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I have always assumed that, by middle-age, people know all the basic things. For instance, that “Recipient Addresses” go in the center of envelopes; that the word “letters” refers to written correspondence sent via USPS (United States Postal Service), especially when compared to “Summons’s,” which are delivered by deputies; and the like.

Finding otherwise, through a close friend, recently left me wondering how many others in my age and education strata really don’t know these basics. Granted, my stint as one of Florida’s first female police officers gave me somewhat of an extra insight into the legal parameters of American life, but movies and reality shows currently bring this same information about those details into the average American household every day now.

My friends experience helped me understand that many people are ignorant of the basic parameters of the laws they intermingle with every day, especially when they buy anything ‘on credit.’ Consumer Law is a complicated legal field unto itself, but there are things every consumer should know in order to protect themselves from the legal lions of the credit industry.

It isn’t enough to read a contract. You have to understand it, too.

In order to do that, you need to be informed about and have a good understanding of the terms used in each kind of contract. You need to know the difference between simple interest and compound interest, pre-payment penalties and non-pre-payment penalties, payment verses collection obligations, and much more.

Beyond the parameters of individual credit knowledge, every person in America needs to understand the basics of our Court systems, the forms they use for different things, and their basic operating procedures. Those of us who are lucky enough, learn these things in school while the government is supplying our education. The rest of us have to learn it the hard way: by experience.

My friend and her second husband came into a considerable sum of money in about the tenth year of their marriage and decided to invest it in a home of their own, which they had never had together. I suggested they buy a home within the cash purchasing range of their lump-sum receipt.

However, they chose, instead, to put half of their cash into a down payment on a more expensive home and some of the rest of their cash into purchasing their land separately, and into it’s necessary improvements of excavation, utilities, and landscaping. They thought nothing of financing the remainder of their home’s purchase price because they both had good jobs and enough income to support their lifestyle.

My husband and I often discussed with them various financial aspects of life, and they were aware of the many trials we went through when I lost my job and eventually became disabled. We discussed alternative financial avenues for everything from medical insurance coverage to life insurance, many times. At one point, long ago, I asked her if she was sure her husband had changed the beneficiary designation on his life insurance, and she assured me he had done it when he added her to his medical policy as his spouse.

Less than two years ago, while they were visiting us for a week, her husband became very ill and was in constant pain. He went to my chiropractor while he was with us, but they could not help him. When he got home, he went to his physician and they diagnosed him as having stage-four, inoperable, pancreatic cancer. He died three months later.

As if his failing condition was not enough stress on my friend, she discovered [only days before he died] that he had not changed the beneficiary on his life insurance policy. Although he had instructed that it be done when he changed his medical insurance with the same carrier some ten years before, he had not checked to see that it was actually done. Although my friend had him sign a notarized Change of Beneficiary document and mailed it, overnight, as the insurance company instructed, it encountered a delay in processing because the insurance agent she spoke with directed it to the wrong office. My friend lost her husband and his eighteen thousand dollar insurance benefits on the same day, as the benefit check was issued to his ex-wife before my friend’s letter arrived at the correct office. My friend later lost her job because of the time she took off while her husband was dying and then more time off trying to settle their affairs.

Here, almost two years later, after enduring an agonizing interlude of employment changes, loss of almost all family ties to children squabbling between themselves, credit counseling, and her own illness, things finally began to look up. She remarried this summer as she trained for a new and promising position as manager of a large corporate department. Even with the new job, she was unable to catch up on the home’s missed mortgage payments, replete with late fees and compounded interest.

She called me last month to say she had received “a letter” from a lawyer for the mortgage company, demanding payment in full of almost fifty thousand dollars or they’d sue her and take her home. She said she had written them a letter and sent them a check for the full amount of back payments with interest and late fees included. It sounded as if she had everything under control. Right? Wrong!

As fate would have it, we went to visit her Saturday, the thirty-first day after she received that “letter.” After some small talk, she brought out that letter. It turned out not to be a letter at all, but a "Summons" that was attached to a very legal document, which actually began a collection law suit against her.

By that time, the law firm who filed the suit, had sent her Cashier’s Check back to her. She had no idea why they’d done that and was frantic when she learned the depth of circumstances she was really in.

Being the thirty-first day after the date on the summons, which clearly stated that she had thirty days to answer it, there was little left that either of us knew to do. She was already in what is called ‘default.’

When the dictated parameters of the circumstances set by the court are not met, the opposition/ Petitioner has the right to file a “Claim of Default” against the other party to have their Petition’s demand for payment met without further adue. They can do this on the day after the thirty days is up.

I found myself furious and upset that she had confused these two very different matters (of letters and Summons’s), when knowledge of those two terms, and what they mean, could have saved her home and sanity! I was also angry with myself for not have asked specific enough questions of her to identify her real problem a month ago. My presumption may have caused her permanent imjury!

On our one-hundred-and-seventy-five mile trip home, her situation plagued us. I wracked my brain to figure out a way to circumvent her dilemma. We prayed a lot, for wisdom, mercy and for divine intervention! And in the wee-small hours of that Sunday morning, God answered.

I was laying awake, trying to sleep, when I remembered an incident at the court house where I used to work that was similar to hers. A default judgment was denied the Petitioner, even though the defendant to a suit had answered after the allotted thirty-day limit, and that was just because their legal "Answer" arrived in the court-house’s Docket moments before the Petitioner’s "Request for a Default Judgment" arrived.

The time stamp on the two documents was the deciding factor.

Having only recently represented myself as Petitioner in four lawsuits against a previous employer (all of which I won!) I knew what the court system required of her. At 04:08:35 a.m. that Sunday morning, I sat at my computer to make notes of what I knew she had to do to get her Answer to the court-house and beat the Petitioner’s representative... I knew their representative would be there early to file for a Default Judgment. It was easy to tell her how to do it, but not as easy in the doing.

“You have to create a legal document called an “ANSWER”, using the exact same heading as the document you received, including the case number.” I instructed. “For each of their requests, you simply answer one of three things: “Agree,” “Disagree,” or “Unknown.””
I told her that that document must be filed at the court-house where the Summons originated: usually in the county where the home is located, but not always. And it should be filed within the time allotted, or at least before the Request for a Default Judgment could begin to be processed.

Almost always, any document filed with the courts needs a cover letter to the Judge who will be reviewing the case, as an opened suit is called. That letter can be less formal, but needs to identify the Case Number at the top in a conspicuous location.

In her case, I suggested that she include five paragraphs in her cover letter. The first should ask for mercy from the court due to her lack of understanding of legal matters since her late husband was the legal-eagle in their family.

In the second paragraph, she needed, in as few words as possible, to say that the warning on the SUMMONS was unclear and that she did not understand to whom she needed to address her letter of response. That paragraph needed to state that she addressed and sent her response to the attorney/ or the financial institution with whom she had had correspondence, and who had also signed the document she initially received. She also needed to enclose a copy of that letter with this letter.

I told her that her third paragraph should state her reasons for failing to comply with the terms of her mortgage:

Item #1 - her husband’s death less than two years ago;
Item #2 –her failure to receive the insurance both she and her husband thought she would receive because the retirement company had not changed the life insurance beneficiary at the same time she was added to his medical insurance ten years ago; and that the deathbed documentation changing it didn’t reach them in time, due to their giving her the wrong address to send the change to;

Item #3 –her recent history of changing jobs due to the upsets in her widowhood and lack of proper information concerning it;

Item #4-- her most recent attempts to pay what the mortgage representative requested which were returned un-cashed; and to explain that her attempts to refinance the balance due before the deadline were almost completed; and

Item #5 - that she learned only that Saturday past who really needed to be responded to.
I stressed that she should beg for mercy from the courts... and the opposition. Often, the opposition will be compassionate wherever legal latitude permits. All they want is the assurance that they will get their money, soon.

I suggested that she request, in her final paragraph, that if the opposing Petitioner is granted the Default Judgment, she requests first option to repurchase her home when it comes up for resale. I just hoped she could afford it!

When her Answer and cover letter to the judge were finished, I told her, she needed to make two copies. One for the court, one for herself. She needed to be at the courthouse the moment the doors opened and to be the first in line at the Clerk of Court’s desk.

Once there, she needed to specify that they dock stamp both copies of her submission and walk their copy through to the Docketing desk, where it will be entered into the cases official computerized list of documents pertaining to her case. If her Answer reaches the Docket Desk before the opposition’s Request for Default Judgment does, she will have a little more time to complete her refinancing and pay off the Petitioner before any official Judgment is reached by the courts.

Judgments stay on credit reports for ten years, three years longer than bankruptcies! Once a Judgment is handed down, the Petitioner can request a Lien be placed against any and all the Defendant’s real property so that if and when it comes up for sale or transfer, the Lien must be paid in full before the property can change hands.
Judgments can keep you from being approved for rentals, mar your ability to purchase a home or vehicle, cause you to pay higher than normal interest on money you are able to borrow, and even limit your ability to get student loans. Liens can be renewed for many years.

In my friends case, I think she has a better than average chance to close this case before a judge needs to conclude it. After all, we asked for divine intervention for her, and I think she got it in the form of timely counsel. As with all other things, only time will tell how this turns out. At least for the moment she has been given a reprieve and that was, most assuredly, by divine inspiration.

Don't be afraid of the courts. They are your right and your responsibility. The decisions made there affect everyone, for by them policies are created by which society judges all things. Any person in the general public can go to the Clerk of Court in their county to get pamphlets of how the legal system works for any type of action: Civil Litigation, Divorce, Eviction, and so forth. These pamphlets are free. You can also find information online and through the site of your states’ Supreme Court.

If you decide to represent yourself, or at lease educate yourself, you can go to the courthouse and request to review similar cases to those you encounter. Each type of case is filed by type and then by Docketed Case Number.

You can make copies of these documents for a nominal fee at the courthouse and copy their document format (but not their exact individual names and numbers) in order to file your own documents.

If you are not well versed in legal procedures or case histories, I personally suggest that you hire an attorney to represent you, and do your own leg work to make sure they do a good job for you.

The more you learn about all things, the less easy it will be for Petitioners, Predators and Pirates to take what it’s taken you a lifetime to accumulate. Knowledge is power. And the Power belongs to the People!

© by M Ellsworth before 10/03/2003 01:19 AM


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The following comments are for "What You Don’t Know Can Really Hurt You! (Learn this!)"
by MaxiiJ

sad story
A very harsh lesson in life. I pray I never have to go through a sitation like this.

Events certainly seem to have conspired against her. Unfortunately this often the way things happen - most people can cope with one or two things going badly wrong; but the real trouble begins when several events happen at once.

On the writing: I agree somewhat with Jessica; it does wander around a bit, so a bit more structure might be useful. On the other hand, you have covered a lot of ground, and made a lot of very interesting points, so there's nothing I would want to see actually taken out of the article.

( Posted by: Spudley [Member] On: May 11, 2004 )

Well, call me easy to please, but I liked it. You could have done better at making the transition from "things you need to know," to "here is a story about my friend." Exactly how, I will not try to map out for you.
I enjoyed reading it just for the legal information. Besides you did a splendid job with the rising and falling action: of course, you didn't tell us how the story ended. When you leave us in suspense like that, you should say, "to be continued."

( Posted by: brickhouse [Member] On: May 15, 2004 )

Mister E is ever so right. By now it has ended. She got her day in court, plead her case, and got a reprieve: Rather than selling her home out from under her, they did have mercy. They let her continue paying by making up all the payments and starting over.

( Posted by: MaxiiJ [Member] On: May 16, 2004 )

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