What does "Under Protest" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In the law, the phrase “under protest” is used in written statements that indicate for the record that someone is performing an obligation reluctantly. Simply writing this phrase on a contract, check, or other document associated with an obligation is usually not enough. The nature of the protest must be articulated in a written document. When something is performed under protest, it means that the person performing the obligation may register an objection later.

"Under protest" refers to the act of an individual agreeing to an obligation with protest.
"Under protest" refers to the act of an individual agreeing to an obligation with protest.

This phrase actually is rather nebulous under the law, and legally, the phrase “without prejudice” is more appropriate. When someone does something without prejudice, it is done with the understanding that this person is not giving up any rights or admitting liability. For example, someone can deposit a check written in partial satisfaction of a debt with a note that it is without prejudice, meaning that the check is not accepted as final payment and that additional action may be taken to recover the rest of the amount owed.

An individual can pay taxes "under protest.".
An individual can pay taxes "under protest.".

One area in which the phrase does have legal standing is in the tax code in some nations. People are required to pay their taxes whether or not they dispute their tax liability. If someone intends to file a dispute for a refund, that person can pay taxes “under protest.” The payment is accepted as voluntary payment of taxes and the protest indicates that the taxpayer intends to pursue additional legal action.

When people pay taxes this way, they send in the payment in full for the tax bill along with a written document outlining the nature of the protest. The tax agency accepts the payment, recording the taxpayer as current, and the taxpayer pursues action to recover funds paid in excess. In some tax codes, if taxes are not paid this way, the taxpayer may not be able to take action to demand a refund. As a result, paying taxes under protest is critical for preserving the right to contest the bill at a later date.

Performing obligations under protest allows people to satisfy an obligation to avoid further legal entanglement while preserving their right to object to the obligation. People who are in a position where they need to do something without prejudice should consult a lawyer. The lawyer can help draft a statement that uses the appropriate language and can provide assistance with the formal objection when the person is ready to file it.

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


@allenJo - I don’t know if the legal definition of "under protest" would encompass duress in all cases; the appeal to duress usually comes after the fact, not when signing the contract.


@MrMoody - Yes, duress is a more powerful proviso than simply signing under protest.

I know of a lady who rented a car once. When she rented it she didn’t buy the optional auto insurance they offer with it. Then she got in an accident and was told that she would have to pay the repair costs.

She argued with the clerk, who pointed out that she didn’t buy the car insurance. Flustered and angry, she got her lawyer on the phone; he spoke to the clerk and tried to persuade him that the contract was signed under duress but the clerk wasn’t buying it-and of course the lady couldn’t prove it.

She was forced to pay in the end. So I think duress is the only legal exit you might have, if you can prove it, and of course if you indicate you were under duress when signing the contract.


@hamje32 - I honestly don’t know much clout that anything signed under protest would give you in a court of law. It might suffice to simply state that you disagree but I don’t think it would help your case one way or another.

It’s not like being a conscientious objector to military service, a position that would give you a definite excuse from serving in the event of a draft.

Basically, if you sign something, then it’s as good as any other contract. Sometimes people do something under duress; that might be useful in a court case, if you can prove that you were really pressured.


I had no idea you could make a payment under protest. It seems this would give some legal recourse to taxpayers who feel they have overpaid-or that they shouldn’t have paid at all-while avoiding trouble with the IRS in the meantime.

I know of one guy who could have found this maneuver to be particularly useful, although his protest against the IRS was more rooted in a fundamental disagreement about paying taxes altogether.

He argued that paying taxes was unconstitutional, and therefore didn’t pay them for several years. I don’t remember the legal arguments he put forth; I do know the income tax is a fairly recent Constitutional amendment but other than that I don’t remember what else he said.

However, the IRS finally raided his home and possessions. He finally paid his taxes. Maybe he should have done it under protest and avoided all the trouble?

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