The senior helpline caller is 65. The medical establishment, the credit card industry, and the oil monopolists have combined to place her in a state of insolvency, reversing her "pay-your-own-way-in-life" philosophy. "I can't do it anymore," she lamented.
Her husband is 70, sick, and no longer able to work. He had a coronary bypass six months ago. Medical bills are still coming in. She works at a bowling lane, earning $100 a week, except during the summer months when the lanes are closed.
"All we have is our Social Security and my husband's $300-a-month pension," she said. "I paid August bills with September money. I paid more than $6,000 on a credit card (used to pay medical bills) and the principal went down by less than $1,000."
She resides in a deteriorating metropolitan neighborhood. Her house is valued at $42,000, encumbered by a $17,000 mortgage. "Last winter we had a one-month heating bill of $690. Now they're telling us it will be going up 40 percent!
"They tell me I should take bankruptcy and do it before October when the new bankruptcy law becomes effective," she continued. "I called a debt counseling firm and was told we don't have enough money for them to help us.
"I don't know which way to turn. This situation is killing my husband and I'm a nervous wreck. What can I do?"
I recommended that she send "Dear John" letters to the hospital's bill collector and the credit card company, informing them of her predicament and invoking the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. "They will understand," I said. "You are without attachable assets."
Their Social Security payments and his pension cannot be levied upon, and her $100-per-week wage falls under the $150 exemption for the garnishment of wages.
"Make your mortgage payments, seek state assistance with the 2006 heating bills," I advised, "and save enough to buy your husband a gallon of ice cream."
(Pro bono legal information and advice is available to persons 55 and older at USD Senior Legal Helpline, 1-800-747-1895; firstname.lastname@example.org).