Local News

Highlands bankruptcies decline 52 percent

SEBRING - For the third straight year, U.S. and Florida bankruptcies have declined.

The story is the same in Highlands County, where 338 were filed in 2010, but only 163 in 2013.

Unemployment, upside down mortgages, foreclosures and lack of access to credit forced 1.53 million Americans to file bankruptcy during the height of Great Recession in 2010.

Filings ebbed next year to 1.37 million. The tide receded to 1.2 million in 2012 and 1 million last year.

"In my opinion, people can't afford to," said Sean Murray, an attorney who has practiced bankruptcy law in Sebring, Fort Pierce and Okeechobee for 23 years. "The need to file is still out there, though. It's really bad."

Opinions vary, but Murray said the 2010 spike was likely caused by unemployment - 9.6 percent in America, 11.5 percent in Florida and 11.7 percent in Highlands County.

And remember the plunge in real estate value? "You had a lot people upside down in their mortgages."

Credit flowed freely in the good times leading up to the Sept. 16, 2008 stock market crash. But by 2010, banks were lowering credit limits and denying cards to new borrowers.

"Interest rates were automatically raised," Murray remembered. "People's credit limit was dropped to the balance of their credit limits. They had no choice but to file."

It's been widely reported by several media outlets that the inability to pay medical bills caused more than 60 percent of bankruptcies. Not in Murray's experience. "Medical bills are generally around 10 percent."

The Wall Street Journal reported in October 2013 that consumer debt, which had fallen in 2011 and 2012, rose in 2013, "possibly showing that the broad household de-leveraging, seen since the recession, concluded in 2009 may be coming to an end."

"Consumers may find it difficult to further improve their financial positions," ABA Chief Economist Jim Chessen told the newspaper. "Stagnant incomes and a weak job market aren't going to help change that trend."

Debt delinquency rates, which peaked near the end of the recession when many Americans were out of work, have declined below historic levels because lower prices have allowed consumers to free up funds pay off high-interest credit cards, the newspaper reported. However, rates are also declining because banks have been writing off debts they believe will never be repaid.

Before 2010, people were taking second mortgages to pay off credit cards. It was flawed idea, Murray said, since they were risking their homes to pay unsecured debt.

As for banks writing off - say, 80 percent of a credit card balance -- the banks also file 1099 forms with the IRS. Then, the unsuspecting consumer has pay income taxes on the written off balance.

What's the silver lining in the bankruptcy cloud of the late 2000s?

"I'd love to see people quit using credit cards unless they absolutely have to. I'd love to see them stop amassing large (numbers) of credit card. I see people walk into Walmart with a roll of cash in their pockets and pay with a credit card. That's insane. I think people are learning. And I hope they are learning that bankruptcy isn't a horrible thing, it's the cure to a horrible thing," Murray said.

What's new in foreclosures?

"A trend that didn't exist five or six years ago, now (banks) are adding a deficiency suit to the mortgage, and they're getting a judgment for thousands of dollars."

But there's a dirty little secret that banks don't want debtors to know, Murray said. Consumers who file for bankruptcy can strip unsecured second and third mortgages from their debt loads, Murray said.