Celebrity and the threat of bankruptcy

By Kevin Peachey
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

image captionKerry Katona was declared bankrupt in August 2008

Most people feel as though they are living life in the slow lane compared with the stars with their fast cars and hectic lives.

But everyone - celebrities included - can witness their financial affairs come crashing around them when hit by debt.

And ahead of insolvency statistics, to be published later this week, debt advisers are warning that anyone, whatever their celebrity status, could take on the basic tips to avoid bankruptcy.

Most of all this means facing up to debt and taking action early to sort it out.

Tax affairs

"When you are a celebrity, the wins can be enormous," says Louise Brittain, a partner at Deloitte, who has dealt with a number of high-profile bankruptcy proceedings.

"But sometimes it can make things more complicated."

The majority of household names who find themselves in the civil courts do so because they fail to sort out their tax affairs.

Typical of this was the case of former Atomic Kitten member Kerry Katona.

The mother-of-four and reality TV star was declared bankrupt in August 2008 when she failed to pay the final £82,000 of a £417,000 tax bill.

Ms Brittain says that the self-employed can face difficulties if they fail to organise their tax affairs.

But she stresses that there is plenty of warning for anyone who faces bankruptcy because they owe tax - or indeed any other type of debt.

Three months is the shortest possible time from the initial indication from a creditor that they intend to go to court, to the final date of being declared bankrupt.

However, such a time period is rare, with most cases taking between six and nine months, and others up to a year. The most complicated cases can go on for almost three years.

Early action

Although the proceedings can take time, it is important to address the issue as soon as the problem becomes clear.

"Do not live with the burden of debt, do not wait until the bailiffs arrive, and deal with debt early," Ms Brittain says.

Charities such as Citizens Advice and Christians Against Poverty offer free counselling and advice to those facing debt problems.

All licensed insolvency practitioners will offer one hour's free advice before they start charging for services.

Nick Howard, director of policy at the Insolvency Service, said: "Formal personal insolvency is never an easy option and the effects can be far reaching."

The Insolvency Service has also produced a guide on how to deal with creditors.

Other businesses charge a fee for advice and to come up with solutions, such as debt management plans or deals with creditors known as individual voluntary arrangements (IVAs).

image captionKeeping on top of paperwork can prevent being surprised by debt

This debt management sector was the subject of a damning report by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in September which concluded that some of these firms are posing as charities and are driven by a sales culture.

The OFT found cases of misleading advertising, poor debt advice, and up-front charges.

Earlier this week, it withdrew a licence to offer credit from the Compensation Professionals Network (CPN), based in Basingstoke.

The regulator discovered that CPN had been sending automated messages without consent, implied that calls were being made on behalf of the government, claimed that it was able to write off consumer debts and claimed the services were free.

Caught in court

Another lesson that can be learnt from high-profile cases is the financial burden that can come from court cases.

Former MPs Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton both ended up declared bankrupt after failed libel actions left them with large legal bills.

Mr Aitken was reportedly left with a bill of more than £2m, and Mr Hamilton with a bill understood to be about £3m, after their libel cases collapsed.

Although these cases were high-profile and high-cost, Ms Brittain says that the principle of making sure you can afford to lose before embarking on a legal bid should be taken on board by anyone considering litigation.

Although celebrity bankruptcies often "add a couple of zeros" on the end of the figures involved, there is one other key difference between those in the public eye who go under, and everyone else.

This is the value of memorabilia.

The everyday belongings of a celebrity can have a value - and so potentially be sold to pay back creditors. For example, a model's make-up bag or a rock star's guitar could have considerably more memorabilia value than their face value.


The key signs of householders entering a spiral of debt include struggling to pay a mortgage, borrowing on a credit card to pay regular bills, or going to loan sharks for quick fixes.

image captionFrank Skinner says he thought he had lost millions through an investment but did not go bankrupt

But for some, financial difficulty comes as a shock that is somewhat beyond their control.

Although he was not declared bankrupt, comedian Frank Skinner said he thought he had lost millions of pounds after investing in bailed-out US insurer AIG.

"I had been persuaded by my personal bankers that AIG was a very safe place to put my life savings and as you may remember, AIG had a very hard time. So there was a point where I thought I'd lost it all," he told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

"I went home and said to my girlfriend: 'Look, a bit of bad news, I think I might be broke'.

"We actually practically dealt with it quite well. I never really had the big panic about it, which I find now really reassuring."

Dealing with debt can be stressful, and some - unlike Mr Skinner - could find that they have to take the last resort and move to insolvency.

Yet, the choices do not end there.

Insolvency can take different forms, including bankruptcy - when all assets, including a home, can be used to pay something to creditors.

An IVA is a deal between a debtor and creditors which is a legal agreement to pay back debts in one go or over a number of years.

The newest form is a Debt Relief Order, which allows a consumer with debts of less than £15,000 and minimal assets or surplus income to write off debts without a full-blown bankruptcy.

None is stress-free, but the options are greater the earlier the situation is dealt with.

Fame might last for only five minutes, but the effects of debt can be felt for a lifetime.

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