Know your rights: Now is the time to worry about holiday returns

By Richard Alderman
Dec. 15, 2012 at 6:15 a.m.

I just bought a present to give someone for Christmas. The store told me that if she didn't like it, she could exchange it, but that there were no returns. I decided not to buy it because I was afraid she wouldn't like it, and it was a small store without a lot of selection. Is it legal for a store to not allow you to return a gift and get a refund?

This is a great question, and with the holidays coming up, your timing is perfect. Not only is it legal for a store to limit a purchaser to an exchange, it is becoming more and more common.

When you buy something, you enter into a contract with the store. The terms of that contract are what you agree to with the store. If nothing is said about returns or exchanges, the term is what a reasonable person would assume. In my opinion, most people think you can either return or exchange a gift you don't like, and that would be the contract term if nothing were said.

On the other hand, the store may change that term, and if you make a purchase and agree to the new term, you and the person you give the gift to are both bound to that contract.

For example, a business that tells you "exchanges only," or has a sign stating, "exchange only, no returns" at the register, has made that a term of your contract. If you make a purchase knowing the store's policy, it is part of your contract. The bottom line is simple - always ask about a store's return policy before you make a purchase.

I pay my rent each month in cash. I deposit the cash into my landlord's account. I thought a landlord had to give you a written receipt when you pay cash? My landlord says the receipt from the bank is sufficient. What are my rights? Can I sue?

You are correct that a landlord must give a tenant a written receipt if the rent is paid in cash. If the landlord violates this law, the tenant could be entitled to substantial damages. Under the statute, the tenant could receive one month's rent or $550, whichever is greater, for each month he did not get a receipt.

This law, however, is designed to protect tenants who give cash to a landlord and would have no way to prove they paid if they were not given a receipt.

In your case, you did not give cash to your landlord. You deposited the cash in an account, and received a receipt. In my opinion, the cash payment law does not apply.

I own a time share at a local lake. I don't use it, and I can no longer afford the maintenance fees. How do I get rid of this thing? Can I force them to take it back? Can I just tell them I no longer want it?

Unfortunately, "getting rid" of a timeshare can be difficult. A time share interest is considered real estate. Unlike personal property, you cannot just abandon a real estate interest. Even if you tell them you do not want it, it still belongs to you and you will be responsible for the maintenance fees. To end your ownership, you must either get the company to agree to take the property back, sell it to someone else, or donate the property to another entity.

My mother is slowly becoming incapacitated. I was told I should get a power of attorney while she is still competent. If she gives me a power of attorney, do I become liable for her debts?

A power of attorney gives rights but does not impose liability. A power of attorney gives a person the right to act on behalf of another. For example, if your mother gives you a power of attorney, you will have the right to act on her behalf. You basically can do whatever she has the right to do with her property. The power of attorney, however, does not make the person to whom it is given responsible for the other party's debts. You would have no liability for your mother's debts, unless you separately agreed to pay them.

I also should point out that to give someone a power of attorney, the person giving the power must be competent. To ensure that the power of attorney continues in force after the person becomes incapacitated or incompetent, you should have a "durable" power of attorney. There is a power of attorney form on my website.

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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