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When Should You Consider Bankruptcy & How to File

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bankruptcy guide

Updated – November 14, 2018

If you’re drowning in debt and having trouble keeping up with your payments while still handling your living expenses, you may have at least begun to consider filing for bankruptcy.

Filing for bankruptcy is meant to give people in serious financial distress some relief and a chance to start over. By the time most people get to that point, they’ve probably tried many other methods for managing their debt.

Bankruptcy certainly has its benefits, potentially allowing you to wipe the slate clean and start anew.

But there are a lot of things to consider before making a decision, from the negative consequences of filing to whether bankruptcy would even provide relief for your specific situation.

“For most folks that come in, this is the last option,” said John Colwell, a San Diego, Calif.-based bankruptcy attorney and President of National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy. “I know I’m like the dentist. People really don’t want to be sitting in front of me.”

This is a big decision that requires a significant amount of due diligence before moving forward. While it’s important not to take bankruptcy lightly, it may be the best way for people to get back on their feet.

So how do you know if bankruptcy is the right way to relieve your debt? In this post, we’ll go over some of the key points to help you get started.

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The basics of filing for bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is a legal procedure to discharge debt built up by someone who either will not be able to repay those debts or does not have the means to repay debts owed currently. There are two notable forms of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a debtor’s nonexempt assets are sold and the proceeds are used to pay debts. An individual must pass a means test before they can file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to ensure that the court would not be abusing the bankruptcy law by granting one. We will talk more about the means test below!

A Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a “wage earner plan.” To qualify, an individual must have a steady income. This allows them to pay back all or part of their debts by developing a repayment plan. The plans last between three and five years.

In most cases, bankruptcy does not protect you from any future debts incurred. It also will have an effect on your credit score and remains on your credit report for 10 years with Chapter 7 and seven years with Chapter 13. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you may lose assets such as your house or your car depending on how much equity, if you’re able to exempt your equity and if you’re current on your payments.

Are You Eligible?

As stated above, there are two types of bankruptcy for individuals: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.

There are some significant differences between the two programs, but here’s a high-level summary:

  • Chapter 7 allows you to completely discharge your debts, with some exceptions (such as student loans, certain tax obligations, and child support). But you may be obligated to sell some of your property to settle some of your debt obligations.
  • Chapter 13 allows you to create a payment plan to repay some or all of your debts over a 3-5 year period. So your debts are not discharged, but you will also not be obligated to sell any property in order to make your payments.

Either one could be more or less beneficial depending on the specifics of your situation. But the very first question is whether you qualify for either one, and each has its own set of criteria.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy has what’s called the “means test”, which is meant to ensure that only people who truly can’t afford their debt payments are allowed to file. There are two different wants to pass it, and therefore qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy:

  1. If your monthly income is less than the median monthly income in your state for your family size, you pass. You can find current median income numbers by family size here.
  2. If you don’t pass #1, you’ll have to go through a complex calculation to see whether your disposable income after subtracting out certain expenses is enough to satisfy your debt obligations. At this stage it would probably be best to talk to a professional who could help you navigate the process.

Eligibility for Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a little more straightforward. Here’s how it works:

  1. As opposed to Chapter 7, you need to prove that your disposable income is high enough to afford a reasonable repayment plan.
  2. Your secured debt (mortgage, auto loan) can’t exceed $1,149,525, and your unsecured debt (credit cards, medical bills, etc.) can’t exceed $383,175.
  3. You must have filed both federal and state income taxes each of the last four years.

There are some other requirements for each, but those are the major ones. Assuming you qualify for at least one of them, there are a few other things to consider.

What Kinds of Assets and Liabilities Do You Have?

Depending on the specifics of your financial situation, one type of bankruptcy may be preferable to the other. Or it may be that neither would actually be particularly helpful.

As an example, neither type of bankruptcy would likely help you all that much if your primary debts are student loans. They wouldn’t be discharged in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. And while your required payments might be reduced over the 3-5 year repayment period in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, once that was over you would have to continue paying them back as usual.

The type of assets you own and their value also matters, particularly if you’re going through Chapter 7 bankruptcy. During that process, your bankruptcy trustee is allowed to sell your property in order to settle your debts, but certain property is protected.

For example, your house and car are protected up to certain limits. Employer retirement accounts like 401(k)s and 403(b)s are fully protected, while IRAs are protected up to about $1 million. But other accounts, such as checking, savings, and regular investment accounts may not have the same protections.

The rules here vary by state, and having a strong understanding of which assets you might be able to keep and which you might end up losing will help you make your decision.

When to file bankruptcy

According to Colwell, filing for bankruptcy needs to be “worth your while,” meaning it should give you relief from your debts to ensure you don’t find yourself in a similar situation in the near future. That means that if you have major expenses that you are about to incur, you should wait to file until after you have incurred them so they can be included in the bankruptcy settlement. This is especially important when it comes to filing bankruptcy due to medical bills.

However, with a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you can seek court approval to include new debt that you’ve incurred post-filing into your payment plan.

In general, though, there are aspects of your financial situation that signal when it’s time to consider bankruptcy. If you can’t pay your bills (and you don’t see that changing anytime soon) and your debt continues to pile up, bankruptcy is probably worth considering.

Here are other red flags to look out for:

  1. Debt collectors are calling. If you’re behind on your bills to the point that you’re hearing from debt collectors, it may be time to consider bankruptcy. This is especially true if you’re being sued by debt collectors.
  2. You’re in danger of losing your home. If you’re at risk for losing your house to foreclosure, filing bankruptcy can help you get caught up on your payments and keep your home. With Chapter 13, you’re given the chance to keep your home by creating a plan to repay your outstanding debt.
  3. You’re using loans to pay your bills. Using short-term high-interest loans such as payday loans can get you in trouble. With these loans, people borrow against their next paycheck. “People get caught in the trap and it starts rolling over from paycheck to paycheck to paycheck,” said Colwell. Title loans are another form of small loan where a vehicle is used as collateral; these loans can be problematic for someone already in financial distress.
  4. You’re liquidating your retirement assets. Retirement money is exempt in a bankruptcy, meaning trustees can’t use it to repay lenders. So in most cases, it doesn’t make sense to burn through your retirement money to pay debts. “I hate that with a passion,” Colwell said. “It’s your retirement money, what are you doing?!”

How to file for bankruptcy

Most initial consultations with lawyers are free of charge. At these meetings, you’ll walk a bankruptcy attorney through your financial situation and your reasons for wanting to pursue bankruptcy.

There are also ways for individuals to file for bankruptcy on their own, known as filing pro se. Court employees and bankruptcy judges can’t give out legal advice to people in their courts, so if you go that route, you will be on your own. To file yourself, you should be familiar with the United States Bankruptcy Code, the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and the local rules of the court.

Unless you have a strong understanding of legal issues and have the time to handle the paperwork, it’s probably best to use a lawyer — that’s because making a mistake can impact your rights, according to the U.S. Courts. You’ll also need the capacity to fill out a lot of paperwork, Colwell also noted.

If you use an attorney, they should be able to provide services including:

  • Advising you on whether to file a bankruptcy petition and under which chapter to file.
  • Telling you whether your debts can be discharged.
  • Advising you on whether or not you will be able to keep your home, car, or other property after you file.
  • Advising you of the tax consequences of filing.
  • Advising you on whether you should continue to pay creditors.
  • Helping you complete and file forms.

How to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy involves the sale of all of your nonexempt assets to pay back your creditors. This is the most common kind of personal bankruptcy, accounting for more than 60 percent of all non-business bankruptcies in 2017. The process usually takes about four to five months.

Filing for Chapter 7 will wipe out your allowable debt (such as as credit card, medical and personal loan debt), but the bankruptcy will remain on your credit report for up to 10 years.

The first step is to take a mandatory credit counseling course from a government-approved organization, within 180 days of your filing date. Upon completion, you can decide if you still feel it appropriate to move forward with a bankruptcy, and move on to the next step.

At this point, you, or your attorney, would file your petition and other additional forms with the court. Along with your filing petition, the forms include a list of your creditors, a summary of your assets and liabilities, lists of property (both exempt and non-exempt) and any documentation needed for your “means test.” There are also companies that will send you a packet of all relevant documents, for a small fee.

At this point, you will be subject to the “means test.” If the debtor’s current monthly income is more than the state median, the means test is applied. Abuse is determined if the debtor’s monthly income over five years is either more than $12,850, or more than 25% of the debtor’s nonpriority unsecured debt of at least $7,700.

A trustee is then appointed to review the paperwork and take nonexempt property; you will also have to submit your most recent tax return to the trustee.

The next step in the process is a meeting of creditors, known as a “341 meeting.” At the meeting, you will answer questions about your finances and bankruptcy forms under oath. Creditors are allowed to attend the proceedings if they choose.

It is now decided if you are eligible to file for Chapter 7. At this stage, secured debts are determined: they can be repossessed by the creditor, you can redeem it by paying back what it’s worth or you can reaffirm the debt, which removes that debt from the bankruptcy filing and allows you to pay it back when the bankruptcy is over.

You will have another course to attend that will include information on developing a budget, using credit and managing money — afterward, your debt will be discharged.

Cost: A Chapter 7 bankruptcy needs to be paid for upfront by the debtor. It is generally a flat rate and may be contingent on the complexity of your debt structure as well as the market in which the attorney is operating.

How to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy

A Chapter 13 bankruptcy will last between three and five years, from start to finish. These processes are long and complex, so it’s strongly recommended that you use a lawyer. If you have a steady income, Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows you to keep property, like a house or car, that you might otherwise lose in Chapter 7. Chapter 13 develops a three-to-five year repayment plan for your debts.

The first step is to take a credit counseling course. Afterward, you or your attorney will prepare and file a bankruptcy petition and paperwork that includes a list of your creditors, a summary of your assets and liabilities and your Chapter 13 repayment plan; you will also need to provide your most recent tax returns.

The court will later appoint a trustee to administer your case and a stay on collections will take effect — this means that certain creditors won’t be able to proceed with lawsuits against you, call you for repayment or garnish your wages. You’ll begin making payments for a month after you file the paperwork. In addition, like Chapter 7, Chapter 13 also requires a 341 meeting.

You or your lawyer must attend a confirmation hearing where objections to your plan either by the trustee or the creditors will be addressed and eventually your plan for repayment will get confirmed.

Your creditors will also file proof of claim so that they can get repaid; it is at this point that you can object to the claim if you feel it is unfair.

The repayment period begins when you start to comply with your plan’s requirements and payments; this is the longest portion of the bankruptcy. If required by your plan, you may also have to submit documents to the court like income and expense statements.

Exactly as in Chapter 7, you’ll have another course to attend that goes over budgeting, using credit and managing money. Afterward, your debts may be discharged and your case closed.

Cost: There are two ways an attorney can charge you for handling your Chapter 13. It may be a “no look” fee, a flat fee set up by the district in your state, or they can bill you hourly. Your payment to your attorney can be worked into your Chapter 13 repayment plan.


Filing for bankruptcy is a big decision, and in the end you’re the only one who will know what’s right for you.

Bankruptcy can be not only a long process, but also a very emotional one for those seeking to discharge debts.

Do your research, evaluate all of your options, and then make the decision that most helps you reach your personal goals.

Looking into your options sooner rather than later may help you shore up your financial future and lose less in the long term.

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Debt Consolidation 101: What It Is, How It Works and Where to Find Loans

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Juggling debts with different payment due dates, amounts and interest rates can be a headache. It can get even worse when you’re tight on money and don’t know when you’ll be debt-free.

Debt consolidation is one way to simplify your finances. By merging multiple credit card bills and loans into one monthly payment with more favorable terms, debt consolidation can help get you out of the red faster and/or make your monthly payments more manageable.

Here’s a look at how debt consolidation works, how it may affect your credit and different ways you may consolidate your debt.

How does debt consolidation work?

Debt consolidation involves taking out a new loan (often a debt consolidation loan) and using it to pay off other unsecured consumer debts, such as credit card bills. The new loan should have more favorable terms, such as a lower APR, to make repaying your debt more affordable or simply easier.

There are several products you may choose from to consolidate your debt:

How debt consolidation may help improve your credit score

  • It can help you pay down your debt sooner. A consolidation loan with a fixed term or an expiration date on a promotional period can be a powerful motivator to repaying your old debts sooner. Less debt can increase your credit score, making you more liable to qualify for better loan products later. The amount you owe on your accounts compared to your income determines 30% of your FICO® Score, a type of credit score commonly used by lenders.
  • Thanks to flexible terms, you can build a history of regular, on-time payments. If you’ve struggled with making payments in the past, you could choose a longer repayment term for lower, more manageable monthly payments in the future. Positive payment history is the most significant factor in calculating your FICO Score, at a whopping 35%. Showing a history of payments that are on-time and in full makes you come across as a more reliable borrower.
  • May lower your credit utilization ratio, if you use a loan to do so. The more revolving debt you pay off, the less you’re using from the total amount of revolving credit available to you, which helps lower your credit utilization ratio. This ratio determines 30% of your credit score. Ideally, you should keep your ratio at under 30%.

Where to find debt consolidation loans

You can apply for a debt consolidation loan through a variety of lenders, including banks, credit unions and online lenders. You may explore lenders using our debt consolidation marketplace.

To help you kickstart your search, you can review the below three lenders.

Debt consolidation loan lenders


Learn more

Best Egg

Learn more


Learn more


5.99% to 25.05%

5.99% to 29.99%

6.46% to 35.99%


36 or 60 months

36 or 60 months

36 or 60 months

Borrowing limits

$4,000 to $25,000

$3,000 to $35,000

$1,000 to $50,000

Origination fee

1.00% - 5.00%

0.99% - 5.99%

Up to 8.00%

Minimum credit score requirement




Are there debt consolidation loans for bad credit?

While you can get a debt consolidation loan for bad credit (below 670), as long as you have enough money for the minimum monthly payments, it may not be worth your while. The worse your credit, the higher your interest rate can be and the more you will have to pay, including origination and other fees, to consolidate your debt.

Keep this in mind as you shop for lenders willing to consider factors beyond your credit score such as your job history or education. Some of your best bets could be online lenders who could offer more flexible terms, or credit unions whose interest rates are capped at 18%. Tapping into your home equity or getting a secured loan (see above) are some other options, but keep in mind the risk of losing your assets if you default on your payments.

Is debt consolidation a good idea? How to decide for yourself

Depending on your individual circumstances, such as your monthly income, type of debts, credit score, and willingness to change your spending habits, debt consolidation may or may not be a good idea.

When debt consolidation is a good option …

  • The reasons behind the financial decisions that led you into debt are clear and you’re committed to ensuring it won’t happen again.
  • You’ve met with a credit counselor or financial advisor to put together a realistic budget (or are confident in your ability to do so on your own)
  • All your other options to get out of debt have been researched and explored
  • Committing to the monthly payments and terms of the consolidation loan are achievable
  • You’re saving money compared to what you were paying previously on all your debts

When debt consolidation might not be the right option …

  • Decreasing your expenses might not be possible and you might rack up balances on old credit lines
  • You’d need a secured loan for good interest rates but you’re risk-averse or worry you won’t be able to keep up with payments
  • Savings are negligible or nonexistent after paying the interest rate and associated fees of a debt consolidation loan

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What Is Debt Consolidation?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through a credit card issuer partnership.

Debt consolidation rolls several debts into one easy-to-manage payment. It’s a strategy you can use to simplify the debt payoff process and save some money on interest. If you’re overwhelmed with multiple high interest debts, it may be just what you need to become debt-free faster.

How does debt consolidation work?

If you have many unsecured debts to pay off, you can turn them into a single monthly payment through debt consolidation. When you consolidate your debt, you won’t have to manage different payments, interest rates, payment dates and payback periods. You’ll eliminate confusion and make the process of repaying debt more manageable.

While there are several debt consolidation strategies at your disposal, a debt consolidation loan is a popular option. A debt consolidation loan is a personal loan you use to combine multiple debts with a new one, ideally with a lower interest rate and more favorable terms. You’ll receive a lump sum of cash to pay off your debts, and then make a single monthly payment on your new loan. (Some lenders can pay off your creditors directly, however.)

You can use debt consolidation to pay off consumer debt such as:

  • Credit cards
  • Medical bills
  • Utility bills
  • Payday loans
  • Taxes
  • Collection bills

Once you figure out all the unsecured debt you owe, use our debt consolidation loan calculator to get an idea of how long it will take you to repay them. The calculator compares the cost of all your debts versus the cost for a debt consolidation loan. It can help you determine how much money you can potentially save.

Pros and cons of debt consolidation



  • One monthly debt bill: Since you’ll only have to make one monthly debt payment rather than several, you’ll find the debt payoff process to be much easier.
  • May save money on interest: If you have high interest rates on your existing debts, consolidating them to a lower interest rate can allow you to save money over time.
  • Lower monthly payments: With debt consolidation, you can reduce your monthly payments through a lower interest rate and, if you choose, a longer repayment term.
  • Can pay off debt faster: A lower interest rate and a single debt bill can allow you to become debt-free faster than if you were to keep your multiple debt payments.

  • Potential fees: Some lenders charge an origination fee to take out a loan. Others may charge you a prepayment penalty if you pay off your debt early.
  • Can be hard to qualify: Traditional debt consolidation loans are unsecured personal loans, which require great credit to receive the best interest rates.
  • Does not solve an overspending problem: While debt consolidation can be a helpful strategy, it won’t help you control your spending and stay out of debt.

Where to find debt consolidation loans

Banks, credit unions and online lenders all offer debt consolidation loans. Here are a few options you can choose from.

Debt consolidation loan lenders


Learn more


Learn more


Learn more






24 to 60 months

36 or 60 months

24 to 84 months

Borrowing limits

$7,500 to $40,000

$4,000 to $25,000

$5,000 to $100,000

Origination fee

0.00% - 4.99%

1.00% - 5.00%

No origination fee

Minimum credit score requirement




How to shop debt consolidation lenders

You can compare debt consolidation loans in our personal loan marketplace. You’ll want to review such information as:

  • Interest rates
  • Borrowing limits
  • Repayment terms
  • Fee structures
  • Minimum credit score requirements

Online lenders tend to offer the most competitive loan terms, as they have lower overhead costs compared with banks. However, if you prefer having face-to-face time with your lender, you could seek information from local banks. Credit unions can be a great option as well, as they are member-run and may have fewer fees.

Is debt consolidation worth it?

Consider the following questions as you weigh whether debt consolidation is right for you:

  • Are you overwhelmed by multiple debts?
  • Would you like to potentially save money on interest charges?
  • Do you wish you had lower monthly payments?
  • Do you have a plan in place for staying out of debt in the future?
  • Do you have a good to excellent credit score?

If you’re an individual with good credit who is looking for an easier way to manage your debt, you may benefit from consolidation. However, if you’re dealing with a spending problem and don’t have the best credit, this strategy may not be a good fit.

3 debt consolidation alternatives

Balance transfer credit card

A common alternative to a debt consolidation loan is a balance transfer. With this repayment strategy, you’ll take out a balance transfer card and move your existing credit card debt onto it. The benefit of a balance transfer card is that they commonly come with a promotional 0% APR. You can avoid interest charges by repaying your debt in full during the promotional period.

However, if you don’t repay your debt in full, you’ll be responsible for all of the interest that accrued. There’s also a balance transfer fee you’ll typically pay; it’ll be a percentage of the balance you transfer. That said, this strategy is best for consumers who can aggressively repay what they owe and are sure the balance transfer fees they’ll pay will be offset by the amount they save on interest.



  • Move your debt to a better credit card: Depending on the card you get approved for, you may be able to move your debt to a card with a lower interest rate and more favorable terms.
  • Interest savings: You can consolidate your credit card debt into a single credit card with a 0% or low promotional APR that can save you money on interest.
  • Can help your credit: If you use your credit transfer card to reduce your credit utilization ratio, pay down debt faster and lower your balance to zero, you can improve your credit.

  • Balance transfer fee: While balance transfer fees vary, most credit cards charge 3% of the balance.
  • Promotional APRs expire quickly: These APRs last about 12 to 21 months. After this period, the card will function like a typical credit card and the interest rate will go back up.
  • Can add to debt: If you have a spending problem, a balance transfer card can make it worse and put you in more debt by freeing up your old credit lines.

Debt settlement

Debt settlement involves negotiating with your creditors to settle for less than what you owe. You can hire a debt settlement company to negotiate with creditors on your behalf, though that may be a risky move. That’s because some debt settlement companies will ask you to stop making payments in order to starve creditors into negotiating over a payoff amount; you’re also liable to pay fees.



  • Potential to reduce your debt: Debt settlement can lower the amount of debt you owe to various creditors.
  • One deposit every month: If you hire a debt settlement company, you’ll deposit money into a special account every month. As your balance goes up, they’ll contact your creditors to negotiate lower settlement amounts.
  • Can pay off debt faster: With debt settlement, you may be able to settle your debt in only 24 to 48 months.

  • No guarantees: Your creditors are under no obligation to negotiate over your debt.
  • Your credit will take a hit: When you settle a debt, your credit report will show that a debt was paid off for less than the full amount.
  • High fee: If you opt for a debt settlement company, you may owe them a fee of 15% of your total debt once it settles.
  • Tax consequences: You may have to pay taxes on the portion of your debt that is forgiven by creditors.


Bankruptcy is a legal process where your assets are used to pay off debts (Chapter 7) or you repay debt via a debt repayment plan (Chapter 13). Since bankruptcy comes with long-term legal and financial consequences, it’s wise to consult a bankruptcy lawyer before pursuing it.



  • Relief from collection activity: Once you file for bankruptcy, most debt collectors will stop contacting you.
  • Chance to discharge your debts: If you are overwhelmed with debt, bankruptcy can allow you to wipe them out.
  • A short process: Chapter 7 bankruptcy only takes 4 months, on average.

  • May lose some of your assets: If you opt for Chapter 7, you may lose your home and other assets.
  • Negative long-term impact to your credit: While Chapter 7 bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 10 years, Chapter 13 remains for seven years.
  • Strict qualifications: You’ll have to meet certain income criteria if you wish to pursue Chapter 7. If you don’t qualify, Chapter 13 may be your only option.

Debt consolidation can be a great way for you to take control of your debt and improve your finances. However, it is not right for everyone so it’s important to do your research before you take the plunge.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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