It has been centuries since the first signature was used to form the basis of a legally binding agreement. Since then, these wet signatures have been used for everything from treaties that ended wars to leases for the local corner store.

While they’re useful and recognized the world over, times are changing and signatures have taken on different forms. What was once the gold standard is now one of many options you have to sign documents.

In this guide, we’ll look at what wet signatures are, compare them to electronic signatures, and give you an understanding of when they should be used. 

What is a wet signature?

A wet signature is a signature placed or affixed to a document or other hard copy of an agreement with a pen or other writing device (wax seal, fingerprint, etc.).

The reason it’s called wet is because there’s a moist imprint left behind right after signing which quickly dries. If the imprint is interacted with before drying, it often smears and can invalidate the signature.

While it’s true that electronic signatures have become much more popular over the years, there are many instances where they’re unacceptable. That will be touched on in more detail later in this guide.

Even though it’s commonly your name written in cursive lettering, a wet signature can take on many forms. It can be a symbol, an imprint, initials, a fingerprint, a uniquely written letter, etc. As long as it uniquely identifies you as the signer, it’s considered acceptable.

According to the United States Uniform Commercial Code:

“A signature may be made manually or by means of a device or machine, and by the use of any name, including a trade or assumed name, or by a word, mark, or symbol executed or adopted by a person with present intention to authenticate a writing.”

The fact remains that wet signatures have been in use for centuries and are recognized as legally binding in almost every jurisdiction in the world. As mentioned earlier, times are changing.

Wet signatures vs electronic signatures

Electronic signatures (also known as eSignatures, online signatures, and in some cases digital signatures even though that’s not completely accurate) have been around since the 1990s but saw limited adoption at first.

Today, a large percentage of documents that need to be signed are done so with electronic signatures. This became even more prevalent when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

According to the ESIGN Act 2000, the law that governs eSignatures in the United States, an eSignature is:

“An electronic sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with a contract or other record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.”

Electronic signatures are legally binding an all U.S. territories, the European Union, and dozens of other jurisdictions around the world.

The draw of an electronic signature over a wet signature is convenience. To get a wet signature on a document you either have to:

  • Meet with someone in person
  • Mail a document to them
  • Send them the document, the recipient prints, then they sign, then they send it to you via mail

With an electronic signature, you send out an email, the recipient opens it, then they sign from their computer or mobile device. It’s painless and can increase the speed of document signing by up to 80%.

Depending on the type of electronic signature, they can come in multiple formats:

  • Typed signature
  • Drawn signature
  • Uploaded signature
  • Pin (like with an ATM)
  • Checkbox (used in specific circumstances)

The convenience coupled with the recent outbreak have sensitized people to alternative methods of signing important documents. Even though we were forced to shelter in doors, business still continued thanks, in part, to electronic signature technology.

Benefits and drawbacks of wet signatures

Benefits

  • Accepted almost everywhere. Wet signatures form a tradition that’s centuries in the making. They’ve spread across the globe and can be used as legally binding acceptance of an agreement without a second thought.
  •  Easily understood. Since an early age, people know what a physical signature is and its importance. We’re taught not to sign anything we don’t understand because it’s binding and can have severe consequences.

Drawbacks

  • Takes longer to sign. There are many steps required for a wet signature. These are often time consuming when you and your clients or team are far apart.
  • Increased costs to store documents. This is two-fold. The original document needs to be stored which takes physical space and regular maintenance. There’s also a cost to scan, retrieve, and transport the documents.
  • Tangible and intangible costs. Ink and paper are obvious costs but there are also costs associated with time lost due to the contract moving from one place to another. This can be negligible if you’re in the same city but what if they’re across the country or in a different country?

Benefits and drawbacks of electronic signatures

Benefits

  • Increased security. There’s a clear audit trail associated with an electronic signature signing process. Additionally, you can implement things like SMS verification and ID upload before a signature is approved.
  • Faster signing. Since the email that alerts people to a new document that needs to be signed arrives almost instantly, all they have to do is open and sign. This takes as little as a few minutes.
  • Tracking. You can track every step of the signing process and you’ll get information like IP address, what actions were taken, and more.
  • Reduce paper consumption. There is zero paper used to create electronic documents so you’re saving trees and doing your part for the environment.
  • Reduce costs. There’s less document storage space needed, no paper required, and a reduced amount of pens used in your office. In addition to this, you don’t need to move yourself or the documents around to get them signed. All of these factors save costs.

There are many more benefits but this will give you an idea of what electronic signatures bring to the table.

When to use wet signatures over electronic signatures

Even though electronic signatures are becoming more and more popular and the technology is continually advancing, they can’t be used in every situation. This is due to government regulation in some cases and them being accepted in other cases.

Here are a few situations where you shouldn’t use an electronic signature in most jurisdictions. Keep in mind that there may be added restrictions based on where you or the recipient lives.

  • Adoption papers
  • Official court documents
  • Last Will and testament
  • Divorces proceedings
  • Product recall notices
  • Evictions
  • Insurance benefits

As mentioned before, this isn’t an exhaustive list of when you have to use wet signatures. When in doubt, do your own research to ensure you’re legally compliant.

Conclusion

Wet signatures aren’t a relic of the past just yet but they’re slowly being replaced by electronic and digital signatures. All types of signatures have a role to play and it’s up to you to decide which one is ideal for your current situation.

Ideally, you’ll have an electronic signature solution that you can use for regular business but still be flexible enough to use wet signatures with the need arises.

If you’re looking for a robust electronic signature platform that goes beyond just sending links, check out UsefulSignatures – our electronic signature and work process automation suite.