Law For Dummies®, 2nd Edition

 

by John Ventura, JD

 

 

 

About the Author

John Ventura was a small-business owner, best-selling author, and attorney. He was also a national authority on consumer and small business financial and legal problems.

John earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and a law degree from the University of Houston. He envisioned providing ordinary people with affordable, caring legal services, and he hoped to educate people on how to use the law to protect their rights.

He and a partner established a law firm in Texas, building it into one of the most successful consumer bankruptcy firms in the state. When the partnership ended, John established the Law Offices of John Ventura in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He also had a fourth office in Corpus Christi. His firm offered legal advice and assistance in the areas of bankruptcy and personal injury. During his 27 years as an attorney, John’s firm helped more than 12,000 consumers and small-business owners.

John was a frequent guest on radio programs across the country. He was interviewed by such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Inc. Magazine, Money Magazine, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, Playboy, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune. He was also a guest on National Public Radio, CNNfn, CNBC, and Bloomberg Television and Radio.

John wrote about small business and consumer legal issues for a number of local publications in Texas. In addition, he was the author of 12 books for consumers and small-business owners.

 

Dedication

To my brother Frank, who is always there for me, and his wife, “Cool Janet.”

 

Author’s Acknowledgments

Thank you to Mary Reed, whose vision matches my own and whose hard work on our projects far exceeds mine. I also want to thank her for the sound of the wind chimes I often hear when we talk by phone. They remind me that life can be simple and sweet.

Also, a heartfelt thank you to the people I work with every day: my friends and associates at the Law Offices of John Ventura, P.C. They guarded my time when I needed to work on this book, and they share my pleasure in helping people resolve their legal problems.

Thank you to Tim Gallan, my project editor for this book, and Elizabeth Rea, my copy editor. I truly appreciated their invaluable questions and comments during the editing process. They helped make this book better. Finally, a special thanks to my agent, Carol Mann.

 

Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our Dummies online registration form located at www.dummies.com/register/.

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Senior Project Editor: Tim Gallan

Acquisitions Editor: Mikal Belicove

Copy Editor: Elizabeth Rea

Editorial Program Assistant: Courtney Allen

Technical Editor: Moises Salas

Editorial Manager: Christine Meloy Beck

Editorial Assistants: Hanna Scott, Melissa S. Bennett, Nadine Bell

Cover Photos: © Getty Images/Photodisc Blue

Cartoons: Rich Tennant, www.the5thwave.com

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Adrienne Martinez

Layout and Graphics: Andrea Dahl, Barry Offringa, Jacque Roth, Heather Ryan

Proofreaders: Leeann Harney, Jessica Kramer, Aptara

Indexer: Aptara

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Joyce Pepple, Acquisitions Director, Consumer Dummies

Kristin A. Cocks, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Michael Spring, Vice President and Publisher, Travel

Brice Gosnell, Associate Publisher, Travel

Kelly Regan, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Gerry Fahey, Vice President of Production Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services

Contents

Title

Introduction

About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : Basic Legal Stuff

Chapter 1: All About Our Legal System

What Are Laws and Where Do They Come From?

Civil Law versus Criminal Law

Our Court Systems

All about Contracts

What to Expect If You’re Involved in a Lawsuit

Chapter 2: Do It Yourself: Solving Your Own Legal Problems

Easy Ways to Solve Legal Problems

Dispute Resolution: Burying the Hatchet

The People’s Court

Chapter 3: Solving Legal Problems with an Attorney

When You Need an Attorney

Why You Need an Attorney

What to Look For in an Attorney

Where to Find an Attorney

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

Talking Dollars and Cents

The Attorney-Client Relationship

If You’re Unhappy with Your Attorney

Why Didn’t I Think of That First?

Can’t I Act as My Own Attorney?

Part II : Laws That Affect Your Daily Life

Chapter 4: Relationships, Marriage, and Divorce

Love No Longer Equals Marriage

Living Together

Getting Married

Breaking Up Can Be Hard to Do

Deadbeat Dads . . . and Moms

Unmarried Women and Child Support

Chapter 5: Parenting and Child Care

To Be or Not to Be a Parent

Being a Parent Is Serious Stuff

Defining the Roles of Legal Guardians and Foster Parents

Protecting Against Abuse and Neglect

The Ins and Outs of Adoption

Using a Surrogate

Child Care

Chapter 6: The Law and Your Job

Applying for a Job

Dealing with Job Offers That Come with Conditions

Legal Issues on the Job

Dealing with Employment-Related Discrimination

Sexual Harassment

Safety on the Job

What Your Employer Has the Right to Know about You

Calling It Quits

Chapter 7: Driving and the Law

Getting Your Driver’s License

The Rules of the Road

Uh Oh! Stopped by the Cops

Getting Tickets

Accidents Happen

Drinking and Driving

The Responsibilities of Owning a Vehicle

Chapter 8: Privacy: Do You Really Have Any?

Who Knows What About Me?

The Federal Privacy Act

The Right to Financial Privacy Act

The Federal Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act

The Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act

Post-9/11 Inroads into Your Privacy: The Patriot Act

Part III : The Law and Your Money

Chapter 9: So You Want to Be an Entrepreneur!

Getting Off to the Right Start

Working out of Your Home

Making Nice with the IRS

Knowing Your Employees

Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights

When Good Businesses Go Bad: Bankruptcy

Chapter 10: Credit: Getting It, Using It, Losing It, Rebuilding It

Getting Credit

Using Credit and Protecting Your Credit Record

When You Can’t Pay Your Bills

The Credit Repair Organizations Act

Chapter 11: Smart Spending

Shopping by Mail or on the Internet

Knock Knock: Buying from a Door-to-Door Salesperson

Avoiding Scams: Do I Have a Deal for You!

Buying a Product on Warranty

Chapter 12: Buying and Selling a Home

Finding a Home to Buy

Working with an Agent or Broker

If You’re the Seller

If You’re the Buyer

Finding a Mortgage

Closing the Deal as the Buyer

Closing and the Seller

Buying or Building a New Home

Part IV : Tough Stuff: Being Sick, Getting Older, Dying

Chapter 13: Your Health Care Rights

Power to Patients!

Your Rights If You’re HIV-Positive or Have AIDS

Fighting Medical Malpractice

Paying for Your Medical Expenses

Chapter 14: Getting Older: We All Do It

Financing Your Retirement

Managing Medicare

Nursing Home Care

Home Health Care

Other Residential Options for Seniors

Chapter 15: Estate Planning

What Does Estate Planning Involve and How Do I Do It?

The Importance of an Estate Planning Attorney

Starting with a Will

Alternatives to a Will

Taxes (Of Course)

Planning for Your Incapacitation

Chapter 16: Death and Dying: Doing It Gracefully

Laying It Out in a Living Will

Giving Someone a Durable Power of Attorney for Your Health Care

If You Don’t Have a Living Will or Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

Planning Your Funeral Without Getting Ripped Off

Euthanasia, Doctor-Assisted Suicide, and Your Right to Die

Part V : Crime and Punishment

Chapter 17: Do the Crime, Do the Time

What Is a Crime?

Types of Crimes

Getting Arrested

The Trial

Your Rights as a Prisoner

If You’re the Victim of a Crime

Chapter 18: Juvenile Law: The Times Are Changing

Juveniles and the Law

If Your Child Gets Arrested

The Changing Road to Justice in Juvenile Hearings

What May Happen If Your Child Is Found Guilty in Juvenile Court

Harsher Treatment for Some Juveniles

Parents Beware: The Laws May Hold You Accountable!

Part VI : The Part of Tens

Chapter 19: More Than Ten Ways to Avoid Legal Problems

Increase Your Legal IQ

Think Before You Act

Use Common Sense

Commit Important Agreements to Writing

Purchase Adequate Insurance

Keep Your Debt to a Minimum and Save Regularly

Be Forgiving in Your Dealings with Others

Don’t Argue with Law Enforcement Officials

Don’t Thumb Your Nose at the IRS

Don’t Mix Flirtation with Business

Meet Your Child Support Obligations

Don’t Set Up Your Business as a Partnership

Plan Your Estate

Chapter 20: Ten Common Mistakes Consumers Make When Hiring an Attorney

Not Asking an Attorney to Come Down in Price

Thinking That Lawyers Who Advertise Should Be Avoided

Hiring an Attorney You Don’t Feel Comfortable With

Not Avoiding Attorneys Who Win by Intimidation

Hiring an Attorney Because You’re Angry and Want to Get Even

Not Telling Your Attorney Everything about Your Case

Hiring Someone You Know to Represent You

Not Checking Your Attorney’s Courtroom Track Record

Not Getting a Written Contract or Agreement of Representation

Not Making Certain That Your Attorney Doesn’t Have a Conflict of Interest

Not Interviewing More Than One Attorney

Introduction

I’ve been a practicing attorney for nearly 30 years, and during that time, I’ve counseled many, many consumers and small business owners. Through my work, I’ve come to realize that most people are woefully ignorant of the laws that affect their lives, and they often pay a steep price for their ignorance.

Ignorance causes many people to be denied important loans due to credit bureau errors that they don’t know how to correct. It gets some people in trouble with the IRS because they don’t understand their obligations as business owners. Others have their legal rights violated by unscrupulous employers or end up in needless and expensive lawsuits because they don’t understand their legal rights and obligations or their options for addressing legal problems without lawsuits. Still other consumers are taken advantage of by telemarketers, credit repair firms, and debt counseling firms that are out to make a buck off of someone else’s financial troubles, or they can’t get their landlords to make much-needed apartment repairs.

Therefore, eight years ago, I decided to write a book that would explain the law to everyday people in simple, straightforward language, not in legal mumbo-jumbo. I wanted to cover many of the laws that affect our lives: workplace and employment laws; laws relating to personal finances, retirement, and health care; and laws relating to families, housing, divorce, and even privacy.

I wanted my book to help readers “take the law into their own hands,” so to speak. I don’t mean that I wanted them to become vigilantes; rather, I wanted to provide them with reliable, easy-to-understand information about their legal rights, responsibilities, and obligations so that they could make the laws in their lives work for them, not against them. I wanted readers to have the information they needed to avoid legal problems and, when problems did develop, resolve them as quickly as possible with a minimum amount of cost and hassle. My book would also give readers a better understanding of when to call an attorney and how to find a good one they can afford.

The book I dreamed of is this book, Law For Dummies.

And now, I’ve written the second edition of that book — the new and improved version. I’ve updated all the information in the first edition to include details about the trends in our society that are changing our laws as well as information about new laws you should know about that were passed after the first edition was published. For example, I expanded the chapter on privacy because protecting our personal, medical, and financial information has become harder to do, especially because the crime of identity theft now threatens each of us every day. Also, I’ve updated the chapter on credit to reflect major changes that Congress has made to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, the law that gives you certain rights when it comes to credit reporting agencies and your credit records. I’ve also expanded the discussion on credit scores.

About This Book

If you’re like many Americans today, you probably feel overwhelmed by the rules, regulations, and red tape that seem to govern and complicate every aspect of your daily life. Every time you turn around, another law is telling you what to do and how to do it, or what not to do and what will happen if you do! As Anatole France once said about us, “America, where thanks to Congress, there are 40 million laws to enforce 10 commandments!”

As our laws and our society have become more complicated, many of us have responded by becoming dependent on attorneys to tell us our rights and help us resolve our problems — often by filing lawsuits. In fact, we’ve become the most litigious country in the world! If you’re a consumer, you’re paying higher prices because of our nation’s litigiousness. If you’re a business owner, your bottom line is being hurt.

So, what can we do? I say this: Get smart. Become informed about the law. Understand how to avoid legal problems and how to resolve them yourself when you can. Knowledge is power!

But where do you get the knowledge? You probably didn’t get much legal education in high school or college. I know I didn’t, and neither did my kids. And most people aren’t going to teach themselves about the law unless they want a sure cure for insomnia. Traditionally, the unfortunate reality has been that most of us don’t get a legal education until we have a legal problem — that’s an expensive way to learn, both emotionally and financially!

This new edition of Law For Dummies helps you become more informed about your legal rights, responsibilities, and obligations in a wide range of subject areas. It also improves your understanding of how to use laws without resorting to attorneys. Here are just a few of the legal problems that this book addresses:

bullet You’ve been denied an important loan because of incorrect information in your credit report, and you don’t know how to get the erroneous information removed.

bullet You’re thinking about working with a debt or credit counseling firm but you’ve heard a lot of negative things about those sorts of firms, and you don’t know how to tell a good one from a rip-off.

bullet Your ex-spouse, who lives in another state, has suddenly stopped making his or her child support payments. You depend on that income to help meet your children’s needs, but you don’t know your rights or who can help you.

bullet Credit accounts that you don’t recognize show up in your credit reports. You’re afraid that you may be the victim of identity theft, but you don’t know how to get your identity back and undo any damage the thief may have done to your finances.

bullet You run a small business and frequently use independent contractors to help you accomplish your work. Recently, you were talking with another business owner who told you that she’s in hot water with the IRS because two workers she treated as independent contractors were actually employees according to the IRS. She’s worried about how to come up with the back taxes that the agency claims she owes for the misclassified workers. Now you’re concerned that you may also be misclassifying workers, and you’re wondering what your options are if you end up in the same situation as your friend.

bullet Your strong-willed, elderly father is in a nursing home and doesn’t want to be there. He’s also refusing the medical treatment that his doctor has ordered. Is there anything you can do?

bullet Your next-door neighbor isn’t maintaining his property. Not only has it become an eyesore, but also you’re worried that the collecting garbage may be a danger to the children in your neighborhood. What can you do to get your neighbor to clean up his act? Can you get your local government to help, or do you need to take legal action?

Conventions Used in This Book

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Law & Order, you probably know that the law is full of all kinds of technical jargon. When explaining legal terms in this book, I use italics to highlight the defined words.

Sometimes I go off on a tangent and present an interesting anecdote or explain a concept that may or may not be of interest to most readers. In these instances, I place the text in sidebars, which are the gray boxes you’ll see from time to time throughout the book.

How This Book Is Organized

Law For Dummies, 2nd Edition, starts out with the general in Part I and then moves on to cover the specifics in the remaining parts. The following sections briefly describe what you’ll find in each part:

Part I: Basic Legal Stuff

The first three chapters introduce you to this country’s legal system, including its philosophical underpinnings; explain the jurisdictions of the various courts in our country, from small claims to the Supreme Court; and discuss alternatives to lawsuits, specifically things you can do to resolve your own legal problems. And if an attorney’s help is necessary, these early chapters provide practical information about how to find and work with a good one.

Part II: Laws That Affect Your Daily Life

This part covers a whole range of seemingly unrelated topics — everything from family law and your job to driving and privacy. The common thread among these chapters is that they discuss laws that affect some of the most important aspects of your everyday life: your family, your job, driving from here to there and back, and maintaining the privacy of your personal, medical, and financial information.

Part III: The Law and Your Money

The information in the first chapter in this part is for those of you who own your own business or aspire to someday. The next two chapters cover everyday money matters, from using credit wisely and rebuilding your financial life after serious money troubles to spotting a scam and buying a used car. The last chapter is all about buying and selling your home.

Part IV: Tough Stuff: Being Sick, Getting Older, Dying

Getting sick, growing old, and dying happen to the best of us. Yet, these facts of life can be troubling to deal with, not to mention frightening sometimes. How are we going to pay for the health care we or a loved one may need? How are we ever going to fund our retirement? What can we do to make sure that our loved ones are well cared for after we die? What resources can help us? The chapters in this part will help you understand the laws governing things like medical care, pensions, and estate planning.

Part V: Crime and Punishment

In this part, I cover two topics everyone hopes they won’t have to become experts about — criminal law and juvenile law.

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Every For Dummies book ends with some top-ten lists, and this one is no different. In this part, I present the following topics:

bullet Easy ways to avoid legal problems

bullet Common mistakes consumers make when hiring an attorney

Icons Used in This Book

What do those funny little pictures in the margins mean? Read on.

Tip

This arrow and dartboard targets information that will help you solve problems or simply get things done in an efficient manner.

Remember

This icon flags particularly noteworthy information — stuff you shouldn’t forget.

TechnicalStuff

You don’t have to read the information next to this nerdy guy because it relates to more technical aspects of the law. If, however, you’re faced with a legal problem and want to learn as much as possible about the law involved, the technical stuff can be helpful. And if you want to impress (“bore” may be a more appropriate word) your friends and family members with your grasp of the law, the technical stuff is just what you need!

Warning(bomb)

This icon flags all kinds of dangers and scams you should avoid. Heed the advice next to this icon to avoid headache, heartache, hair loss, and financial ruin.

DummiesLink(Law)

This icon calls your attention to the location of additional information available on the Internet. For example, if you want to learn all about the many aspects of running your own business, go to Business Owners’ IdeaCafé at www.businessownersideacafe.com. And if you want to download a living will that’s legally valid in your state, go to www.partnershipforcaring.org.

Anecdote(Pub Speak)

The law can get pretty dry and boring, so occasionally this book uses real-life stories to illustrate legal problems. If you want to read about everyday people and the law, look for this icon.

Where to Go from Here

If you have a specific question about the law as it relates to a particular area of your life, just turn to the chapter that talks about that area. (Peruse the table of contents or look up the topic in the index.) For example, if you’re fired from your job and you want to know your rights, refer to Chapter 6. If you and your spouse are buying a home — the single biggest financial transaction you’ve ever made — and you want to be sure that you do everything right, read Chapter 12. And if you’re a small business owner with a home-based business and you want to avoid problems with the IRS, Chapter 9 is the one for you.

If you want, you can read the book cover to cover to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the American legal system. That way, if you encounter legal problems later in life, you’ll already be aware of a law that can help you.

Part I

Basic Legal Stuff

In this part . . .

It’s difficult to understand the law if you don’t first know how this country’s legal system works. The first chapter in this section discusses the court system, civil trials, and contracts. The next chapter presents ways that you can solve basic legal problems without the help of an attorney, and I wrap up this part by helping you discern when you need an attorney and how to find the right one for you.