Signing Under Duress: When Does it Render a Contract Void?

By | February 17, 2012

Many of us have grown up believing in the general infallibility of the written contract. And while the written contract does indeed hold a tremendous degree of legal clout, it’s not always the end-all, be-all solution for every court case. In fact, some contracts are considered void in special circumstances, such as when a person is believed to have signed the contract under duress.

For example, it’s not legal to force someone to sign a contract at gunpoint; if it was, then without the idea of “signing under duress,” someone could hypothetically get anyone to sign anything. Instead, the justice system recognizes that some contracts are not valid because of the state of mind that the signee was under when signing. Let’s examine this idea further.

Defining Duress

In the previous “held-at-gunpoint” example, the idea of duress was taken to an extreme. The actual definition of duress is simply a measurement of coercion or force not necessarily because a weapon has been drawn. Any type of threats, intended harm or stress put upon a person in order to get them to perform an act they would not normally perform would be considered duress. A contract is not validly signed unless it is signed by each participant’s own accord and own free will.

This can lead to some loose definitions of duress, of course, but any type of coercion placed on a contract can indeed render it invalid; after all, that allows one person to take advantage of another person against their will. But proving that one was under duress is another problem entirely.

Proving Duress

In evaluating the status of a contract, of course, one cannot simply render it null and void by claiming that it was signed under duress. It has to be proven that the contract was signed under duress. How is this done? As is the case across U.S. law, there are a number of ways to prove that something occurred. One is eyewitness testimony, which would go a long way in showing that you were indeed under duress when signing a contract. Another is to consider a body of evidence, such as examining the relationship of the two parties and the previous contracts they’ve signed. All of this evidence can pile up in order to make a convincing case that the contract should indeed be void.

Furthermore, any written proof of harassment or threats about the contract would also constitute solid evidence of duress. If you were assaulted over a contract dispute, it’s important to have photographic evidence of the injuries that were sustained as a result.

It’s not always easy to keep the law in mind as you live your day to day life. But if you know that something is happening to you, it’s important that you keep all forms of tangible evidence handy in case a problem like signing a contract under duress does arise. The better equipped you keep yourself, the more the courts will be able to help you.

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