Words are slippery.
My father never went to law school. He worked as an English professor for 39 years. To the best of my knowledge, he never went to trial, and I suspect he never set foot in a courtroom. But he gave me one of the best legal gems I’ve ever run across, which is this: “Words are slippery.”
There’s no flash, no glamour to that sentence. But it drives right to the heart of the matter.
These days, attorneys sometimes refer to this concept as “He said, she said.” In other words, it can be hard to prove just what was said in a given transaction. When words are spoken, and one party relies on those words, then problems can result if the person who spoke the words denies them after circumstances have changed. Sometimes memories fade. Sometimes people just aren’t honest. Sometimes people weaken and bend when an economic opportunity arises, but previously spoken words get in the way.
We’ve all seen it. People make promises to each other, and then when payday comes, it can be just too expensive or difficult to stand by the promise. It can be very, very difficult, or very, very expensive to stand by some promises.
This problem isn’t new. It goes clear back to the dawn of recorded history. One of the earliest recorded frauds is found in the Bible at Genesis chapter 29, where a bait and switch fraud involving a marriage is described in some detail.
The problem of broken promises, or fabricated promises, has a rich history in the laws of America and England. Part of this history is reflected in a law commonly known as the “Statute of Frauds.” This law provides, in part, that an oral agreement to sell real estate is unenforceable unless the promise is written. This means that an oral promise to sell a house or other real estate to someone may be completely unenforceable even though the oral promise was actually made.
The Statute of Frauds has many exceptions, and application of that law can be difficult and quite complex. The best rule of thumb is that person who buy real estate should always use a written contract. An even better rule of thumb is that such buyers would do well to have their contracts reviewed by an attorney.