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Debt is weighing on a man and consuming all his money.

An Open Letter From a Bankruptcy Lawyer: The Truth about Bankruptcy and Debt Relief

To Anyone Feeling Overwhelmed with Debt:

As a bankruptcy attorney, my office deals with people who are going through stressful moments in their lives. Every day we help educate people on bankruptcy and debt issues. Hardest part about talking with individuals about debt relief options is combating the significant misconceptions about debt issues and bankruptcy. If we are able to explain the correct information, we can help individuals truly understand the legal process and get a fresh start. But, it is not always easy because many sources promote bankruptcy as the worst option out there and that bankruptcy means you are a failure; these ideas are completely false and do not reflect the actual concept of bankruptcy.

I get asked all the time, is bankruptcy the right option for me? Should I file? I almost always respond that I can’t make that decision; it is a financial decision only you can make. On occasion, when it is the only reasonable option available to achieve their goal (like stopping a foreclosure or garnishment), I let them know it is likely your best option here. Sometimes, I can say — especially when the debt level is very low — I cannot recommend bankruptcy. Often with low debt, the bankruptcy fee could be better put to use to settle debts, make a few payments, or just use the money to live. But, often, the answer is that bankruptcy is a good option, but you need to figure out if it is the right option for you.

For many, whether bankruptcy is a right option comes to whether they can accept bankruptcy as a financial choice and not a reflection of his/her personal situation.

Bankruptcy myths and misconceptions

More often than not, individuals who are great candidates for bankruptcy have preconceived ideas about bankruptcy. Sometimes, the myths can make people wait to consider their options. Waiting can sometimes be the right decision, sometimes filing sooner means you are getting a fresh start sooner, it really depends. Too often, I hear people say:

1. Your credit will be ruined after bankruptcy.
2. You should only file if I have a lot of debt; filing for only $20,000.00 isn’t worth it.
3. I will lose everything, if I file.
4. I can’t have any assets if I want to qualify for bankruptcy.
5. I have a security clearance; I can’t file.

All those reasons for not considering bankruptcy are incorrect. Bankruptcy is a legal and financial option to help individuals and/or businesses manage their debts. Addressing each of those concerns:

Credit after bankruptcy

Six months to a year after bankruptcy discharge, most debtors’ have between a 600 and 650 credit score; some of my clients have even seen higher. This increase in credit is usually without too much effort. If you take good steps toward improving your credit and using credit responsibly, it can be even better.

Additionally, you will be receiving offers for credit (i.e. credit cards and car loans) immediately after filing Chapter 7 or shortly after any discharge. After bankruptcy, most people have no debts (or a limited number of debts) and there is a restriction on when the debtor may file bankruptcy again. After a Chapter 7, a debtor cannot file a Chapter 7 for at least 8 years. This makes you a better credit risk than someone with a similar credit score.

How much debt should you have before considering bankruptcy?

There is no legal amount minimum debt necessary to file bankruptcy. We usually recommend at least $15,000.00 before you start considering bankruptcy as an option. But, the amount of debt usually depends on your income. If, after reviewing your finances, you do not believe you can pay the debt back within 4 to 5 years, then bankruptcy is definitely an option to consider. A Chapter 7 would let you wipe most debt away and Chapter 13 lets you restructure the debt and often allows a payment based on your monthly disposable income.

Bankruptcy is a legal and financial decision; it is not an ethical or moral one. Congress included bankruptcy as an option to deal with debt. They understand people need help dealing with debt. It also isn’t a kiss of death like many people believe it is; your credit will improve and you are allowed to keep certain things.

What can I keep in bankruptcy?

You can keep various things in bankruptcy. In a Chapter 13, you almost always keep everything you want to keep. In a Chapter 7, you are not completely without assets. There are certain bankruptcy exemptions (or protections) that apply to anyone filing for bankruptcy. Your exemptions vary depending on what state and federal laws apply to your circumstances. Most individuals are allowed to keep some cash, up to a certain value of a car, retirement plans, a base amount of household goods, and various other things. The government understands you should be a zero when you have your fresh start, but they do not want you to keep more than a fair share of assets.

Do I have too many assets to file bankruptcy?

Your assets are not part of the analysis of determining if you qualify for bankruptcy; the court is considering your debts and incomes. Assets are a consideration in determining what you could lose in a Chapter 7 or how many needs to be paid out in a Chapter 13. Sometimes it is surprise what can be protected in a bankruptcy. For example, I have some clients who are able to protect $200,000.00 worth of equity in their home and others who cannot even protect $7,000.00 worth of equity. Assets vary dramatically from individual to individual; an experienced attorney can advise you on what could be at risk in your particular situation.

Security Clearance in Bankruptcy:

Being in northern Virginia, we regularly have individuals who file bankruptcy with security clearances. Filing for bankruptcy relief will not automatically prohibit you from obtaining a security clearance. But whether you have a history of financial irresponsibility will be considered during the evaluation process. If the debt was incurred due to a situation outside of the control of the debtor, such as divorce, illness, loss of job, etc., the concern of losing your security clearance is often a lot lower. The evaluation heavily concerns whether it is likely you will be in debt again.

Bankruptcy is a legal way to apply for debt relief. Handling your debt through a bankruptcy is a better option than just having outstanding debt. With substantial debt, the government can be concerned about the potential for being compromised or bribed. A bankruptcy means your debt has been discharged in a Chapter 7 and/or you have a reasonable repayment plan in a Chapter 13. In fact, getting rid of debt in a bankruptcy could increase your chances of approval. Filing shows that you are taking proper steps toward correcting your financial situation.

Options to manage debts:

The most important thing I tell my clients is that they should understand all options available to them. Bankruptcy is just one financial tool out of many that you can use when having financial problems. Only when you understand all of your options can you make the best decision for your situation. Other options we often at least want our clients to understand include: debt negotiation, debt consolidation, and waiting. Each option can have pros and cons, but will vary due to the specifics of a person’s situation.

Timing is also important when considering your financial issues. Some people come to talk about a bankruptcy months before filing. Others file within two days of filing. If you understand the pros and cons of a bankruptcy well before you file, you could make decision about when to file that is best for you. If you wait until the last minute to consider bankruptcy, for example when a foreclosure is schedule or a garnishment is pending, you have a limited timeline and may have not been able to full review any pros and cons. For example, we do not usually recommend filing bankruptcy within 90 days of any cash advance due to the fact a creditor can object to that debt being discharged.

We offer a free consultation to potential clients for many reasons; we want clients to understand the process, and to see if the client is comfortable with our office. Bankruptcy is a personal process; you must disclose a lot of personal and financial information. If you are not comfortable, you may leave some important information out. We tell our clients you need to be comfortable with us; clients need to be completely candid with your bankruptcy attorney. Many problems can be prevented during a bankruptcy with complete and exact information. Fixing problems after the fact can be difficult, especially when due to lack of information.

You are not alone.

Since the economic downturn of 2007, millions of individuals have filed bankruptcy. Some people have had to file bankruptcy twice in the last 10 years because of many factors, like difficultly finding work even after a bankruptcy, negative equity in real estate, and much more. Bankruptcy is one of many debt relief options; even if you do not need bankruptcy, you may find relief using other options, such as debt negotiation or settlement.

Bankruptcy is a financial tool; Congress included bankruptcy in the laws because the government understands that people can need help with their debts. To make the best decision for any situation, you should educate yourself on all available options. Bankruptcy is one option to help manage one’s finances, it may be or may not be the best option for you, but you owe it to yourself to at least understand the option.

If you want to talk about available options to deal with your debt in northern Virginia or DC, set up an appointment with our office. We want to help you understand your options and get on the right track.

Sincerely,
Ashley

 

 

Attorney Ashley F. Morgan is a Virginia licensed attorney. She has been helping clients deal with debts for most of her career. It is important for her that her clients are making the best decision for their circumstances.

Credit Score Board

Improving Your Credit Score: Taking Steps Toward Perfect Credit

Improving Credit: Tips and Tricks for Getting Your Score Closer to 850

Often after helping individuals manage their debts, we provide guidance on improving credit. In today’s world your credit score affects every day of your life.

A good credit score can mean getting approved for credit that you need to buy a house or car. A poor score can make it difficult to find an apartment rental or needing a large deposit to turn on the utilities. Improving your credit can help everyone, even individuals with already good credit.

Your credit score is a score created by the credit bureaus using information in your credit report. Credit scores range between 300 to 850. The score is designed to give creditors the likelihood that you will become delinquent on your debts. Your score will also vary slightly between credit bureaus.

Regardless of the reason you need to improve your credit, including old collection accounts, limited credit history, trying to buy a house, etc., the tips below can help you get your credit on track. For most credit cards and loans, you will be offered the best rates when your credit is above 750; you will be qualified for most types of credit if your score is at least 700.

Monitoring Credit Reports

To get a good idea about your starting point, you need to know what your credit looks like. Tools, like Credit Karma and Credit Sesame, give you a good basis about your credit score and what you can do to improve it. But, these are not real credit agencies. There are actually three credit bureaus: Transunion, Equifax, and Experian. Federal law allows you to get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each credit reporting company. You should regularly pull your credit report to ensure that everything is reporting accurately. Removing inaccuracies, like late payments, can quickly help you improve your credit. Additionally, reviewing your credit regularly can help you prevent issues with identity theft. Many credit cards now also offer free credit scores, which can help you keep an eye on your credit in between pulling full reports.

Credit Factors

When trying to improve your credit, it is important to understand the factors that make up your credit score. There are five elements that the credit bureaus weigh when determine your credit score: Payment History, Amounts Owed, Length of Credit History, Types of Credit, and New Credit.

Payment History – 35%

As you might expect, the repayment of past debt is a major factor in the calculation of credit scores. It helps determine future long-term payment behavior. Both revolving credit (i.e. credit cards) and installment loans (i.e. mortgage) are included in payment history calculations. This factor is why one of the best ways to improve or maintain a good score is to make consistent, on-time payments.

Credit utilization  – 30%

Creditors look at the total amount you currently owe, and the percentage of the amount owed compared to your available credit. When a high percentage of a person’s available credit is been used, this can indicate that a person is overextended, and is more likely to make late or missed payments. That is why it’s a good idea to keep low credit card balances and not overextend your credit utilization ratio. Additionally, this factor is why it is important to keep old credit cards open, even when not being used.

Length of Credit History – 15%

The credit bureaus look at the length of time all credit accounts have been open and the time since the newest account was opened. Those with a longer credit history have more data on which to base their payment history. This factor is why it is easier for old individuals to have a high credit score than younger individuals.

Types of Credit  – 10%

The credit bureaus want to see a combination of different types of debt, such as credit cards, installment loans (like student loans or car loans), open accounts (like lines of credit), and mortgage loans. This is important to show you can mange different types of debt.

New Credit – 10%

Creditors do not like seeing many recently opened accounts; opening several new credit accounts over a short period (which can be defined as anywhere from 6 months to 2 years) can signify greater risk. Creditors worry it is evidence of you facing financial difficulty. This is why it is recommended no new credit accounts should be opened one year before a major purchase, like a car or house.

Pay Bills on Time

Your payment history makes up 35% of your credit score. One of the easiest ways to improve your score is to always make sure you pay bills on time. Missed payments stay in your credit for 8 years. The more time that passes after a missed payment, the less of an impact it will have on your credit. One missed payment, won’t ruin your credit, but if it was within the last year, the impact will be obvious. Additionally, monthly bills like your electricity, cable and rent usually are not reported on your credit report every month. But, if you do miss a payment or the account goes into collection, the negative mark will usually appear on your credit.

Secured Credit Cards

One of the best tools for improving credit is a secured credit card. A secured card requires a cash collateral deposit that becomes the credit line for that account. For example, if you put $500.00 in the account, the bank will give you a credit card with a limit of $500.00. This allows for you to get a credit card with little risk to the bank; if you miss a payment on the secured credit card, the bank will take the deposit and close your account. Often a bank will reward you for good payment history and add to your credit line without requesting additional deposits or offer you a new credit card. Be sure to check the fine print on these cards; some banks may charge fees.

One important rule to remember about using a secured credit card (or really any credit card) is keeping your balance low. For credit building purposes, you should never have a balance over 30% of your total credit limit. Even if you are paying your balance off in full every month, having too high of a balance signals to creditors you could be over extending yourself.

Loans & Lines of Credit

If you are in need of a vehicle, consider getting a car loan. Or if you do not need a car, look into a line of credit. If it’s a car loan, buy a vehicle that is affordable and that you can pay off successfully. Additionally, you will see a drastic increase in your credit if you can make a large additional payment early on in the loan. A large additional payment will help bring down your credit usage and help improve your credit utilization. You may receive a higher interest rate to start. Shop around for the best rate; usually you will we get the best rate from a credit union. If you get a line of credit, keep in open but use is sparingly. The available credit — without a balance — will help your available credit.

Bankruptcy

For some individuals with many delinquent accounts and limited ability to improve their credit in a reasonable time period, bankruptcy can be used to get you a new starting point. Bankruptcy can even improve your credit faster than just trying to rehabilitate your credit (but it depends on your specific situation).  One of the many reasons bankruptcy is a great tool for managing debt is that it helps improve credit fairly quickly. After filing a Chapter 7, Debtors can usually see offers for new credit soon after filing bankruptcy. After a Chapter 7 discharge, you cannot qualify for a Chapter 7 for another eight years. To many lenders, you may actually appear to be a better risk immediately. The discharge zeros out any past due payments and delinquent accounts. Additionally, your income to debt ratio improves. This also helps your credit utilization rate as well.

Bankruptcy does have its limitations. If your goal is to buy a house, there is a required 2 year wait period to purchase a home after a Chapter 7. Two years post discharge, you may qualify for an FHA mortgage, if you have kept improving your credit and your income allows for it. You may need to wait longer for a conventional mortgage. There is no waiting period to qualify for new credit cards or car loan; however, your interest rates may vary depending on many factors. Since you cannot file a Chapter 7 more than once every 8 years, you will not have the available option if something happens during that period, such as job loss or illness.

Be Diligent

Most important part about improving credit is to keep at it. Your credit will not improve overnight. Being diligent at paying your bills on time, making conscientious decisions about opening new accounts, and understanding your credit report can make all the difference.

 

 

 

 

If you are dealing with debts, make sure you understand all your options. Ashley F. Morgan Law, PC helps many individuals manage their debts every month. Attorney Ashley Morgan has experience dealing with all the above issues. She understands good credit is important, and she wants her clients to completely understand all the tools at their disposal before taking action.