Capacity to contract means a party has the legal ability to enter into a contract. Capacity also means a person has to be competent as defined by law. Someone's capacity is determined by whether or not they have reached the age of majority and if they are mentally capable of understanding the applicable contract terms.

A contract must contain these six elements:

  • Offer
  • Acceptance
  • Consideration
  • Capacity
  • Intent
  • Legality

Who Doesn't Meet Criteria for Capacity

Some people lack the capacity to enter into a legally binding contract:

  • Minors: In general, anyone under 18 years old lacks capacity. If he or she does enter into a contract before they turn 18, there is usually the option to cancel while he or she is still a minor. There are some exceptions to this rule, however. Minors are allowed to enter into contracts for purchasing various necessities like clothing, food, and accommodations. Some states allow people under 18 to obtain bank accounts, which often carry strict terms and stipulations.
  • Mental Incapacitation: If a person is not cognitively able to understand his or her responsibilities and rights under the agreement, then they lack the mental capacity to form a contract. Many states define mental capacity as the ability to understand all terms of the contract, while a handful of others use a motivational test to discern whether someone suffers from mania or delusions.
  • Intoxication: Someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is generally believed to lack capacity. If someone voluntarily intoxicated themselves, the court may order the party to uphold the obligation. This is tricky because many courts have also agreed a sober party shouldn't take advantage of an intoxicated person.

Contracts made with people who don't have legal capacity are voidable. The other person has the right of rescission, the option to void the contract and all related terms and conditions. Courts may opt to void or rescind a contract if one of the parties lacked legal capacity. If the court voids the contract, it will attempt to put all parties back in the position they were in before the agreement, which may involve returning property or money when feasible.

Capacity of Companies

Companies also have to have capacity when entering into an agreement. If they don't, there can be serious consequences, particularly regarding guarantees. There are similarities across legal systems and jurisdictions when it comes to the general rules that govern the legal capacity of companies. For example, the legal theory that a business has a separate legal personality is recognized in both civil and common law jurisdictions. This means that as a defined legal person, a company has the capacity to enter into a contract with other parties and can be held liable for its actions.

Civil Law Countries

The United States isn't the only country that recognizes this legal concept. For example, France, a civil law country, has also adopted this idea. Legal capacity regarding entities was recently reformed by Ordinance n°2016-131, which went into effect in 2016. Under French Civil Code Article 1147, a company's lack of capacity is a grounds for relative nullity, a defense that can be invoked by the aggrieved party to void the contract. In this case, the aggrieved party would be the company. Furthermore, Article 1148 allows French companies who lack capacity to contract to legally enter into contracts that are day-to-day acts which are authorized by usage or legislation.

In Spain, there is a special relationship with church and state. As a result, the church is governed by elements of a specific concordat: Spanish Civil Code Article 37, which says that companies enjoy “civil capacity.”

Common Law Countries

In common law countries, a company's capacity is limited by the company's memorandum of association. This document contains the clause that describes the commercial activities the business is involved in, thereby delineating the company's capacity.

Under the ultra vires doctrine, a business cannot do anything beyond what is allowed by its statement of objects. The ultra vires doctrine was initially seen as a necessary measure to protect a company's shareholders and creditors. This doctrine gave rise to what's known as the constructive notice rule, which states that any third party that entered into a contract with another company must have been knowledgeable of that business's objects clause.

If you need help with what capacity to contract means, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel only accepts the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.