Most people are simply not equipped to evaluate their legal options in even the simplest circumstances. If presented with a contract, legal release, affidavit, motion, summons or other official-looking paperwork, most people have no idea how to respond, and if they are somewhat informed regarding their legal options can often turn a simple matter into a very complex and expensive problem with a simple mistake.

Common Sense

What might seem like the obvious thing to do is often the exact opposite when it comes to a legal dispute. The legal landscape is mind-bogglingly complicated, even for experienced attorneys. Knowing how your actions might affect your rights under local, state and federal jurisdictions, 200 years of legal precedents and verdicts and tens of thousands of pages of regulations simply isn’t practical. If you are presented with legal paperwork, it is very unlikely your common sense or plain text reading of the document is going to help you much.

The Legal Meaning

Generally speaking, a release is a document that does two things. One, it absolves the released party from some or all further obligations, legal or otherwise, to the party offering the release. Two, it very often will foreclose on the right of the releasing party to seek legal relief in the event of any further dispute.

These two concepts work together in an interlocked fashion to protect the released party from any liability in the future. If the released party discovers they can’t necessarily rely on one of the general provisions of the release, the other provision usually triggers as a result and protects them anyway.

Occasionally a release will include the phrase “covenant not to sue.” This is a formal way to say “the releasing party is (permanently) relinquishing their right to file a claim or lawsuit.”

The Power of a Release

One of the reasons a release is so important and powerful in a legal context is because it is perpetual. Once signed, the most common kinds of releases don’t expire, which means the released party will never have to concern itself with further legal disputes with the releasing party, no matter how much time passes.

This provision and legal meaning of a release sometimes takes the releasing party by surprise. After all, many other kinds of contracts, like leases, employment and licenses expire. Releases from liability rarely expire for a very important legal reason.


In nearly every state, there are laws on the books in many categories called statues of limitations. These are blanket “releases” that apply to every case with very few exceptions. They can prevent a plaintiff from pursuing legal action against a defendant after a certain amount of time has expired. Normally, even if a release expired, the statute of limitations governing the case would have also expired, rendering the release itself academic.

Professional Counsel

It goes without saying if you are either preparing a legal release or you are presented with a release contract, you should immediately consult a qualified attorney. Trying to decipher the legal meaning of a document and apply it to the circumstances of your case is likely far beyond your capabilities, even if you are sophisticated enough to read and understand the contract itself. It is far better to get the right advice in advance than it is to try and repair the situation later.

Legal paperwork should go to your attorney the very moment you receive it. The longer you wait, the more likely it is some circumstance you may not be aware of will complicate your ability to resolve whatever dispute you happen to be involved in. Your attorney will be grateful if you consult them at your earliest opportunity.