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As winter tightens its icy grip, the prospect of having your heat turned off can be frightening.
But if you can't pay your heat or electric bills, at some point that's precisely what utilities can do.
Fortunately for those most in need, however, most states have laws that prohibit these companies from pulling the plug. But these are not blanket protections. Typically, states limit this relief to the elderly, the disabled, and low-income people.
Most states specify a range of time when utilities are prohibited from cutting off service to these groups. As you might guess, the broadest ranges tend to be in northern states and the shortest in the South.
Frosty Minnesota takes the top spot nationally in this regard, banning disconnections of service to qualified people for a full six months, from Oct. 15 to April 15.
Other states don't specify time spans when the protections are in place, but instead designate lengths of time that utilities must refrain from shutting off service for qualified residents who can't pay their bills. Louisiana, for instance stipulates that they must delay shutoffs for as long as 63 days if it would be detrimental to the health or safety of household members.
Many state also extend protections to periods of excessive heat in the summer, when people rely on air conditioning. These laws specify the minimum temperature when electrical providers can't shut off service — in Arkansas, it's 95 degrees and in Delaware it's 105.
However, two warm-weather states — Florida and Hawaii — don't provide any protections whatsoever. While Hawaii might excuse this absence because it enjoys a mild climate year-round, steamy Florida's refusal to protect needy residents during its brutal summer hear seems particularly negligent. Even Minnesota protects qualified residents during high heat, linking the prohibition on electrical cutoffs to official excessive heat warnings from the National Weather Service.
Many states prohibit cutoffs if residents have a medical condition (some states require a doctor's certification to qualify). Many states also require companies to keep heat on for the elderly, usually specifying that age as 65, though some say 62.
Households that rely on public assistance typically qualify for protection. Many states, though, require that low-income people seeking protection must fill out a form and agree to some type of payment plan. New Hampshire, for instance, requires that people getting this protection pay 10% of their monthly bill, with the balance due after the state's 4 1/2-month winter moratorium on shutoffs.
To see what the law is in your own state, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides a great service, viewable here, which summarizes every state's protection laws.
Here's hoping that everyone keeps warm this winter.