Q: Can I cash a partial-payment check and still collect the full fee?
Usually, but not always.
Welcome to the little-known area of first-year contract law called accord and satisfaction. There is usually only one case covering accord and satisfaction in the casebook, so most law students don’t study it in detail.
A legal accord is the compromise of a disputed claim. This can be expressed or implied.
Expressed in a letter, a “payment in full” statement on the front or back of a check, a formal release of all claims, or just an oral agreement. It is implied by circumstances demonstrating the parties agreed, although they didn’t write or say a word.
The most commonly expressed accord is a partial payment check that reads “payment in full” with some reference to the transaction (invoice number, candidate’s name, or whatever) on the front or back of the check.
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When you cash that check, most cases find the satisfaction has occurred. However the cases are not absolutely clear, since the words are not always simply “payment in full.”
Allegedly expressed oral agreements and implied accords cause problems because you can’t prove you didn’t agree to accept a check as payment in full when you cashed the check — the satisfaction completing the mini-contract of accord and satisfaction that extinguishes the original fee contract.
If you get one of these situations, consult with a local collection agency or lawyer before cashing the check.
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