**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer. These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****
Doing someone a favor can create a legal obligation under contract law, but only when the favor is repayment for something or when the recipient of the favor has made a promise to do something in exchange for the favor. So law about doing the favor of receiving mail would generally come from contracts cases.[i] In limited circumstances, the crime of mail theft might apply.[ii]
Undoubtedly, the legal remedy of suing in court comes about too late in problems caused by not finding out whether mail has arrived. If mail containing a big check or a job offer or a housing opportunity has not gotten to the intended recipient, the chance to benefit from that mail content has just been lost and some slow court dispute with the address holder is not going to bring it back.
As in most contract law situations, the way to use the law effectively is to make a good clear agreement in the first place, rather than hoping that the court system will solve anything later. If a homeless person wants an address holder to get his mail to him, he has to make that expectation perfectly clear in the agreement and, ideally, should contribute some effort toward assuring that he gets his mail.
For example, he could promise that he will personally come to that address every Thursday to ask for mail or he could arrange to be available in a particular location every evening in case there is mail that the address holder needs to give him. The address holder also has to make his interests very clear in the agreement. He might want to obligate himself for a limited time only or he might want the homeless person to use his address just for Social Security mailings and nothing else. Certainly, the agreement should detail how the address holder and the homeless person are going to communicate with each other because communication is the primary task involved in getting the mail from one person to another.
Contract law does not require that agreements be written down, but the process of writing down the separate responsibilities and intentions, especially when both parties doing the write together, assures that the address holder and the homeless person both know their own and each other’s obligations. Writing makes it a serious deal, more than just a casual notion. And having the writing enables both parties to point to the document as a reminder to the other if anything starts to go wrong.
If things do go wrong and the parties end-up fighting in court over a failed mail delivery, the written contract will make the court process simpler because the judge won’t have to figure out what promises the parties made to each other. Instead, the court will try to determine whether someone breached the agreement and whether any reparable harm occurred because of that breach. The court will consider how much of the contract was fulfilled and how the parties interacted up to the point of the breach. The person filing the lawsuit has to state what remedy he is entitled to if he successfully proves a breach.
It will be tempting to claim that if the undelivered mail could have led to riches and contentment. The hopes and possibilities that could have ensued from getting the mail (i.e., the income from the job that was advertised in that envelope, the lottery winnings that might have come from using part of the check in that never-given envelope, the bountiful benefits that could have begun by getting into the housing program that was offered in that mail…) cannot be claimed as contract damages. Those possibilities are only guesses. Most of the time, if anything, a court might only order repayment of real losses that can honestly be counted, such as the amount of a check that should have been passed along.
[i] State contract statutes are usually about sales of goods, insurance policies, financial matters, and sometimes employment.