Many Americans are swamped by debt, but more than a million of them this year will likely conclude that their bills are beyond their control...

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Many Americans are swamped by debt, but more than a million of them this year will likely conclude that their bills are beyond their control.

They will seek a fresh start through bankruptcy court. Here, creditors are kept at bay. Debt collectors are silenced. And potentially most of a filer’s IOUs can be vanquished.

Nearly 1.62 million personal bankruptcies were filed in the year ended in September, a 2.6 percent drop from the year before, according to the most recent figures.

Filing for bankruptcy protection, of course, isn’t a debtor’s only solution, or for that matter, the first step to take when bills get overwhelming. Here are some steps to avoid filing, and what you can expect if you do file:

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“Stop charging, so you don’t go any further in debt,” said John Ventura, a bankruptcy lawyer in Brownsville, Texas, and author of “The Bankruptcy Kit.”

Next, take an assessment of income, living expenses and debt, and how much money you realistically can put toward bills each month. Contact creditors if financial difficulties will cause you to get behind in payments. They don’t want you filing for bankruptcy and often are willing to work out a repayment plan with you, experts said.

Not all debt can be erased through bankruptcy. You can’t get rid of alimony, child support and most taxes. There’s also a high hurdle to overcome to wipe out federal student loans, so these usually must be repaid.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a liquidation. This type of filing can wipe out most of your debt and can be done once every six years. A Chapter 7 stays on your credit record for 10 years. Under Chapter 7, you’re allowed to keep certain assets, usually clothes, furniture and appliances, and the rest are sold with the proceeds going to creditors. State law usually determines what assets you can keep.

Under Chapter 13, you repay all or a portion of your debts over three to five years, depending on how much the court determines you can afford to pay. You’re allowed to keep your property, including assets that you couldn’t retain under Chapter 7. A Chapter 13 remains on your credit report for 7 years.