When do verbal promises become legally binding?

I once heard an employer tell an employee she didn’t have to fulfill a promise because it was “only a verbal contract”.

An agreement does not need to be in writing to be legally binding as enforceable contracts can either be in written or verbal form.

So be warned! In some circumstances you might be bound by what you say. Here are the three main ingredients for a verbal agreement to become contractually binding.

Step 1 – There needs to be offer and acceptance

The ‘offer and acceptance’ principle really is as simple as it sounds, if someone makes an offer and you accept – then you’ve fulfilled the first step for a verbal agreement becoming legally binding.

For example:

Martin (the boss) verbally offers Sam (his employee) a promotion – ‘offer’.

Sam accepts the offer – ‘acceptance’.

This is just step one – if that is all that happened then neither party would be bound at this point in time.  This is not because the agreement is verbal, but because nothing of value has been exchanged or promised.

Step 2 – “The Consideration Principle”

If every offer/acceptance agreement was legally binding this would create absolute chaos in society because everybody would be totally bound to every little promise they make.

Luckily the law will only consider an agreement to be enforceable if the person receiving the promise provides something of value in exchange for it. This is known as ‘consideration’ (as strange as it may sound to call it that).

So in Martin and Sam’s case, nothing of value was exchanged – so Martin would probably be legally free to renege on his promise.

But in that case, if Sam had already started performing the work associated with the promotion and Martin was aware of this, then it is more likely that a court would recognise the verbal agreement as binding.

So please be aware that the ‘something of value’ does not need to be money.

Step three – Intention: Did both parties show an intention to be bound by the agreement?

Both parties must have shown they intended to create a legally binding agreement for courts to recognise it as such.

Courts will look at the surrounding circumstances to determine whether you intended to be legally bound by the promise. So you can’t just say after the fact “I never intended to be bound”.

In most cases where something of value has been exchanged, courts will usually presume that the parties intended to be bound.

Biggest barrier in proving a verbal agreement – proof!

The onus is on the person arguing for the existence of a contract to show the verbal agreement was a legally enforceable contract.

This is a tough task, because it really will be one person’s word against another’s. If there is nothing in writing about the conversation it will be extremely difficult to prove exactly what was said and what was promised. The human memory is flawed and people sometimes remember what they wish had happened, not what actually did happen.

Either way you should try to make it clear when you’re making verbal agreements when you do and do not intend to be bound and when you are and are not promising something.

Don’t over commit yourself! Under-sell and over-deliver every time.

If you’d like to get in touch with a lawyer and discuss whether you’ve entered into a verbal contract, contact LegalVision.

  • Nice article, Lachlan! I agree that in the end, it boils down to your word against the word of the other party.

  • I doubt the enforcement of a verbal agreement being legal. I have a nabours who promised to pay half cost of fence. I 1st contacted ‘fencer’ showed he quote to nabours who agreed to go half. I told nabours to phone the contractor, they did, and verbally organised the colour of fence and date to be erected. On completion the nabours refused to pay. Said he had had losts of such disputes, had been to court and always wins, and laughed. The male nabour is smart he moved the fence line, not so much to be a dispute, but enough for the ‘fencer’ to have to drill into the concrete that was my property before the 1st fence was taken down. I think some win and others lose. For a quiet life I think I must accept I was conned. Maureen Beverley a nabour of a smart arses. As a widow of 78 I just want a quiet life.