I was mildly enthusiastic about the CARES Act immediately after it was passed because it appeared to be substantially different from the stimulus plan crafted by the federal government during the Great Recession of 2008.
That package funneled trillions of dollars to the big banks and Wall Street speculators whose unfettered greed nearly destroyed the world’s financial system but did relatively little to help working and middle-class families devastated by the collapse of the housing market. By the time the economy began to turn around 10,000,000 of them had lost their homes.
By contrast, the CARES Act appears to direct $937 billion in aid to where it’s needed most: into the pockets of the more than 20,000,000 million Americans who are now unemployed and the bank accounts of small business owners who are literally hours away from losing everything they have built.
Sure, Congress doled out hundreds of billions of dollars to corporate America, including the airlines who have been ripping off travelers for decades, but the stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, and small business loan programs funded by the Act will help millions of people weather the Covid-19 storm—at least for the next couple months.
While it appears that Congress got a few things right, there are holes in the legislation that could negatively impact consumers, homeowners and small business owners. In this update I’ll identify the gaps and provide advice on who to deal with or avoid them.
Problems with the Paycheck Protection Program
As I mentioned earlier, hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the nation are about to go under. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is designed to help keep them afloat by providing forgivable loans owners can use to pay expenses including employee wages, rent, and utilities.
In concept the program is great. In practice, not so much.
That’s because the nationally chartered banks and SBA approved lenders charged with administering the program are permitted to pick and choose which applications to accept and in what order. As a result, they’ve been playing favorites. Business owners who have an existing relationship with a PPP lender go to the front of the line. Those who don’t, including minorities, are shoved to the back—if they’re able to apply at all. I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that Wells Fargo and other large financial institutions are telling smaller customers to hit the road and “try other banks.” Publically owned Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse just announced that they alone sucked up $20 Million of the funds appropriated.
This type of discrimination is especially troubling in light of the fact that Congress did not appropriate enough money to meet the needs of all the small businesses that are in trouble. When the money runs out, thousands of hard-working entrepreneurs and their employees will be doomed simply because they couldn’t access the help they were promised and desperately need.
We launched an investigation into this situation after being contacted by frustrated and infuriated small business owners. If you think something is wrong with the way a lender is handling or, more to the point, not handling your PPP application, please give us a call or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
On the positive side, a number of clients have told us that smaller community banks are eager to process PPP paperwork. We’re not surprised. Over the years we’ve learned that community banks are extremely responsive to the needs of small borrowers. If you’ve been unable to make headway with a large lender, I encourage you to contact one of the community banks listed here.
Stimulus Checks can be hijacked by Judgment Creditors and banks
Stimulus checks funded by the CARES Act are already being deposited in the bank accounts of millions of Americans. That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: The Act doesn’t prohibit private debt collectors from garnishing stimulus money. That means if you’re behind on debt payments and have an outstanding court judgment, a private debt collector can grab your stimulus check. Attorney Javier Merino, head of DannLaw’s New Jersey office, along with consumer lawyers Josh Denbeaux and Ira Metrick just published an op-ed in the New Jersey Law Journal dealing with this issue.
If you fall in this category you should keep a close eye on your bank account and withdraw the money as soon as it is deposited. To stay one step ahead of judgment creditors you can track your stimulus payment here.
Here’s more bad news: if you owe money to the bank where your stimulus payment is being direct-deposited the bank can grab it. For example, if you have a bank account that’s been overdrawn, and your stimulus payment is deposited into that account, the CARES Act does not prevent the bank from taking part or all of the stimulus payment to pay back the debt. So far J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo have said they will not seize stimulus funds. Bank of America, Citibank, and U.S. Bank have yet to clarify their positions.
Waiver of Federal Student Loan interest is in doubt
Federal Student Loans servicers have not been completely transparent about how they are going to implement the six-month zero interest, zero-fee forbearance included in the Act. In addition, some observers speculate that Navient, Greatlakes, and Nelnet don’t have the technology needed to properly track accounts. If you are taking advantage of the forbearance program please pay close attention to your loan statements and contact DannLaw or other attorneys if you notice a discrepancy in your account.
The CARES Act does not provide relief for federal loans originated before 2005 and private student loans
The CARES Act does not provide forbearance for federal student loans originated before 2005 that were not consolidated or private student loans. If your loan falls into these categories you must continue to make your payments. If you are unable to do so, contact your servicer in writing and request a modification, forbearance or another type of accommodation.
Monitor your credit if you are taking advantage of the mortgage forbearance provisions of the CARES Act.
As we’ve noted in previous updates, the CARES Act provides for up to 12 months of payment suspension/forbearance for borrowers with federally-backed loans owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or insured by the FHA, VA and the Department of Agriculture. To determine if you have a qualifying loan send a request for information (RFI) to your mortgage servicer. We’ve drafted a simple RFI you can use. To obtain a copy email us at email@example.com.
Please remember forbearance isn’t forgiveness. That means you may be subject to higher mortgage payments, escrow payments, and other fees when you begin making your payments after the forbearance period. If you do take advantage of the Act’s forbearance program you should look closely at your monthly statement to make sure it is correct. You should also subscribe to a credit monitoring service and check regularly to make sure your servicer is not entering negative information on your credit report. If you notice discrepancies contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can help protect you and determine if you have legal claims that may entitle you to financial compensation.
Bankruptcy may be the solution to your financial problems
My parents always encouraged me to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Today, their advice is more valuable than ever before because the COVID-19 emergency is causing unprecedented damage to our economy and levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. Study after study has shown that a majority of Americans would have a difficult time meeting their obligations for more than a month or two if they lost their source of income. The ongoing crisis has validated those studies.
The $1200 stimulus checks and small business loans may ease the pain in the short term, but when that money is gone many business owners and individuals will be forced to consider filing bankruptcy in the months ahead. And while many people are loathe to do so, bankruptcy protections may provide the best option for dealing with the devastation caused by the crisis—a crisis none of us created or could have anticipated.
The fact that the courts and collection activity are essentially shut down gives business owners and individuals a unique opportunity to closely examine their financial situation and begin planning for the future—including a future that includes bankruptcy. Doing so will put you in a good position to move forward once the crisis ends if you don’t have to file and will help ensure that bankruptcy provides the maximum protection for your family and your business if filing proves to be the best alternative.
If you would like to schedule a phone or video conference with one of our experienced bankruptcy attorneys to discuss your financial future and the options that are available to you, please email email@example.com We are here to listen, to advise, and to help.