Most of the people who call me have always paid their bills. They have never been in the kind of position that leads them to call a Bankruptcy lawyer before, and they are scared and don’t know what to do.
The first thing that I tell them is to just breathe. Calm down. Stop the racing mind. Just breathe.
Now, prioritize. Pay the utilities, the car payments, the house or rent, the groceries first. Second, if at all possible keep a small cash reserve. Did you hear me say pay the credit cards? Sure, if you can, you should always pay your bills; but if you can do that, you aren’t reading this. If you are reading this you have lost a job or your income has dropped dramatically, you’ve had major health problems, or even worse, your child has had major health problems. Even good insurance won’t necessarily insulate you from major financial ramifications.
Seriously, I have had people on the phone hyper-ventilating at the thought of not paying their credit cards. I ask them what they think will happen, and they can’t tell me; but it is clearly TERRIFYING. We’re talking asteroid slamming into the Earth, wiping out all life kind of terrifying – which may explain what happened to the dinosaurs. They missed a payment on their Master Card. Ok, so, I’m teasing a bit.
Here is what is likely to happen if you stop paying your credit cards. First of all, they are going to start calling – a lot. This is why God invented caller ID. Then, they are going to shut down your charging privileges – probably not a bad thing. About the same time, they will start reporting you delinquent to the credit reporting agencies. Sometime thereafter, you will get a letter that they are referring your file to a LAWYER for further action. The word lawyer is in all caps, because the only reason for this letter is to be scary. They can send your file to anyone they want to for “further action” or whatever other scary (and generally vague) terms they want to use, and they don’t have to send you a letter telling you they are doing it. When that file lands in the lawyer’s office, his office will also send you a letter telling you that they have it. Notice, that no lawsuit has been filed yet? It is easier and cheaper to try and scare you with letters than it is to sue you. That doesn’t mean you won’t be sued, you probably will be – eventually; but in the meantime you still have a bit more time to try to find your feet.
You will know you have been sued when you are served. The actual rules for service of process are complicated, but if you wind up with a copy of something called a Summons and a Petition or Complaint – odds are pretty good that you have been sued. How do you know that is what these things are? Well, they have the name of the court at the top, then the names of the parties beneath that on the left, with a case number on the right, then a bunch of paragraphs explaining who you are, who is suing you, and why you are supposed to owe them money. Letters start, “Dear so and so”. Court pleadings don’t.
Once you have been sued, you will be given a certain amount of time in which to file an Answer or otherwise appear and dispute the case. If you don’t do that, then a default judgment can be taken against you. Once a judgment has been taken against you, then (at least in Oklahoma) the creditor can attempt to garnish your wages, levy on bank accounts or otherwise force you to pay them money – and it will hurt. A wage garnishment can take up to 25% of your gross wages – not take home – gross. Of course, you will still pay taxes on the pre-garnishment amount,, so your net will be substantially reduced. Most people can’t afford that.
Everyone in financial trouble is different. Some people will decide to contact a lawyer earlier in this process than others. One thing that is almost universally common is that most people who have accounts in collection want to pay them. They frequently put off calling a lawyer hoping that they will be able to pay them. Where this becomes tragic is when they wait too long hoping against hope that something will save them from drowning. Then, their employer is served with a wage garnishment; and they have no money to pay attorneys fees or filing fees. They don’t have the paperwork started to get a bankruptcy filed; and they can’t afford to pay really basic living expenses if they are having their wages garnished. At that point these people are starting to be out of options. So, once you are sued, it is probably time to call a lawyer if you haven’t already and get things started. The collection process takes long enough and filing a lawsuit increases the collection costs enough that if you haven’t found a way to get the account paid by then; you probably aren’t going to.
Once a lawsuit is filed, time is no longer on your side.