The land of the free and home of the brave is fast becoming a nation of delinquents.

As consumer bankruptcy filings continue to shatter records in the United States, experts see no end to the rising trend, largely unabated since the 1980s.

Utah is not immune from the storm. The state leads the nation, with roughly one of every 33.6 households declaring insolvency. Last year Utah surpassed 22,000 filings, easily the most in the state's history.

"Bankruptcy is booming in the United States," said Samuel Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, a Virginia-based bankruptcy research organization. "2002 saw a record year of bankruptcy filings — 1.5 million cases. All projections show that 2003 will continue this trend, perhaps another national record in bankruptcy filings."

On Thursday, Gerdano joined a panel of attorneys, judges and educators in a teleconference to discuss bankruptcy trends.

He said 97 percent of the nation's bankruptcy filings are consumer cases, fueled largely by individuals encumbered by skyrocketing debt and poor saving habits.

"Filings are up in all regions of the country," Gerdano said. "It's not localized in any particular geographical area."

In fact, even wealthier areas are seeing increases.

"McClean (Va.) is one of the more wealthy suburbs of the Washington, D.C., area. Yet, in the eastern district of Virginia there is an increase in bankruptcy filings," said Jason Gold, a bankruptcy attorney.

Karen Gross, a New York law school professor, said Americans know little about financial issues.

"We don't teach about money or financial literacy very well," Gross said. "Indeed, in our culture we teach better about sex than we do about money."

A 1992 survey cited by Gross revealed that 96 percent of all consumers lacked the basic quantitative skills to compare credit card offers.

"If we encourage people to spend, we have a responsibility to give them the tools to understand the credit marketplace," Gross said. "Creditors have disproportionately greater knowledge about this area than do consumers, and we have to level the playing field."

Henry Hildebrand, a bankruptcy attorney in Tennessee, said the profile of the typical debtor has changed over the past two decades.

"Bankruptcies are filed now because of enormous debt loads," he said. "We've also noticed that debtors are getting younger. . . . Younger debtors (are) saddled with both student loans and credit-card balances that you never would have seen 20 years ago."

In addition to wealthier and younger filers, women make up the fastest growing segment of all new filers, the panel noted.

Older families, Hildebrand said, also are faced with bankruptcy, often against mounting debt on fixed incomes while carrying second and third mortgages on their homes.

Other factors contributing to the large number of filings include low wages, underemployed workers, single-parent households and catastrophic medical expenses.

"We've seen an inability to deal both with credit and an inability to deal with the catastrophes that families face," Hildebrand said. "There is clearly a tremendous need for financial education."

Nationwide, about one-third of all bankruptcies occur under Chapter 13, which allows debts to be restructured and paid over a three- to five-year period. The rest of consumer filings fall under Chapter 7, which liquidates assets and dismisses unsecured debts like credit-card balances.

Gold, a bankruptcy trustee who has presided over thousands of consumer bankruptcy cases, said the high number of filings has prompted the U.S. Trustee Program, responsible for overseeing the administration of bankruptcy cases, to take a closer look at filers, launching a civil enforcement initiative.

"There has been a concern, rightly or wrongly, that debtors have been taking advantage of the system over the last several years," Gold said. "This civil enforcement initiative aims to curtail that, to try to determine all the property they own, all the income that they have and accurately describing what their expenses are."

But despite greater scrutiny, consumer filings show no sign of slowing.

"While it's too soon to tell whether we'll break the record of 1.5 million (filings), which we had in this past year, I would predict certainly that we will," Gold said.

The problem also is compounded by repeat filers, Gold said. By law, a debtor can obtain a bankruptcy discharge every six years.

"I presided as trustee at a meeting of creditors, and there was a debtor that filed her third case. I don't recall ever seeing a third case," he said. "So, in other words, she filed probably once in the early '80s, once in the early '90s and now is filing again, and each time received a discharge."

Last year 4 billion credit-card solicitations were mailed to consumers as debt service levels hit 15-year highs. Outstanding balances on credit cards, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute, accounted for 5.65 percent of disposable income in 1990, increased to 9.79 percent in 2001 and are expected to reach 11.92 percent by 2010.

Congress is expected to take up bankruptcy reform again this year after a proposed bill died last year. The new reforms would make it tougher for consumers to file for bankruptcy and discharge their debts.


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