By Jillian M. Wright, Esq.
When the economy dips, delinquencies rise and boards are left scrambling for solutions. Payment plans can be a useful collections tool. Boards and managers would be wise to understand when and how payment plans can help, when they are required, and what to put in a payment plan.
Q: Are Boards Required to Meet with Owners Requesting a Payment Plan?
A: Sometimes, yes. Civil Code section 5660(d) provides that an association must offer delinquent owners the right to meet with the board to discuss payment plans in its pre-lien notice. Civil Code section 5665(b) provides that a board shall meet with a requesting owner within 45 days of receiving the request to meet to discuss a payment plan if that request is sent within 15 days of the pre-lien notice being sent. If there is no board meeting scheduled to take place within that 45-day period, the board can designate a committee of one or more board members to meet with the requesting owner.
Even if a board encounters circumstances in which it is not legally required to meet with the requesting owner, a board may still want to meet with the owner if there is any chance the meeting could result in a reasonable payment schedule. The old adage, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” comes to mind. Having a steady stream of income is often the least costly and most efficient way to get paid even if the payments extend over a period of time. Boards should consider all collection options with their collections services provider as there are many variables to each delinquency, but the bottom line is this: owners who get behind in paying their assessments will usually not magically acquire one large sum of money to pay off their balance. Delinquent owners often need the time and structure a payment plan allows to become current.
Also, keep in mind that if an owner makes any request to meet with the board regarding a delinquency, it may be considered a request to meet for Internal Dispute Resolution (Civ. Code § 5915(b)(2)); such is a request that an association may not deny. This is yet another reason boards should meet with requesting owners to discuss delinquencies. Generally, the more information a board has regarding an owner’s circumstances, the better a board will be able to decide how to proceed with collection efforts.
Keep in mind that any meetings to discuss a payment plan should be held in executive session. (Civ. Code § 4935(c).)
Q: Are Boards Required to Offer or Accept Proposed Payment Plans?
A: No and no. While the benefits of payment plans are discussed above, circumstances differ for every delinquent owner. If an owner does not have the paystubs or bank statements evidencing that they are capable of making regular payments, then a payment plan could be a stalling tactic.
However, if an association has set payment plan standards – for example, all payment plans must allow for the debt to be paid back within one year – the association must include those standards in its collection policy and notify owners of those standards on an annual basis in its annual budget report and policy statement. (Civ. Code § 5730(a).) However, there is no legal requirement that an association have set payment plan standards.
Q: What Should be Included in a Payment Plan?
A: A payment plan should clearly state that the owner shall pay the regular assessments monthly as well as a set amount to be paid toward the delinquent balance. Regular assessments increase and special assessments could be levied during the term of the payment plan, so the association should account for that possibility in the plan. For example, if a payment plan simply says “Owner shall pay $200 per month,” but the regular assessments later increase from $100 to $150, this means the amount being paid towards the delinquent balance goes from $100 down to $50. Yet, if the owner continues to pay $200 a month then there is no breach of the payment plan and the association would not have the right to proceed with other collection efforts.
On that note, we strongly recommend the association clarify what constitutes a breach of the payment plan and what the association’s rights are in the event the owner breaches.
The payment plan should also clarify how payments will be applied if there is a judgment balance and a post-judgment balance. Without that clarification the association may not know when a judgment is satisfied or what amounts should be included in a lien.
It should also be made clear in the payment plan agreement that the owner shall be responsible for any collection costs incurred, even if they are incurred while the owner is in compliance with the payment plan. Collections services providers often charge to monitor delinquent accounts, so while an owner may be paying according to the plan that owner should still be liable for the collection costs incurred while delinquent. Vague language in the payment plan agreement stating all collections efforts will be on hold during the plan could limit the association’s ability to collect on these costs.
PRACTICE TIP: Have your draft payment plan or payment plan standards reviewed by a collections services provider.
Q: Will Entering into a Payment Plan Limit Other Collections Options?
A: Yes, in part. While an owner is in compliance with a payment plan, additional late fees shall not accrue during the payment plan period. (Civ. Code § 5665(c).) However, an association may still record a lien while a payment plan is in effect to secure the debt. (Civ. Code § 5665(d).) Interest may also accrue while an owner is compliant with the payment plan. This is another example of why payment plan agreements should not say that all collections efforts will be on hold while the owner is in compliance with the payment plan.
Boards and managers with questions regarding payment plans should consult with legal counsel and/or their collections services provider. Our firm is happy to review and/or draft a payment plans for boards to consider implementing. Please contact us.