Opinion: Why bankruptcy must be an option for homeowners and small businesses to survive this COVID-19 recession

U.S. Bankruptcy Code should be overhauled to protect families and savings
Few Americans are unaffected by the recession and economic turmoil COVID-19 has wrought, with unemployment numbers spiking to Great Depression levels and millions in need of temporary benefits such as mortgage forbearance or expanded unemployment insurance. With no obvious end to the pandemic in sight, it’s increasingly clear that many Americans are sitting on a ticking financial time bomb.

If the U.S. is to avoid a disastrous repeat of the Great Recession, there must be a determined response from government. What Americans need now is a substantial overhaul of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Without this lifeline, millions of Americans could lose their homes, igniting a chain reaction that will slow the recovery and cripple the U.S. economy for years to come.

So far, efforts by federal and state governments to provide relief to Americans blindsided by COVID-19 have helped to stanch the bleeding. But for many, these measures have come too little, too late. Despite more than 16 million people being unemployed, efforts to pass a second federal aid package have stalled, creating the real possibility that the lack of progress from politicians will accelerate the speed and size of the bankruptcy wave — a wave that would surpass the 2008 economic downtown, and possibly become the worst financial crisis of our lifetime.

The numbers are bleak — currently non-housing debt totals more than $14 trillion and more than 7% of residential mortgages are delinquent. This means millions of people can no longer meet their debt obligations, given the size and scope of this pandemic.

Far from being a way to escape financial obligations, bankruptcy is a key part of the social safety net for those who have been dealt a bad hand — and you’d be hard-pressed to find a worse hand than COVID-19. Bankruptcy is a vital and even necessary means for honest people struggling with finances to obtain relief.

The most common causes of personal bankruptcy include job loss, medical problems and divorce. In this current crisis, bankruptcy may truly be the only real solution for many families and small business owners who never dreamed they would need it. It should be seen as integral to surviving the recession for some Americans as unemployment insurance, loan forbearance, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, and other relief measures.

Yet the U.S. Bankruptcy Code has not evolved to address today’s global crises. Whatever Congress’ intentions might have been in passing the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) of 2005, it is clear they did not anticipate the seismic economic shocks that Americans have experienced since then. Accordingly, there remain substantial barriers to accessing bankruptcy relief that make a quick and meaningful recovery unavailable to many families.

In May of this year, the House of Representatives took an important step toward reversing this obstacle when it passed H.R. 6800, also known as the “HEROES Act.” The bill includes provisions that would provide critical relief to those burdened by the impact of COVID-19.

For example, it would increase the homestead exemption floor so that debtors forced to file bankruptcy as a result of the pandemic do not lose their homes due to a financial disaster that is far beyond their control. The legislation would protect debtors from having their COVID-19-related benefits, often the only resource standing between them and deprivation, seized by trustees during the bankruptcy process. And it would dramatically expand access to and effectiveness of Chapter 13 bankruptcy by raising debt limits for filing and providing more flexible options for discharging debts or extending repayment plans.

This legislation is a move in the right direction. It now falls to the Senate to craft a companion bill that goes the distance to relieve debtors and provide a light at the end of the tunnel. There is more that can be done, including giving Chapter 13 debtors options to deal with mortgage payments when there has been forbearance on those payments, as well as expanding provisions for relief from onerous student loan debts. One thing is clear: doing nothing is not an option.

Without decisive action, Americans who have lost jobs or businesses through catastrophes beyond their control will be mired in crippling debt they cannot repay. They will not soon return to the earning, spending and investing behavior that will be essential for America’s recovery. The long-term health and competitiveness of the U.S. economy will suffer for this mistake.

Bankruptcy reform is the fresh start — and the economic kick-start — we desperately need. It’s a solution with bipartisan appeal, and with the pandemic not likely to end anytime soon, it’s time for Congress and the Trump administration to come together to make this a priority.

John C. Colwell is president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

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