Judge Judy: You're Smarter Than You Look

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Aug. 20, 2001 -- Judge Judy Sheindlin has become famous from her top rated courtroom reality show, where she doles out no-nonsense decisions from the bench. With her new book, You're Smarter Than You Look, Judge Judy brings to order the most difficult relationship problems, with her signature brand of tough love.

The following book excerpt is from the first chapter of You're Smarter Than You Look.

Living Without Benefit

(If you call this commitment, you should be committed.)

In the middle-class neighborhood where I grew up, if two people lived together without benefit of marriage, they were bums and their parents were pitied. Their lives were forever on the gossipy lips of old aunts and nosy neighbors. Times have changed, and it's no longer such a scandal to do a "test run." But don't kid yourself that living together is the same as being married. If anything, it's much more complicated. There are no rules, no court of last resort when things don't work out.

In my TV courtroom, I have presided over countless cases involving former live-ins. The issue usually revolves around money, possessions, and promises made and broken. It amazes me that people who turn faint at the thought of walking down the aisle think nothing of purchasing houses, boats, and cars with live-in lovers. When they try to get satisfaction from the court, they learn just why it's easier to keep things legal.

I don't have a problem with two adults living together. If you choose to test the waters before jumping into the marital sea, don't kid yourself that it is a commitment until death, especially when it comes to money. So many women equate a joint bank account and credit card with commitment. Most of them are just not thinking. If a child of mine ever opened a bank account with Mr. Almost-Sort-of-Committed, I'd have her committed. Think how much easier it would be if we had laws for people living together. If I were to write those laws, they would include the following stipulations:

1. No live-in arrangement shall exceed one year. If after one year there is no ring on the finger or date for the wedding, the temporary partnership shall disband.

2. Live-ins shall not purchase any of the following items jointly: house, car, boat, espresso machine, dog, or health club membership.

3. All expenses shall be divided equally, and a precise record kept.

4. The word commitment shall be used only in referring to the upcoming wedding.

If live-ins abided by these rules, they wouldn't have so much trouble. Just listen to the tales of woe!

Payback Time

When people are in love and have stars in their eyes, they don't like to deal with the messy business of contracts. What really gets messy is when the relationship folds and one of the partners realizes too late that she doesn't have a leg to stand on. That's what happened to Amy.

Amy: When Paul and I met, I was an accountant and he was driving a cab and going to school at night. Since we were planning a life together, we decided that he would go to school full-time and get his degree as a physical therapist. I would pay his tuition and the living expenses, and he'd help out with a part-time job. After he graduated, we'd get married and start a family, and then I would be the one to work part-time. Well, all went as planned, except he split when he graduated. I feel cheated, and I want to sue him for the money I laid out for his tuition. Isn't that fair?

Paul: We both went into this relationship believing it was going to work out. I loved Amy. I believe she loved me. We made an arrangement that I would graduate from school early so we could get started on a family. Let me stress here that Amy was the one who really pushed for this arrangement. I was perfectly happy going to school only part-time and paying for it myself. She insisted that it was better for us if I graduated sooner. The relationship didn't work out, and I regret that, but we never had an agreement that this was a loan. Never had a contract, verbal or written, that said if things didn't work out I would owe her a cent.

Judge Judy Says:Amy, unfortunately, you should save the cost of filing a lawsuit. In order for you to be successful, you would have to establish that a contract existed between the two of you for Paul to reimburse his tuition and expenses, and there is no contract to that effect. This arrangement was an act of faith in your future, not a contract. Legally, Paul is absolutely right. Consider it money well spent on a good lesson for the future.

Next time, make a contract and memorialize your contribution as a loan. That's my legal answer. Don't sue; you'll lose, There are other issues here, too, having to do with common sense and judgment. Amy, since you were chomping at the bit to get started on your life plan together, which included marriage, why didn't you just go ahead and get married? Was something magical going to happen when Paul graduated?

You left yourself without any protection whatsoever, because you didn't think things through. Paul, there is no legal claim against you, but that doesn't mean you're off the hook. She put you through school. You'll reap the benefits of her hard work for the rest of your life, and you feel no moral obligation to reimburse her? If that's the case, she's well rid of you.

Just a Piece of Paper

It's the favorite refrain of gun-shy single people: "A wedding certificate is just a piece of paper!" Does anyone really believe that? Come on! Andrea certainly didn't believe it when Joe, her live-in of five years, tried it on her.

Andrea: Joe and I have lived together for five years. We had both been divorced for many years when we met, and now we're in our mid-fifties. Even though he …

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