"I don't understand why I received a summons!"
"I never received anything about this!
"What can I do about it?"
I have been helping people deal with all of the problems of credit card and other unsecured debt for over 15 years, and I get calls like this almost every week!
If you have ever had someone come to your home, office or received a registered letter with a summons, you know how stressful this is.
To prevent this from happening, you need to understand how the debt collection process works and what you need to do to stop a summons before it ever gets started.
What happens if you cannot keep up with the minimum payments required by you credit accounts?
Remember, I'm writing about unsecured debts, such as:
- Credit Cards
- Personal loans or lines of credit
- Store Cards
- Medical Bills
- Utility Bills
- Private Student Loans
- Pay-Day type loans
OK, let's say that you have gone through, or are going through a financial hardship due to one of many situations beyond your control...
- Loss of employment
- Death of spouse or partner
- Medical (accident or illness)
- Retirement Income too little/fixed
Most of their stories goes something like this (I'll bet this is close to yours!):
After our divorce, I tried to keep up with the credit cards that I was left with, but without my ex's income, I just couldn't.
For the first few months, I would just pay the minimum payment on all of the larger balances and let the smaller ones go.
, I tried taking a "cash advance" on one of the cards that still had a little bit of credit left on it to pay something towards the others.
I knew I was in big trouble, but felt hopeless...there was nothing I could do!
After a while, I had to make decisions like whether to pay the utility bill or the Visa bill.
Of course, the utility bill had to be paid. It's winter and cold!
I even had to use the last credit card (with any "credit limit" left) to buy groceries once in awhile!
I finally stopped paying on most of the cards but one, hoping that something would happen and I could get caught up on the others one day.
I started getting phone calls....lots of phone calls and letters.
I tried explaining my situation a couple of times, but the agent didn't seem to care. All she wanted was for me to send something right away!
Finally, I just stopped answering the calls or the messages.
The letters started saying that unless I contacted them immediately, they were going to "charge off" my account and it might be turned over to an attorney for collection. (That was scary!)
After a few months, the calls slowed down or stopped from the original creditors, and now they were coming from debt collectors.
The letters from the Collection Agencies, were offering to work with me, but I just didn't have enough to make ends meet.
So, I just threw the letters away.
One evening, the doorbell rang and a man handed me an envelope and said, "You've been served." (Kind of like in the movies.)
The Summons said something like (I was too upset to really read it carefully) I was now a defendant in a lawsuit.
The Plaintiff was the Visa Card/Store Card.
It seem to say that I had to go to court ("appear") in 30 days or that a judgment would be awarded to the Plaintiff.
I found out that the "Appear" really meant that if I wanted to argue or explain why I didn't owe the debt, I had 30 days to send an "Answer" to the court.
The "Answer" had to be legally correct and would most likely need to be prepared by an attorney (how much would that cost?) and there would be a filing fee on top of that!
I knew I owed the debt, but couldn't do anything about it.
So, I just IGNORED THE SUMMONS.
OK, let me stop there...
I'll address that last phrase..."I just ignored the summons" later.
When you don't or can't pay the minimum payments due on your credit cards, the creditor can call and write seeking payment.
As long as the account is still with the original creditor, they have the right to call. But, when it is transferred or sold to a collection agency, you can put a stop to the calls:
In this hypothetical case (although very, very common), let's see what this person did wrong and what should have happened.
When you sign up for and are approved for a credit account, you are promising to repay what you borrow/charge plus interest and fees.
So, when you don't, the creditor has a right to "legally" attempt to get you to pay.
In this article, I'm not going to get into the "legal" vs. "illegal" actions some debt collectors take, but have written several blogs you might find helpful.
What Debt Collector Can and Cannot Do
One of the most commons mistakes someone makes is to use one credit card to pay on another.
I believe it is illegal, but regardless, you should never do this! You are just compounding the problem.
If you have equity in your home, you may (and I'm not a big fan of this) want to see if it would be possible to either consolidate all of your credit card debt with a home equity loan or line of credit.
The danger is that so many people do this, add years and increase the balance of the mortgage and then, charge up the cards again!
So, BE VERY CAREFUL!!!
Paying on one card and not the others, may help keep that particular account open, but in the long run, your're not helping yourself.
Here's the first and most important step:
As soon as you know you are in serious financial trouble, it's time to get very honest with yourself and find out exactly where you stand.
You need to do a complete (honest...every dime in and out) budget.
This will tell you the truth and help you decide on a possible solution.
If you have some money left over at the end of the month, you have a couple of options:
Debt Management or Debt Settlement
I'll get into detail a little later.
If you don't have any money left over at the end of the month, then it's time to consider:
Bankruptcy Protection from your creditors!
I think Bankruptcy should be your last and only option after you try other programs.
OK, let's say you have some money left over at the end of the month...
What can you do?
Briefly (see link above for details), a Debt Management Program (used to be referred to as Credit Counseling) is a program whereby each of your creditors agree to lower interest rates and sometimes waive fees for a set amount of monthly payment for a set amount of time.
As long as you keep up, they will not take any more collection options.
But, the problem with this type of program is that the monthly payment is not much lower (if at all) than the total of all of your previous minimum monthly payments!
If this is the case, then a Debt Settlement Program may be the answer.
A Debt Settlement Program is for people who have (or are about to have) accounts in collections.
Rather than make payments to the creditors or debt collectors, you will deposit an amount (that you can afford after completing the budget), into a FDIC Insured bank account to be used to offer settlements on you debts.
Debt Collectors and Debt Buyers may take 50% or less to settle old debts.
Once they are all settled, your credit report will start to improve.
Here's a few examples of settlements we have negotiated for our clients:
OK, that's what this person should have done, but didn't...
Even after you receive a SUMMONS, you may be able to negotiate an agreement whereby you pay back what you owe in monthly payments you an afford.
The Plaintiff will most likely move to obtain a DEFAULT JUDGMENT and it will be filed with the court.
But, if they agree, a STIPULATED AGREEMENT (repayment plan) will be filed also.
This basically says that as long as you make your payments on time and the amount agreed upon, they will not take any legal options to collect, such as:
- Wage Garnishment, or
- Bank Levy
If you already have a garnishment or bank levy, you still may be able to negotiate an agreement to stop these, but it's not easy.
The point is...
You may be able to prevent a summons, but if you do receive one, please....
DO NOT IGNORE !