Is there a term describing a document that doesn't need to be signed in order to be valid?

Edit after several answers and comments: An electronic banking system can generate documents for a user to print. Some of these documents have a note at the bottom saying 'Generated by an electronic system of bank XXX. (This) document doesn't need a signature'. For a layman like me these documents are 'something in between' a document provided by a bank and signed by a bank employee and a printout of a screenshot made by user. I need to refer to this document 'type' and I was wondering if there is some (legal) word to call it.

  • Well, I doubt that it would be a "legal document".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 21:42
  • I've seen several documents with notes saying 'Doesn't need a signature'. Perhaps such documents are uncommon in English-speaking countries. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 21:57
  • 1
    The question is too broad. What do you mean by valid? Is a restaurant menu valid? If you can tell us what you're talking about and supply a context, we can probably better answer. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 8:30
  • Amended my answer. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 10:27

4 Answers 4


The simple answer


A legal perspective

You asked

Is there a term describing a document that doesn't need to be signed in order to be valid?

A lawyer, doing a legal analysis of this issue, would focus on the legal meanings of the words document, signed, and valid. If you pay the lawyer by the hour, the answer will be at least 100-pages long. If you pay the lawyer a flat fee, the answer will likely be similar to,

The legal definition of "documents" is extremely broad beginning with the invention of new technologies such as analogue audio recordings and digital electronic records. The legal definition of "signed" includes many actions other than the plain-English definition of a real person physically writing the person's name on paper. Whether a document is "valid" depends on the context of the document's use. There is no word or phrase that describes what you are asking. In fact, because of the three issues, above, there is no word or phrase, in law, that would properly describe "a document that needs to be signed in order to be valid."

A plain-English perspective

I am unaware of a word or phrase in American English, except for highly specific contexts, that describes a document that must be signed to be valid other than, "a document that must be signed to be valid." Similarly, there is not a word or phrase for the more complex idea of a document that does not need a signature to be valid.

Form follows function

Words are tools we use to accomplish tasks.

In a world dominated by automobiles, for example, the English language has an abundance of commonly used, well-known words: car, sedan, truck, van, bus, motor coach, taxi, limousine, shuttle, and more. In the world without automobiles, but dominated by horses, there were many words that are no longer well-known to the general population: bit, curb bit, snaffle bit, bit shanks, hackamore, Liverpool bit, and more.

If a general word existed to describe documents that are valid only if signed, contemporary speakers of English would rarely need to accomplish tasks by using that word or the opposite of that word. If I am visiting Washington, D.C., however, and I need an automobile to go have dinner with the president or if I need an automobile to take me to the hospital, it is useful to have words such as ambulance, bus, taxi, and limousine to help me with the task of communicating exactly what I want.

Conclusion: No, such a word is impossible in a strictly legal context and it is unnecessary for contemporary life.

Addendum to address author's edit

The author of the question has provided an example: a bank printout that is official but explicitly states it does not need a signature. The author's example helps illustrate my answer, above, and does not change my answer.

In Anglo-American law, the fact that the document itself demonstratively originated from the bank, because of things such as the letterhead, it is "signed" by the bank. Because this is an English language forum and not a law forum, I will not fully explain 500 years of Anglo-American contract law and the law of evidence about why a court would absolutely rule that the document had been "signed" by the bank.

The bank's helpful note that it does not need to be signed is for non-lawyers who might be worried about the document's ability to persuade other non-lawyers (or non-bankers) of its veracity.

  • According to contract law, the answer is yes. However, many lawyers require clients to go the extra mile, to avoid the complication, ambiguity and complexity in proving the legally acceptable contract-sustaining events (such as verbal agreement, handshake, spilling blood in a bowl, etc ) having taken place, with a clear-cut action of signatures. And thus misunderstand that other forms of contract-sustaining events if provable to have occurred, are not valid instruments of contractual agreement. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 9:58
  • According to Anglo-American contract law, the answer is as I wrote above. I was using my own voice in that hypothetical answer: I graduated in the top 3% of my law school class and I received an A in Contract Law. Furthermore, I have a certificate in International and Comparative Law, and I am unaware of any legal system or treaty that defines such a term. As form follows function, I cannot imagine a need for the term in law. We already have an excellent word: evidence. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 10:14

It depends what you mean by valid?

If you mean having legal effect, there are many documents that are valid without signature. Warranties by companies do not have formal signatures, but they are binding. Even advertisements may bind a company.

Oral agreements can be binding in many cases, with no writing whatsoever. However a writing may be evidence of an agreement, and may be binding, even if it is not technically signed.

Some agreements need a writing to be valid (enforceable), but they may not need a formal signature. A letterhead or some other indication of the source of the writing may be enough. This is related to the legal concept of statute of frauds (which is really a statute against frauds).

And, yes, some documents need signatures, and sometimes they even need those signatures to be notarized (witnessed by an official). It very much depends on the document.

But, as the above might indicate, we are talking about legal issues and definitions rather than common English definitions. This discussion is probably off topic.

  • 1
    A legal contract can be either express (written) or implied (by people's actions). What is essential is that there be evidence of an 'offer' by one party, and an 'acceptance' by another. That is the position under English Common Law.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 22:20
  • @WS2 I tried to be restrained, but if we start going there, we will have a 40 hour course in contracts, explicit and implied, not to speak of the 25 hour digression into commercial paper and 30 more for sales and secured transactions. Do we really want to go there? (Not to speak of the variations between US/UK/civil law).
    – bib
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 22:26
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    And that there is no such thing as UK civil law. There is English Common Law and there is Scots Law.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:20
  • @WS2 That's why there is a slash separating them - never the twain shall meet.
    – bib
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:30
  • In engineering school, I had to study contract law. A contract can be a verbal agreement, or any verified and provable form of agreement. One of the legally accepted means of agreement is the transaction of money. That is why the undercover police would nab you as a sex-trade customer only after you have handed money over to the undercover police. That is why, when someone gifts you a car, you should insist on paying at least $1 on the car as proof of transaction. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 8:12

Since the word sign comes with too many aliases to its meaning, let us "thesaurically" find a less aliased word. The possible words are ...

  • authenticate
  • ratify
  • concur
  • consent
  • assent
  • affirm
  • acknowledge
  • validate

Let us say that it is a legal document that affirms mutual interests of the parties involved. We could call such a document an affirming document.

And ... that affirmation does not need to be acknowledged, or does not need to be acknowledged by signing but by simply reading it.

The other dimension you would need to look at is described by these words

  • implied
  • tacit

Therefore, the terminology you wish to construct could be one of

  • non-ratifying acknowledgement document
  • non-ratifying affirmation document
  • non-ratifying acknowledged document
  • tacitly acknowledged document

The complete phrase that would describe the state of affairs is

  • non-ratifying but tacitly acknowledged/affirmed document

Which is a mouthful. Since your question is too generic, without specifics, I could simply recommend using one of the following to suit your specific situations.

  • tacitly ratified/acknowledged/approved/affirmed/validated document.

In the commercial realm, you may encounter

  • Absence of response is tacit acknowledgement of the following known defects, in the product you are purchasing.
  • Reading this document is tacit acknowledgement of the rights and responsibilities stated in the document that you have as a tenant.
  • Non-acknowledgement is tacit agreement to the terms stated in this document.

tacit (ˈtæsɪt)

  1. implied or inferred without direct expression; understood: a tacit agreement.
  2. (Law) created or having effect by operation of law, rather than by being directly expressed
    [C17: from Latin tacitus, past participle of tacēre to be silent]

tacitly adv ˈtacitness n

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

  • There is often a tacit conspiracy confronting newbie employees in the tacit old boys' club in an office. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 8:02
  • Of the words you suggested, all of the following are either terms of art with precise definitions or widely used legal terms with meanings that are distinct from its synonyms: authenticate, ratify, consent, assent, affirm, validate, implied, and tacit. Constructing a phrase using any of these words will necessarily limit the scope of the phrase to the meanings of the constituent words. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 10:34

I think 'Pro forma' can be used. Free dictionary says 'Provided in advance so as to prescribe form or describe items: a pro forma copy of a document.'

  • "Pro forma" is already widely used in legal contexts by lawyers and non-lawyers. We even have sub-types of and idioms for pro-forma documents; see, for example, "boilerplate." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Using pro-forma for the above author's idea would be confusing. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 10:37
  • investopedia.com/terms/p/pro-forma-invoice.asp - A pro forma invoice differs from a simple price quotation in that it is usually considered a binding agreement, despite the fact that, like a price quote, the terms of sale are subject to change. The key thing in the question asked is 'that doesn't need to be signed' to be valid. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 12:11

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