If you’ve ever signed up for a credit card, a gym membership, cell phone service or any other number of services, you’ve probably signed an arbitration agreement without even realizing it. These are provisions buried deep within consumer contracts, loans and even employment agreements under which by signing the contract you’re agreeing not to take the company to court over any disagreement that may arise. Instead, you agree to have your case decided by an “arbitrator” — a supposedly neutral third party who’s chosen and paid by the company. This means you’re giving up important rights, such as the right to have a jury hear your case, the right to have the other side disclose evidence that could help you win and the right to appeal an unfair decision.
It can be an unpleasant surprise to get into a legal dispute and find out you’ve waived the right to go to court. But it can be even more unpleasant to find out that someone else’s waiver applies to you too.
That’s what happened recently in Arizona. Four days after a couple’s wedding, the wife signed an auto lease that contained an arbitration agreement. At some point, the husband started receiving automated robo-calls from the leasing company. He asked them to stop, but they continued calling, which he claimed violated federal telecommunications laws.
The leasing company asked the court to dismiss the claim, citing the arbitration agreement.
The husband argued that the agreement didn’t apply to him since it was his wife’s lease.
But a federal judge disagreed, ruling that when the husband married his wife, he entered a “community property” estate, meaning everything that was hers would also be his from that point on. This included the lease, said the judge.
That means that when the wife signed the lease, she was binding the “marital community” of both her and her husband to its terms.
If you’re curious about what other rights and obligations you may unknowingly share with your spouse, or whether you live in a state that shares Arizona’s notions of “community property,” talk to a family lawyer where you live.