Why do some items on a legal document require initialing while others require a signature?

What’s the difference?

There are no fixed rules about this.

Any mark you make on a document for the purpose of identifying yourself and signifying your assent to and participation in whatever it is that the document effects can be a “signature” - even an ‘X’, as used by illiterate people. In some contexts, if the document is written on your own printed litterhead, that letter head can be a sufficient signature.

The convention is that we signify our assent/participation to whatever it is that the document effects by signing our names. For ancillary matters, like confirming our assent to changes or corrections made in handwriting, or confirming details that have been “filled in” in blank spaces, we often use initials. But this is a convention; there’s no written law anywhere that lays this down as a general rule, essential to validity.

Right. In a general sense, unless there is a specific statute requiring otherwise, a “signature” is simply a mark that a person places on a document with intent to agree to it. The intent is what matters - the form of the signature is irrelevant to validity. Where the form of the signature (e.g. whether it looks like your name) could be relevant is if the signature is disputed in court, but if the other side manages to prove that you actually did draw two hearts and a smiley face on a document under circumstances demonstrating that it most likely was intended as a signature, no amount of protesting “But it doesn’t look like my name or even my initials!” will get you off.

Of course, in reality, many organizations such as banks will not accept, as a matter of policy, unusual signatures. If you somehow convinced them to accept an unusual signature, it would* be valid.

  • Please consult an attorney licensed in the relevant jurisdiction.

I find it funny that initialing has reached the point where short lines are inserted in the document to place your initials on. I assume it started before modified contracts could be spit out of the printer and there were handwritten additions and crossed out deletions where you’d just initial because there wasn’t any dedicated space to sign. I don’t actually use my initials, I just write my two letter nickname, and it’s just as illegible as my signature, but like that easily recognizable as consistent.

I suggest for the future contract paper includes small plastic pockets for a DNA sample.

I always assumed that initials indicated that you had seen or read the item/page in question, and that a signature indicated your agreement to the terms of the document.

Is there any legal circumstance where the difference between “I read that but didn’t agree to it” and “I didn’t read that or agree to it” would be relevant?

Probably not any legal difference that matters, but when I went through a mortgage re-fi a couple months ago, my experience was the same as Chefguy. Initial to show that you read it, signature to show that you agreed. Maybe this is the same thing Nars is thinking of too.

I’m sure the initials are not necessary to enforce the contract, but they are a way to prevent us from claiming we weren’t told something. That matters in a mortgage because of laws specific to that industry.

I think the extra initials in contracts serve most likely as an extra bit of evidence that you’ve read (and consequently agreed to) some particulary detrimental-to-you piece of information.

This is mostly IMHO, but I went skydiving once, and I had to initial every single clause of the contract they gave me, all of which were along the lines of “you can’t sue us if the parachute doesn’t open.” The contract stated in big bold letters that my initials could be used in a court of law as evidence that I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Usually they indicate you accept a change. This prevents fraud: you could sign at the end at page five, and then have something changed on page four.

It could be a change in a boilerplate. If you agreed to strike out clause 3, they will ask for an initial to make sure there’s no doubt that the change was agreed to for both parties.

My sense is the same as that of dracoi, that if you initial each page, you then would have difficulty claiming that you weren’t informed of some particular aspect of the contract, even though you signed said contract. A responsible mortgage company will go through the gist of each page to explain the legalese, but it’s up to you to actually read it or not. I seem to recall that at the end of any contracts I’ve signed, it reiterates that “I have read, and agree to, the terms of this document.” Seems like overkill to also initial the pages, but sometimes it’s required.

Folks up above have covered the law.

From the POV of the attorney creating these docs for the business, their goal is to A) comply with the relevant laws, e.g. mortgage disclosures, B) document “fully informed and knowing consent” from the customer, and C) forestall the vast majority of frivolous lawsuit fishing expeditions.

Initials everywhere are strictly part C at work. It makes it that much less likely the pissed off customer can find a sane lawyer to take his case on contingency. Nothing like all those initials to take the credibility out of “I never read it; I had no idea I was agreeing to that! Waah!!! Make them give me 1 million dollars! For my pain and embarrassment!”

My wife writes this stuff all the time for her customers, medium sized state & local banks. There’s a fine line between pissing the consumers off with too many initials (ref RadicalPi’s skydiving adventure), and leaving a large enough plausible deniability hole that someday some sympathetic jury will beat you bloody with.