Bankruptcy filings creep up Florida's socioeconomic ladder

While Wall Street has been obsessing over the market's return to 10,000, Main Street has been focused on a darker threshold: 1 million.

U.S. bankruptcy filings this year passed that mark in September, putting the nation on track to see the highest failure rates since laws for bankruptcy were made more strict in 2005 and filings plummeted.

From January through September, Florida saw 70,799 bankruptcies, making it second only to California in terms of volume, and 16th nationwide on a per-capita basis, according to AACER, a bankruptcy-data and management firm. That's a 48 percent increase from the comparable time frame in 2008.

Fueling the filings are sinking home prices and lost jobs that have left millions deeply in debt and turning to bankruptcy as a way to shake off lenders.

Those on the financial edge were the first to tumble, but now the troubles are creeping up the socio-economic ladder, local lawyers said.

Miami consumer attorney Samira Ghazal said she is seeing more middle and upper-class clients in financial straits. Recently, she counseled a doctor who lost his job and then "lost his shirt" in the real estate market.

"Before, this was a blue-collar issue," she said. "Now it's a white-collar issue too."

Marisela Gonzalez, 49, of Miami-Dade resorted to bankruptcy in June of last year in hopes of holding on to her house, which had gone into foreclosure. The gambit failed: Gonzalez lost her home and is now adjusting to a world where credit -- even for the little things -- is denied.

Recently, she had to cancel dance lessons for her daughter because she couldn't pay for them in cash.

"I don't even think about things like buying a new car," said Gonzalez, who has been a teacher for special-needs children for almost 10 years. "I would just like my kids to be involved in extracurricular activities."

The vast majority of bankruptcies in the state are personal, not commercial. According to AACER, there were 68,186 noncommercial bankruptcies during the first nine months of the year versus 2,613 commercial.

Most of those are Chapter 7 bankruptcies, meaning outright liquidation to pay off creditors, rather than Chapter 11, which involves restructuring debt payments.

While those figures are dramatic, they are only a rough sketch of the true problem.


Related stories from Idaho Statesman