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New bankruptcy law imposes more burdens on Katrina survivors

WASHINGTON—Hurricane Katrina survivors whose finances are in shambles may not qualify for federal bankruptcy protection once a new law with tough eligibility restrictions takes effect Oct. 17.

And anyone who intends to file before the new standards take effect must overcome other Katrina complications such as injuries, being moved to out-of-state shelters, the loss of personal financial records and the closure of the five federal courthouses in hurricane-ravaged areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention & Consumer Protection Act, which President Bush signed into law April 20, allows only people who earn less than their states' median income to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, which lets them erase their debts after they forfeit their assets. Those who earn more than the state median income and can repay at least $6,000 over five years must file under a Chapter 13 bankruptcy-reorganization plan, which requires some repayment.

The law would force about 10 percent of debtors to seek Chapter 13 debt relief instead of Chapter 7 protection, studies have found. As a result, creditors would net an extra $1 billion to $4 billion in debt repayments over a five-year period, according to similar studies.

The law also requires bankruptcy filers to submit more paperwork, such as tax returns and paycheck stubs, and to get credit counseling—at their own expense—within six months of applying. It bases a petitioner's current income on the average amount earned for the six months preceding the application.

Consumer advocates said that was unfair to hurricane victims who'd lost their jobs. They said these and other new provisions of the law made a bad situation worse for cash-strapped storm survivors.

The Consumer Federation of America and the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys want Congress to pass a one-year waiver of the new law's toughest provisions for victims whose financial problems were caused or aggravated by Katrina or other natural disasters.

The one-year period is important because most post-hurricane bankruptcy filings occur many months after the storm. "Reality starts sinking in," said Bradford Botes, a board member of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. "People can't make house payments. People can't make car payments or they missed those payments for a three- or four-month period and that's when foreclosures and repossession actions are initiated."

Democrats in Congress are drafting the legislation. They hope for bipartisan backing, but it's unclear whether Republican members, who strongly supported the tougher bankruptcy legislation, will favor the measure.

Advocates are optimistic. "I think you're going to see a serious effort to include this provision either as a standalone bill or as relief legislation," said Travis Plunkett, the legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America.

The American Financial Services Association, which represents the lending and credit card industry, opposes the waiver.

The new law already provides flexibility for bankruptcy filers to waive new paperwork and other requirements if they can demonstrate and document "special circumstances" to the court, said Lynne Strang, an association spokeswoman.

"Clearly, the circumstances of many affected by Hurricane Katrina put them in a position that they would be entitled to exceptions under the law. We expect that the (bankruptcy) trustees and judges will easily find that they qualify for special circumstances and provide them the relief they need," Strang said.

The law contains exceptions for certain groups. For example, disabled veterans and troops on active duty are excluded from the income means test, Plunkett said. People who are in persistent vegetative states and those who are deployed overseas are excluded from the credit-counseling requirement, he said.

"Victims of Katrina should receive the same exceptions," he added.

A new study by law professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Nevada Las Vegas evaluated bankruptcy filings after 18 U.S. hurricanes and tropical storms that caused more than $1 billion in damage since 1980. Lawless found that in hurricane-affected states, bankruptcy filings grew at 1{ times the rate in unaffected states—for three straight years.

Lawless expects more filings after Katrina. "There's going to be more bankruptcies, but they will show up in broader regions. This is so unprecedented in the scope of the damage that these bankruptcies are going to show up all over the United States," he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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