As usual in the law, the legal definition of “contract” is formalistic. The Restatement says:
A contract is a promise or a set of promises for the breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty.
Similarly, the Uniform Commercial Code says:
Contract means the total legal obligation which results from the parties’ agreement as affected by this Act and any other applicable rules of law.
A short-hand definition is: “A contract is a legally enforceable promise.”
Conditions for a Contract
In every contract an offeror makes an offer to enter into a contract with an offeree. The offeror offers to do something in particular (or to refrain from doing something in particular), and if the offeree accepts this offer, a contract is created. As you can also see, both offer and acceptance must meet certain conditions.
- Agreement. The parties must have reached a mutual agreement. The offeror must have made an offer, and the offeree must have replied with an acceptance.
- Consideration. Each promise must be made in return for the performance of a legally sufficient act or promise. If one party isn’t required to exchange something of legal value (e.g., money, property, a service), an agreement lacks sufficient consideration.
- Contractual capacity. Both parties must possess the full legal capacity to assume contractual duties. Limitations to full capacity include mental illness and such diminished states as intoxication.
- Lawful object. The purpose of the contract must be legal. A contract to commit an unlawful act or to violate public policy is void (without legal force).
Restrictions to Contracts
Generally speaking, in the United States parties may enter into contracts for whatever they wish and under any terms that they agree on. In other words, parties may assent to agreements even if those agreements represent bad bargains. However, there are certain external restrictions on our abilities to form contracts. Additionally, certain internal (to the contract) restrictions may exist on our abilities to exercise rights or to engage in other contracts.
Legal restrictions, external to the contract, limit our ability to bargain. For example, if you wanted to hire someone to work for your company, you could not contract with that person to work 100-hour workweeks at 25 cents per hour. Even if you could find someone to work under those conditions and even if you both agreed to those terms of the contract, our statutory and regulatory laws prohibit you from entering into a contract with those terms. Such wages would violate minimum wage laws.
There may also be restrictions that are internal to the contract. Imagine that you entered into an employment contract with a company to work for $55,000 per year, plus benefits, and for a term of two years. You might be pretty happy about that. But what if, one month later, another company offered you the same position at its company, but for a salary of $65,000 per year, plus benefits. The better offer does not invalidate your first contract. In fact, in such a case, your first contract would probably contain a noncompete clause that would prohibit you from working in a similar capacity for a specified length of time and geographic area. So even if you decided to breach your first contract to enter into the second, you would be prohibited from doing so under the noncompete clause.