Playing Games With the Date Next to the Signature

Having parties to a contract date their signatures makes sense when there’s a lag time between when the first party signs and the last party signs. And some auditors are requiring that their clients use dated signatures in all their contracts.

But dating signatures can be a nuisance. As I noted in this November 2008 blog post, one problem is that parties sometimes return signed signature pages without filling in the date next to the signature.

Here’s another potential problem: what if the person signing puts in a date other than the date when they signed? Or they sign and date the contract but wait a few days before returning it? In either case, the result could be that the contract is given a date that is different from the date that would have been used if the person signing had put in the actual date and promptly returned the signature page. This could be more of a nuisance than playing games with the date in the introductory clause—the date you use in the introductory clause is something the parties have to agree on, whereas someone signing a contract has unfettered discretion to give their signature whatever date they want.

I have no idea whether this is a real issue. But the simplest fix would be to use a signature-automation solution such as EchoSign or DocuSign.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

16 thoughts on “Playing Games With the Date Next to the Signature”

  1. Writing an incorrect date, or leaving the signature undated can create issues – including potential criminal liability. For example, FCPA requires public companies to keep accurate records.

    One notorious vendor with whom we dealt wanted to use an “effective as of” date in the previous fiscal quarter and leave the signatures undated (apparently so it could recognize income from the contract in the previous quarter). When the DOJ later came knocking in an investigation of that vendor, we were glad we enforced a policy requiring that all contract signatures be dated the actual date they were signed.

    I’ve seen contracts that state they become effective on the date of the last signature – yet none of the signature blocks is ever dated.

    Despite these issues, I’ve seen plenty of contracts where some or all of the spaces for the signers’ names titles and signature dates were left blank.

    And incidentally, you can use Adobe Acrobat to create dated digital signatures. You can find more information here.

  2. @Jim Brashear — Computer Associates, Inc., used to backdate contracts all the time; they jokingly referred to their 35-day months in the last month of the quarter. Their CEO is serving 12 years in prison; if memory serves, their CFO and GC, among other executives, were also imprisoned.

    My contracts usually say they’re effective the last date signed, as you mention. If none of the signers dates his/her signature, and the effective date ever becomes an issue, you can probably use extrinsic evidence (e.g., transmittal letters/emails) to prove up a latest-possible-date.

    In some contracts, I’ll say that the effective date is the date of the customer’s signature, but only once both parties have signed.

    But the date line in my signature blocks normally say “Date signed,” not merely “Date” — that gives the accountants information they need for determining when to recognize revenue.

  3. I think backdating and forward dating can be treated quite differently. Backdating a signature is essentially fraudulent unless you can somehow show that the agreement simply records a pre-existing oral contract (which is unlikely to be the case). I think Ken’s example of signing and dating, then waiting, then returning the contract, is a form of backdating (albeit one that might be done innocently) as the terms were not agreed to until the contract was returned, and it is the date of agreement that matters, not when pen was put to paper.

    Forward dating is less of an issue. If a party puts a future date on a signature and passes it to the other side, that shows that he wants his agreement to be considered to be made as of the future date – there is no contract until then, and the acceptance can be withdrawn in the meantime. A similar thing can be done with written board resolutions. If a party signs and, without communicating anything to the other side, waits a day or two, then dates as of the later date, that again presents no problems.

    I think the only issue with forward dating would be if a party sent its signature back on one date (i.e. you have actually formed the contract) and subsequently tried to write in a later date. I have never seen it happen, or proposed.

    As for an undated signature, if the date is important I will date it myself – but never to a date before I saw it circulated on email.

  4. Art: I think that putting a future date next to your signature is a really bad idea. You’re sending mixed signals, because the fact is that you’re signing, dating, and returning the signature page now, not on that future date.

    So if you want certain rights and obligations to kick in on some future date, ensure that the contract says as much and date your signature the date you sign.

    If you don’t want the contract to become a valid contract until that later date, don’t return your signature until that date.


  5. I was thinking more in terms of legality, and having the tax authorities knocking on your door – but you’re absolutely right, there is rarely a good reason for it.

  6. This is an interesting thread. What we’ve seen at EchoSign is that these issues – which are very important ones — mostly wither away once you have a trusted third party that dates contracts. For our customers, it’s particular relevant for sales/revenue contracts where the date is 100% tied to revenue recognition. Once the date is simply applied by the eletronic signature vendor, these debates, questions — and in some cases, games — simply end.

    Interestingly, we’ve seen that third party dating also changes another standard practice which is “who signs first”. Traditionally, the party with power in the contract or NDA would sign last. However, if the document is immutable there is no risk it will be modified by the first party, and especially if it’s tied to revenue recognition, the “big co” tends to sign first, so that they can recognize revenue the second the customer signs, and not have any temporal gaps until countersignature that would delay rev rec.

  7. There is a practice none have mentioned. Having the first signing party send a PDF or fax of the signature page (for long distance this beats couriers which can sometimes take 5 days – even on overnight). The final signing party then signs the pdf or fax copy. Then once the originals arrive it is simply a matter of re-signing with the previously recorded date (keeping both sets of signatures in the archive file just-in-case).

    I’ve found that India, China and Japan will not use electronic signatures in any form.

  8. Art said “Backdating a signature is essentially fraudulent unless you can somehow show that the agreement simply records a pre-existing oral contract (which is unlikely to be the case).”

    I disagree. “[B]ackdating is essentially fraudulent” is not the cut-and-dry rule that seems implied. There are good, valid and legal reasons for backdating contracts. For example, and I’m sure any corporate lawyer has encountered this more times than we’d like to recount: many times companies working under a pre-existing MSA will “discover” suddenly that the MSA has expired months before and did not contain an automatic renewal. In either doing an Amendment to the prior MSA or putting a new MSA in place the effective dating is generally set as the expiration date of the prior MSA which passed months before – for good reason to provide predictability and security to both sides. No fraud is involved.

    Indeed in cleaning up my office today I came across the Aug 2008 issue of Business Lawyer, which contains an article “Backdating” available here on SSRN ( that starts:

    “Backdating is a much misunderstood and largely unexplored subject. *** To the layman, backdating connotes wrongdoing. The propriety of backdating, however, depends upon its purpose and effect. Every lawyer should be capable of distinguishing legitimate backdating from improper backdating. Unfortunately, the dividing line is often far from clear.”

  9. Rich: I agree that “fraudulent” is a bit strong, because often enough no one is in a position to claim that they’ve been harmed by backdating. But backdating takes liberties with the truth. Taking your example, the fact is that if an MSA has terminated, it’s dead and gone and can’t be extended. Instead, you need a new contract. It might be expedient to dissemble by backdating, but why not simply say in the new MSA exactly what happened? If you’re unwilling to live with the gap, perhaps because the gap would give a nonparty rights that they otherwise wouldn’t have, then backdating the new MSA would in fact be fraudulent. Ken

  10. Ken: Good points. Backdating, as in my example, does conduct a legal fiction that the prior contract was in force throughout. And the new MSA or amendment could recount reasons for the dating (and on occasion does), though in such circumstances each party is often chagrined that neither caught the expiration.

    However, your point as to potential third or non-party rights (e.g. subcontractors, etc) is a serious issue that must be carefully considered in any such practice, and backdating under such circumstances where non-party rights were curtailed or imperiled – even unintentionally – would rise to level of improper conduct and potential fraud.

    But where as in a typical service agreement with the contract solely between the signing parties the backdating serves to memorialize the actual intent and ongoing conduct of the parties (who were each working up until the discovery of the expiration as if the prior contract had been still valid). In such cases “backdating” with the full knowledge and ascent of the parties for no “beneficial” gain other than to provide continuity and permit quick continuation/resumption of services (assuming of course no other issues/regulations/statutes apply) can not be said to raise to any level of misconduct.

    Indeed, rather than evidence of active “dissembling” it’s frequently merely a case of innocuous “saving face” on both sides – with the proviso that the “effective as of” date reflects the earlier “back” date, while the signature dates make clear when the Amendment/new contract was executed to provide needed disclosure.

    As the Backdating article I referenced earlier notes: “backdating, even in its most benign form, can potentially mislead a court or some other third party into believing a document was executed on an earlier date. To mitigate this possibility, backdating should always be disclosed. Part III examines the impact of disclosure and analyzes two disclosure methods; namely, identifying the date the document was executed and utilizing “as of” dating.”

  11. Rick:
    Sounds like what you refer to as “backdating” is not the backdating of actual signatures, but rather using an “effective date” as the date that contractual obligations begain. If the signatures contain the actual date that the parties signed then it is unclear where the fraud would occur in the contract (of course if one party realized the revenue as of the effective date and not of the signature date, that would be an issue).

  12. Hello, as a Mexican lawyer I am truly amazed of the importance you guys in the US give to the backdating issue… being franc, backdating is a common practice in Mexico, in fact, it is not customary for drafters to include a “date” line below the signature of each party’s representative… we usually just date the contract and that’s it… the date the parties agree to use will be, for legal purposes, the date when rights and obligations are born for the parties…

    I used to work in the mexican branch of an american company and most of the mexican offices and managers couldn’t understand all the big fuzz about the dates in the papers…

    I can almost be sure no one has ever been imprisoned for backdating or forward-dating in Mexico…

    Best Regards.

    Jorge Mafud

  13. What if I needed someone else to sign something and they do but they leave the date blank? Is it then okay for me to put the date next to their signature for them as long as I know it’s the correct date?

  14. Slightly different twist. Agreement has an effective date of 10/1/15.
    We signed and dated on 10/9/15 and sent to customer. Customer sat on
    the agreement all this time (over 4 months), and just sent us a copy
    with just their signature on it, dated today (2/9/16). We can
    counter-sign, but what are the implications of having such a big gap
    between the effective date and when it is executed?


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