Is the agreement I just entered into a legally binding contract? In general, a valid contract requires four elements: offer, acceptance, consideration, and performance. The process begins when one party offers the terms for the contract. Next, the other party can accept, reject, or request to modify the contract. At this step there is often back and forth, with negotiation on the terms of the contract. If the parties agree to the terms, then consideration or something of legal value must be offered and accepted. This could be and is often money or services. If the above are met, the next step is performance. In order for the contract to be completed, there must be performance according to the terms of the contract.
But before you can have a valid contract you must also have parties who have "capacity." In Maryland, this means that the parties must have reached the "age of majority," or 18. In addition, a party must not be under a disability that would prevent them from understanding the contract. They cannot be under "duress," which means unlawful coercion or force, taking away the voluntary consent to contract. A contract with willful misrepresentations may be fraudulent and nonbinding. Instead, the basis of a valid contract is a mutual agreement, sometimes referred to as "mutual assent," and a "meeting of the minds." Contracts, to be valid, must be entered into freely.
There are many issues that may arise after a valid contract is entered into. There may be issues such as what contract terms mean, the scope of the contract, the manner of performance, the consideration and the time frame, among others. The language used in a contract is critical. People drafting or signing contracts may not realize the legal implications of terms used.
Most contracts can be oral or written. Certain contracts, however, such as those under the Uniform Commercial Code for the sale of "goods" must be written. Nevertheless, it is usually advisable to have a written contract. It is important to know that a written contract is interpreted from "the four corners," of the page, and cannot be modified or explained by "parole evidence," or outside evidence regarding what the contract really means. Consequently, it is critical that the written contract accurately says what you intend. There can be many legal issues with both the drafting and enforcement of a contract. If there is a "breach" of contract, or failure of one party to uphold the terms of the contract, legal action may be required.
If there is a proven breach of contract, another issue is the measure of damages. This can be complicated and may require experts.
The statute of limitations, or time in which to file suit for a breach of contract in Maryland is generally three years. However, there are some exceptions. Consult an attorney for the specific statute of limitations in any breach of contract case you face.
Whether you are the promisor (person making the offer) or promissee (person to whom the offer is made), it is advisable to contact an attorney. Often doing so at the negotiation stage can save a lot of headaches and ensure that the contract says and does what you intend.
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