(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By John Whitfield

As thousands of Virginians now face financial insecurity due to COVID-19 and the economic turndown, here are some legal suggestions if you’re struggling or are concerned about what happens next.

I’ve spent the last 39 years as a legal aid lawyer providing free legal assistance (at Blue Ridge Legal Services, the legal aid society serving the Shenandoah and Roanoke valleys) to low-income folks in the Valley facing civil legal problems like evictions, foreclosures, debt collection, garnishments, bankruptcy, predatory lending, repossessions and a host of legal problems that so often arise when someone is suddenly facing serious financial problems.

I’ve worked through more than a few recessions over the decades, when thousands of people suddenly became eligible for our services and were totally disoriented by their state of affairs, and were wondering where that fabled social safety net was that they had always heard about as being so unfairly generous to the undeserving.

I imagine that thousands of Virginians have had their livelihood and income suddenly interrupted and are now facing a financial insecurity that is unfamiliar and frightening. Here are some strategies to help you navigate the current situation:

1. The courts in Virginia are effectively shut down until at least April 26th. That means no evictions, no debt collection lawsuits (“warrants in debt”), no garnishments are going to be issued by the court for the next 30 days or so. That gives you a little breathing room. Even if you can’t pay your rent right now, your landlord can’t take you to court to evict you – and it’s illegal to try to put you out without going to court. Just let your landlord know your situation.

2. The State Corporation Commission has ordered the various utilities it regulates not to terminate services to customers who can’t pay their utility bills during the shut-down, so you shouldn’t worry about your utilities being cut off right now.

3. The federal government has ordered a moratorium on foreclosures on federally insured mortgages, so most folks with a mortgage shouldn’t worry about a foreclosure right now.

4. There are at least two sources of financial help potentially available to you:

  • CARE Act government checks of $1,200 per person (plus $500 for each dependent child)
  • Expanded unemployment benefits that cover not only regular employees whose hours
    have been reduced or cut completely, but also those who are self-employed and
    independent contractors.

5. You should apply right away for unemployment on-line at www.vec.virginia.gov. If you are denied benefits, please feel free to seek free legal assistance at your local legal aid office. We have attorneys who are very experienced with handling contested unemployment claims.

6. In addition, you may qualify for food stamps and other assistance through your local Department of Social Services.

7. DON’T be tempted to take a high-interest loan while you’re waiting for your benefits and your CARE Act checks from the government. They are robo-calling people like crazy to get desperate people to take out their obscene high-interest loans.

8. Use what remaining funds you have to buy food and necessities. (If you’re running short, seek out the local food pantry.) If you can’t do that and pay your rent and utilities, put off paying your rent and utilities until you get your unemployment benefits and/or your CARE Act checks. On the other hand, don’t stiff your landlord if you can afford to pay your rent!

9. If you have court judgments already entered against you, don’t put your CARE Act checks in your bank account after April 26th. Your creditors will likely be filing bank garnishments as soon as the court will allow them to snag your money. Get it out of the bank if you have judgments.

10. Once you get your CARE Act checks, and/or your unemployment benefits, make sure you pay your debts in the following order (as a general rule):

  • Bring your rent or house payments up to date as quickly as possible
  • Then pay any outstanding utility bills {by doing these two things, your family will at least
    have a place to live)
  •  Buy food and other necessities of life
  • Pay your car payment if you don’t want It repossessed
  • Only after you’ve done all of the above should you pay any other debts

We’re offering these basic strategies as a path to survival while folks are trying to get through these unprecedented times. I encourage anyone who is in trouble financially and afraid of one of the legal issues we handle to call your local legal aid office to see if we can help.

For Virginians, the phone number to reach the legal aid office nearest you is 1-866-LEGLAID (534-5243) or visit the website www.ValegalAid.org for additional information. Another resource is the National Consumer Law Center, which offers in-depth information on surviving debt, at www.nclc.org/for-consumers/guide-to-surviving-debt.html

John Whitfield is executive director of Blue Ridge Legal Services, Inc., the legal aid society serving the Shenandoah and Roanoke valleys.