The bankruptcy guy

The bankruptcy business is booming. "We're busier than we ever have been," said Dean Prentice. Prentice is the Yukon's only bankruptcy trustee.

The bankruptcy business is booming.

“We’re busier than we ever have been,” said Dean Prentice.

Prentice is the Yukon’s only bankruptcy trustee.

If you happen to find yourself in financial ruin, Prentice is the first guy you call.

He’ll drop by, tell you what you can keep and divide the rest among your (presumably numerous) creditors.

In the last year, 37 Yukoners have declared bankruptcy – a 42 per cent increase over the previous year’s figures.

Every two months, Prentice flies into Whitehorse, spends a few days dealing with the latest round of bankruptcy cases, and then flies out.

Within hours of landing, he’ll be back in his Subaru, on his way to the next round of small-town bankruptcies.

“I should do testimonials for Subaru,” said Prentice, speaking on his cellphone as he drove between Kimberley, BC, and Cranbrook.

One year, he wracked up more than 130,000 kilometres.

At that distance, he could drive three times around the equator and still have a few thousand kilometres to spare.

“I’ll bet you this week I’m going to drive 3,300 kilometres,” he said.

As would be expected, the worldwide recession is largely to blame for Prentice’s spike in business.

But when it comes to recessions, Prentice rarely sees immediate results.

“When the economy turns down, we often don’t see people giving us a call until a year or two afterwards,” said Prentice.

The current recession didn’t start to rear its head until right after Christmas.

“In January, it was like a light went on in our office,” said Prentice.

When it comes to bankruptcies, real-life finance is a lot like the Monopoly board game.

The winner of Monopoly is usually decided within the first 45 minutes of the game.

Then, over a period of several hours, the losing players are slowly ground into financial ruin.

Real-life bankruptcies are equally drawn-out.

“When people get into trouble, they don’t automatically say, ‘Well, I guess I better consider bankruptcy,’” said Prentice.

Long before they call Prentice, the financially distraught will make sure that they’ve exhausted every other possible plan B.

“They might continue to pay their mortgage, but they go, ‘Well, who’s not going to take action against me?’” said Prentice.

If they’re business owners, they’ll usually start by welshing on GST payments.

Or, they might start running up credit cards.

Pilfering savings accounts and RRSPs is popular.

At the very end, even hawking the furniture isn’t out of the question.

Impending financial doom is easily overshadowed by the intoxicating power of hope.

“They believe that, ‘If I can make it until December, I’ve got work again and I’ll be OK,’” said Prentice.

“‘Before I file for bankruptcy, I have to use up my hope first.’”

People can usually limp along like this for about “a year or two,” said Prentice.

But as soon as something unexpected happens, the jig is up.

Prentice calls it the “triggering event.”

“It might be the loss of a business, the loss of a job,” said Prentice.

Among Prentice’s clients, medical problems rank as the number-one reason for bankruptcy.

Marital separation comes in second place.

The fifth most common cause is being bled dry by family members.

“I just did a counselling session now with a gentleman who continued to help his children out after he retired and he didn’t have the income anymore to do it,” said Prentice.

Despite being constantly knee-deep in the financial problems of strangers, Prentice finds his job oddly invigorating.

Bankruptcy is his oxygen.

Over the phone, he speaks at a clip, rattling off bankruptcy tips and anecdotes with well-rehearsed precision.

“I just enjoy it so much,” said Prentice.

“When I meet someone new, I go, ‘I get to help out someone else,’” he said.

“Most people can’t believe it’s actually going to end.”

About “once every two months,” Prentice parks his Subaru, and takes a week off at his Kelowna home.

But never for too long.

“I feel more comfortable travelling than I do now being at home,” he said.

Among the tightknit cadre of bankruptcy trustees, Prentice’s associates consider his travel schedule “nuts.”

When Prentice first broke into the bankuptcy trustee gig – he quickly found that all the big city turf had been snapped up.

So he retreated to the fringe, seeking out clients in the BC countryside, far from the Kelowna old boys’ network.

Pretty soon, the small town had become Prentice’s sole domain.

“I can’t go into a small town without running into someone I know,” said Prentice.

“Certain restaurants I don’t go to, because I run into too many people,” he said.

Prentice has seen his fair share of averted gazes.

But hearty greetings aren’t out of the ordinary, either.

“You wouldn’t believe the relief people find, and they’re so thankful,” said Prentice.

“People really come to trust the trustee.”

After all, unlike parents, in-laws or neighbours, Prentice isn’t there to judge them.

The first step of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program is admitting you have a problem.

Similarly, “one of the hardest things for people to do is to call me,” said Prentice.

For the bankrupt, feelings of failure or shame are common – but Prentice sees bankruptcy as no different than other state-sanctioned failures.

Failed marriages can be revoked with a divorce.

“If you eat improperly, or smoke or drink, you’re going to do damage to your body and put yourself in the hospital with a heart attack,” noted Prentice.

“But the government provides doctors, nurses and hospitals to get you better,” he said.

A newcomer to the Yukon bankruptcy scene (Prentice recently replaced the last fly-in bankruptcy guy), the trustee said he’s coming up against the territory’s outmoded set of bankruptcy laws.

In the Yukon, creditors can seize way more assets than in BC.

For instance, a British Columbian can protect $9,000 worth of equity in their home. A Yukoner only gets to keep $3,000.

Or, say you’re a bankrupt plumber.

In BC, you could keep $10,000 worth of tools. A Yukon plumber could only keep $600 worth.

Clawing your way out of bankruptcy suddenly seems much more daunting when all you’ve got is a handful of wrenches and a few cases of Drano.

A dentist can tell you how to avoid tooth decay and a lawyer can tell you how not to get sued.

Similarly, Prentice can tell you how to stay in the black.

But chances are, it will sound eerily like the letter your grandmother included with your first piggy bank.

“The best long-term warning sign of bankruptcy: You’re not saving money,” said Prentice.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com

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