Handshake, Contract or Click Here to Accept?
By Julie Reardon
Once upon a time, a person’s word was as good as his signature on a contract, or clicking an acceptance box on a computer screen. Especially in rural communities, most goods and services changed hands without any formal agreements and disputes rarely ended up in court. Truthfully, we’ve probably all conducted business with no formal written agreement and as long as the parties to the deal are honorable, no contract was needed. Indeed, many animals from livestock, to horses, dogs and cats are sold or adopted without them and yes, adoption is essentially a sale since money almost always changes hands, whether it’s euphemistically called an adoption fee or a donation.
Should you have a contract when you buy or sell an animal? For practical reasons, they offer protection to both buyer and seller because animals are property and most disputes that end up in court are essentially property or payment disputes. A contract need not be in writing; courts have ruled that oral agreements are enforceable and any contract must have the three major components: offer, acceptance and consideration. Having it in writing provides better protection for all parties as if an oral agreement results in a dispute it can lead to a he said/she said impasse that becomes harder to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
With the purchase of an animal, whether dog, cat, horse or livestock, it’s imperative to research and learn about the person and the animals they breed and/or sell and find out if their philosophy aligns with what you want. From a chicken you plan to add to your flock that you expect to be free of contagious diseases, to a proven show horse that allows you to compete at a high level, you will rely on trust. Sadly, some people will lie to get what they want, and the proliferation of scammers and rip off artists are an unfortunate fact of nearly every market. These groups prey and profit from emotionally driven buyers and sellers, as is often the case with animals. Look for references as well as a willingness to provide them, and seek someone who treats people the way they’d want to be treated themselves. Trust your instincts and don’t be in a hurry to sign a contract if you have not read it carefully and do not understand or question any of its provisions. It’s never wrong to ask for time to think it over or have your deal reviewed by an attorney or specialist.
Remember too, that a purchase offer with or without a written agreement, is not a binding contract and an offer can be withdrawn at any time before it is accepted. This applies to both buyers and sellers. Once accepted by both parties and accompanied by consideration (money and/or conditions) it becomes a contract of sale. Example: a breeder is selling puppies for $2,500 and offers the buyer a discount of $700 for a sale price of $1,800 in exchange for the buyer showing or running field trials with the dog. The discount is offered because titles on a dog add value to a breeding program that ultimately benefit the breeder in a way a pet-only dog cannot. If the reduced price offer is not accepted it is not binding nor a contract agreement since it lacks two of the three components of a contract: acceptance and consideration. Nor is an offer that was not accepted in any part of any later agreement the parties may make. If a buyer offers $2,200 for a $2,500 puppy and the buyer accepts, that becomes a binding contract as long as buyer actually pays the agreed-on price. The buyer then has no obligation to train or run the dog in trials unless that is included in the written contract.
Often breeders of dogs and occasionally even horses will sell their animals at low or even no cost if the buyer has a proven track record of winning competitions and adding titles; it is good advertising for the breeder/seller and affords visibility in niche markets. These agreements almost always include the breeder retaining breeding rights and return of the animal (part of the consideration) if it does not work out to avoid a person with no intentions of honoring a commitment flipping or profiting off of a free or greatly reduced sale price.
Likewise, vague requirements that a dog be returned to the breeder/seller may not be enforceable, but it’s never wise to assume. Returning the dog can, however, be part of a binding contract dictated by other clauses in the contract such as a health guarantee or a properly worded right of first refusal; these will contain specific start and end dates. A right of first refusal protects both buyer and breeder as in the case of a dog that becomes worth more than the puppy price, the party that had the dog and trained it to a higher value than it was worth as an unproven puppy is treated as fairly as the breeder/original owner. Health guarantees provide for refund or exchange in the event of a genetic or preventable unsoundness covered by the contract.
Adopting a dog where money changes hands is in fact a sale with even a modest adoption fee. It’s usually accompanied by a contract and all adoption contracts should be carefully read before signing, as many do not transfer ownership of the pet. A sharp rise in retail sales of so-called rescue dogs by for-profit adoption groups bear careful scrutiny and research. Some of these even sell animals obtained by seizure from hapless owners accused of false or exaggerated claims of abuse or negligence. In addition to retaining ownership, many of these rescue/adoption contracts contain onerous provisions allowing unannounced entry/inspection of your property without your consent as well as seizure and asset forfeiture without due process. You can be accused, tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, before you ever get to court, of animal cruelty for mud or dirt on the animal, dogs’ toenails that are not grossly overgrown, but need a trim, or a variety of other trivial things that happen when you own dogs, cats or livestock.
Buyer or adoptive owner beware. If you cannot meet the person and/or animal live and in person and are doing business online, make sure to include at least one phone call. If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.