Neighbor may not be liable for damage to your property

By Richard Alderman
Aug. 24, 2013 at 3:24 a.m.

My neighbor had a fire on his patio that spread to my property. He has renter's insurance, and I don't. The fire report states that the fire started in his patio area. The cause, however, is listed as undetermined. His insurance company told me it is not going to pay for the damage to my property because wayward fireworks caused the fire. Is his insurance company responsible for the damage to my property?

Many people believe that because someone has insurance, the insurance company must pay for any damage resulting from an event on that person's property. Insurance does cover damage to the insured's property - regardless of the cause. But as a general rule, it does not cover damage to someone else's property.

In fact, insurance pays for only damages that the person who purchases the insurance (the insured) would be responsible for. In other words, the insurance company must pay for the damage to your property only if the owner of the apartment is responsible for the fire.

For example, if the neighbor's negligence, such as leaving a grill unattended on the patio, caused the fire, the neighbor and his insurance company would be responsible. One the other hand, if wayward fireworks caused the fire, neither he nor his insurance company are responsible for the damage to your property.

Just because the fire started on his property and spread to yours does not make him responsible. Similarly, if the fire spread from your patio to your neighbor's, you would not be responsible.

The bottom line is we cannot always look to someone else to be compensated for damage to our property. This is why everyone should carry insurance to cover damage caused by accidents.

I own a house that I bought 20 years ago. For the past ten years I have lived here with the same man. In my will, I leave everything to my daughters. Can the man I live with claim to be my common law husband and get the house?

You seem to think that because you have lived together for ten years you may have a common law marriage. To have a common law marriage, you must do more than just live together. You must also agree to be married and hold yourselves out as married.

If you have never done these things, you do not have a common law marriage. If you are not married, he has no right to any of your property. I also should point out that even if you have a common law marriage, your husband would not be entitled to your house. Because you owned the house before your marriage, it is your "separate" property. This means that your husband has no interest in it.

You may leave the house to whomever you want. Your husband, however, would have the right to continue living there, even if he does not own the property.

I have been making an honest attempt to pay a debt by sending a check every month for part of what I owe. The debt collector returned my check, saying he refused to accept further partial payments. I was told that if a debt collector refuses partial payments it erases the debt, and I don't owe anything. Is this true?

I don't know who told you this, but it has no basis under the law. A debt collector or creditor does not have to accept anything less than the full amount you owe. If you offer to pay less than the full amount, the creditor or debt collector may accept it or reject it. If your payment is rejected, you still owed the full amount. I suggest you let the debt collector know you are paying all you can afford, and try to get him to reconsider.

A friend told me you have a consumer alert newsletter. How do I subscribe and how much does it costs?

Your friend is correct. Three times every week I publish the Consumer Alert Newsletter.

The newsletter contains a range of valuable information including consumer tips, financial planning advice and discussions of consumer issues. It also has a section for lawyers highlighting recent decisions. There is no charge for the newsletter and you may subscribe at my website listed 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 website at



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