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I live with three roommates. My roommates use much more electricity than I do and are constantly wasting energy, which means our utility bill is high. The bill is in the name of one of my roommates, and the rest of us pay her back each month. If i paid her less to reflect the energy that she uses and I don’t, would I be legally protected, or am I liable for that money? Our lease doesn’t say anything about how we should split utilities and we didn’t sign any sort of contract with each other.

Edit: Thanks for the responses! We live in Austin, Texas. I have looked over the lease, and all that it says is that the person who has the bill in their name is responsible for paying the utilities. I never committed to splitting the utilities exactly four ways either verbally or in writing. I know that it seems petty not to want to pay the extra for the utilities i’m not using, but they have acted very entitled to my paying for their energy usage and the roommate who has the bill in their name has been rude and unfriendly to me the entire time I have lived here. I don’t plan to stop paying her back at all, but I don’t feel like giving her money for her wasted energy that I wouldn’t be paying if she used the AC at a reasonable level. Not to mention the fact that I am always freezing cold in the apartment, so not only am I paying more for something I’m not using, I’m paying for something I actively don’t want. Thanks again!

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    What did you agree verbally when you took the room? Sep 16, 2023 at 18:50
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    How do you know they use more than you? Do you have seperate meters or some other evidence the court would find compelling?
    – Dale M
    Sep 17, 2023 at 4:02
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    What Dale M said. Also note that energy usage might be non-obvious: For example, cooking an additional warm meal uses much more energy than forgetting to turn off a (LED) light.
    – Heinzi
    Sep 17, 2023 at 5:44
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    @DaleM One housemate I had years ago would have a bath every night that steamed up the whole house and left no hot water for the rest of us to use - we all had quick showers in the morning. She also used the washing machine almost daily at 95°C. The bills were nearly double the previous year in the same house with different people. Sometimes it's obvious when one person uses much more. How much more is harder to judge.
    – Chris H
    Sep 17, 2023 at 19:44
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    What is your relationship with your roommates? Are you friends? Do you think a legal answer would be more appropriate than an amicable arrangement?
    – Stef
    Sep 17, 2023 at 20:12

3 Answers 3

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If you promised to split the bill equally, that is a contract even if there was not paperwork or signature. The utility company will only come after the person on the contract with them, then that person can go after others who are not paying the agreed-to amount. Maybe there was no agreement at all and the person on the bill just hoped that you would split the costs.

It does also depend on what the lease for the unit says about utilities, for example "tenants shall be responsible for paying the utilities". You are one of the tenants, and with that working, you have a responsibility to pay. The courts could decide whether the bill should be split evenly, or according to individual use, and you would then have to establish that the other person uses substantially more electricity.

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  • I imagine this plus the other answer from therac could be a great comprehensive answer; there probably should be a location tag by the OP though
    – Mike M
    Sep 17, 2023 at 15:32
  • If all tenants are named on the contract, then there is also a high chance that the contract will state that the tenants are "jointly and severally liable". That is, the utility can demand all the money from any of the tenants.
    – Simon B
    Sep 17, 2023 at 22:31
  • If they promised to split the bill equally, could the courts decide to not split the bill equally? If not, your answer perhaps could use a little clarification in that regard (in the second paragraph). Sep 18, 2023 at 10:30
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From a legal standpoint, roommates co-signing a lease are normally jointly liable.
Joint liability means every one of the tenants is responsible for the entire bill. If there is just one primary tenant named on the lease, then that tenant alone is responsible for the entire bill.

How you split the bill is a matter of further agreements between the four of you. It's something a court would expect roommates to work out between themselves, and solve their disputes similarly. In some jurisdictions, a documented good-faith attempt to resolve the matter via negotiation, mediation or arbitration is mandatory. In others it's just expected before filing a lawsuit, but it strengthens the position.

For practical purposes, even if your time is worth less than the difference in bills, the court's isn't. De minimis non curat lex - "the law is not concerned with small things". It's for matters that significantly impact lives or businesses, and can't be reasonably resolved in other ways.

How a group of patrons should split their bill is a textbook example of what courts usually deem below their stature. That's not because the bill is small - you could rack up $5,000 in a restaurant, but the same court will readily provide a hearing for a $50 fine.

The reason is, if a few people voluntarily decide to dine out, it carries expected consequences, such as the need to pay the bill. A reasonable person should either agree on the split in advance, or accept the risk of any split, up to being stuck with the whole thing. These are agreements people close enough to share such expenses are expected to resolve on their own. There's no public interest being served by the court interfering in these agreements.

There are exceptions. If one of you was secretly running a bitcoin farm in the house (which basically converts energy into money), it won't matter what your agreement was or if you had separate meters. This is a commercial operation, an egregious and unexpected abuse of a household lease, for which and the landlord and the leaseholder both have grounds to evict and sue for the costs.

Taking longer showers or using more power for cooking, TV, or even heating and AC is something you can reasonably expect of a roommate, but using that power commercially isn't.

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  • Is it really below the court's stature? Depending on the region, utility expenses can be a massive cost. In some areas, utilities cost more than rent itself. Sep 18, 2023 at 8:24
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    @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket It's not only because the amount is small, but also because roommates should be able to resolve this before resorting to legal action. Courts are meant to be the last resort, not the first.
    – Therac
    Sep 18, 2023 at 9:14
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    I don't see evidence of the OP trying to use a court as a first resort. Ideally, everything can be settled by people without anyone having to go to court. But courts were, I believe, initially created with the idea of a forum in which to resolve disputes when people could not agree amongst themselves. Granted, courts now serve the primary purpose of making judges and lawyers rich and powerful, but that's another sad story... Sep 18, 2023 at 10:27
  • @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket In what regions? Sep 18, 2023 at 13:52
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    @AzorAhai-him- In many regions in our world that is subject to weather extremes and where the government does not provide subsidized utilities. I think this question may be USA-based, so 2 example there that come to mind are Connecticut and Texas. In rural Connecticut, due to the long periods of freezing temperatures, people often pay more in utilities than for mortgage/rent. In rural Texas, due to the low price of housing and the extreme heat and humidity, the same is true. Sep 19, 2023 at 1:13
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am I legally allowed to pay less?

Sure, why not?

Did your contract with the roommates explicitly state "XYZ% from each tenant." If it did state this then you must pay XYZ%.

The only thing stopping you from paying less is a stern defense. Apparently, you're not able to stand up for yourself and a lawyer isn't gonna do it for free so to keep peace you are paying more than your "fair share" which everyone else has no issue with.

Overall, your post seems better suited for https://interpersonal.stackexchange.com/

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    That. The law is a bad stand-in for failed personal relationships. Dragging your roommates to court will make it real fun to live with them. Sep 19, 2023 at 8:20

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