A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Does it matter if you sign a contract with a name that's not your own?

May 5, 2009

Dear Cecil:

An incident which took place recently at the Chicago-area Hawthorne Race Course has raised a few questions which I hope you or one of your expert staff will deign to answer. As part of a live radio broadcast from the track, two guys from a local sports talk station, John Jurkovic and Harry Teinowitz, agreed to dress up like jockeys and actually race thoroughbreds. As you might expect, things went wrong, and before the afternoon was over Teinowitz was taken to intensive care with bleeding on his brain; he was released after spending the weekend in the hospital.

The track had had the two men sign a liability waiver before the stunt, but Teinowitz apparantly signed his form "Willie Shoemaker" instead of using his real name. All fun and games at the time, but how would that document stand up in court? Say the worst had happened, and Teinowitz's widow filed a lawsuit. The track should have no problem proving that it was his writing on the document, but would it matter that it wasn't his name?

Gfactor replies:

This one is easy. No. From the earliest of times courts have held that names don't matter. As a general rule you can agree to the terms of a contract using any character, symbol, figure, or other designation you adopt as a signature and be bound. You may also use a fictitious name, a firm name, or the name of another.

For example, in an 1887 New York case, the court held that a woman who signed a warranty deed on a property she did not own could not avoid the warranties because she had signed the name of the true owner of the property. Noting that "there is nothing so sacred in a name that right and justice should be sacrificed to its sanctity," the court explained that the law permits people to go by two names. The court asked:

Can one contract with another under a name she represents to be her name, and then avoid liability on the contract when her identity is unquestioned, by claiming that the name she held out to be her own was not the name by which she was best known to the world?

No, she could not, the court reasoned, because "the name under which she contracted was her name for the purpose of the contract," and she wouldn't be allowed to argue otherwise.

Part of the problem with the idea that you have to sign a specific name to a contract (there are some cases in which this is required, but they're generally covered by statutes) is that you can indeed have more than one name. There is nothing in the law prohibiting you from taking another name if you desire, and contracting under whatever name you may choose or assume. But that doesn't mean you aren't bound by a contract you sign with your new name. What's important is your identity, and if that can be established, you'll be held to the contract.

In fact, in many cases you can be bound to a contract that you didn't sign as long as you agreed to the terms. And while there are plenty of contracts that do require a signature, these too are covered by statutes, the most prominent being the so-called statute of frauds. These statutes typically require that certain kinds of contracts – agreements in consideration of marriage; promises by executors and administrators; promises to answer for debts, defaults, or misdeeds of others; agreements not to be performed within a year; and contracts to sell any interest in real property – be documented by a writing signed by the party to be charged. But the "party to be charged" still doesn't necessarily have to sign his own name. Any symbol executed or adopted by a party with present intention to authenticate a writing counts as a signature, and in some cases a letterhead or billhead satisfies the signature requirement.

So Teinowitz's having signed the contract with whatever name he signed and manifested consent to its terms (by participating in the race) would probably be sufficient to bind him to the waiver.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Preiss v. Le Poidevin, 19 Abb. N. Cas. 123, 9 N.Y. St. Rep. 695 (N.Y. 1887)

Walker v. Emrich, 212 Ark. 598, 206 S.W.2d 769 (Ark. 1947)

Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Cole, 189 Conn. 518, 457 A.2d 656 (Conn. 1983)

"Frauds, Statute of" and "Signature," Corpus Juris Secundum.

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