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I understand that a contract doesn't need to be signed to be legally binding. So why then are so many signed? Is it so that latter in a dispute, if a person claims they never agreed to the contract, their signature could be used as evidence that they did? Are there any other reasons?

On the other hand, what evidences of affirmation make a contract legally binding when not signed? To what extent to they substitute for a signature?

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Generally in the U.S., states have laws that require some contracts to be signed by a party in order to enforce the contract against the party. These requirements are generally set out in a law commonly known as the Statute of Frauds. See the Wikipedia article. Although the exact details will vary from state to state, the following types of contracts generally would be unenforceable without a signature: contracts in consideration of marriage (e.g., prenuptials, postnuptials); contracts that cannot be performed within a year; real estate contracts; contracts for goods above a particular threshold, such as $500; and surety contracts.

Even if a contract does not require a signature, it is generally wise to do in order to prove the parties agreed on the terms of the contract. And if the contract is being submitted into evidence at trial, a notarized signature could eliminate claims against its authenticity. See, e.g., Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 902.

If the contract is not signed (or even not in writing), generally a witness would have to testify that the parties agreed to the contract. This of course can devolve into a he-said, she-said argument and the judge or jury would have to decide who is right.

  • This contradicts a lot of other information on this site I've red saying that contracts don't need to be signed. For example here law.stackexchange.com/questions/8216/… – smartman2 May 8 '17 at 9:15
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    The rule stated there is correct under just a common law analysis. In the absence of a statute, an unsigned contract is as valid as a signed one. However, most jurisdictions, at least in the United States, have adopted a variant of the Statute of Frauds. For those exceptions listed in my response, an unsigned contract is not enforceable. – Olo Bolger May 9 '17 at 12:06
  • A contract that on its face appears to be notarized can still be challenged on grounds of authenticity. Notarization only prima facie establishes that something is authentic. You can always prove that a notarization is fraudulent as well. Also, often oral contracts are proved by part performance or other conduct consistent with the existence of a contract. – ohwilleke Jun 6 '17 at 4:28
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Normally a contract should be signed and witnessed.

If a contract is not signed, it will be much easier to disavow in court. How would you prove the party even read the contract if it is not signed?

You might be thinking of web "click through" contracts as examples of unsigned contracts, but such things are highly limited in what they can enforce, and in practice, there are many ways to challenge such contracts, especially if they have any kind of unusual clause.

In general, courts will only accept unsigned contracts in special circumstances that it is unquestionable that both parties knew and agreed to the terms and that the terms were reasonable.

  • "How would you prove the party even read the contract if it is not signed?" easy. many ways. If someone replies in the affirmative, they need not sign. For example, if they reply by email and said "ok". – smartman2 May 8 '17 at 9:14
  • @smartman2 It is easy to forge an email. A witnessed signature will stand up in court far better than an email. – Cicero May 8 '17 at 9:20
  • Signatures are incredibly easy to forge, especially compared to an email. Look it up, expert detection rate of a forged signature sucks. – smartman2 May 8 '17 at 9:40
  • @smartman2 I said a WITNESSED signature, so you would not only have to forge the signature, you would have to get somebody to commit perjury--a felony. – Cicero May 8 '17 at 9:49
  • In practice, the commercial norm is that ordinary business contracts are not witnessed and the law almost never requires that a contract be witnessed. Also, in practice, it is very uncommon for someone to deny under oath that they signed something when they really signed it. An alleged forged signature defense is very unusual. Usually someone claims that they didn't breach or that the breach was excused when there is a signed contract in evidence. – ohwilleke Jun 6 '17 at 4:25

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