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Personal bankruptcies surge again

March 4, 1997

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The number of Americans filing personal bankruptcies last year surged past 1 million for the first time, intensifying criticism that too many Americans take court protection from creditors too lightly.

Figures provided by CDB Infotek, a public records research firm, showed 1,242,700 filings, up 35 percent from 918,964 in 1995. CDB said it surveyed every U.S. bankruptcy jurisdiction, using the courts’ own on-line access services to gather data.

A fraction of those filings are commercial liquidations, typically of small businesses.

The vast majority are personal property liquidations, filed under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, or personal financial reorganizations under the code’s Chapter 13, which provides a shield while debtors and creditors work out repayment plans.

The Visa credit card company, whose members lose billions of dollars a year to bankruptcy filings, also checks the bankruptcy courts. Its studies showed consumer bankruptcies up 26.6 percent, from 883,000 in 1995 to 1,117,000 last year, said Kenneth Krone, senior vice president of Visa USA.

``We’re concerned that people are rushing into bankruptcy without looking at alternatives,″ said Krone. Test advertising aimed at getting consumers into alternatives like credit counseling programs has shown promise and is being expanded, he said.

Due to varying methods of screening the filings, the CDB Infotek and Visa surveys showed sharply different results for some states. The former had Mississippi filings up 39.5 percent, for example, and the latter by 17.2 percent.

But the basic trend was up, up, up in both surveys.

The bankruptcy rate has tripled since 1981, rising in good and bad economic times. But the latest surge was greater than many experts had expected. A study Visa released last July, for example, predicted just 1 million consumer bankruptcies in 1996 and 1.1 million this year.

Among the commonly cited factors for rising bankruptcies are the easier availability of credit, including scores of mail and telemarketed pitches for credit cards, and the decrease in the social stigma of bankruptcy.

``You can actually now get a lawyer who will file a bankruptcy over the Internet,″ Rick Rozar, CDB Infotek’s chief executive, said from the company’s Santa Ana headquarters. ``That all makes people feel like it’s a more viable alternative.″

The credit card companies play down the extent to which their encouragement of consumer debt has contributed to rising personal bankruptcies.

Testifying before the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, Lawrence Chimerine, a consulting economist to MasterCard International, attributed the increase less to rising debt levels than to legal and social changes and outright abuse.

``Personal bankruptcy is increasingly becoming a first option, rather than the last resort it was intended to be,″ he said, urging the commission to recommend that Congress conduct a major overhaul of bankruptcy laws.

The commission, set up by Congress, reports back in October. Last month, it began circulating preliminary suggestions for comment, recommending a limit of $40,000 to $100,000 in home equity that can be protected from creditors in a bankruptcy. Each state would set its own limit within those amounts.

At present, states have total discretion. In Florida, for example, even the biggest mansion is normally off-limits to creditors.

The bankruptcy review commission will make two more recommendations Wednesday, its chairman, University of Wisconsin law instructor Brady Williamson, said in a telephone interview.

Designed to create uniform bankruptcy procedures throughout the country, they are designed to:

_ Curb ``serial filings,″ the repeated filing of separate bankruptcy papers by individuals or spouses seeking to evade creditors. The practice is far more common in California, for example, than most other states.

_ Discourage Chapter 7 liquidations and encourage the filing of Chapter 13 bankruptcies that carefully account for future earnings power.

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