File bankruptcy to avoid debt collection?

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Dear Bankruptcy Adviser,
I lost my job about seven months ago and as of yet have not been able to find another job. I have about $15,000 in credit card debt and have been able to make my minimum monthly payments using my unemployment check. My unemployment runs out soon, and I am wondering if I should or could file bankruptcy? I am 58 years old and do not have a personal savings account. I have a 401(k) and about $5,000 in a Roth individual retirement account.
— Daja

Dear Daja,
Sorry to hear you are struggling right now. I can’t imagine how frustrating the job market must be for you.

Hopefully, I can give you some direction as you make your decision of whether to file bankruptcy. It appears that you would be eligible for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would wipe out your $15,000 in credit card debt and allow you to keep your 401(k) and the Roth IRA money.

Even if you decide to file bankruptcy on your own, without the assistance of an attorney, you should confirm your eligibility with a five- or 10-minute consultation with a local bankruptcy attorney. It is always wise to receive some legal advice rather than solely relying on Internet research, advice from friends and family, or even an answer from a columnist.

You don’t have a ton of debt and you could potentially remain in good standing with these creditors once you find gainful employment. If you had $50,000 in debt, it would be a great reason to file now, but $15,000 could be manageable. You could also try to wait until you return to work and get caught up with your creditors later. So you might be able to avoid using the bankruptcy card for now.

That being said, I would probably still advise you to file since you have unemployment income to pay the court fees.

Many times the reason someone files is not due to the amount of debt. Instead, it’s the amount of harassment you receive from debt collectors. Once you stop paying, the phone calls begin. In many cases, my clients decide to file to stop the calls, lawsuits and general uncivil treatment.

The process changes somewhat from company to company, but this is an idea of what you can expect. Once you miss a payment, your account gets categorized as a “collection account” by the lender. The first level of collectors usually is civil. You will get calls, usually every day, asking for payment. You can choose to ignore those calls or take the call and explain your situation.

The challenging part comes once the original creditor decides to no longer try and collect. It will either assign or sell the debt to a collection agency. This is when the civil calls can get nasty.

Collection agency employees will say some pretty outrageous things to people to collect a debt. That is not to say the original creditor will always be nice and polite either. It is just that collection agency employees are notoriously nasty. You will need thick skin to tolerate some of the comments made in the attempt to collect a debt.

Of course, not all bill collectors say and do illegal things, but their reputation has been earned for a reason.

Your emotional strength will determine your willingness to tolerate the calls and comments. Maybe you have found a job by this time and can get onto a payment plan with the collection agency. Obviously, that would end the calls because you are paying back the debt you owe.

In the absence of paying, you will have to determine whether bankruptcy is the lesser of two evils. A big hit to your credit, but the peace of mind you did what you could. Or try to avoid bankruptcy by working out a payment plan that you can afford once you return to work.

Good luck.

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