Getting Rid of the “Successors and Assigns” Provision

[Update June 17, 2013: Go here for the June 15, 2013 post about my article It's Time to Get Rid of the "Successors and Assigns" Provision.]

[Update April 12, 2013: For more recent posts about the "successors and assigns" provision, see "The 'Successors and Assigns' and Successor Liability" (here) and "The Illinois Appellate Court's Problematic Take on the Traditional Recital of Consideration and 'Successors and Assigns' Provisions" (here).]

A standard ingredient of contract boilerplate is the “successors and assigns” provision. Here’s what a run-of-the-mill successors and assigns provision looks like:

This agreement is binding upon, and inures to the benefit of, the parties and their respective permitted successors and assigns.

I’ve long considered the successors and assigns provision to be one of the abiding mysteries of contract drafting. After some research, I’ve decided to dispense with it. Allow me to explain why:

(For purposes of the following discussion, bear in mind that an assignment occurs when one party transfers to a nonparty its right to receive the other party’s performance. The transferring party is the “assignor”; the nonparty to whom the right is assigned is the “assignee”; and the party who must perform in favor of the assignee is the “nonassigning party.”)

When I want to research a contract provision that constitutes boilerplate, I generally start by consulting Negotiating and Drafting Contract Boilerplate (Tina L. Stark ed. 2003). That’s what I did in this case—it has a chapter devoted to the successors and assigns provision.

According to Tina’s book, the case law suggests that the successors and assigns provision could have up to five different functions. (That courts should have read so much into the successors and assigns provision suggests how problematic it is.) I list these ostensible functions below, along with my take on them.

1. To Bind an Assignee to Perform: According to Tina’s book, some courts have held that a successors and assigns provision in a contract binds the assignee of any rights under that contract to perform the assignor’s obligations under that contract. But such a holding is inconsistent with accepted law. Privity of contract dictates that whether the assignee assumes the assignor’s obligations would be a function of whether the assignee has agreed to do so. See 9-48 Corbin on Contracts § 871 (“But if the assignee is held to be bound by a legal duty to render the service, it will be because he expressed an intention to assume it when he took the assignment.”) The contract between the assignor and the nonassigning party would have no bearing on the issue, and a successors and assigns provision in that contract would be ineffective as a means of binding the assignee of any rights under that contract to perform the assignor’s obligations under that contract.

2. To Bind a Nonassigning Party: Tina’s book says that a second purpose of the successors and assigns provision is to restate common law to the effect that after an assignment, the nonassigning party is obligated to perform in favor of the assignee. This is indeed the common law. See 9-48 Corbin on Contracts § 870 (“The effectiveness of an assignment does not depend upon the assent of the obligor. If in other respects the assignment is good, his duty is now a duty to the assignee ….”). But why bother restating the common law? If a party is permitted to assign its rights under a contract, it’s obvious that the nonassigning party must perform in favor of the assignee—otherwise, being able to assign your rights would be of no value. Whereas it’s sometimes useful to state in a contract what would apply anyway—particularly when the parties might otherwise be unaware—doing so to this extent would seem excessive.

3. To Determine Whether Rights Are Assignable: Some courts have relied on the successors and assigns provision to determine whether a party may assign its rights under a contract. It’s standard practice to address that issue in a separate section; if you do so, you certainly wouldn’t need the inscrutable language of a successors and assigns provision, too. And if you don’t address assignment in a separate section, you’d be advised to dispense with the successors and assigns provision, lest a court look there for guidance on assignment.

4. To Determine Whether Performance Is Delegable: And some courts have relied on the successors and assigns provision to determine whether a party may delegate its obligations under a contract. The same considerations apply in this context as apply to the question of whether rights are assignable.

5. To Bind the Parties to the Contract: If you take at face value the traditional language of a successors and assigns provision, it indicates that the parties intend to be legally bound. Such a statement would be ineffective, as it isn’t a condition to enforceability of a contract that the parties have, or explicitly express, an intent to be legally bound. See MSCD 2.29 and Farnsworth on Contracts § 3.7.

So, to summarize, here’s what I think, from the drafter’s perspective, of the five ostensible functions of a successors and assigns provision: (1) ineffective; (2) too obvious; (3) wrong place to address this issue; (4) wrong place to address this issue; and (5) ineffective.

Tina’s book suggests that the problem with the traditional successors and assigns provision is that “the provision is so truncated that its objectives are veiled.” I, on the other hand, think that the problem is that it’s a provision without a useful purpose. That raises the question of how it has come to be a fixture in contracts.

Whenever you have a contract provision that serves no useful purpose and is incoherent to boot, somehow that helps ensure its survival—because drafters are unsure what function it serves, they’re loath to delete it. Take, for instance, the traditional recital of consideration—even though it serves no purpose (MSCD 2.63–71 and this article), you can still find it in a large proportion of contracts. I suggest that this phenomenon helps explain why the traditional successors and assigns provision hasn’t been put out of its misery.

Tina’s book offers an alternative successors and assigns provision, one that ostensibly “clarifies the provision’s purpose and application.” But the first two subsections of the alternative provision—the other two address ancillary matters—serve to perform two of the five ostensible functions described earlier in the chapter, namely functions 2 and 1, respectively. So while the alternative provision may serve to clarify its purpose, that’s of little use if one purpose would be to state the obvious and the other would be ineffective.

So you’d be better off omitting the successors and assigns provision from your drafting. It serves no useful purpose, it’s confusing, and its incoherence gives courts leeway to find in it what they want to find. And reworking it to make it clearer would only serve to make more apparent the lack of a useful purpose.

Posted in Selected Provisions | 17 Comments

  • Robert Sonenthal

    Let me suggest a possible purpose for the “successors and assigns” clause – a variation on #1: To assure that, if either party sells all or substantially all of its assets (or merges into another firm), the asset sale (or merger agreement) will include a clause specifically committing the purchaser (or successor-in-interest) to continue performing the contract.

    To be sure, the clause itself would have to be amended to make that purpose clear.

  • Ken Adams

    Robert: The provision you mention could indeed be a helpful one, but as you suggest you can’t possibly get there through the standard “successors and assigns” provision. Ken

  • http://www.chinasolutions.us Nestor Gounaris

    I had assumed (and now question) that ‘permitted successors’ addressed the issue of a contracting party changing legal form (e.g., changing from an LLC to an S-corp).

  • Ken Adams

    Nestor: Often the first words out of a drafter’s mouth after any drafting mishap are “I assumed ….” :-) Ken

  • Luis Oliveira

    Ken, I think your article focuses too much on the ‘assigns’ part of the clause.
    A possible context where the ‘successors and assigns’ clause may be meaningful is in mergers: the company (A) that is merged into another (B) ceases to exist and its contractual relationships devolve upon the the company it is merged into (B).
    This is not an assignment and is therefore outside the scope of the section where you define whether consent is required.
    I am not an American lawyer but this would be treated under the law applicable in my country (Portugal) as a ‘legal succession’ and the clause would therefore clarify that the other party to a contract with (A) that includes such clause keeps all rights and obligations vis-a-vis company B.
    Luis

  • Ken Adams

    Luis: You’re seeking to attribute to the “successors and assigns” provision a function that would be redundant for contract purposes: under state statutory law, if Company A merges into Company B, Company B automatically assumes all Company A’s obligations.

    And secondarily, as I explained in my original post, a contract between Company A and some other party would be an unpromising vehicle for imposing obligations on Company B.

    Ken

  • Bea Grossman

    Ken, I am very happy that I came across your article — I was actually researching this issue myself with respect to the scenario suggested above by Robert Sonenthal. In the matter I was recently working on there was a provision in a contract that was binding on the purchaser of a business and its “successors and assigns.” That party is now selling the business and the question was raised as to whether that provision would be binding on the new buyers in the context of an asset purchase agreement. In my view, the draftsman of the original contract may have had the intention of binding all future successors in interest, but this was not specified in the original contract. As you note in your response to Robert Sonenthal (which I agree with), I don’t see how you would be able to bind a future purchaser with the standard “successors and assigns” provision alone. Your article provided excellent authority in an area that most practioners do not stop to think about – thank you!

  • http://www.SkloverWorkingWisdom.com Al Sklover

    Ken,

    All of your points are all well-taken, rational and coherent; conceptually hard to argue with. That being said, I defer to what has worked, and continues to work, for me, which is the standard clause. Practicality is key to my practice. In my 25 years of law practice on behalf executives worldwide, I’ve found the standard successors-and-assigns clause, coupled with a cautionary reminder to general counsel of the employer that he/she should advise successors/assigns of this important obligation, or be potentially considered to have withheld material information, has gotten my clients where they want to go. In court, too, I’ve enforced the standard clause upon acquiring entities on a “knew or should have known with reasonable due diligence” argument. Though potentially rife with risks and imperfections, the standard clause invites universal acceptance, and generally works.

    Al Sklover, SkloverWorkingWisdom.com

  • Ken Adams

    Al: When you look at change from the perspective of the needs of any given lawyer, change can seem counterproductive, even downright scary: expedience is the order of the day. But I have the luxury of looking at change from a broader perspective, and in that context, all that matters is your suggestion that my points are conceptually hard to argue with. If we fix the language of business contracts, life will be much simpler for the next generation of lawyers. Ken

  • http://www.SkloverWorkingWisdom.com Al Sklover

    Ken,

    I’ve given careful consideration to your thoughts. Are we to accept that the highest purpose is simplicity for lawyers (our generation or the next)? Although it has been said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” it is not, to my mind, the ultimate purpose. I don’t think I find change to be either counterproductive or scary; rather, I do seek every possible advantage for my clients, actual or perceived, for they are often the same. I think the highest purpose of the law is the welfare of humankind, however messy, disorderly or complicated that may be.
    Al Sklover

  • Ken Adams

    Al: Making order out of chaos is certainly a noble endeavour, but not if the lawyer is the one making the mess. I see plenty of advantages, and no disadvantages, to eliminating a profoundly confused provision and accomplishing the client’s goals more directly. Ken

  • Jim

    Ken –

    Could not another purpose of the clause be to prevent the non-assigning party from arguing it has no contractual privity with a successor or assignee in an action by the assignee to enforce the contract? Especially where another boilerplate provision typically provides that there are no third party beneficiaries to the contract, it would seem the “inure to the benefit of” clause still has value here.

  • Ken Adams

    Jim: I believe that you’re referring to reason number 2 above. Ken

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  • http://www.mcrlawyers.com David P. Wilson

    What about the case where one or more of the parties to the agreement are individuals, one of the parties dies, the agreement does not contain the successors and assigns provision (is completely silent on this issue), and the agreement does contain a restrictive covenant (non-compete/non-solicit/non-disparagement) provision. Would the restrictive covenant be enforceable against the estate of the deceased party—even if the agreement otherwise terminates on the death of a party?

  • James

    And how does your suggestion gel with the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Ohio: Acordia of Ohio, L.L.C. v. Fishel, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-2297?

  • Big Bank Lawyer

    Hi Ken,

    I completely agree 100% with your posts and comments. I am a transactional attorney for a large bank (Big Bank) that recently acquired a smaller bank (Small Bank). Small Bank has a lot of master agreements with customers, and my documentation clients always ask me if it is ok to execute new schedules under Small Bank's master agreements. I always tell them yes, that we are now the party to that contract as successor to Small Bank. Imagine my surprise when I came across this article. I think this is just bad court decision, but don't you find it concerning? Would love to hear your thoughts.
    http://skloverworkingwisdom.com/blog/index.php/th