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Personal bankruptcies surge 9%

Number of Americans filing for bankruptcy continues to climb. Total bankruptcies expected to top 1.4 million in 2009, highest in 4 years.

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By Hibah Yousuf, CNNMoney.com staff reporter

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing personal bankruptcies surged 9% in October and were on target for the highest annual total in four years, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The American Bankruptcy Institute, an industry research firm that relies on data from the National Bankruptcy Research Center, said 135,914 consumers filed for bankruptcy last month. Almost a third of the bankruptcies were filed under Chapter 13, in which consumers are put on a repayment plan of up to five years.

"The nearly 9% increase in consumer bankruptcy filings in October, together with a 7% jump reported in business cases, demonstrates the sustained stress on the U.S. economy," said ABI executive director Samuel Gerdano.

The group forecasts total bankruptcies to exceed 1.4 million in 2009, which would be the highest since 2005. It would also be an increase of at least 30% from last year.

"People are still carrying a lot of debt in terms of credit cards and home equity loans, and unemployment is still rising," said Maureen Thompson, legislative director for the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in Washington. "All of those factors are hitting consumers at the exact same time."

While some Americans are able to survive by tapping into savings and retirement funds, Thompson said many middle-income families are struggling after becoming unemployed for longer than anticipated. And with their homes values lower, interest rates creeping higher and credit lines reducing, they are being forced to declare bankruptcy.

The last time bankruptcies were this high was due to a change in the law rather than deteriorating economic circumstances. In October 2005, Congress implemented legislation making it harder for consumers to prove that they should be allowed to clear their debts in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, forcing more to file under Chapter 13.

To dodge the change, Americans rushed to file for bankruptcy in the months before the law went into effect.

Thompson said an economy that puts people back to work will begin to lower the number of Americans filing for bankruptcy, but she is "not expecting the numbers to turn around in the foreseeable future." To top of page

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