An act of nature is an event which could not be predicted and occurred outside human control. This term is often used interchangeably with "act of God" in legal terminology. Acts of nature are specifically addressed in many types of contracts where such events could interfere with the fulfillment of the contract. Certain contracts may specify that an act of nature terminates obligations under the contract or constitutes special circumstances which have an impact on liability.
Acts of nature can include things like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods, and lightning strikes. In the insurance industry, an unpredictable severe event of this type may be specifically excluded from the coverage, or people may be able to buy coverage which names and addresses particular acts of nature. In floodplains, for example, basic homeowners insurance usually excludes flooding, but customers can buy flood insurance, a specialized insurance product.
Contracts may include what is known as a force majeure clause, a clause which dictates that parties to the contract cannot be held accountable for acts outside their control. This includes acts of nature as well as acts of man and legislative actions which interfere with the ability to complete a contract. In construction, for instance, contractors are exempted from late penalties when severe weather prevents them from completing a project on time.
If an act of nature occurs, it can release someone from a contract entirely, reduce liability under a contract, or change the terms of the contract. What happens depends on how a contract is structured. People should read contracts closely for a force majeure clause and information about how events which are beyond their control might have an impact on the contract. Such acts may suspend liability for one party but not for the other, for instance, or a natural disaster could trigger a clause which might work against one party.
Some people may prefer to use the term "act of nature" instead of "act of God" because referring to nature is viewed as more neutral. If there is a concern about appearing to overstep propriety or about confusion in regards to a contract, the more neutral "act of nature" language may be used to avoid confusion or controversy. Both terms can be seen in use in standardized contracts and people who object to the one term or the other should register a complaint and ask for a rewording of the contract before it is signed.