It wasn’t all that long ago when signing legal documents required an in-person signature and the presence of a notary to witness and legalize it. Today, there are still some situations that may require that level of signatory scrutiny, but more businesses and industries are moving into the future by embracing e-signatures. For most, signing a document on your computer or other electronic device is a convenient option…but only if you know how to do it.
Many people still assume that in order to sign a document at home and send it over the computer, you need to first physically sign it with a pen and then have a scanner or fax machine to send it. That’s one option, but it certainly isn’t the only one—or the most convenient one. There are online-signature platforms that allow you to sign with your finger (on your phone or tablet) or to draw your signature with a tool on your computer. We’ll get into how to utilize each of these options, but first, are they legally binding?
And whether you’re signing the old-fashioned way or with the help of technology, here’s what your handwriting says about you.
Before we go into the specifics of how to sign a document on your computer, we should first address a common question: Does a signature signed on your computer and sent over email actually hold up in court? According to David Reischer, a business attorney at LegalAdvice.com, the answer is yes. “In 2000, Congress passed and the President signed into law The Electronic Signature in Global and National Commerce E-sign Act, which made electronic contracts and e-signatures legally binding in the same way a paper contract is a legally binding document,” Reischer says. In order for it to be considered legally binding, there must be some way to prove the intent of the party to consent to the agreement. “Typically, typing your name into the signature box and clicking a button that denotes agreement via words such as ‘I agree’ are sufficient to form a legally binding contract,” he explains.
However, adds Reischer, “it is important to note that some agreements can never be electronically signed and are considered invalid and unenforceable because they are too significant and important to be electronically signed without following the formal rules associated with signing paper documents with traditional paper and ink.”
Examples of documents that still require pen-and-paper signatures include:
- Wills and trusts
- Divorce contracts
- Court orders
- Termination of life or health insurance
- Documents related to the transfer of real property
Many of these include the documents you need to organize for your family before it’s too late.
Check the requirements
Even when e-signatures are accepted, some businesses and industries may have additional requirements regarding how to verify the intent to agree. “While word processors and PDF editors allow you to type out or insert an image of your signature, you want to make sure that the recipient of the document you are signing will be able to accept that signature,” says Sara Garces, team supervisor at Midland Trust, a provider of self-directed IRA accounts that routinely sends requests for e-signatures.”The party you are working with may require you to use an e-signature service that offers a form of authentication.”
Choosing the device
Assuming you have the all clear to sign however you prefer, Garces says, “the device you are using to e-sign will also contribute to how easy (or difficult) signing will be. For example, if you are using a desktop or laptop, it may be easier to insert a scanned image of your signature using a PDF editor. Or if you are using your phone, using your finger or stylus could be an easy way to draw your e-signature.” Here are more hidden iPhone features you never knew about.
Desktop and app versions of the same program (for example, Microsoft Word) may differ in functionality. While they should all be relatively user-friendly, you will need to be able to access the Internet from whichever device you use, adds Garces.
Now for the nitty-gritty: how to actually sign a document on your computer. One popular way is with PDF editing software, such as Adobe Acrobat or Foxit Phantom, which allows you to add signatures directly onto a PDF file. Garces explains that from the toolbar, there should be a “sign” option, with three ways to create a signature in a PDF editor:
- Typing your signature
- Drawing your signature
- Uploading an image of your signature
“With typing your signature, you simply type your name into the field. The system will also give you the option to change the font, if desired,” says Garces. “However, some issues can arise with using this feature. Since the signature ends up being pretty generic, typed signatures are typically not acceptable on legal documents.”
For the option of drawing your signatures, she says, “you can draw your signature using your mouse, or you can use your finger or stylus (if you are on a touch-screen device). While this will be closer in appearance to your pen-signature, you will want to confirm with the receiving party that this is acceptable.”
And, finally, there is the option of adding an image of your signature to the document. “Before choosing this option, you should first be sure you have a copy of your pen-signature saved as an image file (.jpeg, .png) on your computer or Cloud storage,” says Garces. “Once you have an image file of your signature, go to the ‘Sign’ tool from within the PDF Editor. You will choose the ‘Add Image’ option and then select your saved signature file.” But again, you should first check with the institution you are supplying the signature for. Some institutions may not accept this “stamp” of your pen-signature, so be sure to confirm that this is acceptable prior to submitting your signed paperwork.
“Similar to creating an image signature with a PDF editor, you can insert an image of your signature into a word processor (such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs),” Garces explains. “To add your signature in Word, you will need to be sure you have an existing image file saved. You will then go to ‘Insert’ on the toolbar and select ‘Image.’ You will then be able to search and select the saved image of your signature.”
Creating a drawn signature to save and insert
Evan Porter runs an online remote business, so he is constantly e-signing documents. He explains, “I’ve found that a lot of government agencies and other organizations aren’t big fans of those stock signatures you can electronically stamp on a document and will often reject them.” To get around this, Porter says, “you’ll want to make it look like you physically signed and dated [it]. Use a free online tool like Docsketch to hand-draw your signature and date, and save them as transparent images you can drag and drop on any document.”
Choose from different Web-based services
This is probably the easiest way to sign a document on your computer or any other device, and it definitely takes the guesswork out of e-signing. Still, Garces advises using caution. “When it comes to receiving signing invitations for a Web-based e-signature service, be sure you are familiar with the sender or are expecting the invitation. Never open links in an email if you are not sure who it is from or if you were not expecting it!” If you receive an email requesting a signature you weren’t expecting, Garces suggests calling the sender at a number that you find on your own, not one listed in the email. Here are the other signs you’re about to fall for a phishing email.
“You can also set up your own account with these Web-based services if you would prefer to put that control in your hands,” she says. “If you want to set up your own DocuSign account, you will have the ability to upload the document to the website. Once the document is uploaded, you will be able to add signatures, initials, and other applicable fields to the file.”
Advice from a lawyer
“As an attorney, this issue is important to me because many contracts are executed electronically,” says Florida-based lawyer Lloyd E. Solt. “If you are creating an actual physical signature to be used when you electronically sign a document, my advice is to use a fat Sharpie or marker and draw it large, then scan and reduce the size. It will turn out way better than trying to scan it actual size. You can make the signature blue if you choose.”
But, he cautions, “one danger of electronic signatures that is not common to physical signatures is that others can potentially access your e-signature key and cause a great deal of harm.” For this reason, he says it’s important to maintain the same level of security with your saved signature as you might with any other important personal data.
Make sure you know these 18 secrets from people who never get hacked.
Here to stay
Think you can skip learning how to sign a document on your computer and just stick with the old-fashioned method of signing? Think again. “As our world continues to grow more sustainability-conscious and technology-driven, it is safe to say that e-signatures are here to stay,” Garces says. “While the above touched on several different types of e-signatures, this does not encompass all of the options available out there. Ultimately, the most important thing to do before opting to e-sign a document is to confirm that the e-signing method you choose will be as acceptable as a pen-signature.”
Next, check out these other innovations we can expect in the very near future.