This weekend’s holiday centers around the Declaration of Independence and the principles it embodies. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, but it was technically legitimate without any of their signatures, because it had been agreed-upon in a July 4 vote of the Continental Congress. Nonetheless, those signatures are respected for the openness and confidence they represented.
Our society often still refers to a person’s signature as his or her “John Hancock,” in honor of the signer of the Declaration of Independence who signed his name largest and most prominently near the middle of the page.
Nowadays, we sign various documents all the time, usually without much thought. However, what our signature means is always different depending upon the document we are signing and whether there is an explanation in that document of what our signature means. Believe it or not, this comes up in the legal field more often than we might expect.
Sometimes, a signature confirms certain facts. Other times, a signature is a promise or commitment. And, sometimes, a signature can serve no purpose whatsoever.
After I recently received delivery of a new refrigerator from Tracy’s Appliances, signature on the receipt was needed before the delivery team left my office. The refrigerator had been paid for several days earlier. The signature just confirmed receipt of the refrigerator.
However, when I buy my favorite doughnuts from Pat’s Donuts & Kreme and pay for the purchase with my credit/debit card, I also sign my name. However, my signature on that little computer screen creates a contract. The contract to which I agree with my signature at Pat’s Donuts & Kreme is a promise to ensure that the credit card issuer is paid for the delicious bites of happiness that I just purchased.
Several years ago, when I purchased my car and secured new license plates, I signed a form. That form was a contract and a promise (made under oath as if I was testifying in court in front of a judge) that my car had and would continue to have liability insurance. Based upon that signature, if I someday lack car insurance, I would be in violation of my contract with the State of Ohio and be committing criminal perjury.
Several years ago, my neighbor brought me a promissory note that he had signed. The promissory note involved $50,000 that he had borrowed years earlier. The neighbor had not repaid the money, and the lender wanted repayment. The argument from my neighbor was that his signature was like the signature on the refrigerator receipt from Tracy’s Appliances. Unfortunately, my neighbor’s desired interpretation of his signature was inaccurate. His signature created a binding contract.
Well-written contracts and documents will include in the document itself, some explanation of the legal impact of the signers’ signatures. Usually, that explanation will appear immediately above the signature line (or area for signature) and will indicate that the signer or signers are signing to create a contract, confirm facts (like receipt of an item) or some other purpose.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.