Avoiding A Service Shut Down: Three Ways To Keep Your Utilities On

When you live paycheck to paycheck, there may come a time when you get behind on your utility bills. If the utility company is threatening to shut off your service, here are three things you can do to stop them and keep your utilities on.

Negotiate with the Utility Company

With 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, the utility companies are cognizant of the fact that people can't always pay their bills and, thus, have developed a variety of programs to help past due customers get caught up. Therefore, the first thing you should do is contact the utility company. Sometimes the company will hold off on shutting down your service if you make adequate payment arrangements with them.

If you've already surpassed the grace period to prevent a shut off, the second thing you should do is see if the company participates in a utility discount program. If you qualify, these discount programs let you get utilities at a reduced rate. Additionally, many state governments work in conjunction with utility companies through these discount programs to help past-due customers get caught up and avoid disconnection.

For example, the program available through Seattle Public Utilities will discount your light bill up to 60 percent and your utilities bill up to 50 percent. To qualify for the program, however, your income must be 70 percent or more below the state median and you must be a homeowner or renter, among other requirements.

Use Laws that Protect You

Many states have laws prohibiting utility companies from turning off utilities in certain situations. For instance, in Michigan, utility companies cannot shut off the heat or electricity of qualifying customers between November 1 and Mar 31. This is likely to protect vulnerable populations (e.g. elderly) from freezing to death during the months when the weather is the most severe.

You can find a list of state disconnection policies on the Department of Health and Human Services LIHEAP website. The utility company will usually also know the policy for your area, but they may not be as forthcoming with the information since they're trying to collect payment for services. Your local public assistance agency will likely also know about the local laws protecting customers from utility disconnection.

File for Bankruptcy

Falling behind on utility bills may signify an overarching issue with your finances. So the third option of filing for bankruptcy to halt service disconnection can possibly help you resolve other money problems. When you file for chapter 7 or chapter 13 bankruptcy, an automatic stay will fall in place that prevents creditors from taking any action on your debt until your bankruptcy case is resolved. This means the utility company cannot shut off your utilities until you receive your discharge or your case is dismissed.

However, there are a couple of caveats. First, this only works if your service hasn't been shut off. Filing for bankruptcy after your utilities have been disconnected won't get them turned back on unfortunately.

Secondly, bankruptcy law does provide some protection to utility companies in this situation. The utility company is allowed to demand that you supply a guarantee that you'll pay future bills. This is officially called providing "Adequate Assurance of Payment" and usually means you must give the company a cash deposit, though some companies also accept letters of credit, surety bonds, or prepayments.

If you fail to fulfill this requirement within 20 days after filing for bankruptcy, then the utility company is allowed to disconnect your service.

The advantage to using bankruptcy to stop utility disconnection is that your past due balance with the company will be wiped out. As long as you provide the required deposit and stay on top of your future bills, the utility company cannot disconnect your service for the money you owed previously.

If your utility services is about to be disconnected, contact a bankruptcy attorney for more information about how bankruptcy can help you get out of your financial bind. You can also click here for additional reading.