Volunteering for jail isn't the answer to 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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear Sally,
I am 12 months’ delinquent on my credit card. The balance is $11,500. I was just served papers to appear in court. Pennsylvania is the state.

I receive Social Security benefits as my only means of money. I do have other debts that I've not been paying. I am a chronic compulsive gambler.

In addition to owing others, I now owe my husband close to $6,000. I plan to pay him first by passing the title of my car over to him. Upon doing so, I won't have anything in my name.

Should I just throw myself on the mercy of the court and explain I can't pay this debt? I have many health problems and take quite a number of medications each day. Shall I suggest to the judge to put me away? I have so many medical procedures for the remainder of the year. It would be cheaper for me. I have no criminal record, but I will go willingly to jail. I lay around most all the time because of my conditions. I can't do what I used to.   – Sophie


Dear Sophie,
Your Social Security benefits are safe from the credit card company, even if they get a judgment against you in court. By law, the bank must electronically tag Social Security benefits. If the only money deposited in your checking account is from Social Security benefits that were direct deposited into the account, the credit card company will not be able to seize them. Be careful not to transfer your money to another account, however, or it will no longer be protected.

You should still respond to the court summons. Never ignore legal proceedings against yourself, even if you think you have nothing left to lose. I recommend that you seek free or low-cost legal aid, such as that offered through lawhelp.org, a volunteer network of attorneys. You should also talk to legal counsel before you pass the title of your car to your husband to make sure creditors can’t accuse you of trying to shield your assets by doing so.

To stay out of further financial and relationship trouble, you must deal with what you describe as chronic, compulsive gambling. Gamblers Anonymous is free, and it has helped many people. It’s not a quick or one-time fix, but it’s worth the time and effort you’ll need to expend in order to get your life back.

If you are under age 65 and living on Social Security benefits, you may qualify for subsidized health insurance or Medicaid, depending on your household income and other factors. Pennsylvania is one of the many states that expanded Medicaid coverage through its HealthChoices plans to cover many people who would not previously have qualified for Medicaid.

Volunteering to go to jail to avoid debts and obtain free medical care is not a new idea, and I can see how it has some appeal. The U.S. penal system doesn’t have provisions for voluntary incarceration, however. Trying to commit a low-level crime in order to get into jail makes for interesting TV shows, but it’s not a good idea in real life. You’d almost certainly add to your troubles, for little or no benefit. Fortunately, you should be able to get medical care and resolve your debts – without checking into jail.

See related: Judgment-proof debtors have imperfect shield, Joint card account means shared gambling charges

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Updated: 01-22-2018