Personal bankruptcy filings dropped to their lowest level in 20 years during 2006's first quarter, according to financial research firm Lundquist Consulting Inc.

Between January 1 and March 31, filings fell 73 percent, to 102,949, compared to the same period a year ago. On an annualized basis, one in every 261 households filed for bankruptcy in the quarter, as opposed to one in every 73 households a year ago.

Chapter 7 filings, where debts can be wiped out entirely, except under certain circumstances, were 80 percent lower in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Chapter 13 filings, which require consumers to repay a part of their debts, were 53.6 percent lower than the year-ago period. All regions of the country showed a decline in first-quarter filings.

Still, filing rates have increased fourfold since November, about two weeks after stricter bankruptcy laws took effect on Oct. 17. In November, filings totaled 500 a day, while in March, filings totaled more than 2,000 a day. Filings averaged 7,000 a day in March 2005.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said that b ankruptcy filings rose 10 percent in 2005, compared to a year earlier, to a record 1.78 million. Non-business filings, which backers of the tougher bankruptcy legislation said are increasingly driven by consumer debt, accounted for 98 percent of all filings.

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