In the month since a new bankruptcy law took effect, the number of Americans filing for protection from their creditors has slowed to a trickle, running at one-tenth the normal number of filings.
Last week, the nation's federal bankruptcy courts received about 3,600 petitions, according to Lundquist Consulting Inc., a California financial research firm that tracks bankruptcy data from the nation's courts. In a usual week, about 30,000 cases are filed.
Of course, nothing has been normal at the bankruptcy courts for the past few months, as the more restrictive law took effect on Oct. 17. In the week before the deadline, the number of cases filed reached 479,430, Lundquist said. The previous week, petitions totaled 124,037.
That surge explains why filings have dropped so low now, said Maryland lawyer Brett Weiss. "Just about everyone who was even thinking of filing filed before Oct. 17," he said.
The new law, long sought by the financial industry, makes it harder and more expensive for people to completely wipe out their debts under Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Lundquist said filings last week averaged about 600 a day, slightly up from the previous two weeks, when new petitions were averaging 400 to 500 a day.
The lull will not last for long, Weiss predicted. "This spring is going to be a very busy time," he said, warning that this winter's expected high heating bills and a new federally mandated policy requiring higher minimum payments on credit card bills will push many financially strapped Americans over the edge.
Those who are filing for bankruptcy now are debtors who either procrastinated or are facing an imminent foreclosure, garnishment of wages or seizure of assets, Weiss said.
Locally, 25 cases were filed in the Alexandria bankruptcy court in the month after Oct. 17. Twelve of those were for Chapter 7. Last year, the Alexandria court received about 400 new cases a month -- almost all for Chapter 7.
In Maryland, about 320 personal bankruptcy cases were filed since Oct. 17, of which 138 were for Chapter 7. Last year, the courts received an average of 2,400 filings a month; about two-thirds of those were for Chapter 7.
In the District, 24 bankruptcies were filed in the last month, 14 under Chapter 7. Last year, filings averaged about 160 per month. About three-fourths of those were for Chapter 7.