Debtors looking for some leniency in their bankruptcy cases should try simply apologizing, new research shows.
A University of Illinois study revealed that debtors who apologize during bankruptcy proceedings are more likely to have their repayment plan approved by a bankruptcy judge.
"We found that apologies have effects on judges in bankruptcy cases that are similar to the effects that apologies have on individuals in those other legal contexts," said professor Jennifer Robbennolt, one of the study's co-authors. “Judges were more likely to think that the debtors had taken responsibility for their financial situation, felt more remorse and were better able to manage their finances going forward when they apologized.”
As part of the study, researchers presented a pool of federal bankruptcy judges with a hypothetical scenario in which a married couple with two children asked the judge to approve a proposed debt repayment plan under Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code. The judges were given a version of the facts in which the couple either did, or did not, offer an apology.
"When our respondent judges believed that the debtor was more remorseful, they were more likely to approve the debtor's repayment plan in bankruptcy," Robbennolt said. "The Bankruptcy Code directs judges to take into account whether the debtor will likely successfully complete the proposed repayment plan over a period of years, and remorse seems to appropriately influence those predictions."
Robbennolt said the study's findings suggest that bankruptcy is, at least in part, about forgiveness, and that expectations about the rehabilitation of the debtor play a role in bankruptcy decision-making.
"Attorneys should pay attention to the ways that their bankruptcy clients can demonstrate remorse, whether that is through a formal apology or other opportunities for acknowledgement of responsibility and honest disclosure," she said.
The study, Robbennolt said, serves to remind bankruptcy judges and lawyers that borrowing and debt still have moral aspects, even in today's heavily commercialized credit markets.
"While the law still matters, our findings suggest, perhaps not surprisingly, that judges’ decisions can be complex and multidimensional," she said.
The research was co-authored by Illinois professor Robert Lawless.