Whatever the circumstances — a medical emergency, the loss of a job, or poor financial planning — a decision needs to be made about how to cope with debts and how to deal with collectors in this time of crisis. The Consumer Law attorneys and paralegals of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida work on behalf of low-income homeowners who are targeted by unscrupulous lending entities and do not have the means to defend themselves, as well as for individuals facing illegal and unfair debt collection practices.

Credit CardThe Consumer Law Unit focuses on problems related to debt collection, garnishment, repossession, contracts, consumer scams, small claims courts and debtor harassment. CLSMF may be able to assist you if you believe a creditor is wrongly attempting to garnish your wages, bank account, or other property. These are all common issues of consumer law for which many do not realize they have rights in protecting their assets. In addition to providing legal advice or representation in certain cases involving consumer law, the CLSMF Consumer Law team assists qualifying individuals with document preparation when faced with such consumerism troubles.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I discharge my student loans if I file bankruptcy?

While not impossible, the legal standard used for discharging student loans in bankruptcy is very high and therefore can be difficult. One must show that that payment of the debt “will impose an undue hardship on you and your dependents.”

The good news is that if one is successful in proving an undue hardship, the student loan will be completely canceled. In addition, when someone files for bankruptcy, all collection actions are automatically temporarily stopped on all of his or her debts, at least until the bankruptcy case is resolved or until the creditor gets special permission from the court to start collecting again.

Get the complete details and read more about the different options available to borrows for discharging student loan debt

What do I do if I can’t pay my bills?

Here are some helpful tips if you cannot pay your bills:

  • Call creditors—businesses to which you owe money—before they call you:
  • If you have a bill that is incorrect, correct it. Disputing a debt within 30 days of receiving a notice of a right-to-dispute will stop collection actions while the agency investigates. Credit card accounts can normally be disputed within 60 days of receipt of the notice-of-dispute.
  • If your bills are correct, contact the creditor and try to work out a payment plan.
  • If you are having difficulty correcting your debt problems on your own, contact the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) in your area. Your local CCCS will be listed in your phone book. This agency can help with debt management and assist with arranging payment plans with your creditors.
  • Contact an attorney or the Federal Trade Commission if a creditor is treating you unfairly. You may file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission through their website or by phone at 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357).
  • Consider bankruptcy as an option if other efforts are not working. Talk to an attorney for help in making this difficult decision. Bankruptcy will stop all debt collection efforts and will protect most of your possessions. You will still have to make payments on your house, car, and items held as collateral, but you may be able to erase most unsecured debts while leaving money available to pay what you can afford to pay.
What can I do if my wages have been garnished?

If your bank account has been frozen or your wages have been garnished because there is a judgment against you, you do have rights. Only your property that is not exempt can be taken from you. The following is a list of common exemptions:

  • If you are providing more than half of the support for a child or other dependent, then you are a Head of Household.   As Head of Household, $750.00 a week take home pay is exempt. If you are not a Head of Household then $217.50 a week take-home pay is exempt.
  • Social Security benefits, SSI benefits, Veteran’s benefits and payments from other pension plans are exempt.
  • The exempt wages, Social Security benefits, SSI Benefits, Veteran’s benefits and pension plan payments are still exempt even when they are in your bank account.
  • Tax refunds and tax credits are exempt.
  • To obtain these exemptions, a form called Claim of Exemption and Request for Hearing should be filed with the court.
  • If you owe child support, there are different rules as to what exemptions you have and how you can claim them.

This is not a complete list and there could be other exemptions you can claim.

What do I do if I am getting harassing phone calls?

A creditor of a consumer debt can request payment from you and eventually sue you if you do not pay. A creditor or a collection company cannot harass you for payment of a consumer debt. Examples of consumer debts are credit cards, car loans or medical bills. A collection company cannot:

  • Call you before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m.;
  • Call an unreasonable number of times;
  • Use harassing, abusive or obscene language; or
  • Threaten to put you in jail if you don’t pay. You cannot be put in jail just because you do not pay a consumer debt.

If you are receiving harassing calls from a collection agency, you can send them a letter stating you do not want to be contacted anymore. The law requires the collection agencies to stop calling and writing to you after they receive your letter. Use the sample letter Debt Collector Response if you want to tell a debt collector to stop contacting you. Read and follow these instructions to complete the letter.

What do I do if I have received a legal Complaint?

Note that the following information does not apply to eviction proceedings or small claims court cases.

If you are served with a summons and complaint you have 20 days to file a written answer with the court and send a copy to the person suing you. The 20 days does include Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

The purpose of the answer is to tell the judge which of the numbered paragraphs in the complaint you agree with and which paragraphs you disagree with. Next, you can add as many additional numbered paragraphs as you want to tell the court why the plaintiff should not win. Some common reasons why a plaintiff should not win are:

  1. The plaintiff did not attach to the Complaint a copy of the written agreement sued upon.
  2. The debt is too old to be sued on. This is called the Statute of Limitations. Five years after the last payment of a debt based on a written agreement is too old. Four years after the last payment of a debt based on a verbal agreement is too old.
  3. The Summons and Complaint were not properly served on you.
  4. The lawsuit was filed in the wrong county. The case must be brought where you reside or where the agreement was to be performed or where the facts of the case took place. All other counties are wrong.

You must sign and print your name at the end of the answer. You must also print your address and phone number under your signature. Once signed, file the original Answer with the Clerk of the Court; mail one copy to the plaintiff’s attorney; and keep one copy for your files.

An Snswer is an important document. You should speak to an attorney before you prepare the Answer yourself.

What do I do if I am being sued in Small Claims Court?

If the summons you received does not have a date and time for a Pre-Trial Conference then you are not being sued in Small Claims Court.

If the summons does have a Pre-Trial Conference and you do not attend the Pre-Trial Conference you will lose the case and a judgment will be entered against you. If you have a very good reason for not being able to attend, you can ask the judge for a new Pre-Trial Conference date prior to the scheduled date. This request must be in writing. If your request is NOT granted before the day of the Pre-Trial Conference, then you must attend the Pre-Trial Conference as originally scheduled or you will lose the case.

It is not required that you file a written Answer. At the Pre-Trial Conference the judge will ask if you dispute that you owe the plaintiff the money asked for. You should tell the judge what you disagree with in the Statement of Claim and state what your defenses are.

Some common defenses are:

  1. You were not properly served with the court papers.
  2. The case was brought in the wrong county. It is the wrong county if it is not where the Defendant lives or where the event took place.
  3. Plaintiff is asking for a wrong amount of money.
  4. It is not your debt.
  5. The lawsuit was brought too late. For example, if there was a written contract more than 5 years after you breached the contract, it is too late to start a lawsuit. If there is a verbal agreement more than 4 years after you breached the contract,it is too late to start a lawsuit.
  6. There was no contract signed by you or referring to you by name or account number attached to the Complaint.

At the Pre-Trial Conference, the judge will try to have the lawsuit settled in a process called mediation. No one can force you to settle the case. If you do settle the lawsuit at mediation, the Mediator will prepare a settlement agreement for both parties to sign. Read this agreement very carefully. Make sure you understand it and that it contains all of the terms of the Agreement. If the lawsuit is not settled, the judge will set a date for the trial. At trial, the Plaintiff must prove they are entitled to judgment under the law.

How do I sue someone in small claims court?

If you believe someone owes you $5,000 or less you can sue that person in Small claims court. The Clerk of the Small Claims Court will provide you with the necessary forms and can help you filling in the forms. One of the forms you must complete is the Statement of Claim. Give a brief statement why the other person owes you money. If there is a written contract, a copy must be attached to the Statement of Claim. If you cannot afford to pay the Filing Fee for a small claims case, you can apply for a filing fee waiver with the Clerk of Court. If approved, the clerk will process your paperwork and schedule a date for the Pre-Trial Conference. The person you are suing must be served by the Sheriff with the Summons and the Statement of Claim.

Concerns about Identity (ID) Theft?

If you are worried that your identity may have been stolen/compromised, you should act quickly to avoid any negative financial consequences.  Fortunately, the Florida Attorney General’s office has a one-stop shop website for what to do in the event of ID theft: Florida’s Identity Theft Victim Kit