What is a release?
UPDATED: February 20, 2013
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A release is a type of contract in which you agree that you have no claims of any type against the party named in the release.
Releases are often used in connection with a settlement of legal claims. For example, if you were involved in a car accident and the other driver's insurance company offers to fix your car, the insurance company will probably demand that you sign a release, agreeing that in exchange for the cost of your repairs, you will not sue the other driver under any circumstances. Be very cautious about signing any release. If you sign a "General Release", you would be giving up your rights to sue should you have any physical injuries that you are unaware of. In addition, a release you sign after a car accident settlement may prevent you from seeking that the insurance company indemnify you, or pay for the damages, if a passenger in your car later sues you for her injuries in the accident.
Another type of release is also sometimes referred to as a waiver; a release of liability and waiver of claims. This type of release may provide that you release another party from liability for claims in advance that might later arise from some activity. For example, you may sign a release so that your child can participate in sports or attend summer camp. These type of releases shift the risk of injury from the other party to you. The act of signing such a release can even prevent you from suing later when the other party was grossly negligent, if the document you signed is worded properly.
It is generally advisable to seek legal help before signing any type of release, in particular when dealing with insurance companies who are asking you to give up your right to sue or file claims later. When confronted with such a request, never sign without the advice of a lawyer.