The Edmond Sun

Opinion

January 16, 2013

It’s time to show ‘Mr. Wentworth’ the door

CNHI News Service — Structured settlements exist to keep people from blowing their money.

I want money to improve injured people’s lives. That is why I loved structured settlements. When I set up one, a person had a chance at a normal life. I knew they would not run out of money.

Or so I thought.

In 1994, a guy named Mr. Wentworth showed up on television, telling people to sell him their structured settlements. If you watched daytime television, you could not miss him.

Mr. Wentworth is not Mr. Wentworth at all. He was an actor hired by a company called J.G. Wentworth.

J.G. Wentworth is a leader in what is politely called the settlement-purchaser industry. A former Kentucky lawmaker had another term: He called it a “sleazy industry.”

Settlement purchasing is a billion-dollar industry. The lawmaker called it sleazy, but he did not call it stupid. The industry knows how to make big bucks. All it takes is some slick ads and injured people.

Kentucky’s General Assembly looked to limit the practice. It eventually passed a law that  made it possible to sell a structured settlement but only with court approval. Extreme hardship had to be a consideration.

Few people sold their structured settlements after the legislation passed, and Mr. Wentworth went off the television.

But after a decade or so “Mr. Wentworth” is back, followed by a host of imitators and competitors. Somehow, some way, they have gotten around the legislation that so many fought to pass.

Several of us worked very hard to get settlement purchasers regulated around the country. When almost every state and the federal government passed legislation, I thought we had done the job.

I was wrong.

Judges were supposed to oversee the settlement purchasing process. World renowned bankruptcy judge Joseph Lee takes it seriously, but I am afraid he is a rarity. Too many judges are rubber stamping structured settlement sales. Settlement purchasers have figured out what local lawyers to hire, and few people seem to care — until the people selling structured settlements run out of money.

I would like to see a study of how people who sold their structures have done afterwards. Like the lottery winners I write about, I suspect injured people who sold their settlements have done poorly.

When the damage to society is unveiled, Mr. Wentworth won’t be welcomed back after all.

DON MCNAY is a columnist for the Richmond (Ky.) Register. Contact him at don@mcnay.com.

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