Consumer Issues When You Don't Say I Do
A variety of issues can come up when a couple lives together but is not married. This article takes a look at consumer issues that can arise. Four consumer areas that can be impacted are debt, housing, utilities, and personal property. Assisting low-income Iowans with legal issues involving basic necessities is a priority of Iowa Legal Aid, including problems related to housing and getting utility service.
Non-married couples are not liable for each other's debts unless they specifically agree to be legally responsible. Legal responsibility can take the form of co-signing on loans or allowing a person to be a signator on a credit card. Co-signors are equally responsible for the debt. For example, if you co-sign on a vehicle loan and your partner does not make the payments, the creditor can turn to you for collection. If you agree to co-sign on a car loan, you may want to also put your name on the title of the car. This way you will both have rights to the car, but both of you can also be liable if the car is in an accident. If payments are not made on the loan, you may be sued and found liable for the debt. If you are sued, you can counterclaim against (or sue) your partner. A judgment may also be entered in your favor against your partner. You may then be able to collect against him/her for some or all of the amount of the judgment.
If two people live in a rental unit, but only your partner's name is on the lease, that could mean that you would have to try to work out your own arrangements with the landlord if the named tenant moves out. On the other hand, if you cannot afford the rent on your own, and you would not want to live there if your partner moves out, perhaps you do not want to take steps to add your name. You might not want to do this because you would be responsible for the rent for the rest of the lease term, if the landlord is not able to find new renters. When you move into a rental property where your partner had already signed a lease, be sure to have the approval of the landlord. Otherwise it could be a violation of the lease and you could both face eviction.
If you move into a home owned by your partner, you could be considered a guest. If he or she no longer wants you living there, you could be evicted without getting any notice prior to the eviction notice. Even if you have contributed to living expenses, such as mortgage payments, property taxes, utilities or other home upkeep, you could still be evicted. You may be able to recover some of the money you put into the home, however, depending on the circumstances.
When an unmarried couple or roommates live togther, utility service can be an area of concern. If two people live together and the utility account in one of their names becomes delinquent, the utility company may make it difficult for another person in the household to open a utility account. For example, if electrical service is in one person's name, and the account becomes delinquent leading to disconnection, and the other person then tries to put service in his or her name, it is likely that the utility company would refuse to provide service unless the new customer agrees to pay the original customer's bill. The reason the company may give is that the person is not "creditworthy" because a utility bill wasn't paid while he or she was living there and that they "benefited from the service." It may be possible to challenge this decision by appealing the utility's denial, but it is not yet clear what position the Iowa Utilities Board will take on this issue.
People who live together often buy personal property together. When they separate, it can be hard to figure out who should have what. Most of the time, whoever bought the item would own it and be entitled to it. It may be hard to remember who bought a particular item or whether some item was purchased jointly. If the item was a gift, it would remain with the person who got the gift. If they do not agree on how to divide personal property, a small claims lawsuit may be the only way to resolve these matters. A court might look at various factors including:
- Who bought the property?
- Was there an agreement (oral or written) about the item?
- Are any other factors important, such as how much either party paid for other common expenses?
For details on how small claims court works, go to the Iowa Courts Website: www.iowacourts.gov.
It is usually most difficult to sort through these matters once the relationship is over and there is little chance of agreement. It is best to consider protecting yourself when you enter into consumer transactions by keeping the above issues in mind.
Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans.
To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:
- Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
- Apply online at iowalegalaid.org