A lot fewer Utahns are filing for bankruptcy these days, but behind those numbers are plenty of families still struggling to make ends meet in a state that claims one of the best economies in the nation.
David Sime, clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Utah, reports that bankruptcy filings by Utahns dropped 14 percent in the first three months of 2013, compared with the same period a year ago.
The decline represents a continuing trend that started in late 2011 and resulted in the number of bankruptcy petitions dropping by 12 percent last year — the first significant drop in filings in Utah in more than six years.
Despite the decline, Utah’s bankruptcy numbers remain comparatively high nationally, with the state claiming the sixth-highest filings per capita — 5.01 for every 1,000 residents, according to the Virginia-based American Bankruptcy Institute, a research organization that tracks insolvency filings and related issues.
Utah’s falling numbers, though, paralleled what happened nationally.
During the first quarter, filings in the U.S. totaled 263,516, down 16 percent from the same quarter a year ago.
"Bankruptcy filings continue to fall due to persistent low interest rates, reduced consumer spending and sustained deleveraging by businesses and households," said Sam Gerdano, executive director of the ABI. "We expect that the 2013 bankruptcy totals will be lower than last year as companies and families remain committed to cutting costs and shoring up their balance sheets."
Jean Lown, a professor of Family, Consumer and Human Development at Utah State University, has studied the myriad reasons Utahns seek bankruptcy court protection. She thinks that although the recent decline probably is linked to the state’s declining unemployment rate and improving economy, she suspects that many also are simply walking away from their debts.
She worries that they’re allowing their homes to be foreclosed upon and their credit card bills to go unpaid rather than go through the formal process of getting their financial obligations reduced or discharged in bankruptcy court.
"There still are a lot of people in terrible financial shape, but they just haven’t filed for bankruptcy," she said.
Tony Milner, executive director of Family Promise of Salt Lake, offers a shelter for homeless families. He said he hasn’t seen any decline in the number of Utah’s needing such assistance. And he noted that the state’s Comprehensive Report on Homeless for 2012 said that families are the fastest-growing group among Utah’s homeless, making up 46 percent of that population.
"We operate a small shelter that is able to provide assistance to four families at a time — perhaps 35 families throughout the course of a year," Milner said. "Of those families we are able to help, a significant number probably need to file for bankruptcy, but the cost is beyond their reach.
"One of the big problems that we often see is that after someone we have been helping is able to find a job, their paychecks are immediately garnished — usually for unpaid medical bills."
Lown’s research has identified unexpected medical bills, divorce and job losses as among the leading causes of bankruptcy filings in Utah.
Of the 3,552 bankruptcy petitions filed in Utah during the first quarter, Sime reported 66 percent sought Chapter 7, which involved a trustee liquidating a debtor’s assets and distributing the proceeds to creditors. Any remaining debts are wiped out, and a debtor receives a fresh financial start.
The remaining 34 percent sought Chapter 13 — a type of bankruptcy that allows financially troubled consumers to formulate a plan to repay all, or at least part, of what they owe over a period of time, typically three to five years.
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