What Kind of Person Does That? The Flesh and Blood Reality of Bankruptcy

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice and I’ve been turning it over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages you that you’ve had.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that in 1925. It’s the opening line of The Great Gatsby, a novel about people with and without money. You remember Fitzgerald as the brilliant novelist, the glamorous Jazz Age icon. When you brush away the glitter, he wasn’t all that different than most of my clients. He was an alcoholic married to a woman with untreated mental illness, conditions which aren’t really conducive to good decision-making. His work never became as famous or lucrative in his lifetime as after his death. He struggled financially his entire adult life, getting by on unreliable jobs in Hollywood and handouts from his publisher.

Usually when I write about my business, I discuss the nuts and bolts – how bankruptcy works, when it’s appropriate to file, what types of relief are available. Today I want to write about the flesh and blood, the people who become my clients. The greatest fear my clients have is being judged harshly for what they have had to do, and a big part of my job is to help them understand that for most of them, it wasn’t their fault.

Here’s the story of one week’s worth of potential clients I interviewed. A young man came in and said that his work history had been interrupted by an inpatient medical treatment program. To me, that usually means either a substance problem or a mental illness. He got treatment, and lost his job. A lady came in who was on disability because she needed surgery, but couldn’t afford it because she was caring for her cousin. He was living with her because the institution where he had been living closed. Then a couple came in and told me that their family business was failing, mostly because of time taken out for the wife’s cancer treatment.

I’ve heard so many stories like those, of jobs lost, illnesses and injuries suffered, family who needed care. There was the client who, in rapid succession, got injured in a car accident, lost his job and got a divorce. There was the father who drained his resources to put his daughter in rehab. I represented a twenty-something who was struggling to support her elderly grandmother. One of my clients lost her job when she took time off to provide hospice care to her sister. A widower I represented fell into a deep depression when his wife passed away and started gambling, just to feel something.

I think that anyone lucky enough to have not experienced misery like my clients have tends to second-guess people with financial problems. We all like to think we would have done something different, we would have avoided the problems, we would have made better decisions. But what I’ve learned in my practice is that we really don’t all have the same advantages. So when someone is struggling financially, don’t be a part of their worst fear. Give them the benefit of the doubt.