Q: I’m new to Germany and am sure there are differences between German and American law that I should be aware of. Can you tell me about some of them?
Americans living in Germany commonly run into issues with German contracts. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If you can’t read it, don’t sign it. Your signature means you understand and consent to whatever the contract says. You cannot argue you did not understand what you signed. Additionally, unlike most U.S. contracts, German contracts automatically renew unless one party cancels the contract before the automatic renewal date. And here’s the catch, contracts do not just renew month-to-month, but rather for the entire initial term. That means if you signed a two-year contract and forgot to terminate it, you may be on the hook for an additional two years. Be sure to know when you need to cancel the contract so it does not auto-renew. To prevent this issue, once you sign a contract, cancel it. It will remain in effect for the initial two years you do want.
Most German residents are subject to a tax for their dogs (“Hundesteuer”), as well as a tax for any televisions and/or radios they own. However, the NATO Status of Forces Agreement generally exempts U.S. ID cardholders from those taxes. If you live off-post and a person knocks on your door seeking to count your dogs, request that he or she show proper identification, then explain your status and possible exemption from the tax. Because people who are hired to go door-to-door are often unfamiliar with the NATO SOFA, you might nevertheless receive a letter assessing you with the tax. Don’t worry. If you receive such a document, or one for TV and radio taxes, simply contact the Stuttgart Law Center and we’ll straighten it out.
Another note on technology: Downloading free music in the U.S. is not legal, but oftentimes individuals are not caught and penalized for it. Not so in Germany. In fact, if you download or stream music and videos for which you haven’t paid, you may get a demand letter from a law firm for hundreds of Euros in fines, and there is little our office can do to help. Also know that even if you didn’t stream the item, but rather a family member or a guest did, or even if someone used your WiFi without permission, the IP address is still yours and therefore, you are still on the hook. Watch your Internet and keep it password-protected.
Let’s talk cars: Although Germany is known for its autobahns and fast cars, bear in mind that speed and red-light cameras are common throughout the country, and speed limits vary widely. If you are caught driving significantly above the speed limit, your driver’s license may be subject to suspension. Likewise, running a red light in Germany may also result in suspension of your license and a mandatory fine. Watch those cameras!
Finally, insulting somebody or “flipping the bird” in Germany can result in steep penalties. So mind your P’s and Q’s and enjoy Germany.