Wisconsin residents can safely assume that they will require heat during the winter months of October through March, but they cannot always make the same assumption about their ability to pay for utility services.  Fortunately, several options are available to ameliorate the harsh effects of low temperatures and no heat.

The first method is to apply for Wisconsin’s Winter Protection Plan. The service is intended to prevent utility disconnection during the period November 1 through April 15 for qualified persons. To qualify, a person must

  • be age 65 or older, or
  • be receiving one of the following:
    • cash or food assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services or
    • Medicaid benefits
  • Have a household income at or below 150 per cent of the federal poverty level guidelines

Elderly persons who qualify are not required to make any utility payments during the moratorium period. Low income persons who have not attained the age of 65 must make monthly payments equal to 7 percent of their estimated annual utility bill. The moratorium becomes effective on November 1, and persons wishing to participate must file their applications before the end of October. Persons on the winter protection plan must be aware of the termination date of April 15. After that date, utility companies can terminate or suspend service for any customer whose bill is not current.

The end of the moratorium can give some people a nasty shock: anyone who was behind on paying their utility bills during the moratorium may wake up on April 16 and find that their heat and electricity have been cut off. A visit to the utility’s billing office can usually prevent any service interruption if the customer is able to pay the requested deposit.

Another method for preventing the interruption of utility services, is to file bankruptcy. People who are experiencing financial difficulty may be considering bankruptcy for other reasons, such as stopping collection harassment by credit card issuers, but they can use this situation to forestall the interruption of their utility services.

As soon as a person files a petition in bankruptcy under either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, the court issues what is called an “automatic stay.” The stay is an order from the court to all of the debtor’s creditors directing them to immediately cease any and all collection actions against the debtor. If the debtor has included any past due utility bills in the filing, the utility company must stop any attempt to collect the debt, and that means that power cannot be interrupted or must be restored.