What is the Difference Between Assignment and Novation?

What is the Difference Between Assignment and Novation?

Assignment of contracts is a fairly common practice in the business world.  

In an assignment, the person assigning the contract - the "Assignor" - assigns the benefits of the contract the Assignor holds to a new person (the "Assignee") who takes the benefit of that contract "the Assignee". Some contracts may expressly prohibit assignment and some contracts provide that a contract may not be assigned without the consent of the other party. If a contract has no provision relating to assignment, then the general rule is that it may be assigned, with a few exceptions.1

Usually, a contractual party will want to ensure that if a contract is assigned, then the Assignee has sufficient skill and financial backing to continue to perform the contract and, if this is the case, it is important to make sure an assignment provision in a contract takes account of that so consent can be withheld if an Assignee does not fulfil those criteria.

Critically, in an assignment, the general law states that the Assignee takes the benefit but not the burden of the contract.  

This means that if the Assignee does not perform the contract, the Assignor remains liable. This can sometimes leave the other contractual party with a remedy if the Assignee is insolvent and does not perform.2  However, as noted earlier, the best way of dealing with an assignment request is to complete due diligence on the Assignee, since it may be that if you later need to make a demand on the Assignor (particularly if they are a company), the Assignor may no longer be able to meet that demand under the assigned contract if the Asignee fails to perform it. For example, a company selling its business to an Assignee may liquidate following the sale (after paying all creditors at that time and returning a final dividend to shareholders), which makes it very difficult to make any later claim against it if the Assignee does not perform the contract.

An assignment is fundamentally different from a novation. In a novation, a new contract is entered into between the new party (the "Novatee") and the other continuing contracting party/parties and the original party (the "Novator") is released from all of their obligations (usually from the date the novation takes effect). For this reason, a novation poses a greater risk to the continuing contract party or parties than a assignment since they have no recourse against the Novator if the Novatee fails to perform the contract. If someone makes a request to you for novation, you should treat the request very seriously. You should consider obtaining consideration for the consent or some form of guarantee and will need to complete very rigorous due diligence on the new party to make sure they can perform the contract. You should also check when you enter into a new contract with anyone that the contract does not allow the other party to novate the contract, particularly without your consent and a rigorous agreed process in place for that consent to allow you to assure yourself the party that takes novation can perform the contract.

Assignment and novation can be a tricky area of law. As always, if you have an issue with assignment or novation or encounter an unusual clause in a new contract concerning assignment or novation, you should take legal advice – we are happy to help!

For any enquiries contact:

Andrew Knight on (09) 306 6730 (aknight@mcveaghfleming.co.nz) or

Ben Lenihan on (021) 519 175 (blenihan@mcveaghfleming.co.nz) or

See our Expertise pages

Contract Law

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1    Exceptions include "personal" contracts where the particular skill, identity or characteristics of a party are fundamental to the contract. Bare rights of litigation are also not assignable.

2    Note that Section 241 of the Property Law Act 2007 has special provisions in respect of leases that make assignors liable for payment of rent and obligation under the lease, but not for increased obligations the assignee and landlord might agree to on a variation of lease unless the lease provided for that variation.

© McVeagh Fleming 2020

This article is published for general information purposes only.  Legal content in this article is necessarily of a general nature and should not be relied upon as legal advice.  If you require specific legal advice in respect of any legal issue, you should always engage a lawyer to provide that advice.

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