The recently passed Bankruptcy Abuse and Consumer Protection Act was hailed as a breakthrough in bankruptcy law. Passed with bipartisan support in Congress and signed enthusiastically by President Bush, the law creates sweeping changes in debt law and will make it much more difficult for debtors to have their obligations swept away by the courts. A major requirement of the new law will require that anyone considering filing for bankruptcy to first undergo credit counseling. The idea is sound; anyone with problem debt can probably benefit from some discussions about money management. There’s just one problem – Congress failed to include any details in the bill about what, exactly, constitutes credit counseling.
The credit counseling industry, which includes for-profit as well as nonprofit organizations, has been through some hard times lately. The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating some firms that have claimed to be nonprofit but were actually steering their clients into pricey debt consolidation plans run by for-profit affiliates. These high-profile cases have left a dark cloud hanging over the industry. With the new legislation set to take effect this October, many consumers have questions about the nature of the counseling requirements. Who will pay for it, and what sorts of fees are acceptable? The bill doesn’t say whether the debtors themselves or their creditors will pay the counseling fees or how much the service should cost. The law only states that the fees must be “reasonable” and that the services should be available even if the debtor cannot afford to pay. The thought of being forced to provide counseling to customers who cannot pay has justifiably angered the counseling industry. Even nonprofit agencies have overhead and typically charge some sort of fee.
Who qualifies as a counselor? As “credit counselor” is a vague term with no real legal meaning, anyone might be able to place a sign on a building and call himself or herself a credit counselor. Is that what Congress had in mind? The US Trustee Program is in charge of making all of these determinations, and the department is said to be compiling a list of “approved” agencies. Presumably, the Trustees will also be examining these other issues and providing guidelines before the law takes effect. In the meantime, both debtors and counselors are concerned as thousands of Americans will be seeking advice for their debt problems come October. By then, with a little luck, consumers with problem debt will have some way of knowing whom they should call before filing for bankruptcy.