If you're overwhelmed with debt, you might be wondering if it's worth it to file for bankruptcy. This step could give you a fresh start. Still, bankruptcy can affect your credit score and ability to borrow money, so looking at the benefits and costs is important before deciding. To help, we asked readers across the U.S. about their experiences with Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Here's an overview of what they told us.
95% of our readers hired attorneys to represent them in their Chapter 7 cases, which is unsurprising because bankruptcy is complicated, and mistakes can cause significant financial problems. They paid their lawyers an average flat fee of $1,450 to prepare the bankruptcy petition and represent them at the court appearance, with cases typically ranging between $1,000 and $1,750.
Also, everyone who files for Chapter 7 has to pay the $338 filing fee (as of November 2023) unless their income is low enough to qualify for a waiver. You must also take two required bankruptcy counseling courses costing about $60 or less each.
We gathered these figures in 2020. As a result of the inflation experienced over the last few years, you can expect to pay more, likely up to 25% if bankruptcy fee increases track other attorney fee hikes.
Because fees vary by area and case complexity, you'll want to contact local bankruptcy lawyers for fee quotes. Many offer the initial consultation free.
Of course, the fees vary, depending mainly 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. Qualifying debts typically include credit card balances, medical and utility bills, and personal loans. You can even wipe out "secured" debt like mortgages and car loans, but you'll have to return the property to the lender. Learn about keeping your house or retaining your car in bankruptcy.
"Priority" debts, like taxes and unpaid child or spousal support, are "nondischargeable" and don't go away in bankruptcy. Student loans, debts incurred through fraud, and wrongful death and injury obligations resulting from intoxication are also examples of nondischargeable debts.
Our readers had excellent 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 (98%) got those debts wholly wiped out in their Chapter 7 cases.
Also, nearly half of our readers had unpaid medical bills, and almost all were 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:
If you're wondering why some bankruptcy filers' qualifying debts might not be discharged in bankruptcy, it starts when a creditor files an objection to a discharge.
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 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, suggesting the remaining 85% didn't file an adversary proceeding.
More than two-thirds (68%) of our readers could 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 process is usually quick. 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 for more than half of our readers.
Also, 88% of readers said they got another kind of immediate relief when they filed for bankruptcy: no more phone calls from debt collectors. That's because the court issues an "automatic stay" order to keep creditors from trying to collect their money. Learn why the automatic stay might not apply if you've filed multiple bankruptcy matters.
In light of these results, it's unsurprising that our readers were largely happy with their Chapter 7 experience. Over eight in ten (81%) said they were satisfied or delighted with the outcome of their cases, and nearly as many (78%) were satisfied or very satisfied with their lawyers. Many readers told us that the process was unexpectedly "painless."