Seniors Suffer Guilt from Debt They Cannot Afford to Pay

The news is full of reports about how the economy is affecting Seniors.  It reports that it’s not unusual for senior citizens to skip medicine and meals to make payments on debts. Further, many go without meals to buy medicine.  As homecare workers, we see the effects of the struggle every day. 

How can we make this better for seniors as a group?  In my research on this subject, I learned new things that are already in place. Many seniors do not know, nor do financial institutions offer this information freely.  There are state and federal laws that protect social security, pensions, disability, VA benefits and other forms of retirement income. These laws mean these debts do not necessarily have to be paid by people who are on these incomes.  Most seniors would rather pay past due bills if they can, but sometimes circumstances prevent them from doing so.  Taking advantage of the law is meant to relieve the financial stress, but seniors admit they don’t feel right letting the law protect them specifically. Why?  There are feelings of guilt and embarrassment hot-wired into us.  

Sometimes debts are old bills caused by daily living, sometimes from debt consolidation companies harassing for payment or even from current medical bills resulted from a recent illness or hospitalization.  Dealing with debt leaves senior citizens and the disabled scared and overwhelmed.  When the Mac & Cheese begins to run low, panic sets in.  Big- chunk payments from a fixed monthly income leaves a huge dent when every cent is needed for self-care at this stage of life.  Money is needed for insurance coverage, medicine, housing and other current expenses, which may even include someone to help care for them in later life.  In this scenario, seniors often don’t know where to go for help and, once again, dealing with guilt and embarrassment.

helps

According to HELPS, the first non-profit law firm and 501c3 charitable organization that serves senior citizens and disabled persons struggling with debts. 

“The law defines “guilt” as moral culpability for

an intentionally committed or premeditated act.”

HELPS clarifies why seniors should not feel guilty or embarrassed, “Hopefully, our choices are guided by principles beyond the law, but it is good to recognize the intent of this concept. Life does not always wind its way around the path of our intentions. The great recession of 2008 forced many senior citizens to lose jobs and retire early. Carefully planned retirement funds evaporated. Home values, a seeming bedrock of financial security, dropped until equity was lost and forgotten.”

“Going into retirement with these deficits, coupled with today’s costs-of-daily-living have forced almost half of American senior citizens to live within 200 percent of the poverty line. The death of a spouse, illness or any other unexpected calamity can push through any financial cushion pretty quickly, leaving seniors with a series of unpleasant decisions. Add old debt to this mix, and the choices between paying for basic needs and repaying old debt get increasingly difficult.”

The good news is that Americans do not want the elderly to suffer.

“Elected lawmakers on federal and state levels have repeatedly passed legislation protecting the income resources of senior citizens. Courts have ruled in favor of cases affirming the protected natures of senior citizens’ income. Furthermore, while the constitution expressly disfavors an entanglement of government with religion, our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Passages regarding the forgiveness of debt riddle the Old Testament.

“Open thy mouth and plead the cause of the poor and needy,”

reads Proverbs 31, Verse 9.”

“A senior citizen is not a “bad person” because he or she cannot afford to repay old debt. Lenders are businesses. Lenders know there may be circumstances when debtors cannot repay loans.  When lenders loan money or give credit to consumers, they attach an interest rate to the loan.  This interest rate exists not only to generate revenue for the business, but also to protect lenders from possible risks. They know there may be circumstances when debtors cannot repay loans.   While many lenders seek to capitalize on guilt to persuade repayment, loans are contracts made with the implied understanding that performance – repayment of the loan – is objectively possible.” 

Failure to repay outstanding credit or old debt is never a crime.

“Enforcement of these loans may be sought only through the civil courts. When the debtor is a senior citizen with minimal and/or exempt assets who has protected retirement income, any court judgment for collection of money owed is effectively powerless.”

Debt collectors will never inform senior citizens

about the laws protecting their incomes.

“Harassment does happen. Some collectors will say just about anything to intimidate and terrify senior citizens into depleting their limited resources. Phone calls and letters from collectors can feel like the gnashing teeth of a hungry predator, but the law affords senior citizens some weapons for self-defense”.

“The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act limits the measures a debt collector can take.  It also requires a termination of all written or phone contact once the debtor sends a “cease and desist letter.”  A template cease-and- desist letter can be downloaded for free from www.helpishere.org.”    

“The guilt over unpaid debt is an understandable struggle. Many of us have a hard time affording ourselves the same compassion we would grant to others. Some things, however, are objectively impossible.  Even if they were offered a million dollars to run a marathon tomorrow, most people couldn’t do it. The humility gained by recognizing that not everything is within our control can become an invaluable tool for self-forgiveness”.

As Helen Keller said,

“Failures become victories if they make us wise-hearted.”

I consider myself a knowledgeable, well-read person, yet I did not realize the extent of laws that are already in place to protect seniors and the disabled communities, as a group. All Seniors and their families should be aware of these laws in case they need to use them.  Financial skills are very important in handling the difficult decisions that we may be required to handle for ourselves or our loved ones.  Ask for help.

Knowledge is Power.

HELPS is fairly new to seniors. To the best of our knowledge, HELPS is the only non-profit law firm in the United States that helps seniors and disabled persons for free or very minimal cost, never turning anyone away in order to prevent collector harassment.  They can help provide the detailed answers to many senior questions or help you find other resources that can help.  Hopefully, there will be more coming soon.    (www.helpisbere,org)

Who does HELPS help?

Senior citizens, retired persons, veterans and persons receiving protected disability incomes and they try to help veteran survivors receive all benefits they are due. 

How much does it cost?

HELPS’ is a non-profit so it’s free or low cost.  No one gets turned away.  Everyone is provided with information and assistance.  Some persons call several times with questions.  There are no forms to fill out.  Simple call at 855-435-7797.  They will ask basic questions like your name, address and contact information, along with the approximate debt that is owed.  You will be asked if you are a homebuyer.  They help you know your rights. 

Can my creditors continue to call me if HELPS is helping me?   

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act provides that once a debt collector is informed that you are represented by Counsel, they cannot legally contact you again. Federal law allows original creditors to continue sending statements by mail, but laws in some states may not even allow this activity.

What is a debt collector?

A debt collector is a person or company that collects a debt on behalf of an original creditor. Debt collectors are typically in business as collection agencies that attempt to collect debt assigned to them by original or third- party creditors.

What is the fair debt collection practices act?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive collection practices. The FDCPA does not apply to original creditors or those collecting business debts. In addition to the FDCPA, many states have laws that proscribe unlawful collection practices by collectors and creditors, including original creditors.

What is a Cease & Desist letter?

A Cease & Desist letter is a letter sent to a collector telling them to stop phone and written contact with a debtor. The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act requires collectors who receive Cease & Desist letters to cease making calls and sending letters. A Cease & Desist letter does not stop a collector from filing a lawsuit.  You can send a Cease & Desist letter on your own behalf to stop the harassment.  It’s unwise to admit to any debt or enter into any agreement with a debt collector without knowing specifically how it will affect your future.  Seek financial counseling so you know your rights.

What is ERISA?

ERISA is an acronym for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. This law protects almost all forms of retirement such as pensions from collection by judgment creditors

If I receive a 1099C from a creditor, does that mean that I no longer owe the debt?

No, you receive this form because it is part of a formal procedure used by creditors for tax purposes. Collectors may sometimes use a 1099C form as an empty threat to lower income debtors, implying it will cause them negative tax consequences. It does not mean that a debtor does not still owe the debt.

Can I get answers on the weekends?  What if I have questions that I forget to ask you while on the phone? 

HELPS reports they check emails regularly.  If you have a question during the evening or on the weekends, they encourage you to send an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  They don't want you to living with the stress of worry.

How often can I call or ask questions?

As often as you want. The entire purpose is to help seniors stop worrying about these matters. They encourage you to call whenever you have questions and never sit home and worry. You can also email them whenever you want.

I am not a senior, but I’m disabled.  Can I get help? 

Yes. Most forms of disability income are protected by law.

Why would someone sue me if my income is protected and I am judgment- proof?

If you aren't a lawyer, lawsuits can be very intimidating. Many seniors don't know their income is protected and pay the debt after being served because they do not know better. Using fear to collect debts is the company policy of many collection agencies. They are not picking on you specifically. To them, you are just a potential number. You can always call HELPS with your questions. We are here to help.

What is the total amount of wages I can earn without a judgment creditor taking them by garnishment?

Federal law protects up to $217.50 per week net after taxes and other deductions, not including voluntary deductions. This sum is also exempt once deposited in a bank account as long it is not comingled with other nonexempt funds. A few states like Texas do not allow garnishment of wages.  Wages are different from pensions and social security.

Can anything be garnished from social security income?

Generally, no. Although it is unusual the IRS and past due student loans can garnish 15% of social security for past due income taxes or student loans. HELPS routinely helps its clients work with the IRS to be placed in uncollectable status and also to stop garnishment for student loans.

Why did a bankruptcy attorney tell me to file bankruptcy and why was I not told my retirement income is protected by law?

Perhaps because the attorney was not fully informed. Maybe bankruptcy is the only answer he knows. Bankruptcy is after all, how bankruptcy attorneys make their living. The attorney probably didn't know about HELPS as it is fairly new. To the best of our knowledge, HELPS nonprofit law firm is the only law firm in the United States that helps seniors and disabled persons for free or very minimal cost, never turning anyone away in order to prevent collector harassment.

Are veterans’ benefits protected? What about benefits for veterans' spouses?

Veterans benefits of all types are protected from collection along with social security and other retirement income. In addition, HELPS routinely assists its veteran clients in making sure they are receiving the full benefits to which they may be entitled. Many lower income veterans and spouses are entitled to supplemental veterans’ benefits. HELPS volunteers can assist in providing more information. Many widows of deceased veterans are entitled to supplemental benefits that they do not receive simply because of lack of knowledge.

Other questions you may have?

  1. Seniors with debts they can’t pay.
  2. Seniors with medical debt.
  3. Seniors with overdraft fees and your bank account rights.
  4. Living without a bank account.
  5. Living with financial guilt.
  6. How to stop an automatic bank payment.
  7. What is debt settlement
  8. Do Seniors need bankruptcy?
  9. When bankruptcy harms Seniors.
  10. When bankruptcy makes sense for Seniors.
  11. Are my children responsible for my debts?
  12. How to deal with stubborn worries and bills.

Help is Here for anyone who reaches out.  If you or your loved ones have concerns, perhaps this information will help.

Author – Judy Harrison (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

*Disclaimer – This information was found from research and provided to you as a means of financial education and is not meant to serve as legal advice from the author or POM, or even as a recommendation of the non-profit.  The information is provided as a guide to what help is available and where you can find more information.  It’s always a great idea to run ideas past your next-of-kin or a close friend before acting on important life decisions.