Bonnie A. Sullivan
The greatest number of Maryland’s low-income minority older adults lives in Baltimore City. In 2010 nearly 41 percent of low-income minority adults 60 years and older lived in Baltimore City, according to the Maryland Department of Aging. As the executive director of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), I’ve seen first hand the legal challenges facing these vulnerable adults. Sadly, simply being of an older age makes theseBaltimoreans targets of various forms of abuse that can rob them of their livelihoods, their homes and their self-sufficiency.
Baltimore City Tax Sales
While they may seem insignificant, unpaid property taxes and water bills can lead to a tax sale in many jurisdictions across the country, and particularly so in Baltimore City where tax sale occurs for failure to pay $750 in unpaid property taxes. Seniors can lose their home and all of the equity in it for unpaid taxes and other municipal bills for modest delinquencies. Their homes are sold through public auction and the eviction process begins quickly. Without proper legal representation, these seniors may not have the opportunity to reclaim their homes after they enter a tax sale. The month of May is when the tax sale process in Baltimore kicks into high gear, so it is imperative to seek civil legal counsel if seniors find themselves – and their home – in a tax sale. Two places to start are with the auction website bidbaltimore.com for a list of properties up for tax sale and a list of tax sale relief resources at taxsalehelpbaltimore.org.
More than 60 percent of American households headed by a person aged 60 and older had some form of debt in 2013. Among them, the median debt was $40,900—or double what it was in 2001, according to the National Council on Aging.
When an individual falls behind on his or her bills, collections efforts can be unrelenting. The impact on seniors can be devastating with serious emotional and physical consequences. Recently, MVLS has seen a surge in the number of clients who are seeking bankruptcy because they desperately want creditor harassment to stop. Bankruptcy is an expensive and time-consuming process. The filing fee alone costs more than $300. An alternative to filing for bankruptcy is a program we call “bankruptcy bypass.” The Bankruptcy Bypass Program is for low-income Marylanders with consumer debt issues who can avoid filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy because they are collection proof. Individuals may be collection proof if they do not have income or property or if they are living on a fixed income such as Social Security, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or a pension.
Generally, once a creditor is assured an individual is collection proof they will move on, knowing that they are unlikely to collect any money from the individual. It almost always takes only a letter and a phone call from an attorney to get that message across and stop the harassment.
MVLS has seen a number of cases of tax identity theft, which can cost the taxpayer in many ways. In some cases, clients trusted a fly-by-night tax preparer that stole their identity or modified their tax return to increase a refund, and walked away with their money – usually through a direct deposit to the preparer’s bank account. What’s more, sophisticated identity thieves are filing returns using the social security numbers of those who do not have a filing requirement – often the elderly and the deceased. Filing taxes every year, even if a senior doesn’t need to file, can help prevent identity theft. It’s also important to file early in the tax season and not wait until April 15. No one can claim to be them if they’ve already filed.
There are civil legal services providers across Maryland, including MVLS, that can help seniors understand their civil legal rights and guide them through challenges they face. In many cases, it only takes a phone call to start down the right path to protection against abuse.
Bonnie A. Sullivan Esq. is executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), a statewide organization serving Maryland’s low-income residents by offering free legal services and full representation for civil legal cases