You're eligible for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but should you file?

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for

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Question for the expert

Dear Opening Credits,
My husband and I have accumulated a lot of credit card debt, due to his layoff from a good job and extended unemployment/underemployment. We consulted with an attorney, and it looks like we can do Chapter 7 bankruptcy. We're trying to look at other options, but we're not sure what are legitimate and what are not. Also, we have a lot of pause about a bankruptcy and its effects on our lives for the next 10 years. I'm also concerned about a bad credit report. (Our credit was very good before all this happened.) Thank you. -- Laura

Answer for the expert

Dear Laura,
Are you familiar with the snappy little adage, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should"? It applies well to bankruptcy. Many people are able to file, but a good portion would actually be better off taking a different course of action. While your attorney said it is a viable option for you, you're right to question whether the legal route is the best road to travel. The person you spoke with likely didn't cover the myriad ways to deal with the debt.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy has equal parts wonderful upsides and rotten downsides. Indeed, it can be a great way to jump-start a new financial beginning. With it, you can walk away from those credit card balances -- well, at least those that weren't incurred for high-dollar cash advances or luxury goods within 60 to 90 days of filing. Those types of purchases might draw the creditor's attention, prompting them to ask that those debts not get discharged.

You don't say how much you owe, but I'll assume it's so much that you're struggling to meet your payments. If you've been late a few times, the interest rates on those accounts will have soared. They could be so high that nearly all of your minimum payment is going toward finance charges. Therefore, each month is the same: You struggle, scrape up as much cash as you can, neglect and even fall behind on vital expenses but get nowhere with that balance.

It seems like a horrible waste, doesn't it? Just think about how you would feel if you could get rid of that debt in bankruptcy. You would be able to use that money you were sending your creditors to pay for living expenses and nondischargeable bills, and you might even be able to add some into a savings account. That's what people mean when they say it's a fresh start.

Before you get the wrong idea that I'm pushing you toward bankruptcy, know that I am not. If your husband will likely be working again within the next year, I would far prefer that you go on a creditor's hardship plan (assuming it was open to you) where you ask that they suspend payments and maybe even interest and fees for a while. When paychecks start flowing in again, you can get back on track. The fact is, you borrowed that money and ought to repay it if you can.

Other downsides to consider: The bankruptcy notation will remain on your credit report for a total of 10 years. That's a long time for such a black mark to follow you. Back when I was counseling, I used to have my clients picture themselves 10 years older, so a 37-year-old would have to envision herself at 47. Look at it in that kind of mirror and the gravity of a decade is apparent.  As for your score, bankruptcy will take it down from where it is now to the very bottom, and it will languish there for a while. Regarding future job prospects, employers aren't privy to your score, but they can see your report --- and thus the bankruptcy. While they are not permitted to discriminate against job applicants who've filed, such a allegation would be virtually impossible for you to prove.

More, if you wanted to finance something during this time -- be it a home, car or new TV -- you would probably be charged a dreadfully high rate of interest. Have valuable property? You may have to give some of it up.

To really help you decide, please visit an accredited credit counseling agency. They will be able to give you a thorough rundown on all of your options, and that may or may not include bankruptcy. For example, a debt management plan could work well for you. Contrary to popular lore, repaying debt on such a program typically boosts a credit rating because it enables participants to resume steady payments.

So should you file, Laura? Perhaps, but only after exploring all other options first.

See related: Key questions to ask before getting a cash advance, Hardship plans are options for desperate debtors, What you must know about credit reports and scores, Tips for picking a credit counselor

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Updated: 02-18-2019