- Understand what “consideration” is in contract law.
- Recognize what purposes the doctrine serves.
- Understand how the law determines whether consideration exists.
- Know the elements of consideration.
The Purpose of Consideration
This chapter continues our inquiry into whether the parties created a valid contract. In Chapter 9 "The Agreement", we saw that the first requisite of a valid contract is an agreement: offer and acceptance. In this chapter, we assume that agreement has been reached and concentrate on one of its crucial aspects: the existence of consideration. Which of the following, if any, is a contract?
- Betty offers to give a book to Lou. Lou accepts.
- Betty offers Lou the book in exchange for Lou’s promise to pay twenty-five dollars. Lou accepts.
- Betty offers to give Lou the book if Lou promises to pick it up at Betty’s house. Lou agrees.
In American law, only the second situation is a binding contract, because only that contract contains consideration, a set of mutual promises in which each party agrees to give up something to the benefit of the other. This chapter will explore the meaning and rationale of that statement.
The question of what constitutes a binding contract has been answered differently throughout history and in other cultures. For example, under Roman law, a contract without consideration was binding if certain formal requirements were met. And in the Anglo-American tradition, the presence of a seal—the wax impression affixed to a document—was once sufficient to make a contract binding without any other consideration. The seal is no longer a substitute for consideration, although in some states it creates a presumption of consideration; in forty-nine states, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) has abolished the seal on contracts for the sale of goods. (Louisiana has not adopted UCC Article 2.)
Whatever its original historical purposes, and however apparently arcane, the doctrine of consideration serves some still-useful purposes. It provides objective evidence for asserting that a contract exists; it distinguishes between enforceable and unenforceable bargains; and it is a check against rash, unconsidered action, against thoughtless promise making.Lon L. Fuller, “Consideration and Form,” Columbia Law Review 41 (1941): 799.
A Definition of Consideration
Consideration is said to exist when the promisor receives some benefit for his promise and the promisee gives up something in return; it is the bargained-for price you pay for what you get. That may seem simple enough. But as with much in the law, the complicating situations are never very far away. The “something” that is promised or delivered cannot be just anything, such as a feeling of pride, warmth, amusement, or friendship; it must be something known as a legal detriment—an act, forbearance, or a promise of such from the promisee. The detriment need not be an actual detriment; it may in fact be a benefit to the promisee, or at least not a loss. The detriment to one side is usually a legal benefit to the other, but the detriment to the promisee need not confer a tangible benefit on the promisor; the promisee can agree to forego something without that something being given to the promisor. Whether consideration is legally sufficient has nothing to do with whether it is morally or economically adequate to make the bargain a fair one. Moreover, legal consideration need not even be certain; it can be a promise contingent on an event that may never happen. Consideration is a legal concept, and it centers on the giving up of a legal right or benefit.
Consideration has two elements. The first, as just outlined, is whether the promisee has incurred a legal detriment—given up something, paid some “price,” though it may be, for example, the promise to do something, like paint a house. (Some courts—although a minority—take the view that a bargained-for legal benefit to the promisor is sufficient consideration.) The second element is whether the legal detriment was bargained for: did the promisor specifically intend the act, forbearance, or promise in return for his promise? Applying this two-pronged test to the three examples given at the outset of the chapter, we can easily see why only in the second is there legally sufficient consideration. In the first, Lou incurred no legal detriment; he made no pledge to act or to forbear from acting, nor did he in fact act or forbear from acting. In the third example, what might appear to be such a promise is not really so. Betty made a promise on a condition that Lou comes to her house; the intent clearly is to make a gift.
Consideration is—with some exceptions—a required element of a contract. It is the bargained-for giving up of something of legal value for something in return. It serves the purposes of making formal the intention to contract and reducing rash promise making.
- Alice promises to give her neighbor a blueberry bush; the neighbor says, “Thank you!” Subsequently, Alice changes her mind. Is she bound by her promise?
- Why, notwithstanding its relative antiquity, does consideration still serve some useful purposes?
- Identify the exchange of consideration in this example: A to B, “I will pay you $800 if you paint my garage.” B to A, “Okay, I’ll paint your garage for $800.”