Tax Sales? Sheriff Sales? Don’t be afraid.

COVID has changed the world.  Things are definitely different now.  We have to wear masks; there is social distancing; no handshakes.  Things are different in the legal profession as well. Temperatures are checked at the door to the courthouse.  Courtrooms have space limitations.  Plexiglass separates the attorneys and the judges, unless you have a Zoom hearing, at which time you only see the judge on a screen.  

Even with these changes, and so many more that are not mentioned, the basics of the legal profession remain the same.  In particular, with so many families and individuals being financially impacted by this virus and its economic effects, there is inevitably going to be an increase in litigation when things return to some semblance of normalcy.  Foreclosures will resume, tax sales will resume, landlord/tenant actions will resume, and there will be a rush to the courthouse by businesses and individuals alike to make themselves as whole as possible from the losses they have sustained since early 2020.  This year has been difficult enough, but when the last act of this horrible play is complete, if it involves your home being foreclosed upon, being listed for tax sale or a potential eviction, remember these three words: Do Not Worry.  

Sure, it is scary to receive legal paperwork in the mail, and even more disturbing if it is served by a sheriff or a constable.  It is important to remember, however, that the law requires service of that nature.  The sheriffs and constables are just doing their job.  They do not take any pleasure in giving you the documents they are serving, and, many times, they are much more focused on the paperwork they are required to file after they leave than anything else.  But once you are served, it becomes even more important to take a deep breath, relax and get a game plan.  The worst course of action anyone can take is to ignore a legal proceeding.  So many people take the position, either intentionally or out of fear, that if it’s thrown aside, it will go away.  Even worse, people believe that it will never come back to haunt them.  If you take one thing away from this article, it should be this: You have a better chance of resolution in your favor and even a positive outcome if you face it, head-on, and respond.  Legal proceedings are nothing to be afraid of.  Especially during these “COVID times,” you will have opportunities to protect yourself more than you ever have had pre-virus.  

For example, once banks resume the foreclosure process, they will file notices and then a complaint against debtors who are late on their mortgage payments.  If you receive a complaint, find an attorney.  In each of the local counties, there are mortgage foreclosure conciliation programs that allow homeowners to go to the courthouse and apply for a modification on their loans.  When you go through this program, all legal proceedings stop.  Again, by responding, you protect yourself.  The homeowner, the lender, and court representatives meet to try and negotiate a modification after you submit an application.  The court has appointed representatives available for the homeowners to assist in gathering documents, completing the modification applications, and communicating with the lender.  The best part of that process? It’s FREE.  Once again, all you have to do is show up.  

Similarly, the Fall is tax sale season in Pennsylvania.  If you are behind in your taxes for two or more years, the county can sell your property at a tax sale.  The first tax sale is called the Upset Tax Sale.  That is where your property is sold, but any buyer takes the property subject to your mortgage and any other liens.  The second sale is a judicial sale, more commonly referred to as the “free and clear” sale.  At that sale, the mortgages and liens are generally divested, and the buyer gets the property with no liens or encumbrances.  

In Pennsylvania, the tax claim bureaus of each county must give you several notices before they can sell your property.  Do not ignore these notices.  Again, the representatives of the tax claim bureau are not eager to sell your home, but, rather, all they want are the taxes paid.  If you are served with a notice of tax sale, call the tax claim bureau and work out a payment plan.  The Pennsylvania legislature created a law that allows you to pay 25% of your back taxes with regular payments being made in order for you to catch up on any tax delinquencies.  If you pay as agreed, you will not have to worry about your home being sold or listed for sale.  

Sometimes, however, financial circumstances prevent even a 25% payment.  Again, don’t throw in the towel.  You can request a delay in the sale based on circumstances by appearing before a judge and requesting a delay in the sale of your property.  Admittedly, it is best to have an attorney for these types of matters, but it is most important to realize that there are still options available to you.  

Finally, for landlord/tenant cases, the rule is no different.  Answer all of the notices, respond to court filings and show up for any scheduled hearings.  Despite all of the jokes made about lawyers and the courts, you will find that 99% or more of the people in the profession want to do what is right and fair.  Candidly, if you do not respond or show up, it only signals to the court, opposing parties and counsel that you do not care about the outcome, at which time the results can be grossly unfair to you.  Don’t let that happen.

When you have a plumbing problem, do you call a plumber?  If you need electrical work completed, do you call an electrician?  Sure, you can do it yourself, but why take the chance?  The same analysis should be used when deciding on whether to hire a lawyer for any of these issues.  Everyone always thinks “it’s going to be too expensive.”  A good lawyer is like a good plumber, a good electrician or any other individual good at his or her professional craft.  If you choose the right attorney, with the right expertise, the right experience, and the right credentials, that lawyer may be able to give you options that you did not even know existed, and end up saving you money in the long run.  Part of the success in any legal issue is having the right team and the right strategy.  Again, do not ignore an opportunity to protect yourself.  At least seek a free consultation so you have all of the options laid out for you.  It will work out better in the long run.

There is an old adage: “Half of life is just showing up.”  In the legal profession, that’s the whole game.  

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