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When you’re told a product has a lifetime warranty, you would be forgiven for assuming that means you can get it repaired or replaced at any time—five days after you bought it or five decades after you bought it. And in some cases that is actually true—but in many cases it’s not true at all. Here’s what to know about so-called “lifetime” warranties.

The laws surrounding warranties are messy and vague, and that means that a “lifetime” warranty means pretty much whatever the company says it does. If you’re choosing a product based on a claim of a lifetime warranty, read the fine print closely: Companies are free to use the term as a marketing label and then define the “lifetime warranty” as lasting however long they want. In other words, you can buy something with a lifetime warranty that lasts three years. Or three months. As long as it’s explicitly defined, it’s perfectly legal.

Another reason to read the fine print? Even if the lifetime warranty does last a lifetime in some sense (see below), it can be voided for any number of reasons:

  • Failure to perform maintenance. This is very common in lifetime warranties on powertrains in vehicles. If you don’t adhere to the manufacturer’s or dealer’s recommended maintenance schedule (and retain proof of that maintenance) your lifetime warranty goes up in smoke.

  • Non-approved use. Often lifetime warranties are voided if you use the product in a non-standard way—which does sort of make sense. If you use your kitchen fridge outside for a party and it gets rained on, chances are no lifetime warranty will save you.

  • Literally anything else. The manufacturer or sales venue can limit the lifetime warranty in any way they wish, carving out stuff like normal wear and tear, acts of God, or natural disasters.

Whose lifetime?

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Beyond tricky language in the fine print, the meaning of a lifetime warranty usually comes down to what the term “lifetime” applies to:

  • Lifetime of customer. This is what many people assume the word “lifetime” refers to—if you buy a product with a lifetime warranty, it’s covered for as long as you own it—aka, as long as you live. This is actually pretty rare in the world of lifetime warranties, but these kinds of lifetime warranties do exist. For example, Craftsman will replace any hand tool for any reason, at any time.

  • Lifetime of product. The term “lifetime” can mean the lifetime of the product, which in turn has a defined term. You might get a lifetime warranty on the new roof you just had installed, but the “lifetime” refers to the shingles themselves, which have a defined lifetime (usually somewhere between 30 and 50 years). That’s how long the shingles are expected to last under normal conditions—their “lifetime.”

  • Lifetime of company. It’s obvious once you think about it, but even if a lifetime warranty literally means to infinity and beyond, if the company offering that warranty ceases to exist, so does your warranty. Unless another company takes on the legal responsibility and explicitly supports prior warranties, the end of the company will typically end the warranty. This is important in sectors like home improvement or construction—a lifetime warranty on your home or replacement windows might be offered by the builder or installer, and if they go out of business, so does your warranty.

The key takeaway here is that the term “lifetime warranty” is often just a marketing term; if a lifetime warranty is part of your motivation to purchase something, read the fine print.

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