There is a remarkable difference between black-letter contract laws of the United States and England. In England, the existence of a contract is supposedly conditioned on the parties’ intent to be legally bound, while section 21 of the Second Restatement of Contracts states that “[n]either real nor apparent intention that a promise be legally binding is essential to the formation of a contract.” There are also differences within U.S. law on the issue. While section 21 describes courts’ approach to most contracts, the parties’ intent to contact can be a condition of validity of preliminary agreements, domestic agreements and social arrangements, reporters’ promises of confidentiality to sources, and gratuitous promises.
This Article develops an analytic framework for evaluating these rules and examines their relationship to the broader principles that animate contract law. Rules that condition contractual liability on proof of contractual intent must include rules for interpreting that intent. Those interpretive rules will include both interpretive defaults and rules for what it takes to opt-out of the default. By adjusting these default and opt-out rules, the law can achieve different balances between the duty-imposing and power-conferring functions of contract law, or among the various reasons for enforcement. This is demonstrated by an analysis of the rules for gratuitous promises, preliminary agreements, spousal agreements and reporters’ confidentiality promises. The results of that analysis include a new argument for the Model Written Obligations Act; a critique of Alan Schwartz and Robert Scott’s proposal preliminary agreements and a recommended alternative to it; and recommended changes to the rules for agreements between spouses. Attention to intent to contract requirements also indicates an overlooked aspect of how the enforcement of contracts affects extralegal norms and relationships of trust. Interpretive rules that require parties who want, or who do not want, legal liability expressly to say so are particularly likely to interfere with or erode extralegal forms trust that otherwise create value in transactions.