Alabama debtor protections are weak, and Mobile lawyer wants changes.

By Alex Walsh

A recent report that gave Alabama an “F” for the legal protections it affords consumers with debt failed to surprise one Mobile attorney.

James Patterson is with Underwood & Riemer, PC, a firm that often defends consumers who find themselves facing bankruptcy. Patterson says the National Consumer Law Center’s assessment of Alabama’s debt protections is accurate.

“It appears the political shift of the last 20 years or so has put forth business protections over consumer protections,” Patterson says.

In many states, consumers with significant amounts of debt are offered limited yet significant protections of their income and assets from seizure. These laws can help consumers with debt keep their jobs, for example, which can serve as an avenue for paying debt down over time.

In Alabama, however, these protections are extremely limited. Bankrupt residents may only keep up to $3,000 worth of their own possessions, with a vehicle, a bank account, and all other assets being bundled into that one basket. And just $5,000 worth of the value of a home is protected. And no more than 75 percent of a worker’s wages are protected from garnishment.

“It is next to impossible to keep anything of value without having to surrender it to creditors,” Patterson says, “or pay back what the value of the items are worth.”

Patterson says the state’s laws need changing, particularly in instances where a business may have defrauded a consumer with little wealth. “Most consumers can barely afford to maintain a standard of living,” Patterson says, “let alone go toe to toe with a business who has defrauded them out of thousands of dollars.”

Patterson’s comments mirror those authored by the National Consumer Law Center for its recent report. “By updating their exemption laws, states can prevent debt buyers from reducing families to poverty,” the NCLC said. “These protections also benefit society at large, by keeping workers in the work force, helping families stay together, and reducing the demand on funds for unemployment compensation and social services.”