Business can refuse to accept your check

Q. I went to pay for something and the clerk said, “Cash only.” Is it legal for a store to refuse to accept a check or take a credit card? I thought a check was just like cash?

A. When you buy something at a store, you are entering into a contract. The terms of that contract are what you and the store agree to. If the store wants to accept cash only, it may make that a term of your agreement. While most businesses will take a check or credit card, there are business reasons for accepting only cash, especially for a small business. Credit cards cost the store money, and checks can bounce.

I suggest you offer to pay by a check and see if the store accepts your proposal. If it does not, your choice is to deal on the store’s terms or shop elsewhere. Merchants who accept checks or credit cards do so voluntarily. There is no legal obligation to do so.

Q. I am a landlord. What can happen when my tenants break a lease? I see it coming soon. If I hire a lawyer, it is going to cost me as much as the rent. Is there hope, or I will be throwing away money? Please help me.

A. If your tenant breaks the lease, you are entitled to retain the security deposit and collect rent until the property has been rented to another tenant. If the amount you are owed is less than $10,000, you can file a claim in small claims court without an attorney. Small claims court is a real “people’s court,” and you should not have a problem representing yourself. As the next question explains, however, collecting money after you win in small claims court can be difficult.

Q. I am set to go to small claims court. If I win, will he be forced to pay me? Does he have to pay court costs if I sue?

A. If you win in small claims court, the court will award a judgment in your favor that includes the court costs. Unfortunately, winning and getting your money are two very different things. A court cannot force a person to pay a judgment. If the person does not voluntarily pay, you must take steps to collect your judgment. The first thing to do is file an “abstract of judgment.” This makes your judgment public record, but you must take steps to recover any money. You enforce your judgment by getting a court order to take and sell “non-exempt” property. In Texas, most of what the average person owns is “exempt” and cannot be taken. For example, wages, a homestead and most personal property are exempt. If the person owns rental property, you can get a lien on that property and force its sale. You also can get a writ of garnishment and take money in a bank account if you know where he banks. The bottom line is that getting paid can be difficult. Most people voluntarily pay the amount of the judgment, but if they do not, it might be a while until you see any money. For a discussion of collecting a judgment, look at the debt collection and small claims court material on my Web site,

Q. Several years ago, I was sued. A judgment was entered against me. I have not heard anything from them for more than seven years. How long is the judgment good for?

A. After getting a judgment, the plaintiff must file an “abstract of judgment.” This creates a lien on certain property and authorizes collection efforts. An abstract of judgment is valid for 10 years. It may be continued indefinitely, however, if the plaintiff takes steps to renew it. You will have to wait three more years to see what steps, if any, are taken by the creditor. If the creditor does nothing, the judgment will no longer be enforceable.

Do you want to learn more about your legal rights? Pick up a copy of my new book, the 8th edition of “Know Your Rights.”