What can bind a party to a contract other than executing it by signing it by hand or electronically and delivering it? My question is only about this element in making a contract, not consideration or other elements. The other topic cited mentions that signing per se is not required, but something is, and therein is my question.

I'm thinking of a situation in which person A imposes a burden on person B and person B wants to be paid for fulfilling that burden, but person A would decline to sign a contract, claims the burden is mandatory when it's not, and might worsen the burden if asked, so isn't asked to.

Example: If someone visits a doctor for an office consultation, gets the consultation, and leaves and then the doctor sends a bill to the visitor, the fact that neither one ever discussed a contract or a price and that the office had no price posted would be irrelevant and a court would rule that the visitor owed. Maybe that's the case only for medicine and some other professions and not for, say, home party hosts, although I think that could be answered by establishing, somehow, that the service provider's service is commercially valuable and deserving of compensation even if the provider is not classified as a professional.

In one case, a jury was persuaded by a photo of a handshake. The parties were major companies, one well known and the other able to build or buy a factory for a big contract. I've also run into people who try not to sign anything due to a religious reason (I think), but they doubtless enter into contracts and execute them somehow, but I don't know how.

Hypothetical case: In the U.S., a person writes a letter to a carpenter known to make a living as a carpenter. (Any occupation will do for this purpose, especially one for which compensation is not always expected, such as house-cleaning.) Both are adult individuals. In the letter, the person asks the carpenter to make a chair. Assume nothing else is in the letter. The carpenter makes the chair and delivers it. The carpenter bills the person for the service. The person says there was no intention to make a purchase, just a thought that the carpenter would like to practice making a chair and seeing someone gladly sit in it. The person has sat in it, is glad for the experience, and happily accepts the chair as a gift. The carpenter never said anything about a gift. Would the person owe?

  • 2
    Your hypothetical case would depend highly upon the wording. If the person said "is it possible for you to make a chair with X, Y, Z" and the carpenter just does it without saying "yes, it would be $XXX", the carpenter would probably not get paid (and the person would not get to keep the chair). If the person said "please make me the chair you advertise on your website", that may be a binding contract... Either way the carpenter would be unwise to perform work (especially custom) without some kind of contract. Can you clarify what you are wanting to know? What makes a contract bindable?
    – Ron Beyer
    Dec 24, 2018 at 20:07
  • Not a duplicate; the other topic has only one sentence on point: signing not required. I want to know what is equal to signing if the party is likely to refuse to sign and to try to deny ever having agreed but demands the service for which I want to be paid. My question is in the first paragraph. Whether it's a gift might be litigated, but if it is a gift then I don't think it has to be returned. That's part of being a gift, even if tangible.
    – Nick
    Dec 26, 2018 at 18:06

3 Answers 3


Oral contracts are legal, although harder to enforce than written ones. In the US, it's rare to have actual written and signed employment contracts. I was invited to start work for $X/year, showed up, signed some auxiliary forms, and I've been working here and getting paid since. I signed a form saying I'd seen the policy manual, and I fully expect to be paid according to it. Contracts can therefore be formed by acting as if a contract did exist in some circumstances.


Contracts can be established orally or by the conduct of the parties through part performance, or by the conduct of the parties through non-verbal indications (e.g. a thumbs up sign or a handshake), in addition to through written contracts.

Even in the absence of a contract, or in the absence of an agreement or meeting of the minds as to some essential terms, it is also frequently possible to establish liability in "quasi-contract" the most common versions of which are called "promissory estoppel" (in which reliance rather than consideration establishes the obligation to pay), quantum meruit (often used to provide fair market value compensation when an agreement to pay a flat fee or contingent fee is terminated before the performance is complete), or unjust enrichment (often used when someone provides benefit in the mistaken belief that they will be paid and there is a contract and the people doing the work are not disavowed of their belief, for example, if house painters paint the wrong house and the owner of the house being painted knows they are mistaken but is nice to them and serves them lemonade anyway). Another instance of quasi-contractual "unjust enrichment" (in many jurisdictions) would be when someone harvests the crops of a neighbor's field, or tends to their animals, while the neighbor is unavoidably away, on a non-charitable basis.

A law that states that a particular kind of contract is only enforceable if it is in a signed writing is called a "statute of frauds" and many (but not all) statutes of frauds for particular kinds of contracts, have part performance and quasi-contractual exceptions.


Ron's comment is a good answer (particularly in respect of the chair remaining the property of the carpenter if there's no payment), and it's worth following Dale's link.

In the hypothetical case, the carpenter has failed to establish consideration (ie. what they will receive in exchange for the chair), so there's no enforceable contract.

  • Dale's link is only on point about signing being optional, but something is needed in lieu of signing. If the person wanting a chair hadn't been willing to sign, how the carpenter should have established a contract is of interest. Janitorial work could have resulted in seeing a task well done and a thank-you-it's-lovely but no money.
    – Nick
    Dec 26, 2018 at 18:11

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