The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
One in 50 Georgia households declared bankruptcy in 2009 between January and November, leaving the state with the third-highest personal bankruptcy rate in the nation.
Georgia’s crowded federal bankruptcy courts handled 66,925 filings during the first 11 months of the year, a 22 percent increase over the same period in 2008, according to statistics compiled by the National Bankruptcy Research Center.
Only Nevada and Tennessee posted higher rates of personal bankruptcy, according to the center. Personal bankruptcy filings nationwide hit nearly 1.3 million between January and November, up 32 percent over last year.
High unemployment, the decimated real estate market and a slate of creditor-friendly laws fueled the bankruptcy numbers in Georgia, experts said.
Georgia’s numbers are up, but its position near the top of the bankruptcy charts is nothing new. The state has had one of the highest bankruptcy rates in the nation for years.
What’s changed for 2009 are the profiles of those filing, with the ranks these days including plenty of people for whom financial instability is a new experience.
Richard Thomson, a partner at Clark & Washington, a high-volume Atlanta bankruptcy law firm, said early in the economic downturn his firm took on lots of realtors and contractors as clients.
“Now other professionals, we’re seeing them come in more and more,” he said. “They are higher income and have a lot more assets, a lot more items like boats and motorcycles and four-wheelers.”
They simply can’t pay for what they have, Thomson said. “They’re just saying ‘Take it. It’s not worth the effort anymore. I can’t keep up with it.’ ”
Consumers in financial trouble don’t have the opportunities of the past to stay afloat: New jobs or second jobs to help pay down debt are hard to find, and home equity credit lines and credit card limits have been cut.
Howard Rothbloom, a high-profile bankruptcy attorney, said that, unlike in the past, he’s regularly seeing clients who owe more on their homes and cars than they are worth as well as clients who can no longer afford second homes and investment properties.
He said clients have more debt than ever before, including significant student loan debt and credit cards with escalating interest rates. He said he’s seeing more men than women who have lost jobs and major income reductions for those who remain employed.
“All in all, there is just a lot of financial misery in the world today,” he said.
The details of last year’s bankruptcy filings offer a look at the desperate situations of many Georgians.
More than half of Georgians filing between January and November opted for Chapter 7 filings, according to the National Bankruptcy Research Center. Chapter 7 is liquidation in which most debts are wiped out, but so are assets that aren’t protected by exemptions. Among the exemptions: $10,000 in home equity and a paid-for vehicle worth $3,500 or less.
A Chapter 13 filing, chosen by 47 percent, allows consumers to hold on to a house and car but requires that they repay a portion of their debts.
That split is new in Georgia, which for years has been dominated by Chapter 13 cases rather than Chapter 7 filings. Holding onto a house and accumulated equity was the factor that pushed many debtors into Chapter 13 in the past. These days, many homeowners have little equity or owe more than their houses are worth.
Bankruptcy helps people restructure loans and usually shed some debts. But it comes with a price: A bankruptcy is reflected on a consumer’s credit report for seven to 10 years. That can be costly at a time when credit scores are used for purposes beyond lending decisions, including for screening prospective tenants and job applicants, and even for pricing auto and homeowners insurance.
“If you can find another alternative and can pay the debt by any other means, your credit will improve more rapidly than if you file for bankruptcy,” said Michelle Jones, senior vice president for counseling at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta.
Bankruptcy may not carry the stigma it once did, but it’s still a devastating experience for many people, especially those who never imagined going bust.
“What we’re seeing now is a situation where people who have never failed in their life, not in elementary school or junior high or high school or college, are failing in a fundamental way that affects them emotionally and affects their loved ones emotionally,” said Jack Williams, a bankruptcy expert and professor at Georgia State University’s Law School.
Georgia has such a high rate of filings, experts say, because the state was hit hard by the downturn in real estate and because unemployment exceeds 10 percent.
Georgia’s foreclosure laws also play a significant role in driving up the rate. The state’s foreclosure process occurs without court or government supervision and takes only weeks. No state has a faster foreclosure process. A bankruptcy filing is the only realistic option for most Georgians seeking to delay a public auction of their homes.
Among consumers receiving recent pre-bankruptcy counseling, one in five said avoiding foreclosure was the primary reason for seeking bankruptcy protection, according to CCCS. The Atlanta-based nonprofit provides court-mandated counseling to consumers across the nation.
For homeowners who can afford their mortgages, Jones said, bankruptcy is “a good tool for stopping that [foreclosure] process and allowing you to get caught up on the mortgage.”
The average consumer seeking bankruptcy protection last year was a married white homeowner with an annual income of $43,000, according to statistics compiled by CCCS. This typical consumer has an average of $39,000 in unsecured debt, usually credit cards, on top of secured debts — usually a mortgage and car payment — that cost more than $1,600 a month.
And most have run out of options for getting money from anyone but family and friends: the average credit score of those seeking bankruptcy is 529.
Last year’s average bankruptcy filer had debts exceeding assets by about $73,000. In 2008, the average filer wasn’t quite so much in the red, with debts exceeding assets by $57,000.
Experts do not expect Georgia’s numbers to improve soon.
“Bankruptcy filings are a lagging economic indicator,” said Williams, the Georgia State law professor.
The filings increase after initial spikes in unemployment and other negative economic indicators because most consumers can manage for a while on savings or loans from friends or family before throwing in the towel.
Williams projects that national filings this year will exceed last year’s level. And Georgia, he said, is unlikely to improve it position on the bankruptcy charts.
“I expect Georgia to stay in the top five,” he said.Personal bankruptcy filings
Georgia ranked third in a comparison of bankruptcy rates for cases filed between January and November of 2009.
* The number of households in the state per each bankruptcy filing: a low number represents a high bankruptcy rate. For instance, a rate of 35.3 represents one household in 35 filing for bankruptcy.
** For January through November 2009, as compared to the same period in 2008
Source: National Bankruptcy Research Center www.nbkrc.com