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Bankruptcy filings mount amid growing job losses

WASHINGTON — Bankruptcy filings soared 9.2 percent for the first three months of 2009, as growing numbers consumers and businesses sought debt protection amid massive job losses and tight credit markets.

Of more than 323,000 bankruptcy petitions filed in the first quarter, about 6 percent, or more than 20,000, were commercial or business filings, according to federal bankruptcy court statistics compiled by Automated Access to Court Electronic Records, an Oklahoma City bankruptcy management and data company.

When the recession began in December 2007, businesses nationwide were filing an average of 206 bankruptcy petitions a day. That average has increased steadily to 302 a day in January, 335 a day in February and 357 a day in March of this year. Filings reported by AACER are typically higher than official government figures due to a more thorough reading of the petitions.

Experts had predicted business bankruptcies to rise dramatically this year, particularly among retailers which are struggling to find customers.

California led the nation with 41,700 consumer and business filings, followed by Florida with 20,215. Georgia and Illinois were next with more than 17,000, while Michigan was right behind with nearly 17,000.

Nevada had the nation's highest filing rate for the first quarter, at nearly 9 petitions per 1,000 people. Tennessee followed with 8.5 filings per thousand, while Georgia and Alabama averaged 7.3. Michigan, which is reeling from a depressed automobile industry, averaged 6.8 filings per 1,000 people.

Alaska had the lowest filing rate at only one per 1,000. The District of Columbia was next at 1.8 per thousand, while Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and Texas averaged roughly 2 per 1,000.

Only Alaska showed a decline in its filing rate for the first quarter compared with a year earlier, while Nevada and Michigan showed the greatest increases.

The three leading causes for consumer bankruptcy are declines in income, medical problems and divorce, or family breakups, said Deborah Thorne, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio University.

Thorne, who's studied bankruptcy and its effects, said the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide and the loss of employer-based health care has only exacerbated the problem. "The two leading causes of bankruptcy have just been magnified because of the changes in the economy," Thorne said.

While Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which discharges most debts, is widely seen as providing consumers with a fresh financial start, Thorne said that isn't always the case.

"What we were seeing in our study is that one year after filing bankruptcy, one-third, or 35 percent, reported their financial situations were the same or worse," she says. "The myth of a 'fresh start' after bankruptcy is often just that — a myth."

U.S. consumer bankruptcy filings jumped 41 percent in March compared with a year ago, according to data from the National Bankruptcy Research Center provided by the American Bankruptcy Institute. The Institute said 121,413 consumer filings in March was up 25 percent from the 98,344 filings in February.

"Given the great financial stress facing U.S. households today, the March numbers are consistent with our prediction of over 1.4 million consumer filings for 2009," said ABI Executive Director Samuel J. Gerdano.


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