Most Americans are aware of the sweeping changes in U.S. bankruptcy law that were made by Congress recently. These changes, strongly supported by the credit card industry, were designed to make it more difficult for Americans to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Federal bankruptcy code. Chapter 7 allows consumers to essentially have all of their debts wiped away by the court. While many people will still be able to file under Chapter 7, many more will have to file under Chapter 13, which requires the establishment of a repayment plan. A less publicized provision of the bankruptcy bill is the one that requires debtors who are considering filing for bankruptcy to first undergo credit counseling. What does this mean for consumers?
Actually, the details are not yet known. The law, which takes effect on October 17, 2005, does require that debtors considering bankruptcy receive credit counseling at least six months before filing for bankruptcy. The law also requires that they receive additional counseling before the case is finalized and that any agency providing counseling services must charge an undefined “reasonable fee.” Other than that, there are no details yet. The portion of the law that deals specifically with credit counseling hasn’t yet been written, and the full details are not expected to be released until mid-summer. Even those who work in the credit counseling industry do not know what will be expected of them once the law takes effect.
For consumers with problem debt, this confusion is only making a bad situation worse. In the Fall, more steps will be required of those filing for bankruptcy, but no one knows what those steps are, what they will cost, or how involved they will be. Anyone who has a current financial situation that they feel may lead to bankruptcy would be well advised to consider filing now. Bankruptcy should be considered a last resort for those with problem debt, as a bankruptcy filing will stay on a credit report for at least ten years. If bankruptcy appears inevitable, however, filing now will probably be easier, cheaper, and faster than filing after the new law takes effect in October.