As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the impacts on the Fort Leonard Wood community increase. Civilians facing unemployment may be worried about mortgage payments or paying utility bills, while others may be concerned about expiring vehicle registrations or driver’s licenses. Soldiers, their family members and retirees eligible for legal assistance services on Fort Leonard Wood may need a last-minute power of attorney or a document notarized. The unique legal issues community members are facing during this time are complex and important to resolve.
The Fort Leonard Wood Legal Assistance Office has provided explanations to many of the common state and federal consumer relief options out there:
Utility Payments: In light of the economic hardship some consumers may be facing, many utility companies have suspended disconnections for non-payment for a specified time period. Additionally, many companies are waiving late payment fees and providing payment assistance plans. Anyone who cannot pay their utility bill should contact their provider or visit their website for specific information.
Auto Loan Payments: Many auto lenders are also providing payment or debt relief for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone facing default on their loan should contact their lender to see if they are offering deferred payments or waived late fees.
Vehicle Licensing and Registration: The Missouri Department of Revenue (as well as many other states) has implemented an automatic 60-day extension for expiring driver’s licenses and motor vehicle registrations. For example, in Missouri, vehicle owners whose registrations expire in March will have until May 31 to renew. Similarly, vehicle owners whose registrations expire in April will have until June 30 to renew. The Department of Homeland Security has also extended the REAL ID requirement deadline from Oct. 1, 2020 to Oct. 1, 2021.
State Income Taxes: The Missouri Department of Revenue has extended the deadline to file state income tax to July 15. The deadline to pay income tax is also extended to July 15, therefore no penalties or interest will start accruing until July 16. These extensions are automatic so no additional steps are required to receive this relief. The deadline for federal income taxes has also been extended to July 15.
Evictions: Most evictions in Missouri require a court order, and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act specifically requires a court order for service member evictions. However, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an order to suspend all in-person proceedings in all appellate and circuit courts through April 17. In all other cases, judges have the discretion to either continue or suspend the proceeding. This order does not specifically mention evictions, and as of the date of this writing, only the Circuit Court of Jackson County has temporarily suspended eviction proceedings in court. However, residents in other counties facing eviction should at least expect delays due to the suspension of court proceedings. Anyone unable to make a rent payment due to loss of a job or income is recommended to contact their landlord and explain the situation. Anyone who receives notice of an eviction proceeding should contact the Legal Assistance Office.
On March 27, Congress passed the Federal Coronavirus Relief Act, also referred to as the CARES Act. While many of its provisions have already been implemented, others are still awaiting guidance from Congress.
Student Loans: Through Sept. 30, students have the option to suspend their federal student loan payments without facing penalties or late fees, and no interest will accrue on these loans during this timeframe. Moreover, student loan debt collection will be halted, so no wages, tax refunds or Social Security benefits will be garnished through this timeframe. Additionally, anyone choosing to pause their federal student loan payments will have these non-payments still count as “payments” toward any federal student loan forgiveness program. Many lenders allow this emergency forbearance to be requested directly through online accounts or their automated phone system.
Direct Payment for Taxpayers: On March 30, the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service announced that economic relief payments should start transferring to taxpayers’ bank accounts within as early as three to four weeks. Each taxpayer will receive a direct deposit of up to $1,200 ($2,400 for married couples, and an additional $500 per child). These one-time payments are available for individuals with an income up to $75,000 and for married couples with an income up to $150,000. People who receive Social Security benefits but do not file tax returns are still eligible, and their payments will be based on information provided by the Social Security Administration. For more information regarding the economic impact payment, please visit: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/economic-impact-payments-what-you-need-to-know.
Retirement Funds: The CARES Act waives the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty for distributions up to $100,000 for COVID-19-related purposes and is retroactive to Jan. 1. The distribution is still taxed, but the taxes are spread over three years, or the distribution may be rolled back into the retirement account over the following three-year period. In the same vein, the act temporarily waives the required minimum distribution rules for 2020.
Unemployment: The CARES Act provides an additional $600 per week of federal payments on top of the base amount of state unemployment funds a worker is receiving. This additional payment will last for four months, and unemployment insurance is extended from three months to four months.
Federally Backed Mortgages: Borrowers under federally-backed mortgages may apply for forbearance if they are unable to make their payments. The lender is required to grant the request, without penalties, fees or interest for up to 180 days (subject to another 180-days extension at the borrower’s request). Similarly, the CARES Act prohibits foreclosure action for federally-backed loans for the 60-day period beginning March 18.
(Editor’s note: This is not intended as an exhaustive list of issues and not all situations may be eligible for relief. Anyone with questions concerning legal issues is encouraged to set up a telephonic appointment with the Legal Assistance Office by calling 573.596.0629.)