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Contract Law

What is consideration and why must a contract include consideration for it to be legal and binding?

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2009-08-17 17:18:21
2009-08-17 17:18:21

In contract law, consideration refers to any bargained-for exchange.

Basically, for a contract to be valid, there must be an exchange of goods and/or services. Because the vast majority of contracts are for sales of some type, consideration usually takes the form of an exchange of money for goods or services.

For consideration to be valid (thus making the contract valid, if all the other requirements for the validity of a contract are met), the things exchanged must be of some legal value. However, a court will generally not inquire into whether or not a particular form of consideration is sufficient. So, if you decide to sell your house for $50, and after the deal is done, realize you've made a horrible mistake, you can't go to court and argue that the sale is invalid, because there was no consideration. The fact that $50 is an absurdly low price for any house is irrelevant, as long as you agreed to the sale freely.

However, if there an agreement truly lacks consideration, the agreement is not a valid contract, and can therefore not be enforced. For example, if you promise to give your house to a friend, for free, with no strings attached, and put the agreement in writing, accompanied by every possible formality, you can change your mind at any time. Your friend cannot sue you for breach of contract, because no contract existed in the first place, as it was unsupported by consideration (your friend did not give or promise you anything in return for your house). However, once you actually transfer ownership of your house, you can't back out (as with any gift, it becomes the property of the recipient once the transfer is complete), but you could do so any time before the gift occurs.

The requirement for consideration is why you will sometimes hear of very expensive items being sold for very small amounts of money, such as a house or car being sold for $1. These transactions are essentially gifts, but the token consideration is there to ensure that the agreement is legally binding, in case the donor tries to back out. By making the agreement legally binding, the donor shows good faith.

Consideration is considered to be an essential element of a valid contract largely for historical reasons. Because contract law was created to protect the rights and interests of parties to commercial transactions (essentially, its purpose is to ensure that people keep their promises). Commercial transactions always involve some exchange, so it just became an underlying assumption that all contracts would involve an exchange.

Also, when an agreement which is completely unsupported by consideration is breached, the victim of the breach hasn't really lost anything, since they didn't give anything up in the first place, so it is not very important for such an agreement to be enforced by a court.

However, if there is a breach of a promise supported by consideration, the victim of the breach has suffered a loss, especially if they have already performed their end of the agreement, and are now getting nothing in return.

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