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By Carleton H. Morrison, Jr.

One of the disadvantages of living in our rural environment is that many of our homes are on private roads that the residents must maintain themselves. When everyone pays his or her share of the costs, it seems well worth the expense. But even in a good economy there always seems to be one or two “deadbeats” who refuse to pay.

About every six months or so, I get a call from a volunteer road association chairperson asking what he or she can do to get a deadbeat to pay. I ask in return, do you want to know what to do legally? Or do you want to really get the money?

The first thing to do is look at the property deeds to see if road maintenance is addressed. My private road was created when a very large lemon grove was divided into smaller parcels. The individual deeds that include a road easement for all to use also address the responsibility and duty of each property owner to help pay for maintenance of that road. We haven’t had too much trouble lately. But in the past, the association leadership did file small claims court actions against the “deadbeats” and won. And they collected on the judgments by threatening to go after bank accounts and other assets. But collecting on a judgment, especially in these economic tough times, is not always easy. As the old saying goes, “it’s not easy squeezing blood from a turnip.”

Another time, our road association was having difficulty collecting from a neighbor whose kids were playmates of our children. I was asked by the association president to make a call. I did. I allowed the neighbor to save face by suggesting that perhaps the mail wasn’t getting to him. That’s all it took. The embarrassment of it all resulted in a certified check in the mail within days. This was a whole lot less expensive than filing a small claims action or even having a lawyer write a nasty letter.

Some have suggested that after all else fails, putting a sign up on the road indicating who hasn’t paid their road association assessment may do the trick. Even the deadest of the deadbeats may pay up to avoid the embarrassment. I suppose some advance warning may be in order. And, if there is a sign, maybe it should be behind a fence so it won’t be vandalized.

I’ve even seen where neighbors took out an ad in a newspaper to embarrass the deadbeat into paying.

Can you be sued for publicly embarrassing a deadbeat? Sure. Anyone can file a lawsuit if they pay the filing fee. But remember, truth is an absolute defense to slander and defamation. Just make sure the deadbeat really does owe the assessment and you haven’t overlooked the payment.

There also are cases where the association goes ahead and repairs, repaves or otherwise fixes the road everywhere, except in front of the deadbeat’s home. Unless the deadbeat is at the end of the road and his or her portion isn’t that bad, this sometimes helps because friends will ask why their portion isn’t like the others.

A problem I often see with road associations is that, instead of a nominal annual fee, they wait until the road is really bad and then levy a heavy assessment that for many is truly difficult to pay. I suppose the waiting game is to avoid the trouble of dealing with deadbeats. But the non-legal tactics on a regular basis will probably be more successful if the amount is not significant.

The bottom line is that there is usually a legal remedy to get a deadbeat to pay his or her road maintenance assessment. But non-legal measures are much less expensive and usually more successful.