Despite faint signs of recovery in the business world, bankruptcy courts in America are busy handling more personal bankruptcies. Really busy.
In the last month of the first quarter of this year, more individuals filed for bankruptcy than in any month since last 2005. Back then, there was a last minute rush to seek financial protection because of the soon-to-be-enacted Bankruptcy Abuse and Consumer Protection Act, which made bankruptcy laws what they are today.
March saw 35 percent more people file bankruptcy than in February, when a total of 158,141 petitions were filed. Prior to that, October 2009 held the record but was still 19 percent less than March's total. And, in at least 12 states in the first quarter alone, personal filings increased by double-digit amounts compared to their 2009 totals.
These numbers indicate a few things. Primarily, they show that the current recession will have a much longer tenure than what the evening news may be figuring. With more people just now filing, that means it will be at least a couple of years before the people behind those numbers can reach their full spending potential within the economy. And even then, they will most likely be living under a "save more, spend less" mindset.
The increase in filings also demonstrates that fewer people view bankruptcy as a sign of financial insecurity or weakness and more as a suitable, legal way to begin anew.
Surprising to many in the industry is that even in states where bankruptcy numbers were already high, the numbers continue to climb. The figures, compiled by Automated Access to Court Records, show that California, Arizona and Florida citizens are still leading the nation in filings after months of suffering the most from the collapse of the real estate market.
The explanations for so many bankruptcies are many, from unemployment to housing trouble. However, personal borrowing is said to be powerful driver of how so many of us wound up in debt. According to a law professor at the University of Illinois, Robert Lawless, the rate of borrowing is 10 times what it was in 1960, when adjusted for inflation. When at one time most people would simply borrow more to stave of creditors, the credit freeze has made re-financing and loan adjustments all but impossible.
The trends are also pointing to a rather steep drop in the number of Chapter 13 bankruptcies, which involve paying a portion of your debt, consolidated, in a series of monthly installments. Now, the vast majority of personal bankruptcies are Chapter 7, which involve complete liquidation of debts and sometimes a loss in personal assets. Essentially, Chapter 7 enables a quicker turn-around. People are able to start fresh, although with not much of a credit rating. At least for a couple of years.
A law professor at UC Berkeley, Katherine Porter, reported that since 2005, Chapter 13 filings are down 35 percent, accounting for only 25 percent of all personal filings. "Systemically," she said, "that's a big change."
Relative to home ownership, the numbers also show that more people are walking away from their mortgages instead of continuing to pay them as part of a Chapter 13 plan. Plus, with the foreclosure rate growing almost as quickly, it's often the better route.
While there was at one time debate about a mortgage cram-down bill, which would allow bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage terms to make payments easier for those filing, no such proposal has been passed, leading, in part, to the current state of American home ownership.
If you think you may become part of these statistics, please consider calling us. The sooner, the better.