Is a signed bill legal proof that a bill has been paid?

We had contractors working on the house. Though they all worked as a team, each of them were paid separately. 2 of the contractors, we paid with checks. The “head” contractor, however, did not have a checking account and asked that we pay him in cash, which we did. We did have him sign the bill as being paid in full with his signature. Now, this contractor is sending us statements to the tune of $4600 (the amount that we paid in cash) trying to collect a second time. When I contacted him, he, of course, played dumb and said if we did not pay the bill within 120 days, he would put a lien on our house. However, the bill he signed and stated was paid in full. Is it a legal, binding document that we can submit to a court as proof of payment if necessary?

Asked on October 14, 2011 under Bankruptcy Law, South Dakota

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 9 years ago | Contributor

It is very strong evidence of payment in full, and would be dispositive of the case if the contractor does not try to disclaim it. That is, if he admits that's his signature, that should be case closed in your favor. If, on the other hand, he tries to claim that is NOT his signature, he never received the money, and you forged his signature on the bill, then there is factual issue to be disclosed. There is a presumption that what  seems to be a person's signature is his or her signature, but that presumption can be defeated by a sufficient showing--e.g. a handwriting expert; handwriting samples that look nothing like the purported signature; etc. So it is powerful evidence, but may not, in and of itself, be enough if the contractor tries to disclaim it. Of course, you and your spouse can also testify that you paid him the money (and presumably, he'll testify that you did not).

In the future, it is dangerous to pay someone cash; for example, if you lose the "paid in full" bill, you have no documentary evidence of payment. Always pay by check--even if someone does not have a checking account (which is simply not credible--how does this contractor pay for supplies, or pay subcontractors or employees, without checks), he or she can still cash a check in one or another ways, if necessary at a check-cashing location.


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