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A Definition of Consideration

15 January, 2016 - 09:32

Consideration is said to exist when the promisor receives some benefit for his promise and the promisee gives up something in return; it is the bargained-for price you pay for what you get. That may seem simple enough. But as with much in the law, the complicating situations are never very far away. The “something” that is promised or delivered cannot be just anything, such as a feeling of pride, warmth, amusement, or friendship; it must be something known as a legal detriment—an act, forbearance, or a promise of such from the promisee. The detriment need not be an actual detriment; it may in fact be a benefit to the promisee, or at least not a loss. The detriment to one side is usually a legal benefit to the other, but the detriment to the promisee need not confer a tangible benefit on the promisor; the promisee can agree to forego something without that something being given to the promisor. Whether consideration is legally sufficient has nothing to do with whether it is morally or economically adequate to make the bargain a fair one. Moreover, legal consideration need not even be certain; it can be a promise contingent on an event that may never happen. Consideration is a legal concept, and it centers on the giving up of a legal right or benefit.

Consideration has two elements. The first, as just outlined, is whether the promisee has incurred a legal detriment—given up something, paid some “price,” though it may be, for example, the promise to do something, like paint a house. (Some courts—although a minority—take the view that a bargained-for legal benefit to the promisor is sufficient consideration.) The second element is whether the legal detriment was bargained for: did the promisor specifically intend the act, forbearance, or promise in return for his promise? Applying this two-pronged test to the three examples given at the outset of the chapter, we can easily see why only in the second is there legally sufficient consideration. In the first, Lou incurred no legal detriment; he made no pledge to act or to forbear from acting, nor did he in fact act or forbear from acting. In the third example, what might appear to be such a promise is not really so. Betty made a promise on a condition that Lou comes to her house; the intent clearly is to make a gift.


Consideration is—with some exceptions—a required element of a contract. It is the bargained-for giving up of something of legal value for something in return. It serves the purposes of making formal the intention to contract and reducing rash promise making.


  1. Alice promises to give her neighbor a blueberry bush; the neighbor says, “Thank you!” Subsequently, Alice changes her mind. Is she bound by her promise?
  2. Why, notwithstanding its relative antiquity, does consideration still serve some useful purposes?
  3. Identify the exchange of consideration in this example: A to B, “I will pay you $800 if you paint my garage.” B to A, “Okay, I’ll paint your garage for $800.”