If you are struggling with debt, bankruptcy might be a good option. But before you file for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, explore alternatives to bankruptcy. In some situations, a non-bankruptcy course of action may be your best remedy. Read on to learn about the main alternatives to bankruptcy when dealing with debt issues.
If your main concern is that creditors are harassing you, bankruptcy is not necessarily the best way to stop the abuse. You can get creditors off your back by taking advantage of federal and state debt collection laws that protect you from abusive and harassing debt collector conduct. For more information, see Nolo's article What to Do If a Bill Collector Crosses the Line.
If you have some income, or you have assets you're willing to sell, you may be a lot better off negotiating with your creditors than filing for bankruptcy. Negotiation may buy you some time to get back on your feet, or your creditors may agree to settle your debts for less than you owe. (To learn more see, Debt Settlement & Negotiating With Creditors.)
Many people aren't comfortable negotiating with their creditors or with collection agencies. Perhaps you aren't confident with your negotiation skills, or the creditors and collectors are so hard-nosed that the process is too unpleasant to stomach.
If you don't want to negotiate on your own, you can seek help from a nonprofit credit or debt counseling agency. These agencies can work with you to help you repay your debts and improve your financial picture. (To find out about agencies in your area, go to the website of the United States Trustee at www.usdoj.gov/ust, and click "Credit Counseling and Debtor Education"; this will lead you to a state-by-state list of agencies that the Trustee has approved to provide the credit counseling that debtors are now required to complete before filing for bankruptcy.)
Participating in a credit or debt counseling agency's debt management program is a little bit like filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. The agency will help you come up with a plan to pay back your creditors over time, somewhat like a Chapter 13 plan. But working with a credit or debt counseling agency has one advantage: No bankruptcy will appear on your credit record.
However, a debt management program also has some disadvantages when compared to Chapter 13 bankruptcy. First, if you miss a payment, Chapter 13 protects you from creditors who would start collection actions. A debt management program has no such protection: Any one creditor can pull the plug on your plan. Also, a debt management program usually requires you to repay your debts in full. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you often pay only a small fraction of your unsecured debts. Finally, debt management and debt settlement scams abound. Many companies don't care about helping you, they just want to collect fees for their services. So tread carefully before you sign up for a plan. (To learn more, see the articles in Options to Avoid When Negotiating or Settling Debts.)
Consumer advocates have also raised concerns about credit counseling agencies, because these agencies receive most of their funding from creditors. As a result, critics say, these agencies could face a conflict between the interests of their funders and the interests of their clients.
Surprisingly, the best approach for some people deeply in debt is to take no action at all. If you're living simply, with little income and property, and look forward to a similar life in the future, you may be what's known as "judgment proof." This means that anyone who sues you and obtains a court judgment won't be able to collect from you simply because you don't have anything they can legally take. (As a famous song of the 1970s said, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.")
Except in unusual situations (for example, if you refuse to pay taxes as a protest against government policies or you willfully fail to pay child support), you can't be thrown in jail for not paying your debts. Nor can a creditor take away such essentials as basic clothing, ordinary household furnishings, personal effects, food, or Social Security, unemployment, or public assistance benefits.
For a thorough discussion of non-bankruptcy options, check out Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy, by Robin Leonard and Margaret Reiter (Nolo).