- Know what is required for an instrument to be negotiable.
Whether or not a paper is negotiable is the first of our four major questions, and it is one that nonlawyers must confront. Auditors, retailers, and financial institutions often handle notes and checks and usually must make snap judgments about negotiability. Unless the required elements of Sections 3-103 and 3-104 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) are met, the paper is not negotiable. Thus the paper meets the following criteria:
- It must be in writing.
- It must be signed by the maker or drawer.
- It must be an unconditional promise or order to pay.
- It must be for a fixed amount in money.
- It must be payable on demand or at a definite time.
- It must be payable to order or bearer, unless it is a check.
This definition states the basic premise of a negotiable instrument: the holder must be able to ascertain all essential terms from the face of the instrument.
Analysis of Required Elements
Under UCC Section 1-201, “written” or “writing” includes “printing, typewriting or any other intentional reduction to tangible form.” That definition is broad—so broad, in fact, that from time to time the newspapers report checks written on material ranging from a girdle (an Ohio resident wanted to make his tax payment stretch) to granite. Since these are tangible materials, the checks meet the writing requirement. The writing can be made in any medium: ink, pencil, or even spray paint, as was the case with the granite check. Of course, there is a danger in using pencil or an ink that can be erased, since the drawer might be liable for alterations. For example, if you write out in pencil a check for $10 and someone erases your figures and writes in $250, you may lose your right to protest when the bank cashes it.
Signed by the Maker or Drawer
Signature is not limited to the personal handwriting of one’s name. “Any symbol executed or adopted by a party with present intention to authenticate a writing” will serve. Uniform Commercial Code, Section 1-201(39). That means that a maker or drawer may make an impression of his signature with a rubber stamp or even an X if he intends that by so doing he has signed. It can be typed or by thumbprint. In some cases, an appropriate letterhead may serve to make the note or draft negotiable without any other signature. Nor does the position of the signature matter. Blackstone Kent’s handwritten note, “Ten days from this note, I, Blackstone Kent, promise to pay $5,000 to the order of Webster Mews,” is sufficient to make the note negotiable, even though there is no subsequent signature. Moreover, the signature may be in a trade name or an assumed name. (Note: special problems arise when an agent signs on behalf of a principal. We consider these problems in Chapter 22 "Liability and Discharge".)
Unconditional Promise or Order to Pay
Section 3-106(a) of the UCC provides that an instrument is not negotiable if it “states (i) an express condition to payment, (ii) that the promise or order is subject to or governed by another writing, or (iii) that rights or obligations with respect to the promise or order are stated in another writing. A reference to another writing does not of itself make the promise or order conditional.” Under 3-106(b), a promise is not made conditional by “(i) reference to another writing for a statement of rights with respect to collateral, pre-payment, or acceleration, or (ii) because payment is limited to resort to a particular fund or source.” As to “reference to another writing,” see Holly Hill Acres, Ltd. v. Charter Bank of Gainesville, in Section 19.4 "Cases".
The only permissible promise or order in a negotiable instrument is to pay a sum certain in money. Any other promise or order negates negotiability. The reason for this rule is to prevent an instrument from having an indeterminate value. The usefulness of a negotiable instrument as a substitute for money would be seriously eroded if the instrument’s holder had to investigate whether a stipulation or condition had been met before the thing had any value (i.e., before the obligor’s obligation to pay ripened).
Fixed Amount in Money
The value of the paper must be fixed (specific) so it can be ascertained, and it must be payable in money.
The instrument must recite an exact amount of money that is to be paid, although the exact amount need not be expressed in a single figure. For example, the note can state that the principal is $1,000 and the interest is 11.5 percent, without specifying the total amount. Or the note could state the amount in installments: twelve equal installments of $88.25. Or it could state different interest rates before and after a certain date or depending on whether or not the maker has defaulted; it could be determinable by a formula or by reference to a source described in the instrument. Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-112(b). It could permit the maker to take a discount if he pays before a certain date or could assess a penalty if he pays after the date. It could also provide for an attorney’s fees and the costs of collection on default. If it is clear that interest is to be included but no interest amount is set, UCC Section 3-112 provides that it is “payable at the judgment rate in effect at the place of payment of the instrument and at the time interest first accrues.” The fundamental rule is that for any time of payment, the holder must be able to determine, after the appropriate calculations, the amount then payable. See Section 19.4 "Cases", Centerre Bank of Branson v. Campbell, for a case involving the “fixed amount” rule.
Section 1-201(24) of the UCC defines money as “a medium of exchange authorized or adopted by a domestic or foreign government as a part of its currency.” As long as the medium of exchange was such at the time the instrument was made, it is payable in money, even if the medium of exchange has been abolished at the time the instrument is due. Section 3-107 provides the following as to payment in foreign currency: “Unless the instrument otherwise provides, an instrument that states the amount payable in foreign money may be paid in the foreign money or in an equivalent amount in dollars calculated by using the current bank-offered spot rate at the place of payment for the purchase of dollars on the day on which the instrument is paid.”
Payable on Demand or at a Definite Time
An instrument that says it is payable on sight is payable on demand, as is one that states no time for payment. “Definite time” may be stated in several ways; it is not necessary to set out a specific date. For example, a note might say that it is payable on or before a stated date, at a fixed period after the date, at a fixed period after sight, at a definite time subject to acceleration, or at a definite time subject to extension at the option of the holder or automatically on or after the occurrence of a particular event. However, if the only time fixed is on the occurrence of a contingent event, the time is not definite, even though the event in fact has already occurred. An example of a valid acceleration clause is the following: “At the option of the holder, this note shall become immediately due and payable in the event that the maker fails to comply with any of the promises contained in this note or to perform any other obligation of the maker to the holder.”
Is the note “Payable ten days after I give birth” negotiable? No, because the date the baby is due is uncertain. Is the note “Payable on January 1, but if the Yankees win the World Series, payable four days earlier” negotiable? Yes: this is a valid acceleration clause attached to a definite date.
One practical difference between a demand instrument and a time instrument is the date on which the statute of limitations begins to run. (A statute of limitations is a limit on the time a creditor has to file a lawsuit to collect the debt.) Section 3-118(1) of the UCC says that a lawsuit to enforce payment at a definite time “must be commenced within six years after the due date” (or the accelerated due date). For demand paper, an action must be brought “within six years after the demand.”
Payable to Order or Bearer
An instrument payable to order is one that will be paid to a particular person or organization identifiable in advance. To be payable to order, the instrument must so state, as most ordinarily do, by placing the words “payable to order of” before the name of the payee. An instrument may be payable to the order of the maker, drawer, drawee, or someone else. It also may be payable to the order of two or more payees (together or in the alternative), to an estate, a trust, or a fund (in which case it is payable to the representative, to an office or officer, or to a partnership or unincorporated association). Suppose a printed form says that the instrument is payable both to order and to bearer. In that event, the instrument is payable only to order. However, if the words “to bearer” are handwritten or typewritten, then the instrument can be payable either to order or to bearer.
A negotiable instrument not payable to a particular person must be payable to bearer, meaning to any person who presents it. To be payable to bearer, the instrument may say “payable to bearer” or “to the order of bearer.” It may also say “payable to John Doe or bearer.” Or it may be made payable to cash or the order of cash.
Section 3-104(c) of the UCC excepts checks from the requirement that the instrument be “payable to bearer or order.” Official Comment 2 to that section explains why checks are not required to have the “payable” wording: “Subsection (c) is based on the belief that it is good policy to treat checks, which are payment instruments, as negotiable instruments whether or not they contain the words ‘to the order of.’ These words are almost always pre-printed on the check form.… Absence of the quoted words can easily be overlooked and should not affect the rights of holders who may pay money or give credit for a check without being aware that it is not in the conventional form.”
Also affecting this policy is the fact that almost all checks are now read by machines, not human beings. There is no one to see that the printed form does not contain the special words, and the significance of the words is recognized by very few people. In short, it doesn’t matter for checks.
Missing and Ambiguous Terms
The rules just stated make up the conditions for negotiability. Dealing with two additional details—missing terms or ambiguous terms—completes the picture. Notwithstanding the presence of readily available form instruments, sometimes people leave words out or draw up confusing documents.
An incomplete instrument—one that is missing an essential element, like the due date or amount—can be signed before being completed if the contents at the time of signing show that the maker or drawer intends it to become a negotiable instrument. Unless the date of an instrument is required to determine when it is payable, an undated instrument can still be negotiable. Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-113(b). Otherwise, to be enforceable, the instrument must first be completed—if not by the maker or drawer, then by the holder in accordance with whatever authority he has to do so. Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-115. See the case presented in Section 19.4 "Cases", Newman v. Manufacturers Nat. Bank of Detroit.
When it is unclear whether the instrument is a note or draft, the holder may treat it as either. Handwritten terms control typewritten and printed terms, and typewritten terms control printed terms. Words control figures, unless the words themselves are ambiguous, in which case the figures control. If the instrument contains a “conspicuous statement, however expressed, to the effect that the promise or order is not negotiable,” its negotiability is destroyed, except for checks, and “an instrument may be a check even though it is described on its face by another term, such as ‘money order.’”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-104(d); Uniform Commercial Code, Section 3-104(f).
If an instrument is not negotiable, it generally will not be acceptable as payment in commercial transactions. The UCC requires that the value of a negotiable instrument be ascertainable on its face, without reference to other documents. Thus the negotiable instrument must be in writing, signed by the maker or drawer, an unconditional promise or order to pay, for a fixed amount in money, payable on demand or at a definite time, and payable to order or bearer, unless it is a check. If the instrument is incomplete or ambiguous, the UCC provides rules to determine what the instrument means.
- Why does the UCC require that the value of a negotiable instrument be ascertainable from its face, without extrinsic reference?
- What are the six requirements for an instrument to meet the negotiability test?
- Why are the words “pay to order” or “pay to bearer” or similar words required on negotiable instruments (except for checks—and why not for checks)?
- If an instrument is incomplete, is it invalid?