THE BOTTOM LINE | READ THE FINE PRINT

What is a Contract, and Why You Should Read the Fine Print

As a business owner, you are routinely asked to “sign on the dotted line.” The document could be a purchase order, an equipment lease, or a bill of sale. Often, these documents are in fact contracts that impose obligations on the parties, even if they don’t say “Contract” or “Agreement” at the top of page one. I can’t overstate the importance of knowing what you are signing – i.e., being able to recognize a contract when you see one, as well as understanding the components of a contract and how they impact your business. I often say “think before you sign; review before you renew.” 

Over the years, I have worked with many business owners who discover a little too late that they have signed a document that does not align with their intentions and may have costly consequences. For this reason, and under the theory that knowledge is power, I have put together a series of brief articles to try to demystify and define the essential elements of a contract. In the coming weeks, I will be writing a series of informational articles on each of these key contract elements to offer guidance for business owners as they approach the documents which are so essential to the health and profitability of their enterprise. 

First up: the preamble and recital sections. The preamble of a contract is the introductory paragraph that identifies the parties to the agreement. It is typically followed by paragraphs known as recitals (also called the background section). Sometimes, these recital paragraphs are labeled “Whereas”. Taken together, the preamble and the recitals tell the who, what, when, and why of the transaction. In other words, they should tell the reader who the parties to the agreement are, the date of the agreement, and what the parties hope to accomplish by entering into the agreement. 

As with stories told in other settings, inaccuracies and ambiguities in the preamble and recitals of a contract can cause problems down the road. One of the underlying purposes of a contract is to set forth the agreement of the parties so that their expectations can be enforced by a court or other tribunal. An accurate and detailed introduction to the contract can educate the person who is charged with resolving the dispute as to who the parties are, why they entered into the contract, and what their expectations were at the time the agreement was entered into. 

One of the most common mistakes in these preliminary sections of a contract is to incorrectly name the owner of the business as a party, rather than using the entity name. This mistake results in the owner being personally obligated as a party to the contract, which is clearly not the result an owner expects after taking the trouble to incorporate. 

While it may be tempting to gloss over these preliminaries without questioning their accuracy, I highly recommend taking the time to carefully review this section in every contract to be sure the story it tells is true and complete. It could prevent costly conflicts later.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will move to the next contract element: offer, acceptance, and consideration.

Joanne M. Murray, Esquire, Business/Corporate Attorney Partner, Antheil Maslow & MacMinn, LLP. Antheil Maslow & MacMinn, LLP is a full service law firm offering sophisticated legal advice and representation in a wide range of practice areas to individuals, businesses, and nonprofits throughout the region. Located in heart of Bucks County – 131 West State Street, Doylestown, PA, To learn more about Joanne Murray and Business law services, visit www.ammlaw.com or call 215.230.7500.