Is a signed document legally binding if one was unaware of its content?

Is a signed document legally binding if one was unaware of its content?[1]

  • Example 1: One signed a collage of bank documents affirming a loan, mortgage, bank account, or other matter of the like. Naturally, one did not take the time to read the fine print spread across all 50 pages. Is every statement and qualification mentioned in the document legally binding, or can the signatory claim that he never agreed to the conditions mentioned in the fine print?
  • Example 2: One signed a rent contract and did not take the time to read through all the details. Can the tenant claim that certain statements are not legally binding due to him not being aware of it at the time of signing?

One who signs a document, obligates himself to all the financial matters and conditions written in that document, even if he is unaware of any of its content.[2] Thus, even if the document is written in a foreign language which the person who signed is not fluent in reading, and there are witnesses who testify that he signed prior to even reading it, nevertheless, the document is legally binding and all its content can be legally enforced.[3] Claiming that one did not understand the implication of the document is not a valid claim.[4] This applies even to the conditions written in the fine print.[5] [However, some Poskim[6] imply that the above only applies if there is no reason to assume that one did not have knowledge of the content in the document, in which case he cannot claim that he was unaware and did not agree to its content. If, however, there is enough Halachically acceptable circumstancial evidence[7] to assume that he did not have knowledge of the documents detailed content, then it is possible to invalidate a condition that it contains. However, some Poskim[8] clarify that the above leniency never applies in a case that one personally signed the document, and only applies to a case that witnesses signed in his place. Practically, the understanding of Admur[9] and other Poskim[10] is that one is always held liable to the entire content of a personally signed document, irrelevent of excuse or valid evidence of being unaware. However, some Batei Dinim use the above lenient approach in their judicial rulings, if the circumstances justify it.[11]]

 

Summary:

One who signs a financial document is held liable for all its content, even if he claims that he was unaware of its content, and we know for certain that his claim is correct. Accordingly, one must be very careful upon signing a document that he is aware of all its content and is able to hold up to its conditions, as a later claim that he was unaware will not be valid.

 

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[1] Michaber C.M. 45:3; 61:13 regarding Kesuba; Rama E.H. 66:13; C.M. 61:13; 68:2; Admur Hilchos Ribis 46 in parentheses; Beis Yosef E.H. 66; C.M. 68; 69; 147; Teshuvos Hameyuchasos Ramban 77; Shut Rashba 1:629; 1:985; 5:228; See Yabia Omer E.H. 3:13; Mishneh Halachos C.M. 7:61-13; Mishpitei Eretz 2:299; Techumin 8:164

Other opinions: Some Poskim rule that if one claims that he did not understand all the conditions on the document, we accept his claim. [Rav Meir, brought in Rashba 1:629] Others limit this only to a case where there when there is an Anana Sahadi that he was unaware. [Ruling of Rashba 1:1156 regarding the invalidation of a condition in the Kesuba due to the claim that the Kallah was unaware of its content; Kneses Hagedola C.M. 147; Maharash Laniado 18; Ginas Veradim E.H. 4:14; Rav Sharman in Techumin ibid in name of Riaz Anzil 49; Mishneh Halachos ibid; See Kneses Hagedola ibid and Dvar Moshe 2:69 and Yabia Omer 3:13 regarding this contradiction in Rashba] Other Poskim rule that we believe such a claim regarding a secondary detail in the document. [Kneses Hagedola C.M. 147; Maharash Halevi Y.D. 14] Others rule that we only accept this claim if the person did not personally sign, even if he had witnesses sign. [Shut Reb Betzalel Ashkenazi 24, author of Shita Mekubetzes; Yabia Omer E.H. 3:13]

[2] Admur ibid in parentheses; Implication of Michaber 45:3 and all Poskim ibid

The reason: As whenever one signs a document, he agrees to obligate himself to all of its content, and thus even if it was not read before him, it is legally valid. [Implication of Admur and Michaber ibid; Smeh 45:5; Shach C.M. 61:18; Ramban ibid “If he did not bother reading it and signed, he has obligated himself to all its content, even if he did not borrow”] Meaning, that when one signs a document, who relies on the author of the document and agrees to its content. [Smeh ibid and 62:23; Shach 45:5; Ramban ibid; Beir Hageoleh 45:3; Levush 45:3; Aruch Hashulchan 45:5] Alternatively, the reason is because certainly one has agreed to obligate himself to whatever is written there, as certainly they read it before him, and he trusted that person. [Rama E.H. 66:13; C.M. 68:2; Rashba 1:629; 5:228] If we were to invalidate documents based on this claim, a document would never have any legal meaning. [Beis Yosef E.H. 66; Rashba ibid] The Halachic ramification between the two reasons is if one knows for certain that the signatory was unaware of its content. According to the former reason the condition should be valid, while according to the latter reason perhaps the condition is invalid. See other opinions brought in previous footnote!

[3] Michaber 45:13; Teshuvas Ramban ibid; Beis Yosef C.M. 45; 68; 69; Teshuvas Habach 32 regarding Shtar Mamrani; Smeh 45:5; Shach 45:5; Levush 45:3; Aruch Hashulchan 45:5

[4] Michaber 61:13; Poskim ibid

[5] Rama C.M. 61:13; Beis Yosef 61; Rivash 480

[6] Implication of Rama E.H. 66:13; C.M. 68:2; Rashba 1:629 who all say that the reason we hold him accountable is because certainly he was made aware of its content. This implies that if we know for a fact that he was not made aware, then he is not held liable; Ruling of Rashba 1:1156 regarding the invalidation of a condition in the Kesuba due to the claim that the Kallah was unaware of its content; Some however rule that we only accept this claim if the person did not personally sign, even if he had witnesses sign. [Reb Baruch Ashkenazi 24]

[7] Such as it is written in fine print and is a secondary issue to the main obligation of the document, or there is an Anan Sahadi that he was unaware of its content. [See Kneses Hagedola ibid, and other Poskim brought above] Or that there are witnesses that he was told orally unlike that which was signed. [Aruch Hashulchan 45:5]

[8] Shut Reb Betzalel Ashkenazi 24, author of Shita Mekubetzes; Yabia Omer E.H. 3:13

[9] Admur ibid “Even if he does not know anything”

[10] So is implication of all rulings of Michaber ibid and Teshuvas Haramban, unlike the implications of Rama ibid and Rashba ibid

[11] See Mishneh Halachos ibid where he used the above leniency of Anan Sahadi to invalidate a Shtar Borerus; Article of Rav Sharman in Techumin ibid

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