This may come across as cynical but people generally break more promises than they keep. That is the reason why written contracts were invented. Unfortunately, we live in a world which is constantly desensitizing us to the amount of power which contracts can wield. For instance, nowadays most of us instantly accept the terms and conditions of any of the mobile phone apps which we use without sparing even a single glance at the actual content itself. This attitude also extends to how we deal with contracts in the real world.

Unfortunately, if you develop a habit of neglecting to go through contracts before signing them, one of your hastily scribbled signatures may eventually come back to haunt you. From famous artists losing all rights to their music to you failing to get a refund for a faulty gadget, these are all preventable surprises.  Fortunately, you rarely need a lawyer to hold your hand every time someone asks for your signature. Let us discuss how people with no legal training, like you and me, can reduce their likelihood of getting blindsided by the terms in contracts.

Always read through the contract

Never let anyone rush you into signing a contract. Also do not take anyone’s word that any contract which you are supposed to agree to is too inconsequential to fret over (unless they are your lawyer). No matter what the situation, always go through every single sentence and page of a contract before signing. Zimbabwean has the caveat subscriptor rule which in plain terms means if you sign a document it is assumed that you read and understood the document. Even in the many cases where you cannot change the terms of the contract, you must know exactly what you are being asked to agree to. Remember that while not every contract can be modified, you can always refuse to sign if you are too unhappy with the terms.

A lot of the times, contracts which are written down and eventually get signed would already have been discussed and agreed to verbally. Unfortunately, you can never be sure that whatever you are signing is exactly what you verbally agreed to. This means that regardless of any initial discussions, agreements or handshakes you should still painstakingly go through the written material.

Ask for clarifications

A contract signing is not the time to show off. If there is something which you do not understand, ask for clarifications, explanations or even a translation. Do this as many times as you feel is necessary. You have to be especially alert when the contract in question is verbose and full of legal jargon which you do not understand. Whenever most people encounter a word or phrase which they do not understand, they will just try to guess the meaning and continue reading. Do not do this with a contract—make sure you understand every word, phrase, initial and acronym before signing.

Agree on definitions

Whenever a contract contains any word or words whose meaning may be open to interpretation agree with the other party on one meaning and then include the definition(s) in the contract. One example of a word which may be open to interpretation is “year”, so suppose that you agree in a contract to pay some fee “every year” a misunderstanding may cost you. While a yearly fee is usually one which is due after every 12 months, you may be unfortunate enough to sign up for something late in the year only to be greeted by a fresh invoice in January.

Imagine worst-case scenarios

One of the best ways of determining how suitable or objectionable a contract is is to imagine all the possible worst-case scenarios. Look for what is missing in a contract, particularly all the unstated consequences of failing to comply with any of the terms. As an example, the Bulawayo City Council sold residential stands to some people towards the end of the multicurrency era. Part of the sale agreement included the requirement that they build within a specified period.  Now while we are in the midst of an economic crisis and global pandemic, some of the people who have yet to develop their stands, are claiming that they are receiving ominous letters from the city council.

Determine the scope of the contract

When dealing with a contract, you should have a very clear idea of how “big” it is. People often underestimate how much you can casually sign away in a contract. Contracts that come with money often cloud people’s judgement. Gratitude also plays its part in poor contract-related decisions. This is the reason why many artists only come to question the deals they agreed to after they gain some success.

Close open-ended terms

Some of the more fancy-sounding words and phrases that are found in contracts are what are called open-ended terms. These can give either party plenty of leeway in how they can interpret the agreement and can affect how it is enforced (if it is enforceable at all). Good examples of these are expressions like “reasonable time frame” or “reasonable efforts”. The problem here is that “reasonable” is very subjective. If you sell something to someone on credit and expect payment within “a reasonable period” you are in trouble because debtors and creditors will tend to have widely differing opinions on what amounts to a reasonable period.

Keep a copy

After signing a contract you should keep a copy of your own. This should serve as a constant reminder of everything you have agreed to particularly your obligations and those of the other party. By having your copy of the agreement, you can avoid accidentally breaching the contract—believe me there have been plenty of cases and situations where this benefits the other party.