[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.