Inspired by this question over on workplace.SE - Severance contract requires a lie. Is this enforceable?

If you sign a contract wherein you agree to do something illegal, but have no intention of committing the act (and never actually do), is that still illegal itself?

In the linked question, the OP is required to lie about the reason he left a company (i.e. say that he voluntarily quit when he was actually laid off) which could mean lying to the social welfare office, which would be illegal.

Presumably he cannot be legally bound to commit an illegal act and his company would fail if they tried to sue him for breach of the contract in this case. But could the law take exception to the fact that he signed it, thereby making the agreement in the first pace?

After all, it would be signing a contract in bad faith, and also creates a small legal mess.

(OTOH maybe the onus is on the person writing the contract to make sure everything they want the signer to do is legal)

A hypothetical question, that originated in the United States but also interested in other jurisdictions.

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    Closely related: law.stackexchange.com/q/83828/10334
    – Trish
    Aug 31, 2022 at 15:51
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    Whether you actually intended to perform an illegal act is probably less relevant than whether a prosecutor can convince a judge or jury (by evidence) that you intended to do it. And signing a contract probably counts as pretty good evidence that you intended to comit the act. Also, since contracts are agreements between multiple persons, it may count as some sort of conspiracy to commit an illegal act.
    – user4574
    Sep 2, 2022 at 1:54
  • This is starting from a false premise. Lying and saying you are eligible for unemployment benefits when you aren't is definitely illegal (fraud). Lying and saying you aren't eligible even if you actually are (or simply not filing for benefits at all) is certainly legal in the US. Since the OP would be in case two, nothing illegal is required re: employment office. (Assuming nothing else coming into play like the company covering for a discriminatory firing or something.) Sep 2, 2022 at 15:55
  • @user3067860: lying to your own disadvantage in this situation might be illegal, you’d have to check the exact text of the law. Except people don’t usually do it. Like taking money out of my wallet is illegal, putting money in it might be illegal, but I wouldn’t sue you for it.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 3, 2022 at 19:47

7 Answers 7


it's not illegal to sign a contract that demands illegal things, however, such a contract, in general, is called an illegal contract.

Illegal contracts are null and void.

Contracts that violate public policy never have force in the first place. A contract can't force people to declare lies under oath or demand them to murder someone. Thus, a contract demanding such is illegal.

As a result, such a clause would not just be unenforceable, it might void the entire contract wholesale if it is not severable. In the least, any clause demanding illegal acts was null and void ab initio, and never was valid.

void contracts in law

  • explicitly makes contracts void that are "Sittenwidrig" in § 138 BGB and also illegal ones in § 134 BGB
    • Declarations to the Agentur für Arbeit are made under threat of perjury, and thus lying is illegal. It is also Sittenwidrig. This makes the provision void.
    • Murder is illegal, inciting to murder someone is illegal, and so a contract to murder someone for pay is void. Such a contract also is Sittenwidrig.
    • Selling the right to ask to marry your daughter per see isn't illegal, but it is Sittenwidrig and as such the contract is void.
  • judges refer to such contracts as illegal contracts, defining this as a test where making non-enforcement of such a contract something of public interest:
    • It is in the public interest that people tell the truth to the unemployment office, so a contract demanding you to lie is illegal.
    • It is illegal to lie on the stand (), and thus the contract is illegal.


However, the contract can also be evidence of criminal activity in itself: It manifests the will of two parties to commit an illegal act. That is the core of a conspiracy charge. Conspiracy is illegal and usually a felony.

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    Does Conspiracy not generally require that at least one act is taken in furtherance of the crime? I think that's a case in common law countries at least. So as long as he never actually lies about it, there's been no act in furtherance of the crime and thus no conspiracy charges can be brought Sep 1, 2022 at 17:02
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    @ScottishTapWater putting the agreement down is a step to further the planned crime.
    – Trish
    Sep 1, 2022 at 17:27
  • @Trish - Is it? You're no closer to the crime being committed just because you've written it down compared to if you just spoke about it... I imagine you'd have to argue that point in court though Sep 2, 2022 at 9:05
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    Conspiring to commit a felony is punishable in Germany (§30 StGB. Forming associations to commit terrorist acts (§129a) or other serious crimes (§129) is also punishable. §129a is a reaction to the leftist terrorism in the 1970s and is somewhat debated: If the prosecution must use this last resort they have no evidence of a crime except the association. But choosing (even wrong) friends seems part of the basic human liberties. Sep 2, 2022 at 9:47
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    +1 for the last section. If you take money from some guy to kill his wife and just intend to keep his money, that is a problem in several ways. The least of which maybe would be taking someone's money for something you never intended to do. Signing the contract though would be enough to prove intent. Sep 2, 2022 at 13:50

Is there a law against signing a contract to do something illegal?

There's no law (that I can find) against signing such a contract, but there is the offence of conspiracy; being an agreement to do something illegal (it's irrelevant whether it is actually carried out or not), contrary to section 1(1) Criminal Law Act 1977:

... if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either—

  • (a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or

  • (b)would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible,

he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.


This offence does not appear to be committed in this scenario as the above emboldened text requires the conspirators to intend to carry out the illegal act (i. e. have the required mens rea), a fact which is missing from the OP:

... you agree to do something illegal, but have no intention of committing the act ...

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    +1, though perhaps the contract provides pretty strong evidence they did intend to commit the act, which I suspect may be hard to rebut with "we did not really intend to do commit the act".
    – abligh
    Sep 1, 2022 at 6:18
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    @abligh For sure, but that's the difference between academic-type questions where all the relevant facts are known, opposed to real-life investigations / prosecutions where some evidence or information may be lacking.
    – user35069
    Sep 1, 2022 at 6:26
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    Surely "if the agreement is carried out" applies to either party, so if <the other person> carries out the crime, then <the first person> is still guilty of conspiracy, regardless of intent of <first person>?
    – MikeB
    Sep 1, 2022 at 17:00
  • @MikeBrockington No, because the full phrase is: "if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions", where "their intentions" refers to the intentions of the subject of the sub-section; the subject being the "person [who] agrees with any other person". So, if person A agrees with person B to commit crime X, and person does not intend for X to be committed, but then person B carries out the agreement and commits X, then it is not carried out "in accordance with [A's] intentions".
    – JBentley
    Sep 2, 2022 at 19:21
  • @MikeBrockington Alternatively, you could consider that the word "their" is ambiguous as it could be a singular or plural reference. However, even if it is plural, X is not committed in accordance with their combined intentions, so the offence is still not triggered.
    – JBentley
    Sep 2, 2022 at 19:22

It is not, in general, illegal simply to sign (or otherwise agree to) a contract that requires an illegal act. In many cases it is a crime to attempt to persuade someone else to commit a crime, and particularly to pay (or offer to pay) a person to commit a crime.

Such a contract could be considered to be the start of a conspiracy, and if any of those agreeing does an overt act toward carrying out the crime, they might all be guilty of conspiracy.

It is not a crime to negotiate or sign a contract in bad faith, although if the matter goes to court such bad faith may make the contract invalid, or cause the person who acted in bad faith to lose the case. However, if one lies or deceives as part of a contract negotiation in an attempt to gain a benefit, that may well be fraud.


It is not illegal to sign a contract. On the other hand, it is illegal (fraudulent) to enter into a contract intending to not do what is required of you. On the third hand, the lying clause would be unenforceable, thus action based on fraud in contract formation would be impossible. So signing such a contract is legal (insofar as "illegal" in contracts doesn't have a clear meaning, we assume you mean "enforceable").

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    Entering into a contract with the intent not to carry it out is not fraud unless one attempts to gain a benefit or deprive another of a benefit. If failing to carry out the contract will leave the parties where they started, there is no fraud. Aug 31, 2022 at 16:52
  • Entering into the contract planning not to fulfill it is not punishable. It is actually not doing it which may entitle the contractual partner to compensation, and which may constitute fraud if deception or such is involved. Sep 1, 2022 at 9:34
  • @DavidSiegel A one-sided breach of contract is always an attempt to gain a benefit, as a contract where only one side benefits is not a contract at all. Criminal fraud need not be successful to be illegal, a lack of actual damages may not necessarily be a defense of fraud. For example, if I contract with you to buy a rare painting, and then discover you knowingly intend to sell me a fake, it may still be fraud even if I find out beforehand and cancel the transaction, despite the fact that neither of us are worse off in the end. Sep 1, 2022 at 13:56
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    @Nuclear Hoagie If A agrees to sell B a valuable pointing, planning to deliver a fake, that is fraud, or will be when the fake is delivered. If A plans to deliver nothing, and not collect the price, simply ignore the contract, that is not fraud. A gains no benefit. If A agrees with B to tell a lie, but intends not to tell it, and not to collect any payment, there is no fraud. Sep 1, 2022 at 16:04
  • If I know that the contract is illegal and therefore void, and you don’t know, then me convincing you to do your side of the contract might be fraud.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 2, 2022 at 9:26

The premise is faulty, though.

In your linked example, the person is actually in error about there being any lying. What person and company were agreeing to was to cancel the layoff, and the employee to voluntarily quit. There is a fair quid pro quo: the company pays out money yet avoids and unemployment claim and other consequences of a layoff... and the employee collects a severance that is presumably more generous than they'd be likely to get from an unemployment claim, while also being able to claim a voluntary quit to subsequent employers rather than admitting they had been culled (laid off).

It is rather bad planning to be doing it retroactively, but I see no barrier to the parties agreeing to do that. Once they agree to do that, it is what happened and is not a lie.

So don't underestimate the power to create reality under contract law. If so-called "reality" has its foundation in an agreement between two people, and both people agree on a different reality, then it is so.

I've used that with misguided medical debt collectors, getting them to agree no valid debt ever existed, and hence no debt forgiveness occurred, and hence no taxable event occurred.

As to your core question, "illegal" is a pretty big spectrum.

If the illegal act is a crime, then the contract is conspiracy to a crime. If you find yourself desperately needing to convince a jury you never intended to do the crime... good luck lol. Self-admissions are almost unassailable.

On the other end of the spectrum, you are an apartment manager with 1000 apartments, and you want electric dryer hookups added to them. Most of your move-ins have dryers with the old ungrounded plug. So you hire me to wire the dryer circuits with the old ungrounded socket. That's been illegal since 1996. But you're not going to prison for conspiracy for that one. You probably can't even back out of the contract, since it's trivial to install a grounded socket for the same cost. And every dryer manufacturer has a simple procedure to change to the grounded plugs for $12, so it's no impediment to tenants. Since a reasonable solution is at hand, the illegality is simply ignored in this case.

  • "If you find yourself desperately needing to convince a jury you never intended to do the crime... good luck lol." - only if the crime is committed and the contract is used as evidence against you. But then you might be convicted of doing (or conspiring to do) the crime. My question is more about the agreement, i.e. if the crime itself was never committed, could you still be charged simply because you signed a legal document agreeing to do it?
    – komodosp
    Sep 3, 2022 at 18:30
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    @komodesc Conspiracy absolutely can happen before the crime has happened! The police and FBI regularly thwart criminal plots, meaning find out about their plan and arrest them before they can do it. Conspiracy is the topical charge in that case. (though they usually dogpile on other charges such as illegally owning weapons etc.) Sep 3, 2022 at 19:18

I disagree with Rick's answer.You shall need to read the chapter on Illegality in contract law textbooks. Fortunately for you, some of them upload their chapter on Illegality online for free, instead of printing it in the book, because Illegality in Contract Law is seldom covered in UK undergraduate law degrees.

Scroll down to the bottom at Ewan McKendrick, Contract Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (2022) 10e student resources. "Chapter 20B Additional material: Illegality" is what you need.

If you feel like reading a book, read Chapter 11 ILLEGALITY in Anson's Law of Contract (2020 31e), pages 405-6. I cannot quote the whole chapter, because it ends at page 434.


It is not easy to set out in clear terms what the law is on ‘illegality’ in relation to contracts.1 This is not only because the law itself has historically been complex and opaque but also because distinctions have been drawn by judges and commentators alike that have tended to confuse rather than illuminate. As a matter of exposition, a central problem has been a failure to recognize that, while there is an initial question as to what counts as ‘illegality’ for these purposes (ie what types of conduct are covered by ‘illegality’), the vast bulk of the law is concerned with the effect of illegality on a contract and on consequential restitution (ie the recovery of benefits conferred under the contract). If one straightaway asks whether the conduct in question renders a contract unenforceable for illegality, one has already strayed into the question of the effect of illegality on the contract. Similarly, if one straightaway asks whether the conduct in question renders a contract illegal, one will have in mind, and will therefore be straying into the question of, the effect of a contract being classed as illegal. Clear exposition dictates that the two questions—what counts as illegality and the effect of illegality—are kept distinct and that the second requires by far the most detailed consideration. This chapter attempts to do that.
      The two questions that will therefore be separately addressed are: (i) what counts as illegality and (ii) what is the effect of illegality on a contract and on consequential restitution? The first can be dealt with fairly quickly; and the good news on the second question is that (after a period of confusion caused by conflicting approaches in a trilogy of Supreme Court cases)2 the law on the effect of illegality has been transformed for the better, and simplified, by the Supreme Court in the leading case of Patel v Mirza.3 Various difficult rules that previously applied, including distinctions between illegality in formation and illegality in performance, and, especially importantly, the ‘reliance rule’ (ie the rule that the effect of illegality turned on whether the claimant was relying on the illegality in framing its cause of action), have been replaced by a flexible ‘range of factors’ approach. Under the new approach, it is also no longer necessary to apply the Latin maxims, which have unhelpfully been given prominence in the past, ex turpi causa non oritur actio (‘no action arises from a disgraceful cause’) and in pari delicto potior est conditio defendentis (‘where both parties are equally in the wrong the position of the defendant is the stronger’).
      Contracts in restraint of trade have tended to be treated separately from the rest of the law on illegality4 and, for that reason, and because of their great importance in practice, they will be afforded separate treatment at the end of this chapter (albeit that some of the cases considered under severance, including the leading case, are restraint of trade cases).

  • Sorry, but I'm having trouble parsing that wall of text to see where it says that it is illegal to sign such a contract without any intent whatsoever of carrying it out. Can you clarify this, please.
    – user35069
    Sep 1, 2022 at 9:25
  • @Rick Did you peruse McKendrick's "Chapter 20B Additional material: Illegality" PDF?
    – user43343
    Sep 1, 2022 at 9:40
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    @Monica: while the text you quote is certainly interesting, you could help more people by highlighting the most important parts so as to make your answer easier to understand. Thank you.
    – Winston
    Sep 2, 2022 at 7:27

oh how we laughed...

it's tempting to ask "what kinda contract we tawkin' 'bout?"

As has been said, a contract with illegal clauses is potentially entirely if not partially void (depending on the jurisdiction), and likely unenforceable, so whatever you are expecting to receive from the contract, you might not get; at least not from the contract, but from any subsequent prosecution you took out after you discovered you weren't getting anything.

As for your intent when signing the contract (e.g.: if someone was trying to pursue you for conspiracy), well you can reasonably argue that you signed in good faith, and without expertise, and that would make the other party, if a company, liable in some way, for whatever the contract promises.

Courts often have scope for setting precedents too in terms of awarding losses to a contractee... "balance of probabilities", if you are a normal punter, and it's out of character, you are unlikely to have a problem; but if you have a history, well, it's possible, in theory for it to go the other way; as for anything serious, there's the "beyond reasonable doubt" test: mens rea matters.

As it's not criminal contract, in the movie sense, nothing to worry about.

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