Are Electronic Signatures Legal in California?

Kamran Shafii |

Nearly every facet of our lives has been affected by technology, and the way we sign documents is no exception. Electronic signatures on legal documents are now commonplace, and “wet signatures” — signing a document with a pen and ink — are no longer required. But, are electronic signatures legal in California? This guide will provide an overview of electronic signature laws in California and explain the benefits of electronic signatures.

Overview of Electronic Signature Laws in California

There are two primary regulations that govern electronic signature requirements in California: the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act and the California Uniform Electronic Transactions Act.

The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA)

The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) was enacted by California in 1999, setting the stage for electronic signatures to be widely accepted across the state for all types of electronic forms, including those in commerce and government sectors. The enactment of the UETA was a significant milestone because it recognized the legality and enforceability of electronic signatures in California.

The following are some key features of the UETA that make it legal to use virtual signatures: 

  • The UETA applies to all types of transactions in commerce and government sectors, including contracts, agreements, and other legal documents that can be signed electronically.
  • It establishes that an electronic signature holds the same legal validity as a traditional handwritten signature.
  • The UETA does not mandate electronic signatures; instead, it establishes that if parties agree to conduct transactions electronically, such transactions and signatures are legally valid.
  • The UETA adopts a technology-neutral approach, allowing for flexibility and innovation in electronic signature solutions.
  • The UETA also addresses the retention of electronic records, indicating that if a law requires a record to be in writing, an electronic record satisfies the law.

California Government Code Section 16.5

The California Government Code Section 16.5 was enacted in 1995, four years before the UETA. Initially, it only applied to government agencies, authorizing them to use digital signatures. The following are some key facts about Section 16.5:

  • Section 16.5 focuses on digital signatures that use Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) to authenticate the signer and protect against tampering. 
  • In 2016, Section 16.5 was amended to allow government agencies to use electronic signatures in addition to digital signatures, broadening the options available to government agencies for electronically signed documents.
  • Section 16.5 applies only to government agencies and not private entities. Government agencies are permitted to accept both electronic and digital signatures under this section.

Requirements for Validity

In California, an electronic signature’s validity is governed by several criteria, as specified in the above-referenced legislation. 

Consent and Intent

To conform with consent and intent requirements, the electronic signature must: 

  • Be unique to the person using it
  • Remain under the sole control of the person using it

Attribution and Reliability

To comply with attribution and reliability requirements, an electronic signature must: 

  • Be capable of verification
  • Be linked to the data so that if the data is changed, the digital signature is invalidated
  • Be created using an acceptable technology, as determined by the State of California

Exemptions and Limitations

In the state of California, electronic signatures and digital signatures are both legally recognized. However, there are exceptions and limitations to either type of signature if they don’t meet the following security procedure: 

  • Electronic signatures: An electronic signature is any electronic sound, symbol, or signature process that is attached to or associated with a contract or other record and is adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record. It can be as simple as a typed name or a scanned image of a handwritten signature. An electronic signature is a legal signature, making it equivalent to a handwritten signature on a traditional paper document.
  • Digital signatures: Digital signatures, on the other hand, are a subset of electronic signatures. While a digital signature’s purpose is the same, it is more challenging to create a digital signature. A digital signature is more secure because the document is encrypted, and information is permanently embedded. More specifically, digital signatures software uses PKI to authenticate the signer and protect against tampering. A digital signature protocol is created using a private key to sign a message, and this signature can be verified by others using the signer’s public key. Initially, under Government Code Section 16.5, California only allowed government agencies to use digital signatures. However, in 2016, Section 16.5 was amended to allow government agencies to use electronic signatures as well.

Benefits of Using Electronic Signatures in California

There are many benefits to using electronic signatures, including: 

  • Efficiency: Electronic signatures allow for the quick signing of documents without needing physical presence. This speeds up processes such as contract approvals, agreements, and other legal documentation, saving time for both parties involved.
  • Cost savings: By using electronic signatures, businesses and individuals can reduce costs associated with paper, printing, mailing, and storage. Eliminating these expenses can result in significant cost savings over time.
  • Convenience: Electronic signatures can be applied from anywhere with an internet connection. This provides great convenience, especially for people who are in different geographic locations or have difficulty traveling.
  • Security: While electronic signatures may not have the cryptographic security of digital signatures, many electronic signature platforms incorporate security measures such as encryption and authentication to provide sufficient evidence that signatures are legitimate and that the data remains unchanged.
  • Environmental sustainability: Reducing paper usage through electronic signatures is an environmentally friendly practice. It helps to reduce the carbon footprint by cutting down on paper production, transportation, and waste.
  • Legal compliance: In California, electronic signatures are legally recognized and enforceable. 
  • Audit trails: Many electronic signature solutions can track and record the entire signing process. This includes timestamps, IP addresses, and a document history, which can be critical for compliance and legal purposes.
  • Improved customer experience: For businesses, offering clients the option to sign documents electronically can enhance the customer experience by offering a more convenient and efficient process.
  • Reduced errors: Electronic signature platforms often include features that ensure all required fields are completed before submission, reducing the likelihood of errors and incomplete forms.
  • Global acceptance: Electronic signatures are widely accepted in California and across the globe. This facilitates international business transactions and collaborations.

Choose a Reliable Electronic Signature Service

Using jSign as your electronic signature service puts you in control of all of your documents. You’ll receive an email as soon as your documents are signed, along with a certificate of completion that tracks the browser, IP address, time stamp, and GPS location of the signature. In addition, all of your pending and signed documents are stored in the cloud for easy retrieval any time you need them. Sign up for a free trial today

Kamran Shafii
Manager, SEO Content

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