Escrow means something of value, such as a deed, stock, money, or written instrument, that is put into the custody of a third person by its owner, a grantor, an obligor, or a promisor, to be retained until the occurrence of a contingency or performance of a condition.

An escrow also refers to a writing deposited with someone until the performance of an act or the occurrence of an event specified in that writing. The directions given to the person who accepts delivery of the document are called the escrow agreement and are binding between the person who promises and the person to whom the promise is made. The writing is held in escrow by a third person until the purpose of the underlying agreement is accomplished. When the condition specified in the escrow agreement is performed, the individual holding the writing gives it over to the party entitled to receive it. This is known as the second delivery.

Any written document that is executed in accordance with all requisite legal formalities may properly be deposited in escrow. Documents that can be put in escrow include a deed, a mortgage, a promise to pay money, a bond, a check, a license, a patent, or a contract for the sale of property. The term escrow initially applied solely to the deposit of a formal instrument or document; however, it is popularly used to describe a deposit of money.

The escrow agreement is a contract. The parties to such an agreement determine when the agreement should be released prior to making the deposit. After the escrow agreement has been entered, the terms for holding and releasing the document or money cannot be altered in the absence of an agreement by all the parties.

A depositary is not a party to the escrow agreement, but rather a custodian of the deposit who has no right to alter the terms of the agreement or prevent the parties from altering them if they so agree. The only agreement that the depositary must make is to hold the deposit, subject to the terms and conditions of the agreement. Ordinarily, the depositary has no involvement with the underlying agreement; however, an interested party may, in a few instances, be selected to be a depositary if all parties are in agreement. In all cases, a depositary is bound by the duty to act according to the trust placed in him or her. If the depositary makes a delivery to the wrong person or at the wrong time, he or she is liable to the depositor. The document or the money is only in escrow upon actual delivery to the depositary. Ordinarily, courts are strict in their requirement that the terms of the agreement be completely performed before the deposit is released. A reasonable amount of time must generally be allotted for performance. Parties may, however, make the agreement that time is of the essence, and in such a case, any delay beyond the period specified in the agreement makes the individual who is obligated to act forfeit all his or her rights in the property in escrow.