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Now is the time to worry about holiday returns


Richard M. Alderman Interim Dean of the Law Center

Q. 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?

A. 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 and the store agree to. 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 conspicuous sign stating its policy at the register, has made that a term of your contract. If you make a purchase knowing that term, it is part of your contract. The bottom line is simple—always ask about a store’s return policy before you make a purchase.

Q. My mother owned her home after my father died. She remarried and left her house to her four children. We would like to sell the house, but our stepfather will not move out. How do we evict him and sell the house?

A. You cannot evict him. As you seem to understand, the house was your mother’s separate property and your stepfather had no interest in it. You and your siblings inherited the house and now own it.
Your stepfather, however, has what the law calls a “homestead” right in the property. Even though he does not have any ownership right to the house, this right basically allows him to live in the house as long as he wants. Bottom line, you and your siblings own the house, but you have no right to evict him.

Q. About fifteen years ago I did business with a company and never paid my bills. I was shocked to find out that they still refuse to deal with me until I pay. Isn’t there some sort of limitations period for collecting a debt?

A. There are limitation periods for any type of legal action. For example, most debts cannot be enforced after four years. There also are limits on how long such information may be reported on your credit report. In most cases, after seven years the information becomes obsolete and cannot be reported.
There are no limitations, however, on how long you “owe” a debt. In fact, until it is paid or you file bankruptcy, the money is owed. If the person you owe the money to does not want to deal with you until the debt is paid, he has a legal right to do so. It may seem “shocking” to you, but it is obviously a matter of some importance to the person you owe the money to.

Q. I own a time-share. I can no longer afford the maintenance fees and taxes. 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? They are threatening to sue if I don’t pay.

A. Unfortunately, “getting rid” of a timeshare can be difficult. Unlike personal property, you cannot just abandon or throw-away 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 and taxes. 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. There also are companies that offer to help you sell your interest that you can contact.

Do you want to know more about your legal rights? Check out my website, www.peopleslawyer.net

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