How Can I Stop My Utilities From Being Shut Off?

How Can I Stop My Utilities From Being Shut Off?

Last updated: September 2011

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette. This article was published on August 4, 2011.

Question:

My utility company gave me a disconnect notice. How can I stop the disconnection? Can they disconnect me if I’m disabled? 

Answer:

There’s 3 ways to stop a utility disconnection: pay up; make a payment plan; or file bankruptcy. A medical condition can delay a disconnection, so you can make a payment plan. But it won’t prevent disconnection forever.

That, at least, is the law for any utility regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission. The ICC regulates big utility companies, and many others. But they don’t regulate utility cooperatives, and municipal utility companies run by cities or villages. Those don't have to follow ICC rules, and don't have to defer disconnection even if you have a doctor's excuse.

Where they apply, the ICC rules say you “shall have the opportunity” to enter into a deferred payment plan to avoid disconnection. (If you’re already cut, you “may” have that opportunity to reconnect.)

A deferred payment plan pays off your back bill over time, while you pay your new bills as they come due. The back bill is paid off through a down payment, and payments spread over 2 to 12 months.

The maximum down payment a regulated utility can require is 1/4 of “the amount past due.” Less than 25% is OK.

Then, to pay off the rest of the back bill, you get at least 4 monthly payments, up to a maximum of 12. You must make those deferred payments along with your new bills as they come due. If you don’t, you can be disconnected.

Deferred payment plans must be in writing. If you don’t pay according to plan (i.e., default), you can reinstate and get back on track. But only once.

If your circumstances change, a deferred payment plan can be renegotiated. As with reinstating a deferred payment plan, you only get to renegotiate once. A renegotiation can’t give you a total of more than 12 months to pay off the old bill.

If you make a deferred payment plan, default, and don’t reinstate (or reinstate and default again), then “the utility shall have the right to discontinue service.”

A doctor’s statement can postpone a cut for up to 60 days, or reconnect you within 14 days of being cut off. A doctor (or board of health) must certify that a utility cut ”will aggravate an existing serious illness of any person who is a permanent resident of the premise where service is rendered."

A medical certification delays disconnection for 30 days. During that 30 days, you’re supposed to do a deferred payment plan. If you don’t, you can be disconnected. A second certification can get you another 30 days. But without another certification, or after 60 days, you can be disconnected. If you make a deferred payment plan during that 30 or 60 days, you won’t be disconnected.

Finally, a bankruptcy filing immediately stops a disconnection. A bankruptcy discharge wipes out old bills, so you’re just liable for new ones. If you’ve been disconnected, a bankruptcy can get you reconnected.

Energy assistance is usually available starting September 1 for seniors, the disabled, and people who have been disconnected. For more information, see Illinois' LIHEAP webpage
 

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