On April 20, 2005, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 became law. While the merits of the bill have been debated, its effects are clear. Some consumers who would have filed for debt relief in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the past will now have a much more difficult time doing so. Essentially, if your income is greater than the state median income, you will have to go through additional screening - called the "means test," to determine whether you will be allowed to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy and wipe out most or all of your debts, or whether you will have to pay back some of your debt in a Chapter 13 repayment plan of up to five years.
The purpose of this article is not to argue the merits of the existing or proposed bankruptcy bills. Its purpose is to investigate the impact on consumer credit reports and credit scoring models.
Credit scores have been used as part of credit underwriting for nearly two decades. There are many different credit scores, but they all have one thing in common: they read the data from your credit reports and predict your future credit performance. The scores indicate how likely you are to pay back your bills in a timely manner. Credit scoring models use complex algorithms to assign you points based on several different categories of criteria. These models are extraordinarily good at predicting what kind of credit risk you pose to potential lenders.
You can review your credit score for free using Credit.com's free Credit Report Card. In addition to your score, you will see what factors are most affecting your scores, along with helpful information about strategies for strong credit.
As part of the new law, consumers are required to receive credit counseling from an approved nonprofit credit counseling agency. This counseling must occur within 180 days prior to filing for bankruptcy. The counseling that consumers will receive is not a Debt Management Plan (commonly referred to as a DMP), which is the core competency of credit counseling agencies. Instead, this counseling is designed to help consumers learn about alternatives to bankruptcy and how to improve credit management skills. As such, this counseling has no direct impact on consumers' credit reports or credit scores.
If, however, the consumer does decide to pay back their debts rather than file for bankruptcy, and enters into a Debt Management Plan with an approved credit counseling agency, this action will eventually show up on a consumer's three credit reports. This is still not likely to have an impact on the consumer's credit score. Here's why...
Several years ago, FICO, the company that created credit scoring, made a significant change to their credit scoring models. They reprogrammed the models so that enrolling in a debt management plan would not hurt a consumer's credit scores in any way. The decision to do this was very much in the consumer's favor. At one time, enrolling in a debt management plan had the same negative impact on credit scores as filing for bankruptcy. The change in the credit scoring models was fortuitous with respect to the credit counseling requirement of the bankruptcy bill. Today, consumers are not harmed by attending counseling sessions or by signing up for a Debt Management Plan.
Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies will eventually show up on your three credit reports. Unlike the lending industry, which proactively reports its information to the three credit bureaus, bankruptcy data arrives differently. Courthouses and attorneys do not report the fact that you filed for bankruptcy.
The credit bureaus have to hire companies to go to the courthouses and retrieve this public information. These companies are called Public Record Vendors. These vendors are also used to verify other public record information, such as liens and judgments, in the event that the consumer disputes the accuracy of the data as it appears on their credit reports.
The new bill will not change whether or not a bankruptcy appears on your credit reports. Here's how long bankruptcy can be reported on credit reports:
Consumers who wish to file for Chapter 7 will now need to prove that they are eligible to do so. This test will be based largely on a complex formula that determines your eligibility for Chapter 7 protection. Any of your creditors can dispute your request for Chapter 7 and can move that the request be denied in lieu of a five-year repayment plan under a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Your income must be less than your state's median income or you will have a harder time qualifying for a Chapter 7.
The obvious impact on credit reports is that more consumers will have to file for Chapter 13 rather than Chapter 7. As such, your creditors will continue to receive a partial payment from you each month, as opposed to nothing at all.
Any empirical study on this matter will likely involve tens of thousands of credit file records with some sort of simulated pre- and post-reform comparison. This collective, or aggregate-level, comparison will likely result in a negligible impact on a consumer's credit scores. Aggregate-level comparisons have become so common that nobody really questions the methods for measuring the impact of controversial changes to consumer credit. For example...
The truth of the matter is that bankruptcy reform legislation has no immediate impact on consumer's credit scores. Wait...read on. More people may file Chapter 13 than Chapter 7, but that doesn't increase or decrease the impact on a consumer's credit score. A Chapter 13 is just as bad as a Chapter 7, so there won't be any situations where a consumer's score was higher or lower because of the act of filing bankruptcy.
Consumers who file for bankruptcy do so for various reasons ranging from medical costs, loss of job, death in family, divorce, or poor credit management. The credit reports of those who have filed look like a battlefield littered with late payments, collections, and judgments. The credit reports and credit scores of these people likely went through an excruciating process that looked somewhat like this...
Decent Credit Scores
Low Credit Usage
Higher Credit Usage
Very Low Credit Scores
The good news for consumers who file for bankruptcy is that it is possible to start rebuilding your credit as soon as your bankruptcy is completed and discharged. In the case of Chapter 7, that may be just a matter of a few months. As long as you can reestablish credit and pay your bills on time, your scores will increase over time. There are reputable lenders who will do business with a bankrupt consumer because they realize that these people are now free of all of their debts. They also know that most consumers who filed did so for reasons other than poor credit management skills (high medical bills, for example), still making them good credit risks.
However, bankruptcy reform changed that by forcing more people into Chapter 13. Those filers cannot take out new credit until their case is complete, without getting permission from the bankruptcy trustee. A discharge can take up to five years in most cases, thus delaying the consumer's ability to rebuild their credit and credit scores quickly. All told, the new bankruptcy reform bill is a huge win for credit grantors and a huge loss for the vast majority of consumers who file for bankruptcy protection.