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11.3 Promises Enforceable without Consideration

Learning Objective

  1. Understand the exceptions to the requirement of consideration.

For a variety of policy reasons, courts will enforce certain types of promises even though consideration may be absent. Some of these are governed by the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC); others are part of the established common law.

Promises Enforceable without Consideration at Common Law

Past Consideration

Ordinarily, past considerationA promise subsequent to a promisee’s act, not bargained for; it does not count as consideration. is not sufficient to support a promise. By past consideration, the courts mean an act that could have served as consideration if it had been bargained for at the time but that was not the subject of a bargain. For example, Mrs. Ace’s dog Fluffy escapes from her mistress’s condo at dusk. Robert finds Fluffy, sees Mrs. Ace, who is herself out looking for her pet, and gives Fluffy to her. She says, “Oh, thank you for finding my dear dog. Come by my place tomorrow morning and I’ll give you fifty dollars as a reward.” The next day Robert stops by Mrs. Ace’s condo, but she says, “Well, I don’t know. Fluffy soiled the carpet again last night. I think maybe a twenty-dollar reward would be plenty.” Robert cannot collect the fifty dollars. Even though Mrs. Ace might have a moral obligation to pay him and honor her promise, there was no consideration for it. Robert incurred no legal detriment; his contribution—finding the dog—was paid out before her promise, and his past consideration is invalid to support a contract. There was no bargained-for exchange.

However, a valid consideration, given in the past to support a promise, can be the basis for another, later contract under certain circumstances. These occur when a person’s duty to act for one reason or another has become no longer binding. If the person then makes a new promise based on the unfulfilled past duty, the new promise is binding without further consideration. Three types of cases follow.

Promise Revived after Statute of Limitations Has Passed

A statute of limitationsThe law stipulating how long after a cause of action arises that a person has to sue on it. is a law requiring a lawsuit to be filed within a specified period of years. For example, in many states a contract claim must be sued on within six years; if the plaintiff waits longer than that, the claim will be dismissed, regardless of its merits. When the time period set forth in the statute of limitations has lapsed, the statute is said to have “run.” If a debtor renews a promise to pay or acknowledges a debt after the running of a statute of limitations, then under the common law the promise is binding, although there is no consideration in the usual sense. In many states, this promise or acknowledgment must be in writing and signed by the debtor. Also, in many states, the courts will imply a promise or acknowledgment if the debtor makes a partial payment after the statute has run.

Voidable Duties

Some promises that might otherwise serve as consideration are voidable by the promisor, for a variety of reasons, including infancy, fraud, duress, or mistake. But a voidable contract does not automatically become void, and if the promisor has not avoided the contract but instead thereafter renews his promise, it is binding. For example, Mr. Melvin sells his bicycle to Seth, age thirteen. Seth promises to pay Mr. Melvin one hundred dollars. Seth may repudiate the contract, but he does not. When he turns eighteen, he renews his promise to pay the one hundred dollars. This promise is binding. (However, a promise made up to the time he turned eighteen would not be binding, since he would still have been a minor.)

Promissory Estoppel

We examined the meaning of this forbidding phrase in Chapter 8 "Introduction to Contract Law" (recall the English High Trees case). It represents another type of promise that the courts will enforce without consideration. Simply stated, promissory estoppelTo be prohibited from denying a promise when another subsequently has relied on it. means that the courts will stop the promisor from claiming that there was no consideration. The doctrine of promissory estoppel is invoked in the interests of justice when three conditions are met: (1) the promise is one that the promisor should reasonably expect to induce the promisee to take action or forbear from taking action of a definite and substantial character; (2) the action or forbearance is taken; and (3) injustice can be avoided only by enforcing the promise. (The complete phraseology is “promissory estoppel with detrimental reliance.”)

Timko served on the board of trustees of a school. He recommended that the school purchase a building for a substantial sum of money, and to induce the trustees to vote for the purchase, he promised to help with the purchase and to pay at the end of five years the purchase price less the down payment. At the end of four years, Timko died. The school sued his estate, which defended on the ground that there was no consideration for the promise. Timko was promised or given nothing in return, and the purchase of the building was of no direct benefit to him (which would have made the promise enforceable as a unilateral contract). The court ruled that under the three-pronged promissory estoppel test, Timko’s estate was liable.Estate of Timko v. Oral Roberts Evangelistic Assn., 215 N.W.2d 750 (Mich. App. 1974).

Cases involving pledges of charitable contributions have long been troublesome to courts. Recognizing the necessity to charitable institutions of such pledges, the courts have also been mindful that a mere pledge of money to the general funds of a hospital, university, or similar institution does not usually induce substantial action but is, rather, simply a promise without consideration. When the pledge does prompt a charitable institution to act, promissory estoppel is available as a remedy. In about one-quarter of the states, another doctrine is available for cases involving simple pledges: the “mutual promises” theory, whereby the pledges of many individuals are taken as consideration for each other and are binding against each promisor. This theory was not available to the plaintiff in Timko because his was the only promise.

Moral Obligation

The Restatement allows, under some circumstances, the enforcement of past-consideration contracts. It provides as follows in Section 86, “Promise for Benefit Received”:

A promise made in recognition of a benefit previously received by the promisor from the promisee is binding to the extent necessary to prevent injustice.

A promise is not binding under Subsection (1)

if the promisee conferred the benefit as a gift or for other reasons the promisor has not been unjustly enriched; or

to the extent that its value is disproportionate to the benefit.

Promises Enforceable without Consideration by Statute

We have touched on several common-law exceptions to the consideration requirement. Some also are provided by statute.

Under the UCC

The UCC permits one party to discharge, without consideration, a claim or right arising out of an alleged breach of contract by the other party. This is accomplished by delivering to the other party a signed written waiverAn informed choice wherein one surrenders the right to pursue some otherwise available legal remedy. or renunciationA formal rejection of something, as a contract..Uniform Commercial Code, Section 1-107. This provision applies to any contract governed by the UCC and is not limited to the sales provisions of Article 2.

The UCC also permits a party to discharge the other side without consideration when there is no breach, and it permits parties to modify their Article 2 contract without consideration.Uniform Commercial Code, Sections 2-209(4) and 2-209(1). The official comments to the UCC section add the following: “However, modifications made thereunder must meet the test of good faith imposed by this Act. The effective use of bad faith to escape performance on the original contract terms is barred, and the extortion of a “modification” without legitimate commercial reason is ineffective as a violation of the duty of good faith.”

Seller agrees to deliver a ton of coal within seven days. Buyer needs the coal sooner and asks Seller to deliver within four days. Seller agrees. This promise is binding even though Seller received no additional consideration beyond the purchase price for the additional duty agreed to (the duty to get the coal to Buyer sooner than originally agreed). The UCC allows a merchant’s firm offerA signed promise made by a merchant to hold an offer open., signed, in writing, to bind the merchant to keep the offer to buy or sell open without consideration.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-205. This is the UCC’s equivalent of a common-law option, which, as you recall, does require consideration.

Section 1-207 of the UCC allows a party a reservation of rightsA statement that one is intentionally retaining all or some legal rights, so as to warn others of those rights. while performing a contract. This section raises a difficult question when a debtor issues an in-full-payment check in payment of a disputed debt. As noted earlier in this chapter, because under the common law the creditor’s acceptance of an in-full-payment check in payment of a disputed debt constitutes an accord and satisfaction, the creditor cannot collect an amount beyond the check. But what if the creditor, in cashing the check, reserves the right (under Section 1-207) to sue for an amount beyond what the debtor is offering? The courts are split on the issue: regarding the sale of goods governed by the UCC, some courts allow the creditor to sue for the unpaid debt notwithstanding the check being marked “paid in full,” and others do not.

Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is, of course, federal statutory law. The rule here regarding a promise to pay after the obligation is discharged is similar to that governing statutes of limitations. Traditionally, a promise to repay debts after a bankruptcy court has discharged them makes the debtor liable once again. This traditional rule gives rise to potential abuse; after undergoing the rigors of bankruptcy, a debtor could be badgered by creditors into reaffirmationTo confirm again the validity of a promise that was discharged, as in bankruptcy., putting him in a worse position than before, since he must wait six years before being allowed to avail himself of bankruptcy again.

The federal Bankruptcy Act includes certain procedural protections to ensure that the debtor knowingly enters into a reaffirmation of his debt. Among its provisions, the law requires the debtor to have reaffirmed the debt before the debtor is discharged in bankruptcy; he then has sixty days to rescind his reaffirmation. If the bankrupt party is an individual, the law also requires that a court hearing be held at which the consequences of his reaffirmation must be explained, and reaffirmation of certain consumer debts is subject to court approval if the debtor is not represented by an attorney.

International Contracts

Contracts governed by the Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (as mentioned in Chapter 8 "Introduction to Contract Law") do not require consideration to be binding.

Key Takeaway

There are some exceptions to the consideration requirement. At common law, past consideration doesn’t count, but no consideration is necessary in these cases: where a promise barred by the statute of limitations is revived, where a voidable duty is reaffirmed, where there has been detrimental reliance on a promise (i.e., promissory estoppel), or where a court simply finds the promisor has a moral obligation to keep the promise.

Under statutory law, the UCC has several exceptions to the consideration requirement. No consideration is needed to revive a debt discharged in bankruptcy, and none is called for under the Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods.

Exercises

  1. Melba began work for Acme Company in 1975 as a filing clerk. Thirty years later she had risen to be comptroller. At a thirty-year celebration party, her boss, Mr. Holder, said, “Melba, I hope you work here for a long time, and you can retire at any time, but if you decide to retire, on account of your years of good service, the company will pay you a monthly pension of $2,000.” Melba continued to work for another two years, then retired. The company paid the pension for three years and then, in an economic downturn, stopped. When Melba sued, the company claimed it was not obligated to her because the pension was of past consideration. What will be the result?
  2. What theories are used to enforce charitable subscriptions?
  3. What are the elements necessary for the application of the doctrine of promissory estoppel?
  4. Under what circumstances does the Restatement employ moral obligation as a basis for enforcing an otherwise unenforceable contract?
  5. Promises unenforceable because barred by bankruptcy or by the running of the statute of limitations can be revived without further consideration. What do the two circumstances have in common?
  6. Under the UCC, when is no consideration required where it would be in equivalent situations at common law?