Financial advice for a rough breakup.
December 11, 2004 7:21 PM   Subscribe

You are not my attorney, and I'm not asking for legal advice. I would like an opinion, though, on the financial situation of a rough breakup. I've been with my girlfriend for seven years, and we're splitting up. It's gotten ugly. She has $10k in credit card debt, some of it for things she's bought for me/us, some not. She's telling me now she wants $5k from me, or she's going to start selling the things she's bought for me (such as the PowerBook I got last Christmas). I was going to be the bigger man in this, and help her pay her debts off a bit at a time, but now I'm extremely angry. I want to find out if there is any legal grounds for me telling her that no, we were never married, she gave me these things as gifts, and I don't owe her a dime. I live in Texas, for what it's worth, and I am looking for an attorney locally.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (33 answers total)
If she wants to make a claim for your assets, you may have a legitimate problem if she can prove common law marriage.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:55 PM on December 11, 2004

In some jurisdictions, common-law marriage is taken as a given after a certain period of cohabitation. Whether or not this is the case in Texas, I cannot tell you.

By looking for a lawyer, you are doing basically the only thing you can in this unpleasant situation.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:59 PM on December 11, 2004

My first thought was common law, too. From Common Law Marriage, Travis County, Texas:
Q: What makes a common law marriage?
A: Three elements must be present to form a common law marriage in Texas.
  • First, you must have "agreed to be married."
  • Second, you must have "held yourselves out" as husband and wife. You must have represented to others that you were married to each other. As an example of this, you may have introduced you partner socially as "my husband," or you may have filed a joint income tax return.
  • Third, you must have lived together in this state as husband and wife.

posted by xyzzy at 8:08 PM on December 11, 2004

In order to prevent you stealing someone's property on the street and then claiming they gave it to you as a "gift", at common law the person who receives the gift must prove the person who gave it to them did so with "donative intent". In other words, can you prove via receipts, witnessess, or christmas cards that the laptop really was given to you?

Obviously, the law of Texas may differ from common law. Also, I'm not a lawyer. Or your lawyer. Etc.
posted by falconred at 8:19 PM on December 11, 2004

I don't know anything about Texas, and I'm not a lawyer. HOWEVER I do know a bit about the law and what the deal is here in Oregon. Gifts are gifts, they cannot be taken back. If she gave it to you, if she bought it for you, then it is yours and she cannot sell it. I'd get yourself a CPA, it would seem since this isn't quite a divorce a lawyer would be a little too much for you guys right now but a CPA might be able to help you out.

Good luck.
posted by pwb503 at 8:25 PM on December 11, 2004

You don't owe her a dime. Take everything you have that's of value and move it to a safe location pronto.
posted by MegoSteve at 8:35 PM on December 11, 2004

Common law marriage isn't an issue. Legally, you owe her nothing. $10k is a lot of debt, and you may be morally responsible for some of that, but that's between you
posted by waldo at 8:40 PM on December 11, 2004

A few points from a law student, on the basis of one semester of family law. Salt to taste.

First, common-law marriage is a red herring. The clause about having to _hold yourselves out_ as husband and wife ios critical. That means going around and saying that you're married, not just that you're boyfriend and girlfriend or that you're living together. The fact that you're not describing her as your "wife" alone means (unless you've had a change of heart and words recently) that you're not married.

Second, the real leagl issue is whether the two of you formed any contracts, express or implied, about your property. Your promsing to repay her for things she charged might count; so too might agreements about someone supporting the other at some point in the future, or paying for the other's education, etc. From what you've said so far, I don't hear any contracts. But that is something you and your local family-law attorney will have to discuss with reference to Texas law -- e.g., if there was an understanding that her credit card was your "couple" card and that payments would come out of both your earnings, that might change matters.

Third, there might be some joint property that would be half hers and half yours. I don't see any on the situation as you've described it, but real estate which is titled in both your names or joint bank accounts are the classic examples.

Fourth, people who go through mediation are typically happier (on both sides) than people who lawyer up and go through lawsuits. Now, your case might (emphasis, might) be clearer-cut than your ugly contested divorce, since the only issues would be purely contractual and property-related, which would make an actual fight with lawyers less traumatic. But people who deal with breakup law say that things go much much better, on average, when everyone tries to make a clean break, rather than using the process as a way of destroying each other. Bringing in a 'neutral' third party just to listen to the two of you and make suggestions may be cheaper and more satisfying than treating this purely as a matter of your respective legal rights.
posted by grimmelm at 8:42 PM on December 11, 2004

Why not just make her a counter-offer? You can probably make a case for owing her nothing, but that will cost money, too.
posted by astruc at 9:16 PM on December 11, 2004

Possession is 9/10ths of the law, right? If you have the stuff, and you no longer live together, she's the one that would need a lawyer if she wants to sell it.

But whatever you can do, avoid lawyers in this situation. There's got to be a compromise somewhere that you and she could live with...maybe it means just giving up the powerbook, because that might have some particular significance to her, as a big gift, and to you, as something you really wanted. It's not so hard to find a good deal for a used one in good condition on ebay or something, and the cost wouldn't be any more than the minimum a lawyer's likely to charge you....and you were going to help pay some of the debt anyway...

7 years together...that's a long time, but try not to let the anger you both feel get so big it consumes you or her.
posted by extrabox at 9:17 PM on December 11, 2004

My understanding is that grimmhelm is correct: common law marriage is not an issue. But you didn't ask for legal advice.

I bought a car for my girlfriend years ago. We broke up a month later. I never saw her again, but she mailed a check every month. She paid back every dime ($7700). That's class.

Don't trade blows with your ex. It'll be painful, unproductive, and pointless. Just put it behind you. Having said that: If she's threatening your assets, respond swiftly. Don't try to hit back, but make it clear that you'll win.

Frankly, your question is unclear. (Matt should bounce some of these for revision before posting.) If you've split up, surely you don't still live together. Even if you do, surely you have somewhere else to stash belongings while you sort this out. If the debt is in her name and your belongings are mobile, her threat doesn't carry much weight. What's the problem?
posted by cribcage at 9:17 PM on December 11, 2004

I was going to be the bigger man in this

You still can be. This is from a strictly moral point of view.

You do not need to let her not-so-classy behavior push you to give up your intentions of being the bigger man. Seven years is a long time, and her threats are likely at least partially caused by disappointment in seeing all the time/effort/money invested in this relationship going to waste. She's not being very mature, but you can be. A counter offer is the best way to solve this. Maybe offer to help her pay the debt bit by bit.

Unless you have a different agreement from before, make it clear that it is her debt, and you are helping her pay it.
posted by copperbleu at 9:26 PM on December 11, 2004

How about not paying any of it? Seriously -- as far as I know, she has no right to any gifts granted you over the course of however many years. And any debt accrued during the time you were together -- as long as your name wasn't on the accounts in question -- is her sole responsibility. If I were you, I would take the advice above and move all possessions of value to a secure location, find a new place to live as quickly as possible (even if it's temporary), and cut your losses -- or your gains, as the case may be -- without paying a red cent to her. Anyone stupid enough to rack up $10k in CC debt without the means to pay it probably deserves to be saddled with that debt, whether it was racked up with the best intentions or not. And you have no obligation to make up for her poor financial decisions by making poor financial decisions of your own.

Finally, in agreement with a few of the other statements above, don't go the legal route unless you have to. The burden of proof is on her to show that you owe her something for your time and trouble together. Unless there were contracts signed or something other than verbal agreements (if even that) for aid in straightening out her life, she'll have a difficult time proving that she deserves any compensation. And for someone who doesn't have the means to pay her credit card debt, I can only imagine that the cost of legal council involved, small amount to be gained, and the futility of the argument will probably be enough to deter her from actually taking this to small claims or family court.
posted by dogmatic at 10:32 PM on December 11, 2004

If I were you I'd offer to pay for the stuff you really want, and give everything else back.

A clean break is the best, and it will cost you less over the long haul (emotionally) then dickering over gifts given. Offer to pay fair market value, but only for the 2-3 things you really want to keep-- let her keep the rest if she paid for it.
posted by cell divide at 10:54 PM on December 11, 2004

I'm putting in another vote for "no lawyers" if you can at all avoid it. Friends of mine recently had their lawyer fuck up their divorce even though they showed up already having worked out all the details of how they wanted to split up their property (house, cars, etc.). Dude was so bad the judge wrote to them detailing the misspellings and errors he had made in his filings. Don't waste your money if you can help it particularly since your case may be more complicated and worth less money than the average divorce. Mediation is not a bad idea.
posted by leecifer at 11:51 PM on December 11, 2004

I had a girlfriend a long time ago who I split from after four years. She'd had a lot of savings going into the relationship, I had a job. By the end of the relationship, we'd spent a lot of her savings and all of my earnings, we were living together in shared accomodation and had abortively planned a wedding.

At the end, she felt that she should be in the same financial situation that she'd been in at the start, so she and her new boyfriend cleared our flat out one weekend when I was away to try and recoup the drop in her savings.

There was not a lot I could do, save take it to court to try and prove that x or y item had been bought with my money rather than hers, so I had to leave it all and start again from scratch.

Now, this was in the UK and isn't entirely relevant to your question, but if it's taught me anything, it's that relationships that end always end badly, and that some people just cannot deal with the fact that money isn't important when you're together but suddenly becomes vital when you're apart.

With what I know now, were I in your position, I'd walk away, now. If she wants to sue, that's her choice. But it will be messy (so many personal things will need to come out in the court-room for either side to try and prove who bought what item with whose money when for what reason) that you'll destroy much, much more than either you gain from the process.

Be the big man you wanted to be - there's much more to gain from that.
posted by benzo8 at 12:18 AM on December 12, 2004

cell-divide and benzo8 hit the nail on the head! Walk away, my man, walk away.
posted by codeofconduct at 12:42 AM on December 12, 2004

Your complaint seems valid... but, to be perfectly honest, if this question were presented from the other side ("My boyfriend and I are breaking up; in the seven years we've been together I have amassed a good bit of debt on items for both of us, including X, Y, and Z, as well as some rather expensive gifts. Now that we are separating, this is all on my shoulders, and I feel used, etc."), this argument would also seem perfectly valid to me. The truth is that neither of you is probably wrong (or right, for that matter), and that your initial impulse to help her out with the debt was the rational and moral call. You've said yourself that the course you are setting now was directly motivated by anger, and it appears that you two are heading towards a war of escalation that could be much more financially and emotionally damaging than this already painful process needs to be. Do whatever you can to try to keep the anger under control in the sense of allowing it to direct your actions, and make your best effort to stick to what's really fair, objectively.

If you've been together for seven years, surely there is enough empathy and understanding left in both of you (even if it is just threads at this point) to pull through this last highly fraught and symbolic stage of the breakup. She may well back down from her position if you remain reasonable even in the face of unreasonable demands on her part. Somebody else may be encouraging her on to do things she may not have considered - and she might reconsider this advice. Even if this doesn't come to pass, I'm certain that you'll find, in the long run, that avoiding choices that are actually punitive reactions will greatly benefit your future peace of mind and your ability to "find closure" (for lack of a better term) regarding this relationship.

(Just one last thought - we don't know any details of the breakup, but if one of you doesn't want it, it could be that the wrangling over money/property is really a way of keeping the other one engaged in the relationship on some level. If this by any chance describes you, then you want to face that and overcome it. If it describes her, then rising to the bait only further entangles you, and makes it even more important that you stay calm and rational.)
posted by taz at 1:53 AM on December 12, 2004

what cell divide said.
posted by juv3nal at 2:33 AM on December 12, 2004

Just because you go to mediation doesn't mean you don't often need a lawyer to advocate for you in mediation (or that your mediator won't be a lawyer..the ABA has an entire section devoted to alternative dispute resolution, so lawyers are most certainly still involved). I'm not suggesting you get a lawyer at this point, necessarily, but consider it if things escalate. Sure, lawyers make things more's their job to see all the little twists and turns in the law that turn what non-lawyers think is something simple into something complicated. But lawyers and the courts (or binding mediation) do provide something that a do-it-yourself fix might not--final, legal resolution to the issues about money. That can only help lead to emotional closure for you both. (Full disclosure, IANAL yet, but I am a law student. Quit picking on us, everybody :)
posted by gokart4xmas at 5:04 AM on December 12, 2004

The pertinent, abstracted from nakedcodemonkey's link:

Evidence to support the finding that parties have agreed to be husband and wife, include:

The fact that a couple’s intention might have been to go through a ceremonial marriage at sometime in the future does not necessarily negate that inference that they believed that they were married. Tompkins v. State, 774 S.W.2d 195, 209 (Tex. Crim. App. 1987), cert. granted, 486 U.S. 1004, amended, 486 U.S. 1053, judgmt aff’d, 490 U.S. 754 (1989).

A party who considered herself the wife in a common-law marriage, had relations with her partner, was introduced on at least one occasion by the partner as his wife, partner made flight reservations for the woman as his wife as "Mrs.," and party was known to others as the stepmother of partner’s son were sufficient evidence of the parties’ agreement to be husband and wife. Durr v. Newman, 537 S.W.2d 323, 325 (Tex. Civ. App. -- El Paso 1976, writ ref’d n.e.e.).

Parties living under the same roof and maintaining a common household is sufficient to prove the parties agreed to be husband and wife. Ex parte Threet, 333 S.W.2d 361, 364 (Tex. 1960).

Raising a family together was found sufficient to prove an agreement existed between the parties to be husband and wife. Brooks v. Hancock, 256 S.W.2d 296 (Tex. Civ. App. -- Texarkana 1923, no writ).

Establishing joint accounts has been deemed evidence that the parties agreed to be husband and wife. Rosales v. Rosales, 377 S.W.2d 661, 664 (Tex. Civ. App. -- Corpus Christi 1964, no writ).

Filing joint tax returns is prima facie evidence that the parties have agreed to be husband and wife. Day v. Day, 421 S.W.2d 703, 705 (Tex. Civ. App. -- Austin 1967, no writ).

Purchasing property together and executing joint secured transactions is evidence of an agreement to be husband and wife. Rodriquez v. Avalos, 567 S.W.2d 85, 86-97 (Tex. Civ. App. -- El Paso 1978, no writ).
I tend to think that a) amicable settlements are always better; b) if you can't get to one, you need a good attorney; and that c) taz's points would be extremely well taken.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:43 AM on December 12, 2004

Since we seem to be taking a poll as to our opinions I would somewhat agree with waldo and strongly disagree with Dogmatic.

Female POV:
1. It sounds like you feel part of the credit card debt is your responsibility.
2.You would pay it, except that her actions have made you angry.
3.I would guess her actions (threatening to sell off the gifts she has given you) have been made because she is scared right now about the future, feeling impotent and used.
4. Try not to let your current feeling of anger blind you to how much debt you feel morally obligated to pay back.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:53 AM on December 12, 2004

It's worth reading Secret Life of Gravy's post again. It's essential. Her behavior does not mitigate your moral obligation to her. You stated that you acquired at least some of this debt together, for things for you both. So, a portion of this is her debt in name, but it's your joint debt in fact. Because you were unmarried, she's probably terrified that she doesn't have any way to prove you acquired this debt for joint purchases, and that's causing her to behave rashly.

You haven't been clear about why she thinks that you owe her 5k, but I assume she has reasons. It sounds like neither of you are thinking clearly at this point, so mediation really is the best option. A mediator will neutralize the problem by asking her to write out a list detailing how she arrived at the 5K figure. You should have a chance to look it over outside her presence and contest what you think is unwarranted. Both of you can then come together in the mediator's presence to arrive at a compromise and a payment plan. This will be much cheaper and less emotionally damaging than legal proceedings, which should only be a last resort.

In addition, you were presumably aware of how much debt she was carrying when you were together. However, you permitted her to buy you an expensive gift that racked up significantly more debt (and interest) on her card. So, while you are not obligated to help pay for her gift(s) to you, you should consider doing so. She wasn't smart with her money, but you benefitted from it. That may be legal, but it isn't ethical.

If you ever find yourself cohabiting again, you can try to avoid this sort of problem with resources (for example, Unmarried to Each Other) that help unmarried couples negotiate financial planning (and a host of other issues). Unmarried couples have to talk about money and stay aware of one another's financial condition as much, if not more, than married ones do. Situations like yours are not uncommon, and anyone in a serious, live-in situation with another person where bills are shared can, and should, take every precaution against disputes like this arising. Good luck to you both.
posted by melissa may at 7:23 AM on December 12, 2004

let her keep the stuff AND the debt ... just get out

the problem with claiming the stuff as a gift is that she can always claim it wasn't ... and hiring a lawyer over this is soon going to cost you a substantial proportion of what the stuff's worth

if she's halfway reasonable cell divide's suggestion is fairly workable ... but if she's not, forget about it

consider what your sanity and peace of mind is really worth to you
posted by pyramid termite at 8:05 AM on December 12, 2004

Listen to taz, Gravy, and melissa may (three ladies it's always worth listening to in any event). When my first wife and I split it was reasonably amicable (we split everything down the middle) but... tense, and when I thought everything was settled she started complaining about (if I remember correctly) the deposit we'd originally put on the apartment. I was about to get legalistic and go off on her, but then I realized she was terrified about money, and instead I said "Look, how about if I give you $500 for the computer we agreed I should keep [an ancient PC not worth anywhere near that]?" So I did, and we were fine after that. Try not to let your anger play a role in these decisions.
posted by languagehat at 8:16 AM on December 12, 2004

She's telling me now she wants $5k from me, or she's going to start selling the things she's bought for me (such as the PowerBook I got last Christmas).

If she's moved out, change the locks. If you've moved out, don't give her a key.

What you're left with then are words, not an actual threat to sell the stuff which she couldn't do without breaking and entering. Words that probably just mean "I am angry/upset that we're breaking up and scared about my financial future."

I was going to be the bigger man in this, and help her pay her debts off a bit at a time, but now I'm extremely angry.

Then this is an amazingly bad time for you to be making decisions about this.

At this point, you're both pissing each other off and trying to screw each other out of stuff, and nothing good will come of you dealing with each other directly.

Go get a mediator or each of you get a lawyer-as-negotiator or both. Tell him/her/them "Look, neither of us really wants to screw each other; we each just want a fair shake. But we're too involved in this and emotionally raw to do this for ourselves. Go away and don't come back until you have an arrangement that you both agree is a fair deal for both of us, or close enough for government work."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:38 AM on December 12, 2004

You don't need a lawyer to deal with this. Do you owe her $5k for the debt that you helped her amass? Yes? Pay her. Work out a payment plan with her. Or, tell her that you'll give her the laptop in full settlement of the debt. I'm sure that a used laptop is worth nowhere close to $5k and you'll be off the hook. Get the agreement in writing.

How is she going to get ahold of your stuff to sell? She's not. She's just threatening this stuff because she's angry and she wants a reaction out of you. It looks like she got it. It's really best to cut a deal and cut ties as soon as possible.

And, common law marriage has nothing to do with your situation. Don't even go there, it would be a waste of your time.
posted by Juicylicious at 9:15 AM on December 12, 2004

You stated that you acquired at least some of this debt together, for things for you both. So, a portion of this is her debt in name, but it's your joint debt in fact.

If he has to pay for gifts she made to him, then they aren't gifts, are they? Further, I'd suggest that, while the poster doesn't mention it, it be somewhat safe to assume that he also spent some money during the course of the relationship for things for her and both of them.

So why is he obligated to pay for the things she bought for him and the both of them, while she isn't obligated to pay for anything he bought for her and the both of them?
posted by MegoSteve at 10:03 AM on December 12, 2004

MegoSteve, he said she racked up a portion of her debt several ways. There are things she's bought for him, things she bought for both of them, and presumably, things she bought for only herself. I am assuming that not everything she bought for him could be classified as a gift, nor could that the things she bought for them both (and so, with his consent and knowledge). He doesn't say anything about how equal their contributions were on those items, which I agree would make a difference. If she put those items on her card and he gave her cash, or bought items of equal value for them in turn, then he's already paid for his share. Some more information would help (again, one of those instances where anonymous follow-ups would be nice!).

My ultimate point, regardless of these particulars, is that unmarried couples should be very careful about tracking expenses and organizing their financial lives carefully, so that such disputes never happen. It would be helpful to him now if he could point to purchases of equal value to hers; if he could, he wouldn't be posting this question.

Finally, on the gifts: he's not obligated to do anything, but he should reflect on the fact that his ex-girlfriend's problems now were partly caused by her attempts to please him. If he wasn't aware of her financial problems, he should have been. If he was, and he accepted expensive gifts despite that, he was knowingly allowing her to hurt her own finances for his benefit. So, if she's frightened now at the prospect of paying off this debt by herself, he should consider how he contributed to her problems and make his choices based on that consideration.
posted by melissa may at 10:58 AM on December 12, 2004

I wouldn't do anything in a hurry.

It seems inherently unfair that after a year she is expecting you to pay for something she gave you as a gift. As far as the other stuff goes you seem to have tacitly acknowledged that a portion of the responsibility for the debt is yours -- so do the right thing. Not out of fear or guilt, but because it's the right thing.

You can do this in your time. It seems to me she doesn't have a leg to stand on. She bought the stuff on her card, she signed the reciept and it's her debt. However this cuts both ways and if it gets ugly don't neglect the possibility of her waving credit card bills around as proof of ownership. At that point depending on the jurisdiction you could find yourself in criminal court if you failed to surrender 'her' property.
posted by cedar at 12:45 PM on December 12, 2004

Threats and bad behavior break any ethical responsibility you may have had with regard to her debt (and I don't see any legal obligations, though IANAL). I'd calmly tell her that you would have been happy to help (to the degree that YOU agreed was reasonable and appropriate, not necessarily with anything she demanded) if she'd dealt with you like an adult, but that you are now out of her life in every way. And then never communicate with her again.
posted by rushmc at 1:13 PM on December 12, 2004

What taz said.
posted by rustcellar at 1:34 PM on December 12, 2004

Do you have a receipt for these gifts? Do you have proof via an email or taped phone calls that they are gifts? If not, try and get that.
posted by xammerboy at 4:25 PM on December 12, 2004

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