Consumer Bankruptcies Spike to New Record

U.S. consumer bankruptcies increased to a record 2.04 million in 2005, as people rushed to seek protection from creditors ahead of tough new laws, data released on Wednesday show.

Filings rose 31.6 percent from 1.55 million in 2004, with increases in every state and double-digit percentage increases in every geographic region, according to Lundquist Consulting Inc., a financial research firm. One in every 53 households filed for court protection, the firm said.

Chapter 7 filings, which provide the greatest relief for consumers, surged 47.2 percent, while Chapter 13 filings declined 7.9 percent.

The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which took effect Oct. 17, made it harder to erase debts and made filings more costly. The changes constituted the biggest overhaul to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code since 1978.

In perhaps the biggest change, a new "means test" prevents debtors from using Chapter 7 if they earn more than the median income in their states, and can repay some of their debt. They must instead use Chapter 13, which requires repayments.

Credit-card issuers championed the new law, saying old laws encouraged abuse.

Banks such as Citigroup Inc. (C), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have said they will suffer hundreds of millions of dollars of fourth-quarter losses related to the filing surge, but expected to make this up in future periods because filings would decline.

There were only 38,000 consumer bankruptcy filings between Oct. 17 and Dec. 31, Burlingame, California-based Lundquist said. Nearly 60 percent of these were Chapter 13 filings, double the historical norm, it said.

California was the biggest state in 2005 volume with 164,856 filings, up 35.9 percent from 2004. Ohio was second, with 135,142 filings, up 51.7 percent.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts expects to release 2005 filing data around March 1. The office is an information clearinghouse for the federal court system.