Information for First Time Visitors
Are there alternatives to bankruptcy and should I consider them first?
One of the first things that I tell clients is that they should explore all other “non-bankruptcy alternatives.” First and foremost, you should request current credit reports from Equifax, Experian (formerly TRW) and TransUnion. Those credit reports will identify your creditors and the amounts you owe them. Often, when you see what you owe in one place and in black and white, your total debt situation may not seem so terrible.
Bankruptcy should be considered a last resort that should only be used if your creditors will not agree to a voluntary repayment plan or if your debt is simply too large to handle in a reasonable period of time. Debt relief under a Court Order is a big step to take, but it can be a financial tool that can bring you peace of mind.
Creditors are always looking to see how they can get possession of your money. Sometimes they may want you to sign “consent judgments” or other legal papers spelling out the terms of your agreement to pay. In my opinion, you should avoid entering into any written contract or consent judgments with creditors without first speaking with an attorney since the paperwork you sign could contain admissions of certain facts or could waive your rights.
How can I get my credit reports?
In Georgia, you are entitled to two (2) free credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. Click here if you would like to receive the forms necessary to request these free reports by mail.
You can also get any of these reports on-line, providing you have a computer and access to the internet. Here are the links for these agencies:
The only catch to getting your reports on-line is that you will have to pay for them. Reports requested over the internet are not included in the free ones allowed under Georgia law.
What about Consumer Credit Counseling?
Over the past few years, a popular alternative to bankruptcy has surfaced. Credability, formerly Consumer Credit Counseling Services, a nonprofit organization financed by credit card companies and other consumer finance organizations, works with you to reduce some of your debt and create a plan to pay off the rest of your debt without the intervention of the Bankruptcy Courts. If your debt is not too overwhelming and you have sufficient income, Credability may be able to create a payment plan that allows you to pay back your debts over time.
While Credability is an excellent organization, they may not be able to help if you are behind with your car or house payment. Their concentration seems to be on the handling of your credit card. Please note that Credabilityis an organization created by credit card companies and their mission is to assist you in paying back all of your credit card debt. Credability counselors are not attorneys and they are not required to discuss with you bankruptcy or other options, although I have had some clients advise me that Credability advised them that bankruptcy may be their only option.
Credability is not the only “credit counseling service” out there. You may have seen advertisements in the phone book, on television ads, through unsolicited mail or even nailed to a telephone pole. Some of these services offer to clear your credit file or to get you a new credit file. Usually, these organizations are rip-offs and you should avoid them. A good rule to follow is “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Finally, if you do attempt to get your financial life under control, realize that it will take a great deal of both discipline and money to pay off substantial credit card debt. Let’s say you have $10,000 in credit card debt and you want to pay it off in two years, in order to accomplish this goal, you will need to pay $520 per month. Or if you take three years, you will need $382 per month. If you reduce the amount you are paying per month to $200, then that $10,000 will take over ten years to pay off.
Many clients tell me that they attempted to reduce the interest rate they were paying on their credit card debt only to find themselves even farther in debt when they miss one payment under that new rate. Credit card companies are notorious in jacking up the interest rate to over 25% if you default on a payment. Always remember to read your credit card small print to see how your account will be handled if you do default.
Remember, interest rates at levels of 18% to 20% will increase your balances immensely. You can figure out how long it would take you to pay off your debt by using an on-line calculator located at the Motley Fool financial web site.
Will I lose everything if I file for bankruptcy protection?
The short answer is, no, you will not.
The thought of losing property because of the filing of a bankruptcy case scares many people. Many also have private 401(k) accounts, government retirement accounts and personal private pensions or other investments that they think will get seized and used to pay creditors.
There is good news though, when you file a bankruptcy case the courts allow you to exempt some of your property such as a portion of your real estate equity, your personal property and your retirement money. Much of this is safe and sheltered from the reach of the Bankruptcy Court by virtue of a Georgia law called the exemption law.
Read more about exemptions on my FAQ page.