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Rent. Credit cards. Utility bills. How to get help if you can’t pay your bills

File photo.
File photo. (iStock/kroach)

Millions of people are enduring financial hardship after a job loss or drop in income because of the coronavirus outbreak.

More than half of the jobs in the US economy are at risk, according to Moody's Analytics. Over the past four weeks 22 million people have filed for unemployment insurance.

If you are struggling, there is help. But in most cases you need to know who to reach out to and what to ask for.

The federal government passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill and regulators are pressuring companies to work with consumers.

In addition to sending out direct payments (more on when you'll get a payment here) and expanding unemployment insurance, federal relief for many recurring expenses is available. If you lost health insurance because of a job loss, this is how to get coverage. Be sure to explore state, county and city programs, as well as relief aid available locally.

Here's where and how to access help in your financial life.

Mortgages

Homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage should contact their loan servicer to discuss payment options.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, includes two protections for homeowners with federally backed mortgages: a forbearance -- a delay or reduction in payments, for up to a year -- and a moratorium on foreclosure until at least May 17, 2020.

"Federally backed' includes mortgages owned or backed by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) or US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

To confirm your loan is federally backed, you can check at Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Or you can look up any property at Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems.

If your loan is not federally backed, you may be able to receive similar relief options from your loan servicer or your state.

If you need help, contact a Housing and Urban Development approved housing counselor or look for local legal aid groups.

Rent

If you are unable to pay your rent, let your landlord know before halting payment. While there is less direct federal assistance to renters, some protections have been put in place.

The CARES Act includes a 120-day moratorium on evictions and late fees for properties secured by a government-backed mortgage. The legislation also allows a borrower with a multifamily loan backed by the government -- potentially your landlord -- to be eligible for up to three months of forbearance. In order to receive this relief, the mortgage holder is not allowed to evict tenants who are behind on their payments.

But those measures only account for about half of the 44 million rental households in the country. The rest will need to rely on a patchwork of state, county and city assistance. At least half of states have temporary eviction moratoriums in place, including New York and California, and dozens of municipalities have adopted measures as well. Some states are offering rent assistance, like Delaware, which offers up to $1,500 to residents struggling to pay rent or electric bills because of coronavirus.

Other community resources can be found at Just Shelter, an organization that advocates for affordable housing.

Student loans

Those with federal student loans may not have to make payments through September 30, as the government is suspending payments and waiving interest on federal student loans for six months. The suspension is automatic and you don't need to do anything.

The unprecedented move, included in the CARES Act, will go into effect retroactively to March 13. If you made a payment since then, you can request a refund. But it could take some time for it to show up on your account.

The six-month suspension and interest waiver applies only to federally held loans, roughly 85% of federal student loans. That includes Direct federal loans, as well as PLUS loans that parents may have taken out on behalf of their children.

Also, the legislation halts collections on federally owned loans that are in default, including wage and tax refund garnishment. Defaulted loans will also not accrue interest through September.

Private student loans are not included, but borrowers facing hardship should contact their lender. Some are offering debt relief programs to borrowers during the pandemic.

Credit cards

Credit card companies have existing hardship offerings that kick in following disasters, and many are using those during the coronavirus outbreak. The programs offer cardholders short-term relief like reduced interest rates, higher credit limits, waived fees or delayed reporting of late payments to credit bureaus.

If you are unable to pay your monthly bill, reach out to the credit card company and ask what they can offer. A best case scenario would be deferring payment without accruing interest and no late fees.

If they don't agree to that, ask if they will reduce your minimum payment, increase your credit limit or lower an interest rate in the short term.

Credit scores

The CARES Act places special requirements on companies that share your payment record with credit reporting companies, like your credit card company or loan servicer.

If you make an agreement with your creditor -- for partial payment or a skipped payment, for example -- and are current on your account, you will be reported as curret even if you are not paying in full, so long as you adhere to your agreement.

Those already delinquent when entering into an agreement will remain so during the specified time, until the account is current. When your delinquent account becomes current, it will be reported as being in good standing.

This applies to agreements established between January 31 and will last until either 120 days after the March 27th enactment of the CARES Act (June 25) or 120 days following the end of the national emergency, whichever is later.

Car insurance

Fewer people are using their cars while people are asked to stay at home. As a result, some of the largest car insurance companies are offering programs to return money to customers.

Refund amounts range from 15% to 25% of premiums, ranging from a month at Farmers Insurance Group to as much as six months at Geico.

State Farm said it would return 25% of premiums for a period of 10 weeks, from March 20 through the end of May. American Family Insurance said it will give back about $50 per car insured within a household.

Your car insurance company can provide details on what they are offering specifically.

Phone and utilities

In mid-March, the Federal Communications Commission asked telecommunication providers to sign a pledge to maintain customers telephone or broadband service even if they are unable to pay for 60 days. More than 700 companies, including the big mobile providers like Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon, and internet providers like Cox Communications and Comcast, as well as lots of local carriers have signed on.

Companies that signed the pledge agree "not to terminate service to any residential or small business customer because of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus." They will waive late fees and are opening Wi-Fi hotspots.

But you still need to reach out to let them know of your inability to pay.

For other utility payments, like electricity, gas or water, some local municipalities have called for a moratorium on shut-offs for a period of time. Check with your local utility company about accommodations. Nolo, a legal services site, maintains a list of measures taken by utility companies across the country.

Taxes

Tax day has been moved from April 15 to July 15. You don't need to file your taxes until then.

But there has been some confusion about tax filing in relation to getting a stimulus check.

If you do not normally file a tax return because you don’t earn enough or were otherwise not required to, the IRS revised guidance and launched a new online tool to help you input some basic information and receive the stimulus money.


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