The following information is taken from a pamphlet prepared as a public service by the Washington State Bar Association. A complete copy of this pamphlet, entitled “Signing Documents” may be obtained from the WSBA. It contains general information and is not intended to apply to any specific situation. If you need legal advice or have questions about the application of the law in a particular matter, you should consult a lawyer.
People routinely sign documents or forms without giving them much attention. Too often, people do not read these documents, thinking the wording is “routine,” “standardized,” or “too complicated.” Some people mistakenly assume adjustments can be made at a later date. Keep in mind that you probably would not be asked to sign a form or document unless someone thought it was important. A contract describes agreements between parties, and signing one may impose both legal and financial obligations or requirements on you. Certain precautions should be taken when signing documents. Always read a document before you sign it. It represents a highly legally binding agreement or promise and, upon signing, you agree to what it says —not what you think or hope it says. Once in force, it generally cannot be altered unless both parties agree. Furthermore, with very few exceptions, such agreements cannot be broken.
Before You Sign
You signature, like your fingerprint, is unique. No one else has one exactly like it, and only you can use it. If uncertain about signing a document, seek information and advice. It usually costs far less to prevent problems than to remedy them. Your signature could legally bind you to actions or payments. For your own protection, you should clearly understand what you are signing, why you are sign¬ing, and what the consequences may be. Do not be rushed or pressured into signing something before you fully understand it. It is rarely possible to avoid legal obligations of an agreement, once it is signed.
As a general rule, a written contract is final. Promises that are made but not written into the contract are rarely considered by the courts. There are some situations when an oral promise or representation will be legally binding and enforceable, but you cannot depend on it; verbal promises are usually risky and should be avoided. In most cases, a written and signed document will supersede all oral discussions and promises. If, after entering a transaction, you feel you have been misled by oral representations or promises, you may wish to consult a lawyer. In some situations, oral claims or certain sales practices involving displays of samples or sales literature can be a basis for complaint and relief. This is particularly true for consumer transactions, where many regulations exist to protect against fraud or deceptive and unscrupulous sales tactics. You can, however, often avoid problems by insisting—before you sign the document—that oral promises or representations be written into the agreement.
People considering the purchase of a home often sign a “purchase and sale agreement” or “earnest money receipt.” These documents are contracts that legally require the seller to sell, and the buyer to purchase the property. If the buyer refuses to purchase the property after signing an “earnest money form” or “real estate purchase and sale agreement,” the seller has the option of keeping the earnest money deposit or of suing the buyer to force purchase of the property. The agreement also imposes obligations on the seller. The seller cannot give the earnest money deposit back to the buyer and refuse to sell. If there is a real-estate agent involved in the transaction, the earnest money receipt or agreement will also impose an obligation on the seller to pay a real-estate commission or fee. A purchase and sale of real property can be a complex transaction. When making an investment as important as a home, it is sensible to consult a lawyer and have him or her review the documents before you sign anything.
Minimizing Your Risks
You can decrease your legal risks and avoid misunderstandings by taking certain precautions before signing anything.