Dear Liz: When would you say filing for bankruptcy would be necessary, or is it ever? I have approximately $30,000 in credit card debt, $50,000 in student loans and a $104,000 mortgage. I’m unemployed and can’t find a job that would cover day care for a toddler as well as after-school care for a special-needs child. However, my field is finance — go figure, huh? — and I don’t want to kill my chances of resuming my career with a bankruptcy. What can I do?
Answer: Bankruptcy is sometimes the best of bad options, particularly when you’re facing unsecured debts such as credit card bills that equal more than your annual income or that would take you five or more years to repay. Five years is typically how long you’d be required to chip away at your unsecured debt in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy repayment plan, although given your lack of employment you may qualify for a Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy, which would erase your credit card debt.
Your student loans typically can’t be wiped out in a bankruptcy, nor can your mortgage. But you probably qualify for economic hardship options that would allow you to reduce or suspend payments on any federal student loans. Private student loans don’t have similar provisions, but you may be able to work out a payment plan with your lenders or you may have enough financial room to pay them if your other debt is wiped out.
By federal law, a bankruptcy can’t be used against you in employment decisions. Employers may, however, hold against you the late payments, charge-offs and collection accounts that frequently precede bankruptcy, so the protection offered by the federal law may not be of much help.
It’s a tough call to make, and you’d benefit from some advice. Consider contacting a legitimate credit counselor, such as one affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, to see if a debt management plan could help you. But you also should talk to an experienced bankruptcy attorney so you understand all your options and the possible consequences of each.