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An instrument is a written legal document that records the formal execution of legally enforceable acts or agreements, and secures their associated legal rightsobligations, and dutiesContractswillspromissory notesdeeds, and statutes passed by competent legislatures are examples of legal instruments. Typically, legal instruments must be read as a whole, with every part interpreted in accordance with the whole.

Jurisdictions differ on who may draft legal instruments. Most states allow non-lawyers to write their own instruments such as wills and contracts, but do not allow non-lawyers to invade the field of legal practice by charging third parties to draft complex legal instruments on their behalf that secure legal rights. The legal instrument is considered executed once it has been given validity and legal effect. For example, signing a contract executes the contract. The instrument can then be used as evidence to prove the existence of such acts or agreements. Historically, instruments were not considered properly executed until they had been sealed with wax or stamped. This requirement simplified authentication and enforcement, but today it has been done away with in most American jurisdictions to allow for greater ease in contracting. However, a person who falsifies or materially alters a legal instrument with the intent to defraud another is guilty of the crime of forgery.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]