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What is Bankruptcy?

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Bankruptcy or insolvency is a legal status of a person or an organization that cannot repay the debts it owes to its creditors. Creditors may file a bankruptcy petition against a business or corporate debtor ("involuntary bankruptcy") in an effort to recoup a portion of what they are owed or initiate a restructuring. In the majority of cases, however, bankruptcy is initiated by the debtor (a "voluntary bankruptcy" that is filed by the insolvent individual or organisation). An involuntary bankruptcy petition may not be filed against an individual consumer debtor who is not engaged in business.

The word bankruptcy is formed from the ancient Latin bancus (a bench or table), and ruptus (broken). A "bank" originally referred to a bench, which the first bankers had in the public places, in markets, fairs, etc. on which they tolled their money, wrote their bills of exchange, etc. Hence, when a banker failed, he broke his bank, to advertise to the public that the person to whom the bank belonged was no longer in a condition to continue his business. As this practice was very frequent in Italy, it is said the term bankrupt is derived from the Italian banco rotto, broken bank.

History

In Ancient Greece, bankruptcy did not exist. If a man owed and he could not pay, he and his wife, children or servants were forced into "debt slavery", until the creditor recouped losses via their physical labour. Many city-states in ancient Greece limited debt slavery to a period of five years and debt slaves had protection of life and limb, which regular slaves did not enjoy. However, servants of the debtor could be retained beyond that deadline by the creditor and were often forced to serve their new lord for a lifetime, usually under significantly harsher conditions.

In the Torah, or Old Testament, every seventh year is decreed by Mosaic Law as a Sabbatical year wherein the release of all debts that are owed by members of the community is mandated, but not of "foreigners". The seventh Sabbatical year, or forty-ninth year, is then followed by another Sabbatical year known as the Year of Jubilee wherein the release of all debts is mandated, for fellow community members and foreigners alike, and the release of all debt-slaves is also mandated. The Year of Jubilee is announced in advance on the Day of Atonement, or the tenth day of the seventh Biblical month, in the forty-ninth year by the blowing of trumpets throughout the land of Israel.

In Islamic teaching, according to the Qur'an, an insolvent person was deemed to be allowed time to be able to pay out his debt. This is recorded in the Qur'an's second chapter (Sura Al-Baqara), Verse 280, which notes: "And if someone is in hardship, then let there be postponement until a time of ease. But if you give from your right as charity, then it is better for you, if you only knew."

Bankruptcy is also documented in East Asia. According to al-Maqrizi, the Yassa of Genghis Khan contained a provision that mandated the death penalty for anyone who became bankrupt three times. Philip II of Spain had to declare four state bankruptcies in 1557, 1560, 1575 and 1596. Spain became the first sovereign nation in history to declare bankruptcy.

Modern law and debt restructuring

The principal focus of modern insolvency legislation and business debt restructuring practices no longer rests on the elimination of insolvent entities but on the remodeling of the financial and organisational structure of debtors experiencing financial distress so as to permit the rehabilitation and continuation of their business.

For private households, it is argued to be insufficient to merely dismiss debts after a certain period. It is important to assess the underlying problems and to minimise the risk of financial distress to re-occur. It has been stressed that debt advice, a supervised rehabilitation period, financial education and social help to find sources of income and to manage household expenditures better need to be equally provided during this period of rehabilitation (Reifner et al., 2003; Gerhardt, 2009; Frade, 2010). In most EU Member States, debt discharge is conditioned by a partial payment obligation and by a number of requirements concerning the debtors behavior. In the United States (US), discharge is conditioned to a lesser extent. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the spectrum is broad in the EU, with the UK coming closest to the US system (Reifner et al., 2003; Gerhardt, 2009; Frade, 2010). Other Member States do not provide the option of a debt discharge. Spain, for example, passed a bankruptcy law (ley concursal) in 2003 which provides for debt settlement plans that can result in a reduction of the debt (maximally half of the amount) or an extension of the payment period of maximally five years (Gerhardt, 2009); nevertheless, it does not foresee debt discharge.


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