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Debt Collector Allegedly Used Colonial-Era Law to Go After Debtors' Family Members

Christine DiGangi

The Pennsylvania attorney general is suing a debt collector for allegedly trying to use a colonial-era law to collect medical debts from consumers' relatives, according to a news release. It's not so much the age of the law as the way it was allegedly used that's the issue: Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane says the collector incorrectly cited the law as grounds for pursuing debtors' relatives for bills for which they're not responsible.

On June 5, Kane announced the lawsuit against Hamilton Law Group and its president James Havassy, who had been hired to collect medical debts in Lehigh and Northampton counties, in eastern Pennsylvania. The law in question is the Filial Responsibility Law (or, if you prefer terms more commonly used in the last couple centuries, it's the Relative's Responsibility Procedure), which came about in colonial times, before government programs to support the public existed. In the absence of such a safety net, relatives were responsible for each other's debts, if one of them couldn't pay their necessary expenses.

The law says relatives are responsible for such debts if the debtor is indigent (which is another old word no one uses anymore, and it means "poor") and the relative is capable of paying. It's these two important aspects of the law that the attorney general alleges Havassy failed to address in pursuing debtors' family members. The lawsuit lists six instances of alleged misuse of the law: parents receiving bills for their late son's medical care, an anesthesia bill sent to the mother of her adult son (who had his own insurance), collection efforts toward a man for his father's bills from a cardiologist and a man who received debt collection notices for his mother's and adult sister's dental health expenses. Two of the consumers complained of a negative impact on their credit standing, reports the Morning Call. Calls to Hamilton Law Group by Credit.com were not returned.

When contacted by a debt collector, the first thing you should do is ask the collector to validate the debt in writing. It's crucial you know your rights, because dealing with debt collectors can be overwhelming and confusing, and if you question the validity of what's being asked of you, try to address your concerns with the collector, or ask a consumer law attorney to review the situation — they're likely to be able to quickly identify any potential misconduct.

If you're contacted by a creditor or debt collector over a debt you owe, you can always check your credit reports to see if the account has been reported to the credit bureaus (you can get a free annual credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com). You can also check your credit scores for signs of a collection account, which you can do for free every month on Credit.com.


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