How long to fight over a legal bill?

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Dear Debt Adviser,
I had a bill dispute with my divorce lawyer, and it went to court. He won the entire amount and 10 percent interest for five years. I am trying to structure a payment program with him or borrow some money to settle the amount as a revised lump sum. I have not been able to get a response from him. I have no money to hire a lawyer, and I don’t know if I should just start making payments or continue to write letters. I am a commissioned employee and I’m not making very much money at this point. What is my next step?
— Jack

Dear Jack,
Five years? You’ve been fighting with the attorney that YOU chose to handle one of the biggest events in your life for five years! There are times when moving on is the best option. My guess is, this is one of them.

My advice is to pay the attorney what you can, and do it on a regular basis. Whatever you can afford should come out of each paycheck and be sent to him. It wouldn’t hurt to include a note telling him that you will be paying him every pay cycle. And you might consider offering a mea culpa to help move things along. I suggest that you tell him you are sorry for being a dunderhead. He’ll think you mean that because you picked a fight with a pit bull. But, you’ll know it is for picking him in the first place!

Debt Adviser’s quick tips
  • Stop fighting.
  • Send regular payments.
  • Call when the dust settles.

Your recent experience is an excellent example of the bumps in the road of our life journeys that we all encounter. These times are the ones for which I encourage my readers to prepare for with an emergency savings cushion — six to 12 months’ of living expenses. Don’t get me wrong, savings don’t cure all, but they can help smooth out the bumps — and maybe would have enabled you to pay the legal bill five years ago.

Since your divorce attorney won in court, he likely received a judgment for the total amount you owe. With a judgment, the attorney has several options.

  • He can accept a repayment plan from you to collect what is owed. He is not responding to your communication attempts, so this may not be what he has in mind.
  • He can go back to court with the judgment and request a garnishment order to levy your bank account or garnish your wages. Neither of these options would be good for you.
  • He can use the judgment to place a lien on any real property that you own or may one day own. The lien would be satisfied from the sale proceeds if and when you sold the property.
  • He can just sit there and ignore you until he feels like letting you off the hook.

You mention that you are considering borrowing money to make a lump sum offer to settle the debt. If that is a viable option for you, once you have approval for the loan amount you have in mind, put the offer in writing and send it certified mail, return receipt requested to the attorney. When you get the receipt showing he received your offer, give him a call. My guess is he won’t answer, but it’s worth a try.

Should you have no luck getting the attorney to communicate with you about a payment program or a lump sum settlement, I’d still send regular payments to pay down the debt. Eventually, the attorney will talk to you and you can determine how to move forward from there. Finally, remember that at this point there is nothing further to discuss about the bill except how you will be paying it. The court has decided that you owe the money, and that’s as final as these things get. Five years is too long to have something this unpleasant be a part of your new life.

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