When retired healthcare worker “Barbara,” 72, of Elkhorn, Neb., received a letter from a creditor seeking payment for a mysterious bill, she called Legal Aid’s hotline for seniors, the ElderAccessLine®.
Paralegals and attorneys help seniors understand their financial situations, and how to make decisions about paying their creditors through the ElderAccessLine®.
Through the ElderAccessLine®, those 60-years-and older are provided assistance regardless of their income and assets, thanks to funding from the State Unit on Aging and from various Area Agencies on Aging.
“I guess they [collection agencies] think older people will see a bill and they don’t want a bill, so they just jump in and pay it,” Barbara said. She believes that creditors are taking advantage of the stimulus payments from the American Recovery Act.
“Or they just figured it’s a perfect scam for older people because older people don’t like to have bills hanging around.”
“Through the ElderAccessLine®, those 60-years-and older are provided assistance regardless of their income and assets, thanks to funding from the State Unit on Aging and from various Area Agencies on Aging.”
It’s not just letters delivered from the U.S. Postal Service. Her phone rings nonstop.
“I get about 30 calls a day of just absolute garbage. It’s social security, the IRS, Medicare. We want to give you a better plan. They drive me absolutely crazy.”
Seniors who don’t know what to do are encouraged to call Legal Aid of Nebraska
The harassment from creditors adds unneeded stress to a demographic who is already feeling the strains of adjusting to a new life after retiring.
“Not being able to pay your bills is always hard, but when aggressive debt collectors call and send threatening letters, it can be even more stressful and confusing,” said Legal Aid Debt and Finance Director Lea Wroblewski.
“We get a lot of calls from senior citizens who have spent their lives working hard and paying their debts, and when that suddenly changes due to loss of income, increases in expenses, or the loss of a spouse, seniors don’t know what to do,” Wroblewski said.
“These things are terrifying for clients,” said Legal Aid Managing Attorney of Centralized Intake Margaret Schaefer, who has been working with the ElderAccessLine® since it was founded in 2005.
Before managing the unit, Schaefer used to help clients on the ElderAccessline®. “I would ask them, ‘Is there anything you’re worried about?’ And they’d say, ‘but can’t they arrest me?’”
“I would tell them, ‘no, they can’t be arrested, debtors’ prison ended a long time ago. We can reassure them that they are going to be OK. We’re going to walk them through their situation, explain their legal rights, answer their questions, and let them know we are here for them. If a debt collector is bugging them, we’re going to help,” Schaefer said.
For Barbara, her loss of income happened because of her breast cancer diagnosis. She is a divorcee and a single mother of two adult children. About 25 years ago, she moved to Omaha to get her master’s degree in health education at University of Nebraska Omaha. “As soon as I got out of grad school, I got cancer.”
“When they diagnosed it, I ran. I went back to work and put it out of my mind.” While at one of her three jobs, she was working at a hospital and the employees were given mammograms. When the results came back, the doctor walked her back over to the hospital and checked her in immediately. “I was very unhappy about the whole thing.”
Years later, Barbara’s radiation treatments affected her joints making the pain unbearable for her to work and go on walks, an activity she once enjoyed. She would pick up part-time jobs when she could, but ultimately, she was unable to work in the career she had earned through hard work pursuing her master’s degree.
In the last few years, Barbara’s cancer returned. “I had another lumpectomy. This last go-round was pretty nasty and that’s why I had to quit working.”
Sometimes the best solution is to simply do nothing
Wroblewski said clients contact Legal Aid about notices from creditors seeking payments on a debt that is so old, the statute of limitations, which is the time frame a creditor has to file a lawsuit to collect a debt, has passed.
“The creditor can’t collect the debt through the courts, but they still imply that the debtor should voluntarily make payments on the old debt. Unfortunately, if a debtor makes a payment on the debt, it resets the clock on the statute of limitations and the creditor can now sue to collect a debt that had previously been time-barred.”
“We can reassure them that they are going to be OK. We’re going to walk them through their situation, explain their legal rights, answer their questions, and let them know we are here for them. If a debt collector is bugging them, we’re going to help.”
In Barbara’s case, the best advice is to do nothing. “We told her, ‘just don’t do anything about it.’ If a debt is so old that a creditor can’t file a lawsuit to collect it, we do not suggest that clients make payments that they can’t afford,” Wroblewski said.
Need additional help?
It is important to discuss specific situations with an attorney before taking action of any kind. Seniors should call our ElderAccessLine® at 1-800-527-7249. Hours are Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. – noon and 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. Friday: 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
For other areas of concern regarding senior legal issues, visit our Elderly/Aging page at: https://www.legalaidofnebraska.org/how-we-help/resources/elderly-aging/
Jen Litton, Development Coordinator, is the author of this article.