Senior Legal Line Q&A
Dear Senior Legal Line.
I signed a contract with a TV service provider. I did not read the contract but understood from the advertisements and my conversation with their agent that I would pay a certain amount per month for the service. When I got my bill it was much greater than I thought it would be and now they want several hundred dollars to let me out of the contract. Can you help me with getting out the contract without paying the hundreds of dollars they are demanding?
In your particular situation I would have to look at the actual contract that you signed to determine the provisions for early release or cancellation. Oftentimes there is language requiring a payment of several hundred dollars to be let out of the contract early. There may, or may not, be other legal avenues for relief or remedies that are available to you given various factors. It is too late in your situation, but taking the time before signing a contract to read and understand the terms can oftentimes save you money and hassle in dealing with the unexpected. A person should always read and understand anything they are signing before they sign it, and keep a copy of the signed document in case there is a dispute about it in the future.
Signing a document is a serious matter. A signature is defined as: “the act of putting one’s name at the end of an instrument to attest its validity; the name thus written,” Black’s Law Dictionary, 1991. Signing a document signifies your understanding of the contents of the document – you are stating that the document is valid. In a contract situation, a signature would signify the agreement of the parties. Some case law indicates that in some instances verbal representations (talk) that contradict the written contract may be relevant if the contract is litigated. In general, people write agreements down in order to force the other person to keep their word. You should always fully read and understand any written agreement before you agree to it by signing it. If you do not like it the way it is written, do not sign it. Instead, change it or add to it. The changes and/or additions should be clearly reflected in the final contract. It is much less expensive and time consuming to make changes and make sure that everyone understands the contract before signing the contract than litigating disputes after the fact.
In fact, some agreements must be written down and signed in order to signify their formality, to be able to record them, and/or to be able to enforce them. For example, the Minnesota Statute of Frauds, in Minnesota Statutes Section 513.01 and 513.04 indicates, in part, that certain agreements must be in writing and signed by the parties, including:
• Agreements not to be performed within one year from the making.
• Special promises to answer for the debt, default or doings of another.
• Agreements, promises or undertakings to pay a debt which has been discharged by bankruptcy or insolvency proceedings.
• Any estate or interest in lands, other than leases for a term not exceeding one year, nor any trust or power over or concerning lands (real estate) including selling, giving, or otherwise transferring real estate.
Please note: Many other things are covered in the Minnesota Statute of Frauds and the law described above is simplified and shortened for the purposes of brevity.
Signatures matter on any agreement. To sign any agreement and then claim later that you did not understand the agreement may not help you. If you do not have time to read an agreement you should ask for a copy so you can have time to read it, understand it, and/or ask questions about the parts that you do not understand. If you are being pressed to sign something without being offered the opportunity to read understand it, the contract may be a little bit fishy and you may not want to sign such an agreement. If you feel uncomfortable taking time to read and understand documents, sometimes you may contact the other party and ask for an advance copy to review. This works especially well in situations like home closings where you will have many pages of documents to read and sign.
Sometimes people sign things in order to help others, such as co-signing on car loans, mortgages, and student loans. Co-signing signifies your co-acceptance of the responsibility to pay off those loans. This means that if the other person fails to pay back the loan, you, as co-signer, are responsible to pay for it. You can be sued for the unpaid amount. Furthermore, with federal student loans, Social Security benefits are not protected from garnishment as they would be in other circumstances. Before you co-sign with someone, ask yourself if that other person can pay the debt. If not, be prepared to pay it yourself.
Another common scenario is funeral expenses. Sometimes well-meaning relatives or individuals will sign a funeral contract because they feel pressure to get the funeral arrangements done and/or want their loved ones to have an elaborate funeral. Be advised that if you sign the funeral contract, you are responsible to pay those expenses, despite the declared intentions of other relatives to share in expenses. If your signature is the only one on the contract, you will be the one that the funeral home will sue if the contract is not paid.
Nursing home admission contracts can also create liability for third parties who sign them. Well-meaning individuals or relatives may be asked by the nursing home to sign paperwork when a friend or relative is admitted to a nursing home. If the applicant (the person going into the nursing home) does not have the capacity or understanding to sign a contract, the nursing home may request, but not demand, the signature of another person on behalf of the applicant. The nursing home cannot condition the acceptance of the applicant on that third-party signature. A Power of Attorney document certainly does not require that an attorney-in-fact sign an application for admission to a nursing home on behalf of the principal. In short, the applicant should be the only person to sign the admission agreement. There is no reason that anybody else has to sign any part of the paperwork. No third party signature means no third party liability stemming from the admission papers. Granted, there may be liability for a spouse of the applicant even if the spouse does not sign, due to the nature of marriage, but it makes sense not to frustrate other legal remedies or protections for that spouse by the spouse signing the agreement.
If you are an “attorney-in-fact” or agent under a Power of Attorney, and are signing a document for your principal, there are ways to limit your personal liability. The attorney-in-fact should sign in a clear manner that shows that the attorney-in-fact is only signing for the principal. For example, if the principal’s name is John E. Doe and the attorney-in-fact’s name is Jane W. Smith, Jane should sign a documents “John E. Doe, by his attorney-in-fact, Jane W. Smith.”
If you sign something that has obligates you to liabilities, bills, or responsibilities that you cannot afford, you may have a legal remedy in bankruptcy or you may have statutory protections that may make your income and/or assets exempt from collection. But these outcomes are neither desirable nor enjoyable. It is far better to fully understand anything you are signing before you sign that document and obligate yourself to its terms. If you do not understand the terms, find somebody you trust that can explain it to you, or do not sign it. If you have specific questions about a contract, and are 60 years of age or older, living in the seven county service area of the Senior Citizens’ Law Project, contact us and we may be able to review the contract for you.
This column is written by the Senior Citizens’ Law Project. It is not meant to give complete answers to individual questions. If you are 60 years of age or older and live within the Minnesota Arrowhead Region, you may contact us with questions for legal help by writing to: Senior Citizens’ Law Project, Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, 302 Ordean Bldg., Duluth, MN 55802. Please include a phone number and return address. To view previous articles, go to: www.lasnem.org. Reprints by permission only.