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  • Writer's pictureJudge Michael Donio

Ask the Judge: Is a handshake binding?

Is a handshake binding? Or is only a written contract binding?

Normally, an oral agreement, if proven to the satisfaction of the court would be binding. However, there are certain exceptions to that rule.

The most notable exceptions are contracts to transfer or sell land contracts that relate to the subject of marriage, contracts to sell goods that are worth $500 or more, and contracts that cannot be completely finished during the one year after signing of the contract. Those types of matters require the contract to be in writing. However, all other types of matters require the contract to be enforceable by a court of law if proven by a preponderance of the evidence. I do not recommend oral or handshake contracts at any time. They are hard to enforce and usually comes down to the credibility of the person who is asserting the contract. If, on the other hand, you put all agreements or contracts in writing, you can never go wrong when you have the adequate proof of its execution. People can always avoid legal fees and court costs by being very cautious when they enter into any type of agreement. It doesn’t have to be anything prepared by a lawyer or formal as long as it is properly written out and signed and hopefully witnesses by someone on behalf of both parties, a court will no problem in enforcing that.

Like I said, oral contracts may in fact, come down to the person’s believability.

Better to always get it in writing.

Can you describe what being on a jury is like?

I always get conflicted out. It seems fascinating.

While I cannot tell you from personal experience since I have never sat on a jury, I can tell you what I have heard from other jurors when I would always speak to them at the end of a case. When I say that I have never been picked on a jury, that does not mean I did not report for jury duty even when I was a judge. There is nothing to prohibit a judge from being selected as a juror. However, lawyers were always reluctant to leave a sitting or even a retired judge on a jury panel and we would always get excused. The thought might be that the judge or former judge may control the jury panel and that the other jurors would feel hesitant to speak up. I am not really sure if that is the only reason. In speaking with jurors, many of them told me that they were reluctant to come to the courthouse to be picked as a juror but once they were picked, they were very happy that they did it. It gave them a better understanding of the legal system, the proofs that go into every case and the awesome duty placed upon a jury to get the right verdict. They all told me that they felt a great sense of responsibility and relief after they rendered their verdict. Many jurors who found people guilty of murders, when I was sitting in the criminal division described it as an awesome feeling of control and effect on the legal system. Most of the jurors that would speak with me were very much aware of the consequence of their actions and took their job very seriously.

I have always said that the American jury system is not perfect, but it is perhaps the greatest system for justice that we have going. To be judged by a jury of your own peers is much more satisfying most of the time to litigants than putting that decision solely in the hands of a judge. However, many people waive a jury and decide to have what is called a bench trial with the judge for numerous reasons. Usually, it was because the case is very technical and law sensitive issue to be decided.

However, the jury system does work in this country a majority of the time.

Judge Michael Donio served as a New Jersey State Superior Court Judge for 20 years before retiring on July 31, 2015. He now operates a legal consulting and mediation firm on the White Horse Pike. Donio can be reached by calling (609) 481-2919. Send your questions for his columns to


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