If you’re overwhelmed with debt, you may be wondering if it’s worth it to file for bankruptcy. Taking this step could give you a fresh start, but bankruptcy can also have downsides (like affecting your credit score and ability to borrow money). Before you decide, it’s helpful to look at the benefits and the costs. We asked readers across the U.S. about their recent experiences with Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Here’s an overview of what they told us.
The first thing you probably want to know about bankruptcy is how much it will cost. Everyone who files for Chapter 7 has to pay for:
But the real cost is in hiring a lawyer. Bankruptcy is complicated, and mistakes can cause significant financial problems down the road. So it’s not surprising that 95% of our readers hired attorneys to represent them in their Chapter 7 cases. They paid their lawyers an average flat fee of $1,450 (typically ranging between $1,000 and $1,750) to prepare the bankruptcy petition and represent them at the court appearance. Of course, the actual fees vary, depending largely on how complex your finances are, where you live, and the kind of attorney you hire. (For instance, some large bankruptcy firms may offer lower prices by having paralegals prepare the paperwork.) If any of your creditors challenge your ability to wipe out (or “discharge”) debts, your attorney will charge extra to defend you against that challenge. But this happens rarely: Only 5% of our readers faced a creditor challenge in their Chapter 7 cases.
In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you can usually wipe out almost all qualifying debts: those that aren’t “secured” (meaning you haven’t promised to give back property like a house or car if you don’t make the payments; more on that below) or “priority” (like unpaid child or spousal support). (For more details, see our article on nondischargeable debts in Chapter 7.) Our readers had great results getting their qualifying debts wiped out, mixed results on some debts with special rules (back taxes), and poor results with student loan debt.
More than nine out of ten readers had balances on their credit cards when they filed for bankruptcy—the most common kind of debt they reported by far. Almost all of them (98%) got those debts completely wiped out in their Chapter 7 cases. Also, nearly half of our readers had unpaid medical bills, and they were nearly as successful in getting relief for those debts (95% received a full discharge, while another 4% received a partial discharge). In general, readers also had high discharge rates for other types of qualifying debts, including:
It’s difficult—but not impossible—to discharge some older debts for unpaid income taxes (see our article on eliminating tax debts in bankruptcy). Our survey showed that readers had mixed results in their Chapter 7 cases with tax debt: About six in ten got a full or partial discharge, but the amounts involved weren’t large ($3,000 or less for nearly two-thirds of readers).
Usually, you can’t wipe out student loan debt in bankruptcy. But there is an exception if you file a separate lawsuit (known as an adversary proceeding) and prove that it would be an “undue hardship” for you to repay the loans. Only 15% of our readers with student loan bills got a full or partial discharge. However, it may be that many of the remaining 85% didn’t file an adversary proceeding. (As reported in a 2011 study, more than a third of bankruptcy filers who take that step can get some relief.)
If you have secured debts for a house and a car, you’re also probably concerned about whether you can keep them after filing for bankruptcy. In Chapter 7, you can keep a house or car if:
More than two-thirds (68%) of our readers were able to keep their homes after going through Chapter 7, while nearly nine in ten (87%) kept their cars. They experienced one of the big pluses of bankruptcy: freeing up money to pay off secured debts (like a house or car) by wiping out unsecured debts like credit card bills.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy is usually a quick process. Nine out of ten readers who filed for Chapter 7 had their debts wiped out in six months or less, and it took only three months or less for more than half of our readers. Also, 88% of readers said they got another kind of immediate relief as soon as they filed for bankruptcy: no more phone calls from debt collectors. That’s because the court issues an order called an “automatic stay” to keep creditors from trying to collect their money.
In light of these results—high rates of discharge in a matter of months for the most common debts—it’s not surprising that our readers were largely happy with their Chapter 7 experience. Over eight in ten (81%) said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the outcome of their cases, and nearly as many (78%) were satisfied or very satisfied with their lawyers. In fact, many readers told us that the process was unexpectedly “painless.”