Deciding whether to file can depend on both the amount you owe and your need to avoid collectors.
By Justin Harelik, Bankrate.com
A reader writes: I lost my job about seven months ago and as of yet have not been able to find another job. I have about $15,000 in credit card debt and have been able to make my minimum monthly payments using my unemployment check. My unemployment runs out soon, and I am wondering if I should or could file bankruptcy? I am 58 years old and do not have a personal savings account. I have a 401k and about $5,000 in a Roth individual retirement account.
My answer: Sorry to hear you are struggling right now. I can’t imagine how frustrating the job market must be for you.
Hopefully, I can give you some direction as you make your decision about whether to file for bankruptcy. It appears you would be eligible for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would wipe out your $15,000 in credit card debt and allow you to keep your 401k and the Roth IRA money.
Should you consolidate your debt?
Even if you decide to file for bankruptcy on your own, without the assistance of an attorney, you should confirm your eligibility with a five- or 10-minute consultation with a local bankruptcy attorney. It is always wise to receive some legal advice rather than relying solely on Internet research, advice from friends and family or even an answer from a columnist.
You don’t have a ton of debt, and you could potentially remain in good standing with these creditors once you find gainful employment. If you had $50,000 in debt, that would be a great reason to file for bankruptcy now, but $15,000 could be manageable. You could also try to wait until you return to work and get caught up with your creditors later.
So you might be able to avoid using the bankruptcy card for now. That said, I would probably still advise you to file, since you have unemployment income to pay the court fees.
Many times the reason someone files is not due to the amount of debt. Instead, it’s the amount of harassment you receive from debt collectors. Once you stop paying creditors, the phone calls begin. In many cases, my clients decide to file to stop the calls, lawsuits and generally uncivil treatment.
The process changes somewhat from company to company, but this what you can expect: Once you miss a payment, your account gets categorized as a “collection account” by the lender. The first collectors usually are civil. You will get calls, usually every day, asking for payment. You can choose to ignore those calls or take the call and explain your situation.
The challenging part comes after the original creditor decides to stop trying to collect. It will either assign or sell the debt to a collection agency. This is when the civil calls can turn nasty.
Collection agency employees will say some pretty outrageous things to people to collect a debt. That is not to say that the original creditor will always be nice and polite, either. It is just that collection agency employees are notoriously nasty. You will need a thick skin to tolerate some of the comments made in the attempt to collect a debt.
Of course, not all bill collectors say and do illegal things, but their reputation has been earned for a reason.
Your emotional strength will determine your willingness to tolerate the calls and comments. Maybe you have found a job by this time and can get onto a payment plan with the collection agency. Obviously, that would end the calls, because you would be paying back the debt you owe.
In the absence of paying, you need to determine whether bankruptcy is the lesser of two evils. Your credit would take a big hit, but you would gain some peace of mind from knowing you did what you could. Or, you can try to avoid bankruptcy by working out a payment plan that you can honor once you return to work.