Learn More About HELPS, the Nonprofit Law Firm Making a Difference in the Lives of Senior Citizens and Legally Disabled Persons.
When you've pawned your dead husband's wedding ring and you've cracked your dentures, life feels about as low as it can get. . .until another debt collector calls.
Senior citizens are not immune to economic hardship. This hardship frequently includes significant debt. Indeed, the National Counsel on Aging reports that about a third of senior households have no money left over each month after all debt expenses are met.* And these are the households that can meet their debt expenses.
HELPS (Help Eliminate Legal Problems for Seniors and Disabled) was founded by Eric Olsen, a bankruptcy attorney with more than forty years of practice in the area of consumer debt. During this time, Eric met a lot of lower income senior citizens struggling with debt. He knew their retirement incomes and minimal assets were protected by law. Because creditors could not take what little these seniors had, a bankruptcy was not necessary. Telling seniors they could keep their limited funds felt like good news. It was also the truth.
But a lot of these seniors came back. Debt collectors were unrelenting. Harassing collection calls and intimidating demand letters made life miserable. Fortunately, as a bankruptcy attorney, Eric was very familiar with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act – a federal law protecting consumers from debt collectors. He knew debt collectors could not directly communicate with a person represented by an attorney if notice of legal representation is received. Rather, debt collectors had to communicate with the attorney providing notice.
Consequently, he founded HELPS to become the attorney who communicates with debt collectors. Because senior citizens were not the only demographic with protected incomes, HELPS could also serve lower income veterans and persons receiving disability. These vulnerable segments of the population could use their protected incomes for basic needs and not be harassed by debt collectors. Relief was available without unneeded bankruptcy filings.
HELPS did not stop with using laws to protect lower income senior citizens, veterans and persons surviving on disability. It began a still ongoing mission to educate the demographic it serves about the laws protecting them. HELPS believes all lower income senior citizens, veterans and disabled persons deserve to know about the laws protecting their assets, social security and retirement incomes. Just because a person is not an attorney does not mean he or she cannot understand basic information and make better decisions based on understanding.
For too long, information about what a debt collector really can do has been accompanied by terrifying warnings and raised eyebrows of judgment. Some websites and so-called legal “experts” give senior citizens advice about dealing with debt that amounts to advising you to glue a helmet to your head for protection from a possible meteor strike. Could it happen? It could. Will it happen? Well, the odds of being struck by a meteorite are about one in 1,600,000. The likelihood of a credit card company wanting a to execute a judgment on 2001 Toyota Camry is just about as remote.
It might be hard to understand why access to realistic information about debt collection matters, until you're the one trying to pay for basic expenses on a fixed income. When advice about debt comes without any consideration for the situation of the person seeking help, financial decisions are made based on unreasonable worry. We believe all senior citizens, disabled persons and veterans have the right to choose survival over paying for old debt.
Federal law protects social security and most retirement incomes from garnishments, unless the garnishment is for federal debt. To a lower income senior citizen, having already meager funds offset for old can be can be a catastrophe.
And these catastrophes are on the rise. From the Small Business Administration to Navy Federal Credit Union, time and circumstance do little to temper the aggressive collection efforts of some federal agencies.
The basis for determining which federal agencies offer relief to lower income senior citizens is anything but rational. The IRS and Department of Education offer mechanisms for relief and income based repayment. Other agencies, however, offer no escape mechanism from starvation causing offsets outside of death.
With no adequate tool available to protect senior citizens from these draconian offsets, HELPS is trying to bring awareness to the issue. "These garnishments are grinding the faces of poor seniors who have no voice. It's difficult to imagine that our lawmakers realize this is happening. HELPS Nonprofit Law Firm urges organizations that help seniors and others to join with HELPS and ask Congress to act now to correct this draconian practice."
Government agencies causing lower income senior citizens to suffer great financial hardship doesn't just happen on the federal level. Many state taxing agencies fail to offer solutions for lower income persons surviving on protected incomes or inform them of their rights. Collection notices come with intimidating words that sound a lot like criminal prosecution. Federally protected incomes cannot be offset for state tax debts, but most state agencies aren't going to tell anyone.
HELPS seeks to change this problem. Starting with the Oregon Legislature, HELPS has committed time and resources to lobbying for change. As a result of HELPS' efforts in Oregon, pioneering legislation placing sweeping restrictions on state tax collectors was signed into law by Oregon Governor Kate Brown.
These efforts continue. “We aren’t stopping the fight here,” said Olsen, “We’ve got clients all over the United States who come to us after paying their limited incomes to state taxing agencies, thinking they’re avoiding a prison sentence. I won’t be happy until every state informs its judgment proof citizens that they don’t have to pay these tax debts if they can’t afford it.”
HELPS hasn't just drawn attention to problems with the way some government agencies are collecting government debt. It has also called for reform on the way some local government agencies act as agents for debt collectors. When Olsen realized how many of Utah's constables were threatening to take away the meager possessions of lower income senior citizens, he wanted more people to know what was going on.
Daily interaction with America's lower income seniors reinforces what HELPS already knows. Legislative change needs to happen. From allowing endless debtor's exams to facilitating the miserable cycle of payday loans, laws across the country does not adequately protect the poor. Senior citizens and legally disabled persons are especially vulnerable to these lack of protections.
As a nonprofit law firm, HELPS understands the scope of its ambitions are large. The amount of lower income senior citizens struggling with debt is growing. Legislatures are subject to political trends. All of the obstacles, however, are outweighed by the bettered lives of the population HELPS serves. When a senior citizen calls to tell you about the air conditioning he can new afford or a single mom on disability describes the new shoes she just bought her child, it makes everything worthwhile.*National Council on Aging. “Older Adults and Debt: Trends, Trade-offs, and Tools to HELP.” Accessed June 2018. https://www.ncoa.org/wp-content/uploads/NCOA-Older-Adult-Issue-Debt-Brief.pdf