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Utah's reputation for thriftiness and conservative values is fast being tarnished by a continuing glut of insolvencies.

For the 12 months ended March 31, one of every 36.5 Utah households filed for bankruptcy, once again the highest households-per-filing rate in the nation, according to a report released Monday by the Virginia-based American Bankruptcy Institute.

"It is a bit perplexing," said Kelly Matthews, economist for Wells Fargo in Salt Lake City. "One would tend to think if there is some influence from the dominant culture it would be towards conservatism toward financial management."

Nationally, one of every 72.8 households filed for bankruptcy during the same 12-month period.

According to ABI, the top five reasons people filed for bankruptcy were ease of obtaining personal credit and credit cards, loss of a job, financial mismanagement, medical problems and divorce.

In Utah, the reasons extend to larger family size, higher charitable contributions and lower-than-average per-capita income levels, Matthews said.

"Typical national underwriting might put greater stress on a family in Utah," he said. "I'm not saying in any way that it's wrong to have kids or wrong to have a contribution schedule that's different to the national average, but I think we have to be careful in the amount of debt we put on, relative to those circumstances."

In spite of Utah's high filing rate, bankruptcies in the state have started to slow. Filings fell 0.6 percent from 2002 to 2003, the first time since 1994 that bankruptcy rates declined. Through the first five months of 2004, filings are down 8 percent compared to the same period in 2003.

Other states with high rates per households included Tennessee, Georgia, Nevada and Alabama. Alaska had the lowest rate, with one filing per 171.2 households.

Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and expert in bankruptcy issues, recently told the Deseret Morning News that a family with children is nearly three times more likely to file for bankruptcy than a family with no children.

Others blame credit card companies for a proliferation of easy credit.

"Clearly the credit lenders have to take some responsibility," said Kevin Anderson, standing Chapter 13 trustee in Salt Lake City. "It just amazes me that people come in and will have $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 in debt and their income is $35,000 a year. How on earth did you get that much credit?"

The ABI report said personal bankruptcy filings have doubled in the past decade. The rise parallels a surge in consumer debt.

"The U.S. economy relies primarily on consumer spending, but rising levels of household debt can put a heavy burden on families," Samuel Gerdano, executive director of the ABI, said in a prepared statement. "When families sustain an unexpected financial setback on top of this burden, they often resort to bankruptcy as a way out."

The high-level of indebtedness among households, the report said, also could lead to increased household delinquencies and bankruptcies, threatening the financial health of lenders.

"I think it's much more serious than apparently a lot of people are taking it . . . ," Matthews said. "I think that it has definite repercussions in terms of one's future financial potentiality."


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