If you live in Utah, there is a good chance that someone you know has filed for bankruptcy in the past few years.
Craig Trenton, a Salt Lake attorney who works bankruptcy cases, can attest to that. He probably has seen one of your friends or relatives walk through his doors, looking for help."Any more, it doesn't take much for people to hit some kind of economic speed bump, whether illness, divorce, separation, even a loss of overtime," Trenton said. "All these factors can contribute to somebody needing to file. There's just a lot more families that are living paycheck-to-paycheck than I think people realize, so it doesn't take much to push them over the edge."
And over the edge they have fallen, in ever-increasing numbers.
According to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Utah, filings have increased almost 92 percent from 6,514 in 1994 to 12,127 in 1997. And during the first four months of 1998, another 4,839 people and companies filed for protection from their creditors.
Through April, 44 percent of Utahns filing for bankruptcy this year did so under Chapter 13, meaning they can retain some assets, like a home, and set up a plan to repay their debts. About 55 percent filed under Chapter 7, in which a trustee is appointed to collect and sell all of a person's property in order to pay off debts.
Paul Toscano, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee, has worked with about 8,000 debtors over the years, and he said many different forces have contributed to the bankruptcy explosion.
"The first is that I think the standards that the credit community has for extending credit have been lowered so that they can approach a greater segment of the population . . .," Toscano said. "So as the credit community reaches down deeper into the lower stratas, they encounter people who are not going to be able to pay off their debts."
Mark Zandi, chief economist with Regional Financial Associates in Westchester, Pa., said that broader extension of credit was popular nationwide between 1993 and 1995. But many creditors, and particularly credit card companies, started tightening up in early 1996 when they realized they had a problem, he said.
"That continues to this day, and that's why I think we'll see some leveling off . . .," Zandi said. "(The bankruptcy rate) is still rising now, but at a slower rate. By this time next year, if the economy cooperates, it will probably start falling."
However, one thing continued economic strength may not change is the growing willingness of people to file bankruptcy.
"There has been a bit of a contagion effect," Zandi said. "If you see your neighbor or family member file, psychologically it becomes easier for you to file."
Toscano said some of the historical stigma associated with bankruptcy has vanished.
"Bankruptcy used to be on the same level as venereal disease in the days of Sandra Dee," he said. "Going in the red or bouncing a check was just unheard of."
Kent Knowley, president of the Utah Hospitality Association and member of the new Utah Alliance for Bankruptcy Reform, said filing for bankruptcy is not as devastating as it used to be.
"Ten or 15 years ago, if you took out bankruptcy, you couldn't buy a car or house or take out a credit card," Knowley said. "That's not true any more."
Toscano said filing for bankruptcy has grown cheaper and easier, but he still thinks most people who go through the process are honestly in trouble. That is why he balks at some of the current reform efforts that are wending their way through Congress.
Most of those proposals are aimed at getting more people to file under Chapter 13, he said, thus ensuring that creditors get at least some of their money from debtors.
"But if they can't pay, they can't pay," Toscano said. "Even if you force them into Chapter 13, if they can't make payments to the trustee every month, what good does it do?"
Knowley said people do need a safety valve in case they get in financial trouble.
"We just feel that safety valve is way too easy to take advantage of," he said. "We've got a good economy, and we have had for some time now, which makes it very easy for people to get in over their heads. It's very easy to obtain credit, and people are just spending when they really shouldn't be."
Many people blame the jump in bankruptcy at least partially on the proliferation of credit cards. But David Sandor, a vice president with Visa U.S.A., said less than 16 percent of total debt in bankruptcies can be attributed to the cards.
And even though 99 percent of all bank card accounts are never in bankruptcy, he said, Visa is concerned that some people who could pay their debts are choosing not to.
"In 1997, about $4 billion in debts that could have been repaid were forgiven," he said. "And that hurts all consumers."
Sandor said reform proposals are "focused like a laser" on people who have the capacity to repay at least part of what they owe.
But Toscano said bankruptcy reform will fail if it forces Chapter 13 filings on people who probably should not have received credit in the first place.
"You're going to have people at the bottom of the totem pole," Toscano said. "The best thing we can do is make it so you don't stay at the bottom when you're down there."