Know your rights: Marriage is marriage - common law or formal

By Richard Alderman
Oct. 12, 2013 at 5:12 a.m.

Does a common law wife have the same rights to her husband's property following death or divorce, as does a wife by a formal marriage?

As I have said many times before, a common law marriage basically is no different in legal effect than any other form of marriage. The parties to a common law marriage have the same rights as any other married couple. If your husband dies or you are divorced, the property will be divided in accordance with Texas community property laws.

I came in to work and was told that the next day would be my last - I was no longer needed. Don't I have to get two weeks notice? Can I just be fired like this?

Unless you have an employment contract or a union agreement, employees in Texas work "at will." That means an employee can be fired or quit without any prior notice and for almost any reason. Many businesses give two weeks notice, but it is voluntary.

I got in a political argument with my boss and was fired for speaking my mind. How can this happen in this country? What ever happened to freedom of speech? Can I sue my employer?

There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to the right of free speech guaranteed in our Constitution. You often hear people say, "It's a free country, and I can say what I want." That is not exactly what the Constitution says. The right of free speech guaranteed in the Constitution basically means that the government cannot restrict or punish an individual's speech. It has nothing to do, however, with a private employer's right to discipline or fire an employee.

For example, if the government were to pass a law stating that you could not express your opinion on the recent election, arrest you for expressing an unpopular opinion or try to limit newspapers or television stations from publishing editorials, it would be an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

On the other hand, a private employer may have a policy that prohibits its employees from discussing politics in the workplace, and could fire someone who expressed an opinion with which he disagreed.

I was a week late paying rent. When I came home from work, I discovered my landlord had taken my TV and stereo. He left a note telling me I could get it back when I paid my rent. Is this legal?

It may be. In some cases, a landlord has the right to take a tenant's property when the tenant does not pay rent. This is called a "landlord's lien."

In order for the landlord's contractual lien to be enforceable, there must be a provision in the lease, written in conspicuous bold print or underlined. If the landlord has a lien, he may enter your apartment and take certain property. The law, however, protects essential property, such as furniture, wearing apparel, food, toys, books and photos.

The landlord is not allowed to take these items. Televisions and stereos, however, are not protected from the lien and may be taken.

If a landlord takes your property, he must leave a note explaining what he took and what you need to do to get it back. If you do not pay what you owe, the landlord has the right to sell the property and apply the proceeds to your debt.

If you feel your landlord has wrongfully taken your property, I suggest you speak with him and ask for it to be returned. A landlord who violates the lien law could be liable for whatever damages you suffer, plus one month's rent or $500, whichever is greater.

Do you have a consumer problem you are having difficulty getting resolved? The Texas Consumer Complaint Center may be able to help.

Law students and attorneys at the University of Houston Law Center can give you information about your legal rights and try to negotiate a resolution of your problem. To file a complaint with the Center, just go to

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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