When debtors in California choose to approach a bankruptcy court, most of them have likely gone through a prolonged period of financial hardship. A report from the Notre Dame Law Review called this period of stress and deprivation “the sweatbox.” Drawing upon long-term data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, the report identified a category of bankruptcy filers known as long strugglers. Between 2013 and 2016, 66 percent of the debtors surveyed by the organization struggled to repay debts for two years or more even when it meant forgoing food or medical care.

Almost one-third of these debtors grappled unsuccessfully with debts for five or more years. The number of people in this category more than doubled compared to bankruptcy filers in 2007.

Waiting to file for bankruptcy when debts cannot realistically be paid has serious consequences for people. In the study, long strugglers had half the median assets of people who filed for bankruptcy as soon as they became overwhelmed. They were also far more likely to have been targeted by debt collection lawsuits. They had debt-to-income ratios that were 40 percent higher. Credit counselors advise people to investigate debt relief if debts exceed 40 percent of income. Another warning sign is the use of loans to pay off debts.

Speaking with an attorney about bankruptcy as soon as possible might spare a person many stressful years. Although a person may strongly desire to pay debts, bankruptcy law is meant to provide people with a second chance. An attorney may help a person weigh the advantages and disadvantages of bankruptcy so that they can make a decision about how to deal with unpaid bills. After filing court paperwork, an attorney might gain the timely dismissal of consumer debts like credit card or medical bills.