Facing a weekend deadline, thousands of people armed with bulging files of paperwork lined up at courthouses around the nation yesterday...

Share story

Facing a weekend deadline, thousands of people armed with bulging files of paperwork lined up at courthouses around the nation yesterday to seek bankruptcy protection from creditors before a new law makes it much more difficult to shed debt.

The number of cases filed before the law takes effect Monday was expected to set a national record and individual records in a number of states.

In some courts, people waited all day in lines that stretched out the door and around the block.

The scene was more orderly at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Western Washington in downtown Seattle, where many court employees took time out of their regular jobs to help handle the rush of filings.

Most Read Stories

Cyber Sale! Save 90% on digital access.

The line on the sixth floor of the U.S. Courthouse was about a dozen people deep, but an express line allowed people to file initial bankruptcy paperwork — and satisfy the deadline — in less than 10 minutes.

While the opportunity to file in person ended when the federal courthouse closed yesterday afternoon, lawyers can file for their clients electronically through the court’s computer system until 11:59 p.m. Sunday night.

People who have their proper papers in order can also meet the deadline over the weekend by using the courthouse’s outdoor drop box, but they have to be sure to use a special slot to time-stamp their materials to be certain they make the deadline.

“It’s an unprecedented time for us,” said Mark Hatcher, clerk of the bankruptcy court. “It will take some time for us to get through all the work that’s coming in the door.”

As of yesterday afternoon, Hatcher said, the court had taken in 5,241 bankruptcy filings so far this week, nearly 10 times the level of a year before. Three-quarters of this week’s filings had been filed electronically through lawyers.

“I actually feel relieved,” said a Renton mother who was filing for bankruptcy, in part because of medical bills involving her autistic daughter, and because her husband had been laid off.

At the bankruptcy court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, people huddled under umbrellas against the rain as they waited for court to open.

“Right now, my whole thing is to regroup,” said Pamela Green, who said debt forced her to close her women’s clothing boutique.

In Denver, the line at bankruptcy court formed before dawn and quickly grew to more than 300 people as it stretched outside. Some pushed babies in strollers, while others sipped coffee and sodas.

In Chicago, people crowded the hallway outside a packed waiting room for their initial meeting with a bankruptcy trustee.

Substitute teacher Barbara Moore said she had been mulling a Chapter 7 filing for a few years when she heard about the pending law change. She was fearful medical expenses from a cancer diagnosis could add to her mounting credit-card debt.

“That’s when I decided to stop dilly-dallying,” said Moore, 51. “It just sounds like it’s going to be much more difficult and expensive later.”

In Charlotte, N.C., the handful of people filling out bankruptcy petitions included Lorraine Martinson, 44, who was expecting to give birth to her first child yesterday.

“Both my husband and I owned our own businesses. I used to have really good credit so I was able to take out all kinds of credit cards,” she said. “When we missed a payment, all of a sudden the interest rate was 30 percent.”

She said they tried to catch up but found themselves falling deeper in debt.

“We spent a year crying over this,” she said. “I’m not happy about it, but what choice do I have?”

The law, the most sweeping change of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in decades, sets new limits on personal-bankruptcy filing and requires people to get professional credit counseling before they are allowed to file petitions.

It will forbid most filers with above-average income from filing Chapter 7 petitions that allow debts to be erased. Instead, people deemed to have at least $100 a month left over after paying certain debts and expenses will have to submit a five-year repayment plan under more restrictive Chapter 13 guidelines. The law also sets restrictions on businesses.

Supporters say the changes will help rein in consumers who pile up credit-card debt only to wipe it out with a Chapter 7 filing. Opponents say the law will hurt those who incur debt unexpectedly such as with health problems or lost jobs.

Since President Bush signed the law in April, the number of personal-bankruptcy petitions has soared. Preliminary estimates expect a record 200,000 petitions to be filed this week alone, according to Burlingame, Calif.-based Lundquist Consulting, which compiles bankruptcy statistics. The firm said the current record of 102,863 was set last week.

Clerk Yvonne Evans at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Atlanta said all 123 employees were called in to help.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how extraordinary this is,” she said. “The line is wrapped all the way around the 13th floor. It’s wild.”

Bankruptcy attorney Tom Feezey of suburban Chicago ran radio commercials in the recent weeks to notify prospective clients about the law change. Apparently it worked: Feezey said he made 15 Chapter 7 filings this week — triple what he would normally file in one month.

“Now I know what it feels like to be an accountant on April 15th,” Feezey said.

Information on Seattle filings provided by Seattle Times business reporter Tom Boyer. Associated Press reporters Mike Colias in Chicago, Mark Jewell in Boston, Paul Nowell in Charlotte, N.C., Steve Quinn in Dallas, Aleksandrs Rozens in New York and Harry R. Weber in Atlanta also contributed to this report.