The Four Corners of a Contract
By Jedidiah McKeehan
“If it falls outside the four corners of the contract, it is generally irrelevant and inadmissible evidence.” That phrase, or something along those lines, is something every first-year law student will be familiar with. But what does that phrase mean?
The four corners that are referenced are the four corners on a piece of paper(s) that contain the written terms of the contract and the signatures of the people who signed that contract.
If someone signed that contract and then tries to say that the people who signed the contract agreed to something that is not in the contract, they are going to have a hard time getting a judge to agree with them.
For example, two people get divorced and they sign a contract that says husband pays to wife $500.00 a month in child support. That is their signed contract. They signed it because wife says to husband, “Hey, sign this contract. The lawyer said the child support has to be in there, but I will not ever try to collect it from you.”
And then wife actually demands that husband pay her $500.00 a month in child support. Husband is upset. We had an oral agreement that we would not enforce that part!
I am sorry to tell you that you are trying to introduce discussions that are “outside the four corners of the contract,” and what wife said to husband about not collecting that money might be inadmissible at court (not to mention she may deny ever saying that). Could husband try to get the child support portion of the contract set aside based on some sort of fraud argument? I am skeptical. Husband willingly signed a contract saying he would pay $500.00 in child support. Why would husband think signing something is a good idea that does not reflect the agreement of the people signing the contract?
These kinds of handshake or oral modifications of written agreements are problematic in that they are inadmissible evidence in court. What does it take to change “the four corners of a contract?” Typically, the people who signed the first contract would both need to sign a new contract that accurately reflects the new contract they have reached and create four “new corners.”
Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties. He works in many areas, including family law, criminal, and personal injury. Visit attorney-knoxville.com for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.