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Bankruptcies on rise in Washington County

March 14, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Bankruptcies on rise in Washington County

The number of people and businesses in Washington County filing for bankruptcy tripled from 1995 to 1997, mirroring a nationwide trend that is straining courts and reshaping the way people manage their debts.

In 1995, there were 407 bankruptcies originating from Washington County, according to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court's Maryland District. By last year, that number had jumped to 1,220.

Statewide, officials say they have not seen quite as dramatic a rise, but court officials said filings are rising. The number of cases filed in the court has jumped from 15,183 in 1994 to 31,834 in 1997 - a 110 percent increase in three years.

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The causes of the increase are varied, but analysts point to a flood of easy credit as a chief reason.

It also affects more than those who file for bankruptcy, because credit card companies and other lenders pass on their losses to consumers in the form of higher fees and interest rates.

Whatever the explanation, officials said the effect on the bankruptcy courts is clear.

"As you can see, we are enormously overworked and have been," said Duncan W. Keir, a judge with the court's Greenbelt, Md., division. "The drowning of new filings is real."

While the overall number of bankruptcies has skyrocketed, Keir said the number of businesses seeking bankruptcy protection has remained fairly steady.

"Virtually all of it is in consumer cases," he said.

The rapid growth is especially remarkable given the fact that the economy has been extraordinarily healthy for most of the 1990s, experts said.

'Easy credit'




The causes behind bankruptcy increases in Washington County and throughout the Tri-State area are the same reasons for the nationwide increase, according to lawyers who handle bankruptcy cases.

Local attorneys said everything from gambling problems to layoffs to medical crises to divorce have caused bankruptcies.

Keir said Maryland might be worse off than other states because downsizing of the federal government has a greater impact in the state.

But local attorneys pointed overwhelmingly to credit card debt. They said many of their clients got into trouble because of unsolicited credit card offers in the mail.

"I get four or five of these things a week. I've got an 18-year-old daughter who gets two or three a week and she's not even out of high school," said William "Rob" O'Brien, who practices law in Maryland and West Virginia.

Roger Schlossberg, a Hagerstown attorney who serves as a bankruptcy trustee, also blamed credit card companies.

Fifteen years ago, Schlossberg said, it was rare when a young person declared bankruptcy. Now, he said it is common for people in their early 20s to have $25,000 in credit card debt that they cannot repay.

"Far too much ridiculously easy credit with ludicrously high rates," he said.

Barbara Townsend, a Chambersburg, Pa., attorney, said she rarely handled bankruptcy cases in the early 1980s. Since the recession in the early 1990s, though, she said her bankruptcy caseload has grown steadily.

Townsend said she also has seen a steady rise in bankruptcy filings under Chapter 7, which makes it easier for people to get rid of debt.

Under Chapter 13, debtors have to pay back a portion of what they owe over time.

"Quite frankly, I find it very difficult to recommend it," she said.

Other explanations




Credit card company officials dispute their industry is the chief cause of bankruptcies.

Carolyn Bretschneider, a spokeswoman for VISA USA, pointed to a company study that indicates that only a quarter of bankruptcy filers - and 7.4 percent overall - said their credit card debt was overextended.

"Bankruptcies are the result of a complex combination of economic, legal and social factors," said Bretschneider. "Credit card debt is a relatively small proportion of household debt."

Bretschneider said bankruptcies are on the rise because people are turning to it sooner than they did in the past. She said the VISA study indicated that about half of those who filed for bankruptcy in 1997 heard about the procedure from friends and family - a 10.5 percent increase over 1996.

Bretschneider also said less than half of those who filed for bankruptcy had ever sought credit counseling.

"It appears that the social stigma previously attached to bankruptcy has eroded," she said. "People are filing for bankruptcy as a first choice rather than a last option."

Even Schlossberg acknowledged that people's concept of credit has changed over the last several decades.

"Credit is no longer something people are using for the big things in life," he said. "They're using credit, at age 20, to buy groceries If you start to carry balances for food, you're in trouble."

But some experts said there simply is no credible evidence to back up any of the theories.

Charles Shafer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said studies show that most people who file for bankruptcy do so out of extreme economic hardship, such as losing a job or facing large medical bills.

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