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What happens if I don't pay the fine?

Unpaid court fines will increase over time. Learn what to do if you cannot afford to pay.

If you have unpaid fines, the court has a number of options for handling the situation. The outcome will depend on whether you’re choosing to ignore the fine or you truly can’t afford to pay.

Community service to pay off fines

Many courts have options available for people who can’t afford their fines. One of these may be to work off the fine with community service. You’re more likely to receive this option if you contact the court on your own. You may also be able to arrange for a payment plan or extension of the due date.

Added fines and late fees

Like many debts, the longer you ignore unpaid court fines, the larger they become. Once a fine is considered delinquent or in default, courts may start charging interest and add late, failure to pay fees.

If you miss court dates related to the fine, such as a status hearing about your ability to pay, you may get a failure to appear fine each time. If continue to ignore these court notices, a fine for a few hundred dollars can quickly add up to thousands.

Unpaid fines get referred to collections

Courts also use debt collection agencies to try to recover unpaid fines. These agencies may also add interest charges. If you ignore them long enough, they may sue, which will cost you even more.

Also, debt in collections shows up as a negative item on your credit report. This can hurt your ability to borrow money for years.

You can go to jail for unpaid court fines

Jailing people who owe fines isn’t usually a court’s first choice. In most cases it’ll cost more to arrest you and keep you in jail than you owe. But it can still happen. Certain situations make jail time more likely:

  • You’ve repeatedly avoided paying and you miss your court dates, prompting the judge to issue an arrest warrant.

  • Paying the fine was a condition of your probation or parole. Not paying is a violation of the terms of your conditional release, which may cause the judge to send you back to jail.

  • You arranged to do community service in place of paying, but you keep skipping your scheduled community service hours.

Loss of driving privileges

When a fine is related to a traffic violation, the courts generally report unpaid fines to the department of motor vehicles. The DMV may then suspend your driver’s license. If you ignore the suspension and drive anyway, you face even larger fines and possibly jail. Your car may also be impounded.

It’s in your best interest to either pay your fine on time or dispute it in court. If you truly can’t afford it, make other arrangements with the court before it’s past due. You also might find it helpful to talk with a lawyer, many of whom will do a short initial consultation for free or a reduced fee.

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