By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
Two weeks before a new, more restrictive national bankruptcy law goes into effect, financially strapped Americans are rushing to file for protection from their creditors, with filings climbing to an unprecedented average of 13,000 a day last week.
Week after week records are toppled. Last week's 68,287 filings surpassed the record set the week before by 24 percent, and this week's total is likely to be higher, according to data released yesterday by Lundquist Consulting Inc., a financial research firm. Daily filings averaged 10,367 in September, compared with an average of 6,079 in September 2004.
The surge is in anticipation of the new bankruptcy law, long sought by the financial industry, which takes effect Oct. 17. The law will make it harder and more expensive for people to completely wipe out their debts under Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
"We are seeing a rush, mainly from people we saw a year ago," Northern Virginia bankruptcy lawyer Robert Weed said. A year ago his clients thought they would be able to work their way out of debt without filing for bankruptcy, he said, "but now they're in a panic to get in before the law is changed."
That is what prompted Samantha Gordon, 28, of Woodbridge to file. "I was putting it off and putting it off," the single mother of three said. Gordon, a patient-care coordinator, said she kept hoping to pay off her debts, but every time she had thought she was close, "a new bill, mostly medical, came up." She decided to take action after her father alerted her about the new law.
In the Washington area, many lawyers report major increases in bankruptcy clients over the past month. Some are so busy they have stopped accepting new clients. Weed's three Northern Virginia offices, for example, stopped taking new clients in mid-September, except in an emergency, such as someone whose wages were about to be garnished.
Lawyers say some people are under the mistaken impression that they will not be able to file for bankruptcy protection after Oct. 17. The new law sets tighter requirements for filing, including the condition that a debtor's family income must be below the median for his or her state to completely erase debt. Locally, the median income for a family of four is $62,167 in the District, $71,948 in Virginia and $85,554 in Maryland. That means many debtors will still be able to file for Chapter 7, local attorneys said.
Even so, under the new law, the cost of filing will be higher, and those filing will be required to provide more paperwork, including six months of income and expense data, and attend credit-counseling sessions before filing.
A coalition of bankruptcy lawyers and consumer advocates has pressed Congress to delay the law's implementation date for Hurricane Katrina victims, especially since many had no plans to file until the storm damaged their homes and cut into their pocketbooks.
The U.S. Trustee Program, which oversees the nation's bankruptcy courts, yesterday announced it would temporarily waive the credit-counseling requirement for Katrina victims. The trustee's office said disruption in communication services in the area could make it difficult for debtors to contact credit counselors.
Richard and Alice Lee of LaPlace, La., whose three-year-old house was damaged by Katrina, were among those who suddenly found themselves contemplating bankruptcy. They probably could have afforded repairs on Richard Lee's salary, which had been about $100,000 a year. But the storm took its toll on the Harley-Davidson dealership where he was manager, cutting his salary by half, he said.
With five children, finances were tight before the hurricane, Lee said. "We had never missed a payment and were always on time with our bills, but we couldn't afford for anything to go wrong." Now, the Lees are getting ready to file for bankruptcy. "We know it's going to have to happen, and we'd do a lot better now. We do it after the law changes, it would be harder."
For Katrina victims, the timing of the new bankruptcy law "couldn't be any worse," Louisiana lawyer Kevin Gibson said. Before the storm hit, Gibson's office was preparing about 15 cases. "We have only been able to locate about half of these people; we hope to hear from the others by the 17th. We sent out letters to the last known addresses, but I expect most won't receive them," Gibson said.
Louisiana lawyer Carolyn Patrick said the storm may harm some of her clients who were in the process for filing before Oct. 17 because they were forced to use their credit cards to pay for hotels, food and gasoline during the evacuation. Debtors are not supposed to rack up credit card bills for 60 days before filing because it would appear to be a deliberate attempt to avoid paying bills and creditors can insist on repayment.
With the deadline two weeks away, "we don't have time to wait until that presumption passes," Patrick said, adding she would fight any challenges in court.
Patrick and other Louisiana lawyers anticipate an even greater rush to file for bankruptcy from hurricane victims after the new law takes effect after mortgage companies start threatening foreclosure. Now, Patrick said, many mortgage firms have allowed homeowners to suspend monthly payments until January, but have said that all four monthly payments will be due then. When that happens, "people who never thought about filing for bankruptcy will walk in the door," Patrick said.
That will only be the beginning, according to a recent study by a University of Nevada law professor, which found that bankruptcy filing rates in areas hit by hurricanes increased sharply two to three years after the hurricane.
For the year to date, bankruptcy filings are up 14 percent, to 1.36 million from 1.19 million in 2004, according to Lundquist, a California financial research firm that reports on case information collected daily from all of the nation's bankruptcy courts.
Most of those petitions are for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which are up more than 21 percent from last year, Chris Lundquist said. Filings for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, in which debtors are required to pay back at least a portion of their debts, are down 6.5 percent from 2004.
In the Washington area, Chapter 7 filings were up nearly 16 percent in the District for the first nine months of 2005, from the comparable period in 2004. In Maryland, Chapter 7 filings were up 1 percent, but they were down by 0.5 percent in Virginia. Bankruptcy officials in both states attributed the small number of filings to the healthy economy. The officials noted, however, that the filings have been steadily picking up in the past two months as the new bankruptcy deadline nears.
"Everyone expected a steep spike in filings," said Sam Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, a nonprofit education and research group made up of attorneys, bankers and bankruptcy professionals. But after Oct. 17, he said, the numbers should decline. The court clerk's office "will be as lonely as a Maytag repairman.