Eric Olsen, J.
Several weeks ago I was talking with an elderly widow. Her income was around $1,100 in social security. She was paying $300 to collectors each month for old debts. After rent and utilities, nothing was left. She quietly explained that she had been eating nothing but peanuts for the last two weeks. After I explained why she didn’t need to continue paying that debt, she then asked, “You mean I can buy groceries this afternoon?” When I said yes, she began to weep.
The Kaiser Foundation recently reported that approximately 130,000, or 42%, of Utah seniors – people over age 65 – have incomes within 200% of the poverty line. But even more concerning, one in seven Utah seniors have incomes under the poverty line.
Many studies show that debt owed by seniors has risen dramatically in the last fifteen years. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently released a report declaring abusive debt collection as the top complaint for older Americans. Most legal help today is disproportionately oriented towards seniors who do not fit in this lower income group. It is geared towards seniors with money. Lower income seniors, with little or no money to pay for advice or help, often have difficulty finding answers to their financial questions.
As the Executive Director of HELPS, a nationwide 501(c)(3) nonprofit law firm, I have learned that the vast majority of seniors do not understand one very important fact: Social security, pensions, retirement, VA benefits, and disability income are protected from collection under federal law. These income sources cannot be garnished for old debt, including state tax debt. Because of this law, seniors are often only minimally told they don’t need bankruptcy. Yet what they are often not told is that they also have the right to be protected from collectors. Because they have not been informed of all their rights, seniors have found that when they don’t pay old debts, collectors will call and make their lives miserable. Many then forego basics like food and medicine to pay old debt...