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Bankruptcy reform hits women hard

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A generation ago, Warren says, when families had more savings and fewer debts, a divorcée was in better financial shape. Today she is likely to have almost no savings, a load of debt, and an income that has already been figured into the family budget. "Even with better enforcement of child support and better-paying jobs, divorced women are at greater risk for financial collapse than they were a generation ago."

That may explain why women appear to file for bankruptcy more frequently than men. The evidence, however, is based on a single study done in a single state in the late 1990s. Poring through filings in Nebraska, attorney Oliver Pollak found that the share of women filers rose dramatically between 1977 and 1987. By 1997, they had overtaken men (although joint petitions remained more numerous).

Under current laws, noncustodial parents who file for bankruptcy cannot discharge their child support and alimony. Under the proposed new law, Miller says, they still can't discharge those debts, but there's a difference. Claims to back child support and alimony would be on equal footing with the claims of credit-card companies. In some cases, "mothers will be coming in after other creditors have received their payment," Miller says. "It's absolutely terrible."

More pricey to file?

Mr. Ehrenberg sees another change in the new bankruptcy bill that could affect women. Attorneys will now be liable for inaccuracies in a debtor's bankruptcy papers.

"They're going to have to investigate their own clients," he says. "It's widely believed in the bankruptcy community that many attorneys who provide moderate-cost legal services will pull out because they can't afford to do the case for that amount of liability for the same price. It would not be surprising that women would be adversely affected by not being able to find affordable legal representation."

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