- Robert Weed
Before bankruptcy: Can I go to jail if I ignore this summons?
Around 100,000 people a year get arrested because they owe unpaid bills and ignore a court paper. Does this happen in Virginia. Yes!
I’m a Virginia bankruptcy lawyer. About one-third of my clients don’t come to see me until the sheriff brings court papers to their door.
Then it’s panic time! Here are questions people ask.
“What do these papers mean?”
“Is it too late to file bankruptcy? ”
And the big question, “Can I go to jail?”
First the good news. In case you didn’t learn this in school, debtor’s prison was abolished in America in the 1830’s. You can’t go to jail for not paying your debts.
You can't get arrested for not paying your bills. You can get arrested for ignoring court papers.
Here’s the bad news. You can get arrested for not appearing in court to answer questions from your creditor.
The Wall Street Journal found that over 5,000 people were arrested for that last year in just nine big counties. (If smaller counties did the same thing, and I hope they don’t, that would calculate to 100,000 arrests each year.) Wow!
Can that happen to you? Yes. Here are the steps that could get your arrested for a debt lawsuit in Virginia.
The first paper you get is a warrant in debt. Warrant makes it sound worse than it is. (And just ignoring court papers is never a good idea.) The warrant in debt cannot get you arrested. It’s the paper when a bank, credit card company, can loan or debt collector says, “hey, you owe us this money.” People often call the lawyer for the creditor when they get a warrant in debt and ask, “do I have to go to court.” The answer you get is, No. But when you don’t go to court you admit you owe the money.
Once you miss that first court date, the machinery of the law goes to work to collect money from you. If the creditor knows where you bank, or where you work, they can file papers for a garnishment. You get notice of the garnishment about the same time you find out your bank account is frozen or your pay is short. There’s a court date on the garnishment and people think that’s there chance to dispute it. It’s not. That’s the day the bank or your payroll is supposed to turn the money in. When you didn’t show up at the warrant in debt court date, you automatically gave the creditor the right to garnish you.
If the creditor doesn’t know where you bank or work, they can file a “summons to answer interrogatories.” That paper tells you, come to court and answer our questions so we can garnish you.
Some people think a “summons” sounds less dangerous than a “warrant.” So if they ignored the warrant in debt, they should be able to ignore the “summon to answer.” Bad idea.
The summons to answer comes with an “or else.” If you don’t appear, the judge can order you arrested. Usually you get one more chance. Your last chance is called a Rule to Show Cause. The show cause tells you to come to court to explain why you shouldn’t be arrested. (If you explain, “Sorry, I didn’t know, I’m here now”–that usually works. )
If you miss the “show cause,” the judge will issue a capias. Capias is an order to the sheriff to pick you up and bring you in.
That’s where you can end up if you ignore court papers. So if you get a warrant in debt for a bill you owe and can’t pay, why start down that road at all?
Bankruptcy is a new start in life and a clear field for future effort. That’s usually a lot better than a free ride to the court house courtesy of the sheriff.