Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)

What Is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)?

A memorandum of understanding is an agreement between two or more parties outlined in a formal document. It is not legally binding but signals the willingness of the parties to move forward with a contract.

The MOU can be seen as the starting point for negotiations as it defines the scope and purpose of the talks. Such memoranda are most often seen in international treaty negotiations but also may be used in high-stakes business dealings such as merger talks.

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Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU)

How a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Works

An MOU is an expression of agreement to proceed. It indicates that the parties have reached an understanding and are moving forward. Although it is not legally binding, it is a serious declaration that a contract is imminent.

Key Takeaways

  • A memorandum of understanding is a document that describes the broad outlines of an agreement that two or more parties have reached.
  • MOUs communicate the mutually accepted expectations of all of the parties involved in a negotiation.
  • While not legally binding, the MOU signals that a binding contract is imminent.
  • The MOU is most often found in international relations.

Under U.S. law, an MOU is the same as a letter of intent. In fact, arguably a memorandum of understanding, a memorandum of agreement, and a letter of intent are virtually indistinguishable. All communicate an agreement on a mutually beneficial goal and a desire to see it through to completion.

MOUs communicate the mutually accepted expectations of the people, organizations, or governments involved. They are most often used in international relations because, unlike treaties, they can be produced relatively quickly and in secret. They also are in use in many U.S. and state government agencies, particularly when major contracts are in the planning stages.

Contents of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)

An MOU clearly outlines specific points of understanding. It names the parties, describes the project on which they are agreeing, defines its scope, and details each party's roles and responsibilities.

While not a legally enforceable document, the MOU is a significant step because of the time and effort involved in negotiating and drafting an effective document. To produce an MOU, the participating parties need to reach a mutual understanding. In the process, each side learns what is most important to the others before moving forward.

The process often begins with each party effectively drafting its own best-case MOU. It considers its ideal or preferred outcome, what it believes it has to offer to the other parties, and what points may be non-negotiable on its side. This is each party's starting position for negotiations.

An MOU communicates the mutually accepted expectations of the people, organizations, or governments involved.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)

A memorandum of understanding allows all parties to clearly state all of their objectives and goals. This makes for less uncertainty and prevents future unexpected disputes to occur. Furthermore, by clearly laying out what each party expects of the other, an MOU provides a blueprint for any contract both parties may or may not wish to draw up in the future.

The biggest drawback, of an MOU, however, depending on your point of view, is that it is not legally binding. While in some cases this may be a benefit, since neither party is required to do what they say in the MOU, they can simply walk away or change their expectations. MOUs can take significant time and planning to create and if one party completely changes their requirements, creating the MOU was a big waste of resources.

Real-Life Example of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)

During trade talks with a representative of China in Washington in April 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump was asked by a reporter how long he expected U.S.-China memorandums of understanding to last. "I don't like MOUs because they don't mean anything," the former president replied. After some discussion, it was decided that any document that emerged from the talks would be called a trade agreement, never an MOU.

Memorandum of Understanding FAQs

Is an MOU a legal document?

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is not legally binding, although it usually signals a legal contract is imminent.

What is the difference between an MOU and MOA?

An MOU is a document that describes very broad concepts of mutual understanding, goals, and plans shared by the parties. In contrast, an MOA is a document describing in detail the specific responsibilities of, and actions to be taken by, each of the parties so that their goals may be accomplished.

How do you write an MOU?

An MOU should clearly state the following: what parties are involved, the context of the agreement, the proposed date of when the agreement will become effective, the contact details of all relevant parties, the broad purpose of the agreement, what each party is hoping to achieve, as well as a space for all necessary signatures.

Why is an MOU important?

An MOU is important because it allows each party to clearly state their objectives and what they expect from one another. Drafting an MOU can help solve any disputes before each party enters into a legally binding contract.

The Bottom Line

Although an MOU is not legally binding, it allows parties to prepare for signing a contract by explaining the broad concepts and expectations of their agreement. Communicating in clear terms what each party hopes to gain from an agreement can be essential to the smooth execution of signing a legal contract in the future.

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  1. The Guardian. "Memo of misunderstanding: Trump clashes with trade adviser over China talks." Accessed Jan 29, 2021.