Don’t skip court date with debt collector

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Dear Debt Adviser,
I lost my job over two years ago; I am disabled and filing for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, assistance. I have no savings or assets of any kind other than a 1993 Suburban van that is on its last legs. I live with my sister who also has lost her job. She has savings we are living on, but all is very tight. I received a letter to appear in civil court for debt collection. What is going to happen to me? I can’t pay. Unless Social Security accepts me, I have no repayment plan options. I have already sold my tools and everything that I own to pay medical bills. I have cancer and can’t even afford chemotherapy treatments at this time. When I go to court, what should I say? Are court-appointed lawyers available for civil suits?
— Wes

Dear Wes,
I can hear the desperation in your question. Don’t worry; there are solutions to your debt collection problem and help that is available for free. The last thing you need in your life right now is the stress of a summons from a debt collector to appear in court.

Since this is a legal issue, I recommend that you get a free attorney and appear in court. I would check with your state or county bar association or legal aid office and request help from a civil case attorney. Another resource is your local Legal Services Corp., or LSC. LSC is the single largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the U.S. Established by Congress 35 years ago, LSC operates as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.

If you are unable to find free legal assistance, you should still plan on attending and explaining your situation to the judge. Be ready to provide documentation of your SSI application and current medical condition. You will need to bring with you your paperwork proving that you have applied for SSI assistance and a letter from your doctor stating your medical condition. In a worst-case scenario, should the judge find for the debt collector, what will happen is the collector will be awarded a judgment for the amount of the debt owed. The collector could use the judgment to garnish your wages but not Social Security income unless you owe the government. Or the collector could place a lien on your property, of which you don’t own any. Therefore, even if you lose in court, the collector will not be able to do much in terms of debt collection. If the debt collection activity continues, I suggest that you tell the collector that you don’t wish to be contacted about this debt again. By law, they have to then cease all nonlegal actions.

Hopefully, your SSI application will be approved soon and you will again have a steady income. When that happens, be sure to keep your Social Security income in an account solely for that purpose. That way, the account will not be able to be levied to satisfy your creditor. In other words, don’t mix your SSI benefits with any other income you might obtain in the same account. Once it is mixed, it will be difficult for you to prove the source of the money and a debt collector may be able to get at it.

In the meantime, I recommend that you do some research on assistance to help pay for your needed chemotherapy. Many pharmaceutical manufacturers offer assistance programs to help pay for all types of medications, including chemotherapy. The Partnership for Prescription Assistance has information about more than 475 public and private patient assistance programs. You can reach them by calling (888) 4PPA-NOW or on the Web.

Good luck

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