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10 Feb 2014

The Mental Burdens of Bankruptcy

Money may not buy happiness, but the lack of it can certainly inspire negative emotions. When we lack financial stability it often causes sadness, grief, and shame, but these are just the beginning when it comes time to file for bankruptcy. There is something about admitting defeat and formalizing that defeat in a court of law that makes a financial disaster even more palpable.


The most common form of consumer bankruptcy in America is Chapter 7, which involves handing over one's non-exempt assets to a trustee, who liquidates them to pay the filer's creditors. This normally eliminates all or most of their debt. Another form of bankruptcy, Chapter 13, is where one's debt is paid off through a financial reorganization, with the goal of preserving certain assets. People who file for Chapter 7 are usually in such a state of financial ruin that it's not worth filing for Chapter 13.

While we often focus on the financial consequences of bankruptcy and the damage it does to one's credit score, the mental burden can be more overwhelming. In fact, its far-reaching effects can become psychologically burdensome, causing undue stress on important family relationships. It is important to acknowledge this and be proactive about preventing permanent damage because family support is so important during this process.

Focus on finances and emotions simultaneously

It is important to take the appropriate financial steps when facing bankruptcy, such as compiling a list of debts and hiring a bankruptcy lawyer, but try not to neglect your emotional well-being. Many people find that by the time the file for bankruptcy they have juggled debt for so long that they are emotionally spent. According to one financial counselor, "In many cases, a person's self-esteem takes a stronger hit than their finances."

As more people cope with the fallout from a struggling economy, the financial therapy industry is gaining a foothold. People are in need of emotional support when they go through a monetary crisis, and while many general psychologists offer treatment, it might not address all the concerns involved with bankruptcy. Financial therapists can help address a patient's worry about their family's anger, as well as their anxiety and fear about the future. Bankruptcy may present some obstacles in life, but for many people it is also a great relief. Even the black marks on a credit report will eventually disappear, and in the long run people look back and realize it was their only option.

Bankruptcy attorneys will often provide solace to their clients by telling them they are not alone; that in fact there are plenty of other people who have fallen into bankruptcy and it is not the end of the world. Statistics prove this out, and it's important that people realize this. In reality, filing for bankruptcy gives them the breathing space to make a fresh start. Oftentimes, once the decision is made to file for bankruptcy, clients are in a much better frame of mind than they were at the first meeting with their attorney.

According to a recent article in U.S. News and World Report ("Surviving the Emotional Toll of Bankruptcy"), many perceptions about bankruptcy are falls. Financial therapists say that while many general psychologists offer help in this area, it is not always the right kind of support. Some bankruptcy filers often worry that they have accumulated so much debt that even a bankruptcy won't be enough. Others worry that the poor economy will continue to get worse, or that their credit score is permanently destroyed. Such misguided fears only make the process of bankruptcy more disturbing. In reality, no matter how much someone owes, bankruptcy is always a viable option, and the effects of it will eventually be erased.

Blame is another part of the grieving process. While many people know that the poor economy caused their situation, they still must take ownership of what things they did have control over. In this case, a financial therapist will try to help a client separate their own worth from their personal worth. This can be difficult for many people, who have been trained to believe that their financial success is the only success that matters.

Ultimately, relief from the mental burdens of bankruptcy is dependent upon how well a person prepares to handle finances in the future. Setting smaller, achievable goals can be a great way to rebuild confidence because individuals can celebrate minor victories along the road to recovery.

Stephen H. Swift

Managing Attorney
Law Office of Stephen H. Swift, P.C.

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