How to Create and Enforce a Unilateral Contract

March 12, 2024 • Contract Management • 6 minutes

Table of contents

  1. What is a unilateral contract?
  2. Legal requirements for unilateral contracts
  3. Characteristics of unilateral contracts
  4. How to create a unilateral contract step-by-step
  5. How to enforce a unilateral contract
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Whether you’re a business professional, a law student, or simply someone interested in legal concepts, it’s important to understand the unique nature of a unilateral contract.

Here, we’ll explore the characteristics, formation, and enforceability of unilateral contracts — and show you how to draft one step-by-step. Let’s jump right in with a clear definition.

What is a unilateral contract?

A unilateral contract is an agreement in which only one party makes a promise or undertakes an obligation, typically in exchange for a specific act by another party. Unlike bilateral contracts, where both parties exchange mutual promises, unilateral contracts involve a promise in return for a performance — for example, payment in return for work performed.

Legal requirements for unilateral contracts

In unilateral contracts, you must meet specific legal requirements for the contract to be valid. These criteria set a legal framework for all parties involved.

Offer and acceptance in unilateral contracts

Your unilateral contract starts with your offer. This offer involves a promise to act or pay upon another’s completion of a certain task. When the other party completes this task, they accept your offer, making the contract binding. In unilateral contracts, actions, not words, signify acceptance.

Intention to create legal relations

You must intend to create a legally binding agreement in a unilateral contract. This intention separates enforceable contracts from casual agreements, which don’t have legal consequences.

Legality and capacity

Every unilateral contract you make must be legal and involve parties who can legally engage in contracts. The terms shouldn’t break any laws, and all parties should understand the contract’s implications. Unenforceable contracts include those with illegal activities or parties lacking legal capacity.

Characteristics of unilateral contracts

These contracts differ significantly from other types of agreements in several key ways.

Performance-based focus

The core of a unilateral contract lies in its performance-based focus. You enter into these contracts when you promise a reward in exchange for a specific action or performance by another party. Unlike bilateral contracts, where both parties make mutual promises, in a unilateral contract, only one party is legally bound. The contract becomes effective only when you perform the specified action, not when you agree to do so.

Non-reciprocal obligations

Unilateral contracts feature non-reciprocal obligations. This means you, as the offeror, are the only one with a legal obligation. You promise something (like a payment or a service) once the other party completes a specific task. The other party, however, is not legally bound to perform the task. They have the choice to act or not, and their action fulfills the contract.

Examples in everyday life

You encounter unilateral contracts frequently in daily life, often probably without realizing it. Reward offers, like a lost pet poster offering a reward for the pet’s safe return, are classic examples. Here, you promise a reward for a specific action (finding and returning the pet), but the person who sees the poster is not obligated to search for the pet.

Understanding these characteristics – the performance-based nature, non-reciprocal obligations, and real-world examples – helps you recognize and navigate unilateral contracts effectively.

How to create a unilateral contract step-by-step

Creating a unilateral contract requires careful drafting to make sure the agreement is valid and enforceable. Follow these steps to draft a unilateral contract that’ll hold up in court.

Step 1: Identify the offer

Start by clearly identifying the offer. This involves specifying what you will provide or promise in return for a specific action or performance by another party. Be clear about the reward or benefit and the conditions under which it will be given. This clarity is essential to avoid ambiguity and ensure understanding by the party performing the act.

Step 2: Detail the required performance

Clearly articulate the specific act or performance required for the offer to be fulfilled. This might include actions like completing a task, finding a lost item, or achieving a specific goal. The performance should be measurable and objectively verifiable to prevent disputes about whether it has been adequately completed.

Step 3: State the offer’s timeframe

Define the timeframe within which the action must be completed. This might be a deadline or a period during which the offer remains valid. Stating a clear timeframe ensures both parties are aware of when the offer can be accepted through performance.

Step 4: Outline the terms of acceptance

In unilateral contracts, acceptance occurs when the offeree performs the specified act. Explicitly state in your contract that completing the action constitutes acceptance of the offer. This helps to avoid confusion over how and when the contract becomes binding.

Step 5: Draft the contract clauses

Include all necessary legal clauses to make your contract enforceable. This should cover aspects like dispute resolution, governing law, and any other pertinent terms that govern the relationship between the offeror and the offeree.

Step 6: Review for legal compliance

Ensure that your contract complies with relevant laws and regulations. This might involve reviewing contract law principles or consulting with a legal professional to confirm that the contract is legally sound and enforceable.

Step 7: Finalize and communicate the offer

Once drafted, finalize your contract and communicate it effectively to potential offerees. This could be through public announcement, personal communication, or any other suitable method, depending on the nature of the offer.

By following these steps, you can draft a unilateral contract that is clear, comprehensive, and legally enforceable.

How to enforce a unilateral contract

When enforcing a unilateral contract, clarity in the initial offer is key. To address enforcement challenges, make sure your offer details are precise and unambiguous — for example, defining the action required and any specific conditions. Here’s how to handle some common legal situations related to unilateral contracts.

Revocation of offers in unilateral contracts

To effectively revoke an offer in a unilateral contract, you must communicate the revocation as widely as you publicized the original offer. This helps ensure that potential offerees are aware of the revocation, particularly if they have begun the action. Documenting the revocation and using the same channels you used to communicate the original offer can aid in proving that you adequately informed potential offerees. Keep in mind the timing of your revocation – it should happen before the action’s completion.

Challenges in proving the existence of a unilateral contract

Proving the existence of a unilateral contract often hinges on evidence. Maintain records that show how and when you made the offer public. This can include copies of advertisements, online posts, or any public announcements. If possible, gather evidence that the offeree knew of the offer before completing the action. This could be through their statements, witnesses, or other forms of acknowledgment. Clear documentation linking their action to your offer strengthens your position if the contract’s existence is challenged.

By addressing these challenges with careful planning and documentation, you can significantly improve the enforceability of your unilateral contracts and reduce the likelihood of disputes.

Looking forward, as digital agreements and automated transactions become more common, your understanding of these contracts will become increasingly important. By staying informed about unilateral contracts, you enhance your legal proficiency and prepare yourself to handle many different contractual scenarios with confidence.

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