Not every contract need be in writing to be valid and binding on both parties. But nearly every state legislature has enacted a body of law that identifies certain types of contracts that must be in writing to be enforceable. In legal parlance this body of law is called the statute of frauds.
Named after a seventeenth-century English statute, the statute of frauds is designed to prevent a plaintiff from bringing an action for breach of contract based on a nonexistent agreement for which the only proof of the agreement is the plaintiff’s perjured testimony. The statue of frauds attempts to accomplish this objective by prohibiting the enforcement of particular contracts, unless the terms of the contract are expressly reflected by written note, memorandum, or agreement that is signed by the parties or their personal representatives.
As originally conceived, the statute of frauds applied to four types of contracts: (1) promises to pay a debt owed by another person; (2) promises to marry; (3) promises to perform an act that cannot possibly be performed within a year from that date of the promise; and (4) agreements involving real estate. However, most states have since expanded the class of contracts that must be in writing to be enforceable. For example, in many jurisdictions long term leases, insurance contracts, agreements for the sale of securities, and contracts for the sale of goods above a specified amount are unenforceable unless the terms of the parties’ agreement are memorialized in writing.