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Know Your Rights: Carefully read your layaway agreement

Nov. 5, 2011 at 6:05 a.m.


By Richard Alderman

I am considering using layaway for some of my Christmas shopping. I noticed many large stores now offer this service. I was wondering what happens if I change my mind and don't finish paying. Legally, how much money may the store keep?

As you have noticed, more and more stores are now offering layaway as a means of buying now and paying later. Under a layaway plan, you pick-out what you want and the store holds it while you make payments, usually once a week. When you finish paying the item is yours. For many people, this is an attractive alternative to using cash or paying with a credit card. Layaway, however, is not free. Most stores charge a small service fee to open the account, and keep a percentage of the payments if you change your mind and stop paying before you have paid in full. These fees and penalties vary in amount and can be significant. Texas does not have a special law regulating how much a store charges for its layaway plan. Therefore, it is very important that you read the agreement carefully to see it will cost, before you sign. You may want to shop around to find the best deal for the item you want to purchase.

My daughter had a baby and is living with the baby's father. Are they married? He says they are not. What rights does she have if he leaves? He is taking care of her and the baby but is threatening to leave her.

Under the law, if he is the father of the child she has the right to receive support for the child from the father. She is entitled to child support regardless of whether they are married. You seem to believe, however, that because they are living together with a child, they are married. That is not the law. For them to have a common law marriage based on living together, they must agree to be married and hold themselves out as married. If they are just "living together" and have not agreed to be married or held themselves out as married, they are not married. In my opinion, if he says they are not married, they probably are not married.

Can my wages be garnished for child support imposed by another state?

Yes. Most states have agreements with Texas making it very easy to enforce a child support obligation from another state.

I am owed $16,000 from an unpaid loan. I know the limit in small claims court has been raised to $10,000. Can I just sue for $10,000 so I can file in small claims court?

As you know, the limit in small claims court is now $10,000. The limit, however, is based on the amount of your dispute, not how much you request. You cannot ask for less than you are actually owed to get within the court's jurisdiction.

Can I be arrested for not paying my credit card bill? A debt collector told me he was going to file a complaint with the sheriff and have a warrant issued for my arrest.

No, there is no debtor's prison in Texas. If you don't pay money you owe you may be sued, but you cannot be put in jail. In fact, the threat to throw you in jail for not paying your bills probably violates both federal and state debt collection law. For more information about what may happen if you don't pay your bills, look at the debt collection section on my website below.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a Web page at peopleslawyer.net.

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