New law failing to help folks in debt
By Caroline E. Mayer
By Caroline E. Mayer
WASHINGTON — Three months after a new bankruptcy law took effect, the overwhelming majority of debtors seen by credit-counseling agencies are filing for bankruptcy instead of using repayment plans envisioned by the law's supporters.
The law requires debtors to see credit counselors before they file for bankruptcy protection. It is a prerequisite that banks and credit-card issuers hoped would steer consumers away from Bankruptcy Court and into plans that would allow them to repay debts over a few years.
But so far, that is not happening.
The counseling agencies say most debtors are in such deep financial trouble that they cannot qualify for a debt-management plan.
"Typically, consumers are too far gone when they get to us," said Ivan L. Hand Jr., president and chief executive of Money Management International Inc., the nation's largest credit-counseling organization.
That was true during an afternoon spent with MMI credit counselor Lynn Cameron as she advised consumers from a small, gray cubicle in a 150-operator call center in Phoenix last month.
"Bankruptcy is about the only option," Cameron told a Colorado couple whose home was about to be foreclosed upon.
"It doesn't look like you have any alternative at this point," she said on her next call — with a Maryland family of four with more than $59,000 in credit-card debt.
"Bankruptcy looks like a very good option," she repeated an hour later to a disabled 60-year-old with no income and no assets but lots of debts.
In the first 13 weeks after the new law took effect Oct. 17, only 4.5 percent of the 14,907 debtors counseled by MMI had sufficient income to be considered for a plan to pay back debts over a few years. Of those 669 debtors, only 42 have signed up so far for such a debt-management plan.
Financial industry executives, who had pushed for the new law to reduce the record number of bankruptcy cases, say it is too early to tell how well the new credit-counseling requirement is working — especially because so many consumers rushed to file under the old, less-restrictive law. In the two weeks before the new law took effect, more than 600,000 debtors filed for protection from creditors.
Previously, filings had averaged about 30,000 a week. The number dropped to about 3,600 a week right after the new law took effect, but is now about 5,000 a week and is expected to climb as holiday bills come due.
During congressional debate, many critics of the old law suggested that bankruptcy protection was being used as a cover by spendthrifts who might be able to repay their debts with a little more discipline.
But credit counselors say that is not the type of debtor they have been seeing.
As of Jan. 1, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta had conducted 12,539 sessions nationwide. "Our experience has been that virtually none of these people really qualified" for anything other than bankruptcy protection, said president Suzanne Boas.
At the far smaller Consumer Credit and Budget Counseling in southern New Jersey, 112 people had sought pre-bankruptcy counseling as of the beginning of January. "None at this point have signed up for a debt-management plan," said executive director Russell Graves. Instead, they got the required certificates confirming they had counseling and giving them the green light to file for bankruptcy protection.
Graves said that so far, his counselors have seen people "with true hardships," such as lost jobs or disabilities that cut their income. "We have yet to see anybody who charged up their debts, used cash advances" and abused their credit, probably because those kinds of debtors filed before the new law took effect, he said.
In many cases, debtors are in such financial distress that they cannot even afford the counseling fee, which ranges from $20 to $75, depending on the agency. Graves's New Jersey group has reduced its fees ($50 for an individual, $60 for a couple) half the time and waived them in 10 cases. MMI has waived fees in 60 percent of its cases, Hand said.
The pre-bankruptcy credit-counseling requirement was initiated by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., during the 10-year battle to enact a new law. He said in a recent interview that it was "disappointing" to learn that so few consumers have signed up for a debt-management plan. He said he intends to monitor the law's progress and was "not prepared to give up on this."
Neither is the financial industry. The consumers filing now are "the poorest of the poor ... not a fully representative sample of the filers," said Philip Corwin, the American Bankers Association's bankruptcy expert.
Industry officials say that even if the debtors turn out to be a typical sample, they will benefit from the financial education given by credit counselors. "We strongly believe that an informed consumer is a better consumer," said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade association of the largest consumer credit and finance companies.
Credit-counseling executives expect the number of bankruptcy filings to pick up in the next few months, the traditional peak period for credit counseling, as families cope with increased energy prices, higher interest rates and a new federally mandated policy that boosts the minimum amount due on monthly credit-card bills.