Personal bankruptcy is a tragedy that can be self-inflicted or caused by exogenous events such as a medical crisis or job loss. A recent study from the Center for Consumer Recovery found the biggest cause of these bankruptcy filings isn’t debt levels per se, but debt collection litigation of old charged-off credit card accounts. And wealthy people aren’t immune to the problem.
“It’s not just poor people,” says Bill Bartmann, founder of the Center for Consumer Recovery. “We have people who were multi-millionaires. It’s all relative.”
Based in Tulsa, Okla., the Center for Consumer Recovery is a nonprofit consumer research and advocacy organization that purchases charged-off credit card debt from major banks and works with those indebted people to get them back on their feet. The organization surveyed nearly 3,100 consumers saddled with significant debt and found 78% of respondents said they were pushed into bankruptcy by litigation filed to collect delinquent debt. Another 18% said they filed for bankruptcy as a result of aggressive collection efforts that didn’t result in litigation, while 4% said their heavy debt load caused them to file.
Credit card debt was the biggest reason people filed for bankruptcy (72%). Way down the list at number two was medical debt (21%). According to the study, 74% of the litigation filed against consumers was by companies that purchase old debts from banks, while just 24% of litigation was by debt collectors or attorneys working for the creditor who originally made the loan.
Unemployment plays a role in debt accumulation and bankruptcy filings. According to the study, the head of the household was unemployed in 18% of all bankruptcy filings, while the spouse was unemployed in 16% of the cases. Additionally, 37% of those unemployed had been out of work more than six months and another 16% were unemployed longer than three months.
Bankruptcy protection can be a legitimate choice for people who are so deep in debt that they realistically can’t get out. According to the Center for Consumer Recovery, the U.S. courts in 2012 reported that individuals filed 1.1 million bankruptcy petitions, and most of them were laden with consumer debt. They had assets of $140 billion and liabilities of $218 billion, and $81 billion of those liabilities were classified as unsecured non-priority claims that were largely wiped out by the bankruptcy.
But Bartmann says people should file for bankruptcy only as a last resort. For starters, the bankruptcy reform act from several years ago means that it’s tougher to file for personal bankruptcy protection than in years past when scofflaws could almost routinely run up huge debt, file for bankruptcy and have their debt wiped clean. In addition, bankruptcy makes a person’s troubled credit history even worse, increases the cost of future credit to the individual, can boost the cost of insurance and can be a red flag that disqualifies a person from a job they’re otherwise qualified for.
“If you want to cut the bankruptcy rate in half in the U.S., you have to work with people to help get them out of debt rather than beating them over the head too hard,” Bartmann says, adding that creditors should re-evaluate their policies.
Bartmann doesn’t absolve people who rack up gobs of debt by habitually buying things they can’t afford, but he says the country is seemingly ill-equipped to prevent the debt crisis in the first place. “Financial literacy is the key, and we’re doing a lousy job with that,” he says.