There is help for Texas consumers.

June 11, 2011 at 1:11 a.m.


I am having a problem with a used car dealer refusing to fix my car as promised. I have spoken with him several times, and now he refuses to return my phone calls. It looks like small claims court is my only option. Where can I get information about filing a claim in Small Claims Court?

You can find information about small claims court on my website, small claims court, however, may not be your only option.

About three years ago, I began the Texas Consumer Complaint Center at the University of Houston Law Center. The Texas CCC, as it is known, has a staff of lawyers and law students that help consumers resolve problems. This sounds like just the type of dispute we can help with. We will try to help you resolve the dispute without the need to go to small claims court, but if you must, we will help you be well prepared. To contact the CCC, call 877-839-8422, or file a complaint online at By the way, the Consumer Complaint Center does not charge for its services.

I am separated and in the process of getting a divorce. I have been living with a man as his common law wife for almost two years. Is there anything special I need to do to have our marriage recognized.

As I have said many times before, common law marriage is not different than any other marriage. To have a common law marriage you must agree to be married, live together as married and hold yourself out as married. Once you establish a common law marriage, you are married. Under the law, however, you can be married to only one person at a time. Until you are divorced, you cannot have another marriage. Based on what you say, you do not have a common law marriage. After your divorce is final, your relationship may then form the basis for a common law marriage.

My neighbor built a six-foot high fence between our properties. I would like to add a little fancy lattice to my side of the fence. He says it is his fence and I can't attach anything to it. It is on my side. Don't I have the right to use it?

He is correct - it is his fence, and you will be trespassing if you added anything to the fence. I suggest you talk to the neighbor and see if he will give you permission to add something to your side. You want to consider offering to reimburse him for some of the costs of installing the fence.

I have a handwritten will that I had notarized until I can have a more formal will prepared by my attorney. Is this valid for the time being?

A handwritten will, called a holographic will, is valid if it is completely handwritten and signed. It does not need to be notarized. In all other cases, a will needs to be witnessed by two people to be valid. No will must be notarized. Notarizing a will makes it easier to probate but does not affect its validity. In my opinion, having a holographic will until you get a more formal will is a good idea.

I have a four-year-old debt that was just bought by a new debt collector. The collector told me that it now becomes a new debt, and will be placed on my credit report for another seven years if I don't promptly make arrangements to pay in full. Does the seven-year period begin again? If it does, the debt can be sold every few years and remain on my report forever.

You raise a good point, and that is why the law provides that the seven years runs from the date of your initial loan, and is not renewed or "re-aged" every time the debt is sold.

In fact, my opinion is that the debt collector is violating federal law by misrepresenting that the time period starts again. If the debt collector has placed the account on your credit report as a new account, contact the credit bureau and dispute the entry.

Then, I suggest you let the debt collector know that you know the law and work out a payment plan you can live with.

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 webpage at



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