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What’s in a Signature? Sign in the Dotted Line

Autograph, signature, imprimatur, John Hancock—they all mean essentially the same thing. We sign so many things as we go about our daily lives that it hardly seems like our signature even matters. Can you even remember the last thing that you signed? Was it a check? A credit card receipt? Maybe a Valentines Day card? Well, whatever it was, you should know that your signature does matter, and you should use it carefully.

Generally, we sign things so that they can be authenticated later. This is why magicians will sometimes have a participant from the audience sign something, such as a playing card, that will seemingly be destroyed and then restored. In the legal context, a signature can be used to authenticate a document, such as a contract, so that it can be referenced as evidence of previously agreed upon terms. When photostatic copying machines became available, most lawyers began insisting that documents be signed in blue ink, so that the original could be distinguished from a photostatic copy, which were usually black and white in the early days of the technology. However, these days, color copies can be so accurate that distinguishing an original from a copy can be virtually impossible. Today, if you truly want to distinguish an original from a copy, you may need to use ink infused with your blood or DNA; which, believe it or not, several companies could make for you. Nevertheless, the custom of signing things in blue ink is still prevalent among lawyers.

Oddly, it usually doesn’t matter where you sign something, but the law may sometimes require a document to be signed in a particular place — typically at the bottom. For example, in some states, a will is not valid unless it is “subscribed,” i.e., signed at the bottom, by the person making the will, known as the “testator.” Obviously, signing something at the bottom is intended to prevent additional text from being added to the document after it is signed.

And what about the signature itself? Is it required to be in a particular form? We generally think of our signature as being our name, whether legible or not, but in most cases, you could sign something with a doodle if you wish. The general rule is that your signature is anything that you intend to be your signature. In his book Prank the Monkey, Sir John Hargrave recounts a quest he once went on to see how ridiculous and elaborate he could make his signature before being called out for it. It’s worth a read if you want to know how far he went with it; there are pictures.

Electronic signatures are a relatively new concept in the law, which some people may find somewhat unsettling, especially because the law sometimes permits the signature to by typed rather than “drawn.” For example, the Texas Supreme Court recently amended the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure to allow a document that is electronically served, filed, or issued by a court or clerk to be considered signed if the document includes a “/s/” and name typed in the space where the signature would otherwise appear, unless the document is notarized or sworn. But if the purpose of your signature is for you to be able to recognize and identify it later, what use is there in allowing the signature to be typed? Perhaps the concept of electronic signatures is more a matter of ceremony than of authentication, with authentication being achievable through metadata and the so-called “digital paper trail.”

There’s much more that can be said about signatures, such as when someone else can sign for you and when your signature must be countersigned by someone else. For something so simple and that we do countless times a year, volumes could be written about the humble signature. Nevertheless, I’ll be signing off now, but without actually signing anything.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our commercial and business litigation practice can be found here.

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