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Co-signer better be willing to pay

By Richard Alderman
April 7, 2012 at midnight
Updated April 6, 2012 at 11:07 p.m.

I co-signed for my brother so he could buy a car. He stopped making payments and the car was repossessed. They sold the car and now say I owe $7,000. How do I get my name off of this agreement?

You don't! As I have written many times before, if you co-sign, you have basically the same liability as the person for whom you co-signed. If he doesn't pay, you are responsible. Once you co-sign, you cannot be released from your obligation unless the creditor agrees. In other words, you now have the same liability as your brother.

In most cases, a creditor does not ask for a co-signer unless the creditor has a reason to believe the person who signed won't pay, or won't have the assets to pay if sued. If you are asked to co-sign, there is a good chance you will be called upon to pay.

I deposited money in my bank account. When I received my statement I noticed the bank had mistakenly listed the deposit for much more than the actual amount. It has been more than three months and I have spent some of the money. Do I have any legal obligation to pay the bank back for its mistake?

You sure do. Money credited to your account by mistake is not your money, and you have no legal right to keep it. In my opinion, the right thing to do is return the money, even if the bank doesn't ask. You are not entitled to keep this money just because it was given to you by mistake. I assume that if you were the person making the mistake, you would expect that the money be returned to you.

If you do not return the money, however, and the bank discovers the mistake, it has the right to compel repayment. The bank may withdraw the money from that account, or any other account at the bank, or may sue if you do not have funds available for repayment. For some reason, many people seem to think that if a big company makes a mistake, and pays you money you had no right to receive, you are allowed to benefit from that mistake. That is not morally or legally correct. The law generally allows someone who pays by mistake to sue if it is not returned.

I have a question about medical law in the state of Texas. I was under the impression that people can't be sued in Texas for outstanding medical bills or have it count on their credit report score. Have the laws changed or am I mistaken?

I am surprised by how many people think that medical bills are different from any other debt. The law has not changed, and you are mistaken. Debts arising from medical care are not treated differently from debts arising from any other obligation. The collection procedures are the same and the information stays on your credit report for the same seven-year period.

My 17-year-old daughter is living with her boyfriend. They tell everyone they are married. Can they have a common law marriage?

Generally, to establish a common law marriage, a couple must agree to be married, live together as married, and hold themselves out as married. After that, they would have a common law marriage. A person under the age of 18 cannot have a common law marriage.

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



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