32

Suppose I sign a contract in front of witnesses, but then immediately tear it up.

Is the contract still binding?

41

The contract remains valid.

Most contracts don't need to be written at all. Even if yours did need to be written under the Statute of Frauds or some other law, you're saying that it was made in writing, even though you later tore it up.

The fact that the contract is missing or destroyed doesn't change the fact that it exists and obligates the parties; it just makes it harder to prove what it said.

  • 10
    Is this answer only valid in the UK/Canada/Ireland/US or does it apply to all/other countries? (The question does not specify a country and you reference "the Statute of Frauds".) How does the fact that the Statute of Frauds largely repealed in England and Wales by the Law Reform (Enforcement of Contracts) Act 1954 affect this answer? – MT0 Apr 19 '18 at 8:19
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    This answer is based on common law principles generally applicable throughout the Anglo-Saxon legal system. Although the Statute of Frauds may not still be in force, its principles remain in effect in many jurisdictions. Even without it, though, that would just mean that even fewer contacts need to be put in writing anyway. – bdb484 Apr 19 '18 at 11:18
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    Does the fact that it was immediately and intentionally destroyed, rather than accidentally or long after the fact, change your answer? – Matt Krause Apr 19 '18 at 16:54
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    It might relinquish your rights, but should that mean the other party is forced to relinquish their rights? Or put another way, you can relinquish your rights, but not necessarily your responsibilities. – Barmar Apr 20 '18 at 3:24
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    By that logic, couldn't you just make up a contract and pretend like it existed and claim that it was unfortunately destroyed, just to inconvenience another party? Even if they never actually even talked to you? – user12520 Apr 20 '18 at 20:57
29

The only documents that lose their validity when the original is physically destroyed sufficiently are:

  1. Last Wills and Testaments (this can be overcome if it is shown that it was destroyed without an intent to revoke the Will, e.g., in a house fire that also killed the testator or testatrix).

  2. Currency.

  3. Live checks not yet deposited with a financial institution.

The original is important, but less absolutely and irrevocably, in the case of:

  1. Traveler's checks.

  2. Promissory notes.

  3. Bearer bonds.

  4. Negotiable warehouse receipts.

  5. Negotiable share certificates.

  6. Unrecorded deeds of trusts and mortgages.

  7. Unrecorded deeds.

  8. Passports and visas.

Obviously, from a practical perspective, it is easier to prove a contract if a signed original is available to introduce into evidence. But, for pretty much every other document, this is a question of proof and does not change substantive rights.

In the case of currency, live checks, and items 1-5 of the second list, the basic issue is that it is customary to transfer and assign the rights arising under these documents by transferring physical possession of them, without recording the transfer in a central registry. Proof that you once possessed of the document isn't convincing proof that you are still in possession of the original and haven't transferred it to someone else.

Items 1-5 are less problematic if destroyed than currency or live checks, because often there are other ways to prove ownership or the existence of an obligation that are convincing.

For example, one can prove a promissory note existed from payment and possible an agreement related to collateral security for it, so one need only disprove that there was an assignment of it which is a fairly uncommon transaction compared to a transfer of currency.

In the case of items 6-7 on the second list, the statute of frauds (requirement that something be in writing) is applied quite strictly and it can be hard to prove that you had the real document prior to its recording when it becomes notice to the world with or without the original. Even if you can prove you had the real document, you can't record it without the original and so cannot get the full rights that comes with those real property documents.

In the case of Wills, this is simply a matter of long standing tradition with the force of law, and there is no real solid substantive reason that it should be treated otherwise, other than the difficulty of proving which Will was real and which was the last one when the author is dead and can't clear up that point, and lots of people have large economic incentives to lie about the question. Somehow, however, what should have been issues of evidence were transmuted into issues of substantive law in this area of the law.

In the case of passports and visas, this is because immigration officials at a border and firms transporting people internationally will commonly require the original documents for international travel, although some exceptions are sometimes made. This has facilitated the device of controlling possession of someone's passport to prevent them from traveling internationally. These can be replaced, of course, but only very lenient officials will let you travel using only a copy of those documents and it will be very inconvenient to lose them.

Contracts and consent forms and powers of attorney, for example, do not appear on this list.

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    Depending on the issuer of the currency they will give you equal value back. The US Mint for example lets you send your mutilated currency to them and they will send you back a check for what they could reconstruct. – ratchet freak Apr 19 '18 at 9:52
  • Generally, for the mint to reimburse you for it, you have to still have more than 50% of the bill and the serial number still visible I believe. – Shufflepants Apr 19 '18 at 14:15
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    @ratchetfreak That is why I said "physically destroyed sufficiently". For example, the U.S. Mint will not give you currency back if you burn it to fine ashes. – ohwilleke Apr 19 '18 at 17:08
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    @Shufflepants You don't have to have 50% if there's sufficient evidence that the remainder has been totally destroyed (presumably to prevent the rest from being used as currency). See bep.gov/services/currencyredemption.html. CBS News Sunday Morning did a story about the extraordinary effort the Mutilated Currency Division puts into recovering these notes. – Barmar Apr 20 '18 at 3:31
19

Signing a document is totally overrated. Is there an offer, is there consideration, is there a meeting of the minds, and was there acceptance? I assume that someone gave you a piece of paper with some mutual promises. You signing the contract is a form of proof of your acceptance. You signing a contract and then immediately ripping it up indicates that you did not accept the contract. If the offeror relied on your apparent acceptance to his detriment, in that 1 second between you signing and ripping it up, then you might be estopped from arguing that you had not accepted the offer.

Anticipatory breach of a contract could result in some award of damages. However, the damaged party has an obligation to mitigate any losses. Since the offeror has not suffered any actual damage by you repudiating the contract, there would be no point in him suing you.

  • So what about consent forms? Seems like accepting something no matter how long would be consenting. – William Apr 18 '18 at 23:44
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    Does the offeror have to act in reliance? I'd think that once there's a manifestation of acceptance (such as signing), the contract been made; changing your mind doesn't mean that you didn't accept and enter into the contract. Otherwise, I don't know how we'd draw the line on when you get to change your mind. – bdb484 Apr 18 '18 at 23:50
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    Consent forms are totally different: often, they are statutorily required. I don't know where the line is drawn as far as delaying the ripping up goes. A signature doesn't have to be complete: a mere ink-spot could be acceptance, but paired with stopping the signing and overtly signalling rejection of the offer means there was no contract. The question that the court would ask is not "did he put ink to paper", is is "did he accept", and blatant rejection is evidence of non-acceptance. – user6726 Apr 19 '18 at 0:16
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    Signing as such is overrated ;-). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 19 '18 at 10:07
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    All of the other answers seem to be missing the immediate part. – Matt Krause Apr 19 '18 at 16:51
3

The usual situation in which this occurs is where a contract existed where one party delivered immediately, and the other party has an ongoing obligation. The contract exists for the benefit of the party who still has to receive such compensation.

This party can usually decide to relinquish their claim. In these cases, the intentional physical destruction of the contract may very well be interpreted as such a decision.

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