Editorial Policy

Cancer patient's court fines go to collections

Erica Sandberg

April 4, 2014

QHi Erica,

I'm battling testicular, lung and brain cancer. I haven't been able to work much. I have a court fine that was sent to collections, and they suspended my driver's license. I had it almost paid off, and now they almost tripled it. I need to travel to Portland for some more tests and exams; if I can't drive, I'm going to miss more appointments, and that could be bad. I had a 2 percent chance of making it out of brain surgery and had chemotherapy after that. I'm so scared already that if more tumors come back, I won't make it this time. What can I do? Is there any chance they might drop the rest of my debt off? It's $650 now since they tripled it. I've been stressed and worried, and cancer thrives on stress and worry. –Chad

ADear Chad,

First and foremost, I urge you to prioritize your time and energy. Clearly you have a life-threatening illness and staying as calm as possible while you're getting critical medical care is paramount. Yes, you may want to clear up this problem, and I'll explain how you might be able to do that, but worrying won't help, right? Remember that, always.

It can be disastrous not to satisfy a court fine on time for such infractions as parking tickets and moving violations. As you discovered, the fees alone are expensive. For example, a civil assessment penalty will be automatically added to a delinquent court bill. And, unlike third-party collections, these types of fees are mandatory, and the balance is non-negotiable. A third-party collection agency may accept a settlement, allowing you to pay less than what you owe. Not so with court collectors, which work for the courts.

When the debt was sent to collections, they gave you a certain amount of time to pay up before they suspended your driver's license. Because you didn't abide, you now have to cover the entire balance before you can drive legally again. Once the collector has the payment in full, they'll lift the suspension, usually within 24 hours.Ask Erica

The collector may also garnish wages, take money out of bank accounts, and intercept income tax refunds. Also, there is no statute of limitations for court fees.

So, how can you fix the fines so you can drive again? Here are four possibilities:

  1. Charge it. The first option is to pay with a credit card, as long as you can afford at least the minimum payment. If you don't have an active account, but your credit rating is fine to excellent, you may even be able to get a new card swiftly. I don't normally suggest relying on plastic for emergencies, but your situation is pressing.
  2. Turn to a loved one. Maybe a friend or family member would donate to your cause. If you're uncomfortable with a donation, work out a repayment plan — your relative will likely be more understanding than a faceless collector.
  3. Explore crowd funding. Patients just like you have turned to strangers for help with their expenses. Consider setting up a profile on websites like gofundme.com, giveforward.com, or fundrazr.com. For motivation, here's a story about a woman with breast cancer who took her financial plight to the Internet and was stunned by the assistance she received.
  4. Collection agency payment plan. I called Enhanced Court Collections, which works for the Superior Court in Marin County, Calif. to find out if they offer hardship breaks. (I went with my local agency because you couldn't be reached for more information about your location.) According to the woman I spoke with, court collectors routinely accept payment plans of up to a year. Your license won't be reactivated until it's 100 percent paid off, though.

You must travel to your appointments safely (and lawfully, to avoid further trouble), so if you can't get back in your own wheels soon, contact Road to Recovery immediately. This program provides transportation to people with cancer who do not have a ride or can't drive themselves. Do what it takes to get there, Chad. Life is vital; bills are not.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.