As a bankruptcy lawyer practicing in the Chicago area, I am often asked “can I go to jail for not paying my bills?” There is no debtor’s prison in the United States. You are not going to go to jail for not paying your bills, unless those bills were incurred by a serious crime, fraud, embezzlement, something of that nature. However, you can go to jail if you do not appear at court proceedings when a creditor is trying to collect on a debt. In this case you can be held in contempt of court which can result in jail time.
Credit Card Lawsuits and Default Judgments…Beware
Let me give you an example. Here in Illinois if someone sues you on, let’s say, a credit card debt, you will receive a summons and a complaint that will be served by a special process server. The summons and complaint will have a specific return date or a date where you have to appear before the court to answer the complaint or to otherwise file an appearance and get involved in the case. Should the credit card lawsuit be successful in obtaining a judgment against you, that creditor may in fact take steps post-filing or post-judgment in order to collect on that debt.
One of those steps is known as a citation to discover assets. A citation to discover assets is a further court proceeding, where the debtor has to appear before the court and show economic information such as bank accounts, tax returns, property listings, things like that so that the creditor has an opportunity to collect on the debt, either through a bank garnishment or a wage garnishment. If the debtor fails to appear, the next court date will be set up, which is known as a rule to show cause. A rule to show cause is a court date where the debtor must appear and explain to the court why he or she should not be held in contempt for violating the prior court order by not appearing.
Failure to Appear Can Result in Jail Time
If the debtor does not appear at the rule to show cause hearing, the next court date will be a body attachment. What I mean by that is there will be a writ of body attachment, where the sheriff of the county can pick up and arrest the debtor. The arrest will not be for the dollar amount that they owe the creditor, but for not appearing in court. Basically it’s an underhanded way that creditors put debtors in jail to force payment of debt. It amounts to a modern day debtor’s prison.
Now if you’re picked up on a contempt charge and a body attachment, you don’t necessarily stay in jail. There are times where they will let you bond out for either what’s known as an I bond, which is an individual bond, or you may have to post a certain dollar amount which is known as a D bond. In any case, you don’t want to be escorted into court in front of a judge either on an I bond or a D bond, explaining to the court that you just couldn’t make two or three court dates, and that you really had no reason to disregard the court’s order other than you weren’t paying attention.
Pay Attention to Notices From the Court and Contact a Lawyer With Questions
So yes, you don’t want to get locked up for simply not paying a debt. Your best bet is to appear at court, if you haven’t filed a bankruptcy yet, and advise the court that you’re either working or you’re not working. You have to explain if you have bank accounts. You have to explain what you have in terms of assets. You have to give that creditor an opportunity to collect on that debt post-judgment. If you don’t do so that is when you get in trouble. That is when you could be locked up. That is when you could be held in contempt.