Winning in Justice Court does not guarantee you get your money

Q. I am set to go to justice court. I think I have a good case and I am very comfortable representing myself. If I win, will he be forced to pay me? Does he have to pay court costs if I win?

A. If you win in justice court, the judge will award a judgment in your favor that includes the court costs. Unfortunately, winning and getting your money are two very different things. Although most people who lose in Justice Court pay the amount of the judgment, a court cannot “force” the defendant to pay. If the defendant 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 additional steps to recover your 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. As I said, however, most people voluntarily pay the amount of the judgment, but if they do not, it may 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 website, www.peopleslawyer.net.

 

Q. I received an inheritance last year. Do I have to report it as income? Is there a tax on this?

A. It might seem like an inheritance is income and should be reported as such, but that is not the way the money is treated. Taxes are levied on the estate of the deceased, and paid by the estate. There is a federal estate tax, but there also is a $5.43 million exclusion for 2015. If the total value of the estate in question exceeds this amount, the estate itself would be subject to the estate tax. After the estate is taxed, any money distributed to the beneficiaries is not taxed again. Bottom line: You do not have to report your inheritance, and you do not owe any taxes.

 

Q. I own a dog who sometimes snaps at people. He has never bitten anyone, but I am always very careful when I walk him to keep him on a leash. I don’t have any children, but the neighborhood kids sometimes play around my yard. Am I responsible if a kid climbs over my fence and is bitten? I don’t know what the dog would do if a stranger came into my yard.

A. As a general rule, the owner of a dog is responsible for a dog bite only if the owner was “negligent” in protecting people from the dog. Negligence means not acting as a reasonable person would. You seem to take reasonable steps to protect people when you walk your dog, and you have a fence to prevent the dog from roaming the neighborhood. In my opinion, you would have no responsibility if a child were to climb over your fence and trespass on your property.

 

Q. Can I sue someone that agreed to pay a light bill that I put in my name? I agreed to put the service in my name for her apartment, and she agreed she would pay the bill. She has never paid the bill or paid me back when I had to pay it. I have no proof she agreed to pay, but I have proof I never lived with her.

A. This sounds like a good case for justice court, the new name for small claims court. First, you do have evidence—your word. You can testify that you had an oral agreement she would pay if you put the service in your name. If the other person disputes she agreed to pay, and that it was really just a gift, it may be hard to win, but this is the type of case that belongs in justice court. I also should point out that once under oath, most people do not lie.

 

Q. I have a small estate. I am thinking about writing my own will. Is a handwritten will valid? Does it have to be witnessed or notarized?

A. A handwritten will, called a “holographic will,” is valid in Texas. Basically, all that is required is that the will be written completely in your own handwriting. A holographic will cannot be typed or printed. Unlike more formal wills, a holographic will does not need to be witnessed to be valid. There is no requirement in Texas that any form of will be notarized. Most formal wills are notarized, however, because this makes it easier to probate the will.

Although a holographic will is simple and legal, in my opinion it is generally not a good idea. One mistake can end up costing your loved ones a great deal in time and money. Many attorneys will prepare a simple will for a reasonable fee. As far as I am concerned, having an attorney assist you with your will is money well spent. I suggest you call some local attorneys and ask what they charge to prepare a will.

 

Q. I have been married for three years and have one child. If I get divorced, how much should I receive for child support?

A. According to state guidelines, the amount of child support is based on a percentage of your spouse’s net resources. Basically, the amount is 20 percent for one child, and then 5 percent more for each additional child. Although most courts follow these guidelines, a court is not bound to follow them and may award more or less based on circumstances.

 

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