WASHINGTON – The number of people filing for bankruptcy in Maryland has risen slightly after a steep decline following historic changes in bankruptcy law last October, electronic court records show.
During the past month and a half, the number of bankruptcy filings has increased more than 30 percent compared to the same time period after the law went into effect, according to an analysis of records from U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland.
But the complexity of the law and its wide-reaching changes will keep bankruptcy filings low for the time being, according to bankruptcy lawyers.
The law, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, has made seeking debt relief “significantly more complicated and time-consuming,” said Richard Grossbart, a senior partner at Grossbart, Portney and Rosenberg who has handled more than 11,000 bankruptcy cases in 19 years.
Aimed at preventing debtors from escaping their debts, the law has created confusion among both lawyers and consumers, said Grossbart, a member of the Consumer Bankruptcy Bar of Maryland. Some lawyers stopped taking bankruptcy cases, and many consumers were confused about the law and whether filing for bankruptcy was still an option.
“I’m sure there are malpractice cases out there with people who should not be filing,” Grossbart said. He took the case of a woman who had paid a reverend $700 to file for Chapter 7. The woman needed a mortgage, not bankruptcy, Grossbart said. Since she had already filed, his only option was to convert her to Chapter 13 to save her home.
Chapter 13 allows filers to restructure their debts, while Chapter 7 requires liquidation of assets to pay debts.
In the first days after the law went into effect Oct. 17, many cases were thrown out because they had been improperly filed, either by the filers themselves or by petition preparers, Grossbart said. Records show that 405 bankruptcies were filed in Maryland from Oct. 17 to Nov. 30, but the number of cases increased to 528 from Dec. 1 to Jan. 12.
The law, which is the first major change in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code since 1978, created an unprecedented rush among debtors trying to beat the deadline, Grossbart said. More than 11,700 bankruptcy cases were filed in Maryland between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, a 40 percent jump from the previous quarter, court records show. About 94 percent of those cases were filed between Oct. 1 and Oct. 16.
One of the biggest consequences of the law is a greater financial burden on consumers. In Maryland, the price tag for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is now $3,500-$4,000, up from $1,500-$2,000 under the previous law, Grossbart said.
The cost of a Chapter 7 increased only slightly, but that is mitigated by the fact that the new law is aimed at reducing the number of people who are eligible to file for Chapter 7, under which debts can be completely erased. A staple of the law is a “means test,” which forces those with above-average income to file Chapter 13 and pay back their debt over several years.
The rules were also changed for Chapter 11, making it harder for businesses to reorganize their debts.
During the days preceding the change, Grossman handled about twice as many cases per day than usual.
“It stretched our resources,” he said. “I joked with people that I felt like an accountant in April. The phones were ringing off the hook. It was a free-for-all.”
Experts are divided on the long-term effects of the law. Paul Sweeney, president of the Bankruptcy Bar Association for the District of Maryland, said bankruptcies are not likely to be as popular as they were under the previous law, though they will probably increase as consumers and lawyers adjust to the new law’s nuances.
“Filings are going to increase, but unless there is a huge precipitous event, I don’t see them being equal (to before),” he said. “Credit cards are going to climb, and there’s going to be a break point. It’s all about making money.”
But Jack Ayer, a scholar at the American Bankruptcy Institute in Arlington, Va., said he expects bankruptcies to return to previous levels after a couple of years.
Sweeney and Ayer agreed on one thing: The law makes it harder for people to recover from debt.
“People are going to suffer longer,” Sweeney said. “The misery factor is going to increase. Rather than discharge debt, they’re going to have to pay it back.”
One of the biggest challenges posed by the law is for debtors filing pro se, or without the aid of a lawyer, Sweeney said.
“People who proceed without attorneys are going to have a difficult time completing those forms and jumping through those hoops,” he said.
On a large scale, the legislation represents a dramatic shift in how the government treats debtors, Ayer said. But it could also be catastrophic if a financial crisis were to hit consumers, such as a collapse in the real estate market.
“If (the market) does fall off a cliff, then we wake up to how much harder it is,” Ayer said. “If debt hits consumers, we may find our commitment to a lack of (debt) discharge is not as deep-seated as we thought.” – 30 – – CNS-1-13-06