Bankruptcy Basics: When should you throw in the towel?

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Bankruptcy is a scary proposition. The word "bankruptcy" itself sounds so ominous. The media bombards us with nightmare tales of seemingly solid business giants going from bedrock to bankrupt. The list of the bankrupt runs the spectrum from personal to corporate bringing together the likes of Donald Trump with Enron.

And gossip columns never tire of dishing on the latest celebrity inches from bankruptcy whether it's Gary Coleman or Mike Tyson having to part with his pet tigers. You might even fear that you're a few steps from going under. After all, we live in an economy in which credit card offers clutter our mailboxes. And living in debt is an accepted norm. But, just how can you tell when it's time to throw in the towel and declare bankruptcy?

Here are a few questions to help you assess your financial danger zone:

 

  • Do you only make minimum payments on your credit cards?
  • Are bill collectors calling you?
  • Does the thought of sorting out your finances make you feel scared or out of control?
  • Do you use credit cards to pay for necessities?
  • Are you considering debt consolidation?
  • Are you unsure how much you actually owe?

Assess Your Situation

If you answered yes to two or more of those questions, you at least want to give your financial situation a little more thought. Simply put, bankruptcy is when you owe more than you can afford to pay.

To determine where you are financially, inventory all of your liquid assets. Don't forget to include retirement funds, stocks, bonds, real estate, vehicles, college savings accounts, and other non-bank account funds. Add up a rough estimate for each item.

Then, collect and add up your bills and credit statements. If the value of your assets is less than the amount of debt you owe, declaring bankruptcy may be one way out of a sticky financial situation. However, bankruptcy shouldn't be approached casually. After all, it's not a simple, easy cure-all for out-of-control debt.

How do I Declare Bankruptcy?

You can go bankrupt in one of two main ways. The more common route is to voluntarily file for bankruptcy. The second way is for creditors to ask the court to order a person bankrupt.

There are several ways to file bankruptcy, each with pros and cons. You may want to consult a lawyer before proceeding so you can figure out the best fit for your circumstances.

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

There are lots of reasons people file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. You're probably not the only one, whatever your reason is. Some common reasons for filing for bankruptcy are unemployment, large medical expenses, seriously overextended credit, and marital problems. Chapter 7 is sometimes referred to as a "straight bankruptcy." A Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidates your assets to pay off as much of your debt as possible. The cash from your assets is distributed to creditors like banks and credit card companies.

Within four months, you will receive a notice of discharge. The record of your bankruptcy will stay on your credit report for ten years. But even that doesn't have to mean doom. Lots of Chapter 7 filers have bought homes with recent bankruptcies on their record. For many people, Chapter 7 offers a quick, fresh start.

But Chapter 7 bankruptcies aren't right for everyone. Almost all assets are taken and sold to repay creditors. If a debtor owns a company, a family home, or any other personal assets which he or she wants to keep, Chapter 7 may not be the best option.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

For people who have property they want to keep, filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be the better choice.

A Chapter 13 bankruptcy is also known as a reorganization bankruptcy. Chapter13 enables people to pay off their debts over a period of three to five years. For individuals who have consistent, predictable annual income, Chapter 13 offers a grace period. Any debts remaining at the end of the grace period are discharged.

Once the bankruptcy is approved by the court, creditors must stop contacting the debtor. Bankrupt individuals may then continue working and paying off their debts over the coming years, and still keep their property and possessions.

Scary, but Sometimes Necessary

It can be hard to admit you need help getting out of debt, or that you can't do it alone. But that's why our government has bankruptcy laws to protect not only the creditors, but you! If you have a nerve-racking debt-load, it may be time to face financial facts. Perhaps you've been trying to ignore the ringing phone and the pile of unpaid bills that won't go away.

However, you could be doing yourself a disservice by not filing for bankruptcy. With a good lawyer and the right information, filing bankruptcy could give you the financial footing you need to get a fresh start. In other words, throwing in the towel may just be the beginning you need.