a counteroffer, which is a new proposal that rejects the offer by implication; or by a conditional acceptance that operates as a counteroffer. The offer may continue, however, if the offeree expressly states that the counteroffer shall not constitute a rejection of the offer.

If an offer is rejected, the party who made the original offer no longer has any liability for that offer. The party who rejected the offer may not subsequently, at his or her own option, convert the same offer into a contract by a subsequent acceptance. In such a case, the consent of the offeror must be obtained for a contract to be formed.

Acceptance Acceptance of an offer is an expression of assent to its terms. It must be made by the offeree in a manner requested or authorized by the offeror. An acceptance is valid only if the offeree knows of the offer; the offeree manifests an intention to accept; the acceptance is unequivocal and unconditional; and the acceptance is manifested according to the terms of the offer.

The determination of a valid acceptance is governed by whether a promise or an act by the offeree was the bargained-for response. Since the acceptance of a unilateral contract requires an act rather than a promise, it is unnecessary to furnish notice of intended performance unless the offeror requested it. If, however, the offeree has reason to believe that the offeror will not learn of the acceptance with reasonable promptness, the duty of the offeror is discharged unless the offeree makes a reasonable attempt to give notice; the offeror learns of the performance; or the offer indicates that no notice is required.

In bilateral contracts, the offer is effective when the offeree receives it. The offeree may accept it until the offeree receives notice of revocation from the offeror. Thereafter, an offer is revoked. Under the majority rule, which is known as the "mailbox rule," an acceptance is effective upon dispatch if the offeror explicitly authorizes that method of acceptance to be employed by the offeree, even if the acceptance is lost or destroyed in transit.

The majority rule is inapplicable, however, unless the acceptance is properly addressed and postage prepaid. It has no application to most option contracts, as acceptance of an option contract is effective only when received by the offeror.

If the acceptance mode used by the offeree is implicitly authorized by the offeror, such as the selection by the offeree of the same method used by the offeror, who neglected to designate a method of communication, an acceptance is effective upon dispatch if it is correctly addressed and the expense of its conveyance is prepaid. As with expressly authorized methods, the acceptance need not ever reach the offeror in order to form the contract.

In some jurisdictions, the use of a method not expressly or impliedly authorized by the offeror, even if more rapid in nature, results in a contract only upon receipt of the acceptance. In most jurisdictions, however, if the acceptance mode is inherently faster, it is deemed to be an impliedly authorized means, and acceptance is effective upon dispatch.

If the acceptance is transmitted by an expressly or impliedly authorized method to the wrong address, it is effective only upon receipt by the offeror. A wrong address is any address other than that implicitly authorized, even if the offeror were in a position to receive the acceptance at the substituted address.

An offeror who specifically states that there is no contract until the acceptance is received is entitled to insist upon the condition of receipt or upon any other provision concerning the manner and time of acceptance specified.

Rejection of the offer or revocation of conditional acceptance is effective upon receipt. A late or defective acceptance is treated as a counteroffer, which will not result in a contract unless the offeror accepts it. If offers cross in the mail, there will be no binding contract, as an offer may not be accepted if there is no knowledge of it.

As a general rule, an offer may be accepted only by the offeree or an authorized agent. If, however, the offer is contained in an option contract, it may be the subject of an assignment or transfer without the consent of the offeror, unless the option involves a purchase on credit or expressly prohibits an assignment.

In contracts that do not involve the sale of goods, acceptance must comply exactly with the requirements of the offer (this is known as the "mirror-image rule"), and must omit nothing from the promise or performance requested. An offer of a prize in a contest, for example, becomes a binding contract when a contestant successfully complies with the terms of the offer. If a response to an offer purports to accept it, but adds qualifications or conditions, then it is a counteroffer and not an acceptance.

Acceptance may be inferred from the offeree's acts, conduct, or silence; but as a general rule, silence, without more, can never constitute acceptance. The effect of silence accompanied by AMBIGUITY must be ascertained from all the circumstances in the case.

Prior dealings between the parties may create a duty to act. Silence or the failure to take some action under such circumstances might constitute acceptance. For example, if the parties have engaged in a series of business transactions involving the mailing of goods and payment by the recipient, the recipient will not be permitted to retain an article without paying for it within a reasonable time, due to their prior dealings. A recipient who does not intend to accept the goods is under a duty to inform the sender. Silence, where there is a duty to speak, prevents the offeree from rejecting an offer and the offeror from claiming that there is no acceptance. If ownership rights are exercised over an item, this might be deemed an acceptance.

Unsolicited goods At COMMON LAW, the recipient of unsolicited goods in the mail was not required to accept or to return them, but if the goods were used, a contract and a concomitant obligation to pay for them were created. Today, in order to offer protection against unwanted solicitations, some state statutes have modified the common-law rule by providing that where unsolicited merchandise is received as part of an offer to sell, the goods are an out-right gift. The recipient may use the goods and is under no duty to return or pay for them unless he or she knows that they were sent by mistake.

Agreements to agree An "agreement to agree" is not a contract. This type of agreement is frequently employed in industries that require long-term contracts in order to ensure a constant source of supplies and outlet of production. Mutual manifestations of assent that are, in themselves, sufficient to form a binding contract are not deprived of operative effect by the mere fact that the parties agree to prepare a written reproduction of their agreement. In determining whether, on a given set of facts, there is merely an "agreement to agree" or a sufficiently binding contract, the courts apply certain rules. If the parties express their intention—either to be bound or not bound until a written document is prepared—then that intention controls. If they have not expressed their intention, but they exchange promises of a definite performance and agree upon all essential terms, then the parties have formed a contract even though the written document is never signed. If the expressions of intention are incomplete—as, for example, if a material term such as quantity has been left to further negotiation—the parties do not have a contract. The designation of the material term for further negotiation is interpreted as demonstrating the intention of the parties not to be bound until a complete agreement has been reached.

Competent Parties A natural person who agrees to a transaction has complete legal capacity to become liable for duties under the contract unless he or she is an infant, insane, or intoxicated.

Infants An infant is defined as a person under the age of 18 or 21, depending on the particular jurisdiction. A contract made by an infant is voidable but is valid and enforceable until or unless he or she disaffirms it. He or she may avoid the legal duty to perform the terms of the contract without any liability for breach of contract. INFANTS are treated in such a way because public policy deems it desirable to protect the immature and naive infant from liability for unfair contracts that he or she is too inexperienced to negotiate on equal terms with the other party.

Once an infant attains majority (i.e., the age at which a person is no longer legally considered an infant), he or she must choose either to disaffirm or avoid the contract, or to ratify or accept it. After reaching the age of majority, a person implicitly ratifies and becomes bound to perform the contract if he or she fails to disaffirm it within a reasonable time, which is determined by the circumstances of the particular case. A person who disaffirms a contract must return any benefits or consideration received under it that he or she still possesses. If such benefits have been squandered or destroyed, the person usually has no legal obligation to recompense the other party. The law imposes liability on the infant in certain cases, however. Although the contract of an infant or other person may be voidable, the person still may be liable in quasi-contract in order to prevent UNJUST ENRICHMENT for the reasonable value of goods or services furnished if they are necessaries that are reasonably required for the person's health, comfort, or education.

The majority of courts hold that an infant who willfully misrepresents his or her age may, nevertheless, exercise the power to avoid the contract. As a general rule, however, the infant must place the adult party in the status quo ante (i.e., his or her position prior to the contract). The jurisdictions are in disagreement in regard to whether an infant is liable in TORT (i.e., a civil wrong other than breach of contract) for willful misrepresentation of his or her age. This divergence arises from the rule that a tort action may not be maintained against an infant if it essentially entails the enforcement of a contract. Some courts regard the action for fraud that would be commenced against the infant as being based on the contract. Others rule that the tort is sufficiently independent of the contract so that the granting of relief would not involve indirect enforcement of the contract. The other party, however, is able to avoid a contract entered into on the basis of an infant's fraudulent MISREPRESENTATION with respect to age or other material facts because he or she is the innocent victim of the infant's fraud.

Mental incapacity When a party does not comprehend the nature and consequences of the contract when it is formed, he or she is regarded as having mental incapacity. A distinction must be drawn between those persons who have been adjudicated incompetent by a court and have had a guardian appointed, and those mentally incompetent persons who have not been so adjudicated. A person who has been declared incompetent in a court proceeding lacks the legal capacity to enter into a contract with another. Such a person is unable to consent to the contract, as the court has determined that he or she does not understand the obligations and effects of the contract. A contract made by such a person is void and without any legal effect. Neither party may be legally compelled to perform or comply with the terms of the contract. If there has been no adjudication of insanity, a contract made by a mentally incapacitated individual is voidable by him or her.

Many contract principles that apply to minors also apply to insane persons. There is an obligation to recompense the injured party where a voidable contract is avoided, and to pay for necessaries based upon quasi-contract for the reasonable value of the goods or services. The incompetent, a guardian, or a PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE after death may avoid the contract. The incompetent may ratify a voidable contract only if they recover the capacity to contract. The right to avoid the contract belongs to the incompetent; the other party may not avoid the contractual obligation. A contract that is ordinarily voidable may not be set aside when it is inherently fair to both parties and has been executed to such an extent that the other party cannot be restored to the position that they occupied prior to the contract.

Intoxicated persons A contract made by an intoxicated person is voidable. When a person is inebriated at the time of entering into a contract with another and subsequently becomes sober and either promises to perform the contract or fails to disaffirm it within a reasonable time after becoming sober, then that person has ratified his or her voidable contract and is legally bound to perform.

Subject Matter Any undertaking may be the subject of a contract, provided that it is not proscribed by law. When a contract is formed in restraint of trade, courts will not enforce it, because it imposes an illegal and unreasonable burden on commerce by hindering competition. Contracts that provide for the commission of a crime or any illegal objective are also void.

Future rights and liabilities—performing or refraining from some designated act, or assuming particular risks or obligations—may constitute the basis of a contract. An idea that never assumes concrete form at the time of disclosure, such as a concept for a short story, even though new and unusual, may not, however, be the subject of a contract.

A person may not legally contract concerning a right that he or she does not have. A seller of a home who does not possess clear title to the property may not promise to convey it without encumbrances. Neither may a seller promise that property will not be appropriated by EMINENT DOMAIN, which is an inherent power of government that is not subject to restrictions imposed by individuals.

Mutual Agreement There must be an agreement between the parties, or mutual assent, for a contract to be formed. In order for an agreement to exist, the parties must have a common intention or a meeting of minds on the terms of the contract and must subscribe to the same bargain. Aside from certain statutory exceptions pertaining to the sale of goods, as prescribed by Article 2 of the UNIFORM COMMERCIAL CODE (UCC), if any of the proposed terms is not settled, or if no method of settlement is provided, then there is no agreement. The parties may settle one term at a time, but their contract becomes complete only when they assent to the final term. An agreement is binding if the parties concur with respect to the essential terms and intend the agreement to be binding, even though all of the details are not definitely fixed. The quantity of goods are usually essential terms of the contract that must be agreed upon if the contract is to be enforced. Exceptions to the rule requiring the terms of an agreement to be definite and certain are contained in article 2 of the UCC, which permits the courts to imply reasonably the missing terms if the essential terms unambiguously demonstrate the mutual agreement of the parties.

Consideration Consideration is a legal detriment that is suffered by the promisee and that is requested by the promisor in exchange for his or her promise. A valid contract requires some exchange of consideration. As a general rule, in a bilateral contract, one promise is valid consideration for the other. In a unilateral contract, the agreed performance by the offeree furnishes the necessary consideration and also operates as an acceptance of the offer.

Consideration may consist of a promise; an act other than a promise; a forbearance from suing on a claim that is the subject of an honest and reasonable dispute; or the creation, modification, or destruction of a legal relationship. It signifies that the promisee will relinquish some legal right in the present, or that he or she will restrict his or her legal freedom of action in the future as an inducement for the promise of the other party. It is not substantially concerned with the benefit that accrues to the promisor.

Love and affection are not permissible forms of consideration. A promise to make a gift contains no consideration because it does not entail a legal benefit received by the promisor or a legal detriment suffered by the promisee. Because a promise to give a gift is freely made by the promisor, who is not subject to any legal duty to do so, the promise is not enforceable unless there is PROMISSORY ESTOPPEL. Promissory estoppel is a doctrine by which a court enforces a promise that the promisor reasonably expects will induce action or forbearance on the part of a promisee, who justifiably relied on the promise and suffered a substantial detriment as a result. Where a court enforces a promise by applying this doctrine, promissory estoppel serves as a substitute for the required consideration.

At common law, courts refused to inquire into the adequacy or fairness of a bargain, finding that the payment of some price constituted legally sufficient consideration. If one is seeking to prove mistake, misrepresentation, fraud, or duress—or to assert a similar defense—the inadequacy of the price paid for the promise might represent significant evidence for such defenses, but the law does not require adequacy of consideration in order to find an enforceable contract.

Mutuality of Obligation Where promises constitute the consideration in a bilateral contract, they must be mutually binding. This concept is known as mutuality of obligation. If one party's promise does not actually bind him or hers to some performance or forbearance, it is an illusory promise, and there is no enforceable contract.

Where the contract provides one party with the right to cancel, there might be no consideration because of lack of mutuality of obligation. If there is an absolute and unlimited right to cancel the obligation, the promise by the party with the right of cancellation is illusory, and the lack of consideration means that there is no contract. If the power to cancel the contract is restricted in any manner, the contract is usually considered to be binding. Performance of a void promise in a defective bilateral contract may render the other promise legally binding, however. For example, in virtually all states, an oral contract to transfer title to land is not merely unenforceable, it is absolutely void. (See discussion of the statute of frauds, below.) A seller who orally promises to transfer land to a purchaser, for which the purchaser orally promises a designated sum, may sue the purchaser for the price if the purchaser receives title to the land from the seller. The purchaser is not relieved of his or her promise to pay, because of the performance of the void oral promise by the seller.

A promise to perform an act that one is legally bound to do does not qualify as consideration for another promise.

Past consideration consists of actions that occurred prior to the making of the contractual promise, without any purpose of inducing a promise in exchange. It is not valid, because it is not furnished as the bargained-for exchange of the present promise. There are exceptions to this rule, such as a present promise to pay a debt that has been discharged in BANKRUPTCY, which constitutes valid consideration because it renews a former promise to pay a debt that was supported by consideration.

Most states do not recognize moral obligation as consideration, as there is no acceptable method of setting the parameters of moral duty. Some courts will enforce a moral obligation where there has been a benefit conferred on the promisor.

Statute of Frauds The statute of frauds was enacted by the English Parliament in 1677 and has since been the law in both England and in the United States in varying forms. It requires that certain types of contracts be in writing. The principal characteristic of various state laws modeled after the original statute is the provision that no suit or action shall be maintained on a contract unless there is a note or memorandum of its subject matter, terms and conditions, and the identity of the parties, signed by the party to be charged or obligated under it or an authorized agent. The purpose of the statute is to prevent the proof of a nonexistent agreement through fraud or perjury in actions for breach of an alleged contract.

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