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Adequacy of Consideration

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

Scrooge offers to buy Caspar’s motorcycle, worth $700, for $10 and a shiny new fountain pen (worth $5). Caspar agrees. Is this agreement supported by adequate consideration? Yes, because both have agreed to give up something that is theirs: Scrooge, the cash and the pen; Caspar, the motorcycle. Courts are not generally concerned with the economic adequacy of the consideration but instead with whether it is present. As Judge Richard A. Posner puts it, “To ask whether there is consideration is simply to inquire whether the situation is one of exchange and a bargain has been struck. To go further and ask whether the consideration is adequate would require the court to do what…it is less well equipped to do than the parties—decide whether the price (and other essential terms) specified in the contract are reasonable.” 1 In short, “courts do not inquire into the adequacy of consideration.”

Of course, normally, parties to contracts will not make such a one-sided deal as Scrooge and Caspar’s. But there is a common class of contracts in which nominal consideration—usually one dollar—is recited in printed forms. Usually these are option contracts, in which “in consideration of one dollar in hand paid and receipt of which is hereby acknowledged” one party agrees to hold open the right of the other to make a purchase on agreed terms. The courts will enforce these contracts if the dollar is intended “to support a short-time option proposing an exchange on fair terms.” 2 If, however, the option is for an unreasonably long period of time and the underlying bargain is unfair (the Restatement gives as an example a ten-year option permitting the optionee to take phosphate rock from a widow’s land at a per-ton payment of only one-fourth the prevailing rate), then the courts are unlikely to hold that the nominal consideration makes the option irrevocable.

Because the consideration on such option contracts is nominal, its recital in the written instrument is usually a mere formality, and it is frequently never paid; in effect, the recital of nominal consideration is false. Nevertheless, the courts will enforce the contract—precisely because the recital has become a formality and nobody objects to the charade. Moreover, it would be easy enough to upset an option based on nominal consideration by falsifying oral testimony that the dollar was never paid or received. In a contest between oral testimonies where the incentive to lie is strong and there is a written document clearly incorporating the parties’ agreement, the courts prefer the latter. However, as Consideration for an Option , Board of Control of Eastern Michigan University v. Burgess, demonstrates, the state courts are not uniform on this point, and it is a safe practice always to deliver the consideration, no matter how nominal.