Help with Utilities for Survivors of Domestic Violence

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed February, 2019

What if my utility bills are in my former boyfriend's or husband's name?

If you get a 209A protective order (a restraining order), the Court can order your former boyfriend or husband to not shut off your phone or other utilities.  You must ask the Judge to order this. 

Read more about how to keep utilities in your boyfriend or husband's name on in the article 209A Protective Orders.

What if the gas and electric companies are threatening to cut me off?

You may be able to stop utility companies from shutting off your electricity or gas, even if you cannot pay your bills. You have a legal right to keep your services on if:

  • you are low-income (below 200% of the federal poverty level),
  • you cannot pay your bills and:
    • You have a seriously ill person in your home. "Serious illness" can include any kind of physical or mental illness, such as asthma, migraines, cancer, ADHD, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes; or
    • You have a baby under a year old living in your house; or
    • It is between November 15 and March 15 and you need the utility for heat.

If everyone in your house is 65 or older, you should be able to keep the company from shutting off your services even if you are not low-income.

If any of these situations apply to you, the gas or electric company is not allowed to turn off your service. In most cases the company will have to turn your service back on if they have already shut it off.

What can I do?

Call the gas or electric company and explain:

  • You cannot pay your bills.
  • You are protected from shut-off because:
    • someone in your house is seriously ill, or
    • there is a baby under a year old, or
    • shutting off the utility will shut off your heat (many oil or gas burners are started up with electricity), or
    • everyone in the house is 65 or older.

The company may ask you to get a letter from a doctor saying that there is a seriously ill person in the house, or a letter from a social worker, clergyman, or doctor stating that there is a baby under a year old in the house. The utility company should give you some time to get the letter. In cases of serious illness, your doctor can call the company. The phone call should protect your account for at least 7 days while your doctor writes a letter.

How long can I keep my utility on without paying?

If you fit into one of the “protected situations” you should be able to keep your electricity and gas on for as long as you need it, even if you cannot pay your bills. You may need to send a new letter every few months.

Protected Situations

  • Low income and
  • someone in your house is seriously ill, or
  • there is a baby under a year old, or 
  • shutting off the utility will shut off your heat (many oil or gas burners are started up with electricity), or 
  • everyone in the house is 65 or older.

What if they already shut off my utility or they say they will not leave it on?

Call the Department of Public Utilities' Consumer Division if the company says they will not leave your electricity or gas on, or will not turn it back on if it has already been cut off. Their phone line is staffed by people who will help you deal with the utility company.

Call (617) 737-2836 or (877) 886-5066 (toll free). You can also fax the Consumer division at (617) 305-3742 or email them at [email protected].

Find out if your income is below the federal poverty level.

You can also call your local legal services office for help.

For more information about your rights to electricity and gas, see Utilities for People with low income in the Income and Benefits section of MassLegalHelp.

Download the advocacy guide Utilities Advocacy for Low-Income Households from MassLegalHelp.

Can oil and propane companies refuse to deliver if I can not pay for oil?

Yes. The legal protections against gas and electric shut-offs do not apply to oil and propane companies.

However, there are programs that can help you buy oil.

Can the telephone company cut off my services if I cannot afford to pay my bills?

You should be able to get local phone service, or keep it from being cut off, if you are unable to pay your bill and one of the following applies to you:

  • You have a personal emergency; or
  • There is a seriously ill person living in your house.

What is the personal emergency protection?

The personal emergency protection stops the company from shutting off your telephone service for 30 days.

Domestic violence counts as a personal emergency, because you may need to call police, doctors, friends or family, or social service agencies for safety reasons.

How do I get the personal emergency protection?

Write a letter to the phone company explaining the emergency and then fax or mail it to the company.

  • Call your phone company and tell them you are sending the letter.
  • The telephone worker on the phone may not know about the personal emergency rule. You may need to talk to a supervisor.
  • Say that there is an agreement with the Department of Telecommunications and Cable called DPU # 18448 which says you have the right to keep your phone on for thirty days in the case of a personal emergency.
  • You can read the agreement to them over the phone.

What is the serious illness telephone protection?

f you have a seriously ill person at home, you can keep your phone on without paying the bill for ninety days.  You must submit a new doctor's letter every thirty days.

What if the telephone company will not leave my phone on?

Call the Department of Telecommunications and Cable’s Consumer Division if the company will not leave your service on (or turn it back on) . Their phone line is staffed by people who will help you deal with the utility company.

Call 617 305-3531 or 1 800 392-6066 (toll free). You can also fax the Consumer division at (617) 478-2591 or email them at [email protected].

You can also call your local legal services office for help.

What if I do not have a sick person in the house, and my 30 day emergency period runs out before I can pay my bill? How can I call the police?

In most areas, you can keep 911 service even if you owe money on your phone bill. Your phone line will only work for calling 911. Ask the phone company if this is true for you.

There may be a free cell phone for emergency use.  Talk to your local women’s shelter or police department. Call the SafeLink hotline for details about this program.

Who to call for help

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