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How COVID-19 Affected Bankruptcy Filings In Massachusetts in 2020 Serving Families Throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut

Here's how the pandemic affected bankruptcies in Middlesex County. Experts warn of a likely surge in coming years.

HOLLISTON-HOPKINTON, MA — The coronavirus pandemic has caused sharp swings in the economy over the past year, thrusting many businesses and families into economic uncertainty and in some cases outright collapse. Even so, the number of national bankruptcies filed in 2020 was the lowest since 1986 and nearly 30 percent lower than in 2019.

But many experts expect bankruptcies to increase in the coming years. The federal court system was closed near the beginning of the pandemic, which delayed filings for months. Moreover, bankruptcies also tend to be "lagging indicators" of economic distress because of the complex legal process involved; the Great Recession began in 2007 but bankruptcies didn't peak until 2010.

"You see these businesses that ultimately go bankrupt were probably in trouble six months or eight months or a year before they file for bankruptcy," said Fred McKinney, director of the People's United Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Nationally, all types of bankruptcy filings decreased in 2020 except for Chapter 11, which saw an increase of 18.7 percent compared with 2019. Chapter 11 is typically used by businesses that hope to stay in business by renegotiating their debt. Several large iconic companies including J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020.

Across Massachusetts, 4,427 total bankruptcies were filed in 2020 — 41.84 percent fewer than in 2019, when 7,612 were filed.

And in Middlesex County, 633 total bankruptcies were filed in 2020 compared with 1,116 in 2019, according to the U.S. Courts Administrative Office.

Businesses accounted for around 4 percent of all bankruptcies in the U.S. during 2020, but they can have a large effect on the economy as locations are shuttered and employees are laid off.

Businesses tend to be dependent on each other, and there can be an economic ripple effect that takes years to play out, said Neil Peretz, an attorney with more than 15+ years of experience litigating bankruptcy cases in the public and private sectors. Peretz represented public interests in large bankruptcy cases as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice during the Great Recession.

"Each entity in the economic food chain is trying to hang on a little bit longer," said Peretz, who now runs a company called Proxifile that helps small creditors negotiate the bankruptcy process when larger businesses fail. "Not everything can cease instantly and people are still trying to sort that out."

Business bankruptcies in Middlesex County

Business bankruptcies in Middlesex County decreased last year: 70 business bankruptcies were filed in 2020 compared with 92 in 2019.

There were 52 business bankruptcies under Chapter 7, commonly referred to as liquidation bankruptcies, in Middlesex County during 2020. That's a decrease from 2019, when 70 businesses filed under Chapter 7.

All non-exempt property is sold during a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which can be used by both businesses and individuals.

Middlesex County had 17 Chapter 11 bankruptcies filed in 2020 compared with 14 in 2019.

Non-business bankruptcies in Middlesex County

There were 563 non-business bankruptcy filings in 2020 compared with 1,024 in 2019.

Middlesex County had 422 non-business Chapter 7 filings in 2020 and 673 in 2019.

Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings, also known as "wage earner's plans," saw a decrease in Middlesex County in 2020 compared with 2019. There were 137 filed in 2020 and 344 filed in 2019.

Chapter 13 is typically used by people with a regular income to reorganize and pay off debts over time. It gives an opportunity for people to keep their homes.

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