The Importance of Reviewing Contracts

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How many times have you signed your name without really reading what you’re signing? We’ve all done it. “Just sign here,” the salesman says. So you sign. It must be standard language, right? Or the bank loan officer says, “we need your signature here…and here… and here…and here…”

Most polite people don’t want to waste the other person’s time. So we sign, hoping that the paper we’re signing really is “standard language.” After all, insisting on reading the fine print in any document before signing gives the impression that we don’t trust the other person, right?

Please don’t fall into this trap. When someone asks you to sign your name, they are actually asking you to bind yourself to the promises contained in that document. Reviewing all of the terms before signing is actually a sign of respect for the other party. You should never feel bad about taking the time to review a contract. You didn’t write the document. If you sign without carefully reading it, you are essentially telling the other party that you give your promises out before you know what you are promising. Signing a document without reading it first indicates that you don’t take your promises seriously.

But almost everyone has signed something without reading it first. It has become common, almost habit. And dishonest people count on that habit.

Almost anything you sign can be enforced in court as a contract. Your signature can be taken as proof that you actually read and understood what you were signing. With this in mind, dishonest people often take advantage of the “politeness” of their victims. They know that most people will sign most anything, if it is presented as “standard language” and the dishonest person acts mildly annoyed or offended when the victim starts to actually read the document. If you insist upon reading, they may imply that you are unsophisticated, or that everyone knows it’s OK to sign without reading. These tactics are most often used against elderly and retired victims. Don’t fall for it. Remind yourself that you are making a promise, and your promises matter.

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If you ever feel pressure to sign anything, simply say that you always have your attorney review anything you are asked to sign. If the person you are dealing with is honest, they should have no problem waiting a little while for a quick review of the document.

Keep in mind, that “standard language” inserted into almost every contract is there for a reason. Lawyers call this language “boiler plate.” Most boiler plate exists because someone in the past fought a contract dispute lawsuit over the issue that is now addressed by that “standard language.” After such a lawsuit, every future contract includes language intended to avoid the dispute that caused the previous lawsuit. This history of contract law means that every bit of boiler plate has a meaning that may not be obvious to a well educated non-lawyer, because that language must be understood in the context of the history that gave rise to the language. Lawyers know all of that background history. We know why certain terms and phrases are inserted.

Contract review by a lawyer has a cost, but it is much less expensive than defending against a breach of contract lawsuit. Clients in contract litigation usually wish that they had had their contract reviewed before they signed. A pinch of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Please have a lawyer review your contracts before you sign.