U.S. bankruptcy filings up 31 percent in 2008

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. bankruptcy filings surged 31 percent in 2008 as both businesses and consumers struggled to make ends meet in a worsening economy, according to court data released on Thursday.

Total bankruptcy filings rose to 1,117,771 last year, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts said, up from 850,912 in 2007.

The total is nearly twice the 617,660 filings recorded in 2006, when an overhaul in bankruptcy laws led to a drop in filings.

Businesses accounted for 43,546 filings last year, a small percentage of the total, but up 54 percent from 2007.

The number of filings rose steadily throughout 2008 as the economy worsened, according to figures released by the agency, which oversees federal courts.

Filings rose under Chapters 7, 11, and 13 of the bankruptcy code, but filings under Chapter 12, a category for farmers, fell 8 percent.

Escalating job losses, weakening consumer confidence and declining home values have pushed companies and individuals alike into bankruptcy, and experts say the total is likely to continue to rise this year.

The total could surge further if Congress changes laws that would permit residential home mortgages to be modified under Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code, which allows people to budget future earnings under a plan in which creditors are paid in whole or in part.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to approve a bill that would let judges erase mortgage debt for homeowners who enter bankruptcy as a last resort.

Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn