Two Signatures Not Required: New Tennessee Supreme Court Decision Finds Personal Guarantees will be Enforced by Their Clear Text

Lately (i.e. in this economy), I’m constantly fighting over the enforceability of personal guarantees.

A personal guarantee is an agreement by which a third party agrees to personally repay another person’s/corporation’s debt. When a corporate entity doesn’t have a credit history or sufficient assets, a lender will generally ask for an individual to personally guarantee the debt. Creditors, obviously, want guarantees, because more parties obligated to repay your debt increases your chances for repayment. If a creditor files a lawsuit, it can obtain a judgment for the debt against all of the guarantors.

With the rise in defaults, guarantors are getting sued more than ever before. Their only defense is to attack the guarantee, and, as a result, the text of these agreements is constantly being tested. A common issue relates to the signature line(s): if a corporation’s president signs a contract that contains guarantee language, does the president need to sign twice, both as “Bob Smith, President” and then a second time as “Bob Smith?”

In the past, the overwhelming outcome was that there needed to be two signatures–one from the President and one from the Individual.

So, in that context, you’ll understand why I liked the recent Tennessee Supreme Court case of 84 Lumber Company v. Bryan Smith (Dec. 12, 2011). There, the Supreme Court looked only at the text of the contract. That text clearly said that the person signing the contract for the corporation was also personally obligating himself  to serve as the guarantor. When the text is crystal clear, it doesn’t matter that there is only one signature.

So, even though the only signature on the contract was by ““R. Bryan Smith, President,” the Court said “[t]he explicit and unambiguous language of the contract points to only one conclusion: Mr. Smith agreed to be personally responsible for the amounts due on the account.”

A good practice would still be to get two signatures, but, in light of this case, it’s certainly not fatal to only have one signature.

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