Photo: Brian Bowen Smith
Q: I filed for bankruptcy in 1998 after a divorce. I started to rebuild my credit, but then, because of an illness that had me in and out of the hospital, I went from earning $23 per hour to earning $9. As a result, my finances are in the dumps. Creditors are calling me at home and at work threatening to garnish my wages. I will soon start a $15-an-hour job, but I need some time to get control of my finances. I want to remove my name from the house I bought with my current husband and file for bankruptcy again. Please help me start over.
A: The first step in starting over is standing up for your rights with the debt collectors. As I explain in "Dealing With Debt Collectors" , strict federal and state laws prevent debt collectors from harassing you. And they can garnish your wages only if they take the time to sue you in court and get a judge to issue an order. Right now they are winning at the game of making you panic. Don't let them. Stay calm, know your rights, and then focus on developing a strategy to get out of debt.
Bankruptcy may well be the answer, but first you and I need to have a talk. I am sympathetic to the fact that an illness threw a wrench into your financial life, but it worries me when someone angles for a repeat trip to bankruptcy court. So many people who get into trouble once fall into the same predicament again. Please promise me that you truly are committed to starting over and building a more solid financial life for yourself. That takes time, effort, and good money habits. Without all three, you will keep finding yourself living on the edge.
Because the last time you filed for bankruptcy was 11 years ago, you are technically allowed to do so again. The law states that if you previously received a discharge of debt in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy (in which the majority of your debts can be wiped out by a bankruptcy judge if you meet certain income tests), you can refile after eight years. You may file for Chapter 13 (in which you commit to a repayment plan for some debts) every two years. But since the time you first filed, there have been huge changes in the way bankruptcy works. A 2005 overhaul of the law makes it harder to qualify for Chapter 7 and pushes more filers into Chapter 13. To learn more, go to the American Bankruptcy Institute's Consumer Bankruptcy Center ( Consumer.Abiworld.org ).
However, I also want you to explore other options. Contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling ( NFCC.org or 800-388-2227) to talk with a counselor in your area who can help you devise the best strategy for dealing with your debt. Starting over begins with taking control. Don't panic...instead, prepare yourself by knowing your options.
Ask Suze your questions about debt & saving money
Suze Orman's most recent book is her 2009 Action Plan: Keeping Your Money Safe & Sound (Spiegel & Grau).
From the August 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine