From this morning’s Chicago Tribune:
“Jennifer Fitzgerald has been fighting more than $100,000 in parking tickets on her junk car after she says it had been abandoned by her former boyfriend for three years in an employee parking lot at O’Hare International Airport… Fitzgerald said her ex-boyfriend, Brandon Preveau, bought the 1999 Chevy Monte Carlo from a relative for $600, but she conceded the car’s title was in her name. She said Preveau paid the car’s liability insurance and drove the vehicle to work every day. When he lost his keys to the car, she said she gave him her spare set.”
What does this have to do with family law, you ask? Quite a bit. Marital property must be divided in a divorce (remember, we are terminating the marital estate). This means that ownership must be assigned. However, in some situations, a client may request that a particular piece of property remain in one person’s name for tax or credit reasons. I almost always advise against this because it creates unnecessary liability for the titled party. The above facts are a fantastic illustration.
Let’s say Jennifer and Brandon were married. He uses the car, makes the payments, and generally keeps it out of Jennifer’s life. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Not really. So long as Jennifer’s name is on the title, she’s liable for accidents, tickets, and other expenses associated with ownership of the car. Her divorce decree will (presumably) give her a right to collect the money she spends on the car from Brandon, but where the owner of the car is liable, she will have to put up the money first.
Here is why this is a bad idea: Jennifer is legally indemnified for all expenses arising from the ownership and operation of the car. However, in practice, Jennifer can’t collect money that Brandon doesn’t have. So, where Brandon racks up more tickets than he can pay, Jennifer is ultimately on the hook.
One last note: it doesn’t seem as though Brandon acted maliciously. In fact, it seems to be an honest mistake following the breakdown of a relationship. Even if someone trusts their ex-spouse, they can’t be certain that their ex isn’t going to make a mistake or that they won’t lose contact with his or her ex. These things happen and, as evidenced by the story, they can be costly.
You can read the whole article here.