As the feds fiddle around, maybe it’s time to review some top tips and myths about filing for bankruptcy protection

June 21st, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw has picked up a story from The New York Times that echoes many warnings we have discussed several times about so-called debt-settlement firms. Our most recent peeks under the hood of this industry were in a four-part series beginning here and ending here.

McCaskill fires warning shot?

Although we covered the GAO study mentioned in the Times piece, we may have left out a nugget that the Times includes–well, even if we did mention it, it bears repeating, especially Sen. McCaskill’s parting shot:

Consumer watchdogs point to another reason customers wind up confused and upset: bogus marketing promises.

In April, the United States Government Accountability Office released a report drawing on undercover agents who posed as prospective customers at 20 debt settlement companies. According to the report, 17 of the 20 firms advised clients to stop paying their credit card bills. Some companies marketed their programs as if they had the imprimatur of the federal government, with one advertising itself as a “national debt relief stimulus plan.” Several claimed that 85 to 100 percent of their customers completed their programs.

“The vast majority of companies provided fraudulent and deceptive information,” said Gregory D. Kutz, managing director of forensic audits and special investigations at the G.A.O. in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee during an April hearing.

At the same hearing, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, pressed Mr. Ansbach, the Usoba lobbyist, to explain why his organization refused to disclose its membership.

“The leadership in our trade group candidly was concerned that publishing a list of members ended up being a subpoena list,” Mr. Ansbach said.

“Probably a genuine concern,” Senator McCaskill replied.

Employment up or down–which is it?

Another point we made recently  (in our preceding post) had to do with confusion over interpretation of reported unemployment rates. A June 18 AP story in the  Times reinforces our point about the much ballyhooed recovery in general–and about our longstanding concern regarding confusion over the “official unemployment rate” in particular.

The hed reads: “Most State Jobless Rates Fall,” but the lede belies the headline: “Unemployment rates in a majority of states dropped in May. But the widespread declines were mainly because people gave up looking for work and were no longer counted.”

Here’s a subsequent graf about job gains: “Forty-one states and the District of Columbia saw a net increase in jobs. But that reflected national data showing a huge gain because of government hiring of temporary census workers.”

Senate stuck in filibuster mode

Also unchanged since last we posted is the Senate’s position on helping those unemployed who have reached the end of their benefits–with no significant change in the jobs picture. On June 19 the president reacted to yet another filibuster that creates roadblocks where instead we need an express lane.

In a report, Obama is quoted thusly: “”I was disappointed this week to see a dreary and familiar politics get in the way of our ability to move forward on a series of critical issues that have a direct impact on peoples’ lives.

“”Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in the Senate won’t even allow this legislation to come up for a vote.”

In other words, if filing for bankruptcy protection made sense last week, it also makes sense this week–nothing has changed, and nothing seems likely to change anytime soon.

Get informed

In that vein, here’s some tips to use when considering the benefits and drawbacks of bankruptcy protection.  Following are some highlights derived from a list at a June 6 Orlando Sentinel piece.

  1. Review the many resources offered by the “official” Web sites of various federal and state agencies:
  2. Consider non-bankruptcy options such as consumer-credit counseling–but be sure to avoid the “debt-settlement” or “debt-repair” firms described in the GAO report.
  3. Take informed action before using up all your savings or retirement funds.
  4. This one is word-for-word from the Sentinel: “Don’t try to ‘game the system’ by running up credit-card charges for jewelry or other luxuries just before filing for bankruptcy — you’ll likely still be on the hook for such debt.”
  5. This tip condenses three separate points from the list: Be aware that because of the financial crisis, waves of consumers are turning to the bankruptcy code for protection, and so bankruptcy law is “hot” right now; accordingly, you want to make sure you get trained, seasoned professional counsel; furthermore, such firms will often provide a free consultation to begin–this is your chance to evaluate the firm to avoid a “mill”-type operation.
  6. Do not rely on creditors (credit-card companies, bill collectors, etc.) to tell the truth about the legal system or bankruptcy protection.

(mis)Leading myths about bankruptcy

In fact, misinformation is so common that certain “myths” about bankruptcy have arisen, a sort of urban legend. This attorney’s page answers each of the following myths, none of which is true:

  1. Bankruptcy relief is no longer available (False: the 2005 “reform” act changed some things, but protection is still available for those who need it.)
  2. You can’t file bankruptcy if you have a job (False: In fact, reliable income is a necessity to service a Chapter 13 filing.)
  3. Medical bills can’t be discharged in bankruptcy (False: medical debt can be addressed, as can credit-card debt, and even personal loans.)
  4. Chapter 13 plans require repayment in full of debt (False: unsecured creditors may receive payments that total 100 per cent of the debt–or zero per cent–each case is different, depending on the unique variables.)
  5. People who file bankruptcy can’t get credit for 10 years (False: Although true that bankruptcy will remain on credit reports for up to ten years, many people’s finances are in such disarray that receiving bankruptcy protection can be the start of improving one’s credit score.)
  6. You lose everything you own in bankruptcy (False: a small percentage of filers will liquidate a significant amount of assets, but exemptions provide for retaining “tools of the trade” and more–most filings result in little to no loss of assets, and some assets can’t be touched.)
  7. Bankruptcy is a sign of personal or moral failure (False: The bankruptcy code is designed to offer a restart, a second chance, for those who have been devastated by events beyond their control such as job loss or medical emergency. See a “typical profile,” based on research by Elizabeth Warren.
  8. Bankruptcy costs our society too much (False: This myth is directly traceable to a credit-industry lobbyist.)
  9. There is a minimum amount of debt required to file bankruptcy (False: No minimum is necessary.)
  10. Married couples must file together (False: Confusion arises most often because of states with community property laws–although it may be in a couple’s best interest for both spouses to file, each can file separately, or not all. This is best decided in conjunction with a trained, experienced bankruptcy attorney.)


The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13