In Law, what is an Agreement in Principle?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An agreement in principle is an agreement that makes the major terms clear, laying the groundwork to make a contract. Agreements in principle are not legally enforceable as a general rule because they are not formal contracts, although sometimes they will be used in legal cases if there is a dispute. For people outside the legal field, this type of agreement can be confusing because it may make it seem as though everything is agreed when this is not actually the case.

An agreement in principle is similar to a handshake deal and not legally enforceable.
An agreement in principle is similar to a handshake deal and not legally enforceable.

When two parties are working together to reach an agreement, they often have a great deal of debate about the major points and terms, especially when the agreement surrounds a contentious issue. The process of nailing down the basics of the agreement leads to an agreement in principle, in which both parties arrive at a set of generally agreed-upon terms that will be used in the final contract. This is essentially the foundation of the contract, used when drafting the language because it includes everything the parties have negotiated.

An agreement in principle lays the groundwork to executing a formal contract.
An agreement in principle lays the groundwork to executing a formal contract.

A number of things can upset an agreement in principle. For example, when a bank reaches one with a customer and pre-approves a mortgage, the bank may later decide after additional investigation to change the terms, offering less money or a higher interest rate on the basis of newly learned information about the customer. Likewise, when diplomats reach this sort of agreement with their negotiating powers and take it home, government officials may reject or request modification to some of the terms.

The agreement is not legally binding because it has not been finalized. However, it indicates that the two parties have reached some level of consensus and that they intend to move forward with a contract. As a result, backing out of the agreement or radically changing the terms may be viewed as an activity in bad faith. For example, when a country reaches an agreement in principle with another and then reneges, it can make them look bad in the eyes of the international community.

It's important to note that the term is “agreement in principle,” not “agreement in principal.” These two homonyms are often confused, even by experienced English speakers. In this case, it can help to remember that it is the principles of an agreement that are included in the document.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


This kind of agreement is fine if you just keep in mind that it is not set in stone until the final settlement is signed. I used to sell cars, and any number of times we would reach a deal, get everything all lined up, and then the guy would want to add this or that at the last minute, or would want to change the terms of the deal, or the loan agreement. Very frustrating, especially since you get no money until everything is done. It's just something that people who negotiate and bargain for a living have to build up a tolerance for. If everyone stays flexible, both parties will be happy in the end.


@ bigjim - I know what you mean. It is helpful to have a general idea of what both sides are going for, but if they start changing things as the process goes on it can be irritating. This kind of situation reminds me of the old joke, "If you have one lawyer in a small town, he will starve, but if you have two, they will both get rich".


I get why this can be a useful thing, but it seems confusing. It seems kind of pointless to tell someone they can borrow a certain amount of money at a given rate, and then when it comes time to finalize the loan agreement the terms can change. It's kind of like those so-called approved credit card offers you get in the mail, and then you send in the application it tells you that it is declined. Frustrating, really.

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