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My girlfriend lived with her former partner's family for a while, and her name was on the electric bill, provided by NationalGrid. She has moved out from the location where the service is provided, but never cancelled the service. She was just notified that the bill has not been paid for multiple months.

Is there any basis for a lawsuit against the former partner's family? They claimed they would continue paying the bills until the contract was up, but failed to do so, without notifying the account holder.

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The main issue, apart from proof, is whether there was something resembling an agreement between the parties. Since you mention a (previous) contract, I assume that means that she was bound to pay for service for a certain period of time or pay a cancellation fee for early termination. That strikes me as sufficiently unusual that it might actually be illegal (power being a highly regulated industry), depending on state. Assuming there is some such fee, or at least the hassle of cancelling the service, then she would be getting something of value. The other side would also get something of value to them (avoidance of hassle, service interruption, possible credit check issues). So you have "consideration", an essential element of a contract (which the other side breached).

What she presumably has to do is "not cancel the service", and what they have to do is "pay the bill". She apparently did what she was supposed to do, and they didn't: a breach of contract. She was harmed substantially (there may be some problem quantifying the damage to credit rating, even if they eventually paid the bill). Were it not for the matter of compensating her for damage to credit score, this should be a simple enough Judge Judy type matter where she sues the other party in small claims court. Let us assume that the understanding was informal, i.e. there is no written contract. That doesn't matter, what matters is that each side understands what they are getting and what they have to do. It is simply not credible for the other side to say "Well, we thought that she was just paying out electric bill because of her deep and abiding affection for us". So even if they deny there having been such an agreement, they acted as though there were such an agreement (they did not get the account changed so that they would be responsible). It would probably be mandatory to consult an attorney to decide how and whether to sue.

There is some possibility that the arrangement would not be considered to be a binding agreement, that is, the parties had no intention to be legally bound, within a family. That doctrine is more prominent in England than in the US, and there certainly isn't any doctrine here that there are no binding contracts between family members (I can find no case like Balfour v. Balfour in the US, which held that it is rebuttably presumed that domestic agreements are not legally binding). Even in England (Bestwick v. Bestwick) family members can be held to the terms of a contract. Whether or not such an argument would gain traction in court would depend on objective facts, reducing to the question "do the facts indicate that this was a gift?". Such an argument might be more credible for an ostensive agreement that was made in the course of an amicable family relationship, but is not very credible in the event of a divorce or other break-up.

  • The parties are related "her ex's family" - this makes any arrangement between them a social one, not a legally enforceable contract barring evidence that both parties intended to make a contract. – Dale M Jun 26 '17 at 20:22
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    @DaleM - I'm not familiar with that exclusion in contract law. It would be awesome if you could elaborate on the extent and nature of that exclusion (more than you did in your answer here, which just references it), perhaps via a self-answer question we can add to the "Canonical answers" on the subject. – feetwet Jun 27 '17 at 16:29
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At the time the arrangement (her providing electricity for them) was formed the relationship between them was familial - "her ex's family". At law, the presumption is that social arrangements like this between friends and family are not contracts. This presumption can be overcome by evidence that both parties at the time intended to form a legally binding contract - basically, something in writing to that effect.

Absent a contract, she has no legal obligation to supply electricity and they have no legal obligation to pay for it if she does. There is nothing here for a court to enforce so she will lose any lawsuit she brings.

The arrangement between her and the electric company is a contract. Providing its legal she has to pay.

  • Interesting - I did not know about this presumption that social arrangements are non-binding. I don't think this is universal - I never heard about it for German law. Are you referring to Intention to be legally bound? – sleske Sep 26 '17 at 10:17
  • And while your argument seems sound, aren't you jumping to conclusions with "she will lose any lawsuit she brings"? This is hard to predict, since it will depend on unknown details (such as the exact form of her agreement) and on the judge's view of the matter. Wouldn't it be better to take that out? – sleske Sep 26 '17 at 10:24

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