Don't ignore summons for unpaid card debt

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear To Her Credit,
I recently resigned from work. I was diagnosed with an eye condition called keratoconus. The condition caused my eyesight to deteriorate so rapidly that I could no longer see the writing on my computer or the figures I worked with. I used the little money I had to pay off one account, but I could not afford to pay off my credit card. I have no possessions to my name and no income whatsoever. I am still in the process of seeking medical attention for my eyesight, but the wait is long.

I have received a legal summons saying I will receive legal notice. But I have no idea what to do as I have nothing to my name and no income. What do I do? -- Joslyn

Answer Dear Joslyn,
The most important thing you can do is respond to the legal summons. Many people feel that when they have no money, there's no point in taking any action or contacting the creditor. However, responding immediately is good for you -- and good for the company you owe money to.

By responding to the legal summons, you may be able to stop the legal process. This gives you relief from collection efforts. It may also lower the extra fees and charges that are building up on your account.

Telling the bank what is going on is the right thing to do as a borrower, too. They're trying to collect from you and unless you've communicated with them, they have no idea they're wasting time and money.

In addition, resolving issues, instead of letting them drag on, reduces your stress level. Less stress is better for your overall health, and that's the most important thing as you try to cope with your diagnosis.

You have a certain number of days to respond to the summons to try to stop the lawsuit -- usually 20 to 30 days. If you do not respond, the creditor wins the lawsuit by default. Calling the bank and telling them your situation may be all you need to do. They may put you on a hardship program, perhaps delaying your payments for a time. Under the circumstances, they may even write off your debt.

If you cannot get a resolution from the bank, you should seek free or low-cost legal aid. One place to turn is, a volunteer network of attorneys.

With no savings and no income, resolving credit card debt is not your only issue. I'm concerned about how you are getting food, shelter and other necessities. You should qualify for government or charitable assistance. There are so many programs to help people in emergency situations, but sometimes the hard part is finding the right program. One way to find help is to contact a social worker. If you prefer, you can go to the official U.S. government site for looking up benefits, You may qualify for transportation to doctor's visits, or reduced cost food. Depending on your situation, you may also receive housing assistance, health insurance and other benefits.

You may also find help through charitable organizations. It's amazing how many people want to help other people when they're going through a hard time. If you reach out, you should be able to find help you need.

See related: Living on disability with $8,000 in card debt, What happens when you're sued for a credit card debt

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Updated: 01-23-2018