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Vouchers - what should be considered when issuing and redeeming vouchers?

Free vouchers, value vouchers, "exchange" vouchers, vouchers for goods and services

Vouchers in a wide variety of forms are becoming increasingly popular with customers. In order to keep the redemption period manageable, the vouchers issued should usually be limited by the entrepreneur.

Without a time limit, vouchers are valid for 30 years (general statutory limitation period).

The extent to which a time limit is permitted depends on the type of voucher and the circumstances of the individual case.

1. Free vouchers

Vouchers that are issued by the entrepreneur free of charge, i.e. without direct financial consideration, may also be limited in time for a short period of time (entrepreneur can freely design them).

Examples:

  • Discount vouchers that entitle you to a discount of XY percent when purchasing certain goods

  • Free vouchers for a specific amount in euros that will be deducted from the purchase price for a subsequent purchase

  • Vouchers for a free coffee in the restaurant of a furniture store

  • Voucher for a care treatment at a hairdresser

  • Voucher for the first service of a bike (which is given out free of charge when buying a bike)

  • Vouchers as part of customer card systems (e.g. credit of a percentage of the previous year's sales).

 

Danger:
As usual, neither the design nor the practice of such free vouchers must be misleading, otherwise this could have consequences under the law against unfair competition.

2. Paid vouchers

Vouchers for a fee may also be limited in time. Unlike the free vouchers, however, the period of validity must not be less than a certain amount.

2.1 Time limit for paid vouchers

Vouchers are those that are made out to a specific euro amount (e.g. 100 euro voucher).

A contractual time limit is to be understood as a shortening of the statutory limitation period from 30 years to a shorter period. The question of which time limit can be legally agreed cannot be answered simply and across the board. There is no express legal provision
which answers this question. Individual court decisions only show certain limits.

According to this, the only thing that is certain is what has been assessed as inadmissible in any case:
A - not individually negotiated - time limit for paid vouchers for a period of 2 years or less. The time limit was only in the terms and conditions.

Background to this assessment by the Supreme Court: If a (paid) voucher limited to 2 years is not used within these 2 years, the voucher issuer would be enriched without objective justification. Such a time limit would be grossly disadvantageous for the purchaser of the voucher.

However, if a shorter time limit is agreed or has been agreed, it must be considered whether the interests of the exhibitor or those of the voucher redeemer outweigh them. The shorter the agreed limitation period, the more valid the exhibitor's reason must be. The risk of forgery or evidence (checking the authenticity of the vouchers) does not justify a limitation of 2 years.

What time limit was considered permissible for vouchers against payment?

The Supreme Court considered the following agreement in terms of time limit for vouchers to be permissible:
The period of validity is initially 1 year from the date of issue, after which it is possible to exchange the expired voucher for a new voucher, which is valid for 1 year again, or a refund of the voucher amount within 3 years, depending on the conditions of the exhibitor. Overall, this results in a maximum period of 5 years (1 + 3 + 1) within which the services can be accessed with the voucher.
If, in this example, the customer would like to make use of the possibility of reimbursing the voucher amount after the 1st year from the date of issue, he would still have 3 years. In this case, the deadline would be a maximum of 4 years (1 + 3).

Am I on the safe side if, as a voucher issuer, I agree a time limit of 5 years in advance?

The decision outlined above points in this direction. In the case described above, however, after the 1-year period of validity had expired, the customer was also given a choice between repaying the amount of money and exchanging it for a new voucher.

It is therefore not possible to predict with complete certainty whether the courts would consider a 5-year time limit without some form of repayment as permissible, since it always depends on a weighing of interests in the individual case. For the assessment of the permissible duration of a time limit, it also plays a role whether it is relatively difficult to redeem the vouchers because, for example, the services requested or certified by the customer are not always offered.

In any case, the simplicity and clarity of such a solution would speak for the admissibility of a 5-year time limit from the start. The customer would not have to come back to the voucher issuer after an initial period of perhaps only 1 year to exchange the voucher or claim a refund, but could rely on the voucher being redeemed within the agreed 5-year period can.

The opinion that the admissibility of the time limit always depends on the possibility of repayment of the amount of money after the (actual) time limit has expired, could be invalidated by the usual intention of the voucher buyer: Especially with (bought) gift vouchers, the person who buys the voucher and has then given away, an interest in the fact that the recipient redeems the voucher and does not have the amount of money securitized in it paid out. Otherwise he would have given away the money - in a less personal way. This consideration could speak for the admissibility of the time limit of 5 years without the possibility of repayment (cash payment).

2.2 "Exchange" vouchers

The permissibility of the time limit for such exchange vouchers is legally - at least in the opinion of individual interest representatives of the consumers - in principle not to be assessed differently than the time limit for other "paid" vouchers (restriction of time limit options - see above).

Background:
Often dealers take back defect-free goods as a gesture of goodwill and issue a voucher for the purchase price. At first it seems obvious that in view of the voluntary and customer-oriented approach, there would be a broad scope for action with regard to the time limit as with the free vouchers mentioned above. However, this can be countered by the fact that the customer originally paid the purchase price for the goods. After returning the goods without accepting the corresponding replacement goods, the entrepreneur would also be enriched in the long run.

Especially in such cases of issuing a voucher for the fair return of goods, it is conceivable that this possibility or the corresponding time limit is negotiated in detail with the customer. In this case (if the time limit is not set out in terms and conditions or in the form of a form, but rather through individual negotiation) a shorter time limit could be permissible.

2.3 Non-cash goods or service vouchers

Vouchers for a fee can also certify a certain thing / a certain service (e.g. voucher for an overnight stay for 2 people in Hotel XY, voucher for a full body massage or a balloon ride).

In the case of such vouchers for goods and services, the following circumstance should be emphasized in comparison to vouchers: The value of such vouchers increases with increasing time, while vouchers lose real value due to the devaluation of money. For this reason, a shorter time limit compared to vouchers could be more justifiable. However, in the end it comes down to a weighing of interests.

But here, too, the following applies: The voucher issuer must not be unjustifiably enriched. If, for example, the property voucher was limited to 1 year, an additional agreement would have to be made - in order to be legally on the safe side as far as possible - that the amount paid for the voucher could be repaid within a reasonable further period (e.g. 3 years) is possible. In the interests of transparency, the duration of the time limit as well as the possibility and deadline for repayment should appear on the voucher.

3. Further questions about vouchers

As a voucher issuer, am I obliged to redeem a voucher that has not yet expired in cash?

Voucher issuers are sometimes asked by customers to redeem a voucher that has not yet expired in cash. There is no entitlement to this. However, every entrepreneur is free to comply with such a wish on a fair basis.

What legal effects does it have if the agreed time limit for the voucher is too short?