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Bankruptcies soar despite legal changes

1.5 million filings predicted this year

Attorney Bryan Elliott looks over bankruptcy files at his office in Hickory, N.C. ''There's no end in sight,'' he says. Attorney Bryan Elliott looks over bankruptcy files at his office in Hickory, N.C. ''There's no end in sight,'' he says. (Chuck Burton/ Associated Press)
By Mike Baker
Associated Press / April 14, 2009
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RALEIGH, N.C. - The number of US businesses and individuals declaring bankruptcy is rising with a vengeance during the recession, despite a three-year-old federal law that made it much tougher for Americans to escape their debts, an Associated Press analysis found.

"There's no end in sight," said bankruptcy lawyer Bryan Elliott of Hickory, N.C., who is working seven days a week and scheduling prospective clients a month in advance. "To be doing this well and having this much business, it is depressing. It's not a laugh-a-minute job."

Nearly 1.2 million debtors filed for bankruptcy in the past 12 months, according to federal court records collected and analyzed by the AP. Last month, 130,831 sought bankruptcy protection - an increase of 46 percent over March 2008 and 81 percent over the same month in 2007.

Bob Lawless, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, said bankruptcies could reach 1.5 million this year and level off at 1.6 million next year - around the same time economists expect an economic recovery to begin.

Congress voted in 2005 to make bankruptcy more cumbersome after years of intense lobbying from the nation's lenders, who complained that people were abusing the system. Before the move to change the law, bankruptcies were running at what was then a record high of about 1.6 million per year.

The tighter requirements initially appeared to work, with bankruptcies plummeting from a record-shattering 2 million cases in 2005 - a total that reflected a rush to file before the new law took effect - to 600,000 in 2006. But now bankruptcies are booming again.

"You wouldn't get this large of a rise without serious problems in the economy," said Lynn LoPucki, a UCLA law professor who researches bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy rate is climbing as well. In the past 12 months, about four people or businesses for every 1,000 people in the country filed for bankruptcy, according to the AP analysis. That is twice the rate in 2006, and close to the average of about five for every 1,000 in the decade leading up to the law change.

Previous recessions also drove people to Bankruptcy Court, though those increases were more moderate. Bankruptcies went up 19 percent amid the economic contraction in 2001, and about 15 percent during the recession of the early 1980s, according to the Administrative Office of the US Courts.

Bankruptcy is considered a lagging economic indicator, since it is generally a last resort. The filings compiled by the AP illustrate the places where the economic meltdown has hit hardest.

In March, bankruptcy filings jumped the highest across the West. In Arizona, filings rose 91 percent from a year ago. They were up 84 percent in Idaho, 82 percent in California, and 79 percent in Nevada, though those were trumped by Delaware, home to many corporations, which saw a 127 percent jump.