There were nine people ahead of her in line, but Toledoan Maria Gonzales did not mind, politely allowing a few people to go ahead of her.
The important thing, said the Lucas County employee, was that she had gotten to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court clerk's office in downtown Toledo before closing yesterday, allowing her to file for Chapter 7 debt relief before changes from a new law slated to kick in on Monday.
She was one of hundreds of filers locally yesterday, and thousands nationwide, nearly all trying to submit their cases prior to the tougher reforms taking effect.
At 4:30 p.m., the Toledo court covering 21 northwest Ohio counties had 410 bankruptcies filed for the day, and the chief clerk expected the final number, with electronic filings after hours, to reach 800 to 900. That would mean 4,200 so far this month, in the days leading up to the new law, or twice the number of the previous highest month.
More stunning, the Toledo court and others in Ohio are virtually leading the nation in bankruptcy filings. As of mid-week, there were as many cases filed in northwest Ohio as were filed for the month in the state of Massachusetts and in the Manhattan borough in New York City, each of which has considerably larger populations.
A private consulting firm that tracks bankruptcy filings nationwide said Ohio ranked No. 8 nationally among states with the highest growth in filings this year, up 34 percent from the same period a year earlier. But the seven higher states all had far fewer filings, as combined filings were less than Ohio's 94,000 through last week.
"Ohio is not looking very good," said Jane Truch of Lundquist Consulting Inc. of Burlingame, Calif.
The company said that there were 102,863 cases filed nationally last week, compared with 30,000 normally in a week. And, it expected 200,000 filings this week.
In metro Toledo this week, attorneys reported working long hours to process clients under the old law, and many turned away potential customers. The changes in the law make it harder to file for Chapter 7 to liquidate debts, require credit counseling and money-management courses, and impose higher filing and attorney fees.
Many people were filing this week simply out of fear, not necessarily because they needed protection from creditors, said David Fickel, clerk of the Toledo bankruptcy court.
He expects the court will process 5,400 cases for the entire month, or about half as many as were filed for all of 2004, which was a record year with 10,263 cases. Filings this year have already exceeded that, and likely will finish near 15,000, he said.
At the Toledo court yesterday, filers lined up outside at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the office opened. A steady stream came in all day, as some people sought to file in person instead of electronically, the way the bulk of the cases are submitted.
Ms. Gonzales, who arrived around 2:30 p.m., was grateful she made it at all. She had wanted to file bankruptcy five months ago, she said, but lost her driver's license and had trouble getting her birth certificate from North Carolina.
For some yesterday, the wait wasn't over. One man drove from Tiffin and then realized he had left his identification behind and could not file.
New cases in the northern district of Ohio's four other courts have been equally hefty. Between Monday and Thursday, 5,310 cases were filed in Cleveland, 2,315 in Akron, 2,030 in Youngstown, and 1,831 in Canton.
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