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Utahns filed for bankruptcy in 2010 at the highest level in five years, a sign that many of the state's residents continue to struggle with job losses and too much debt amid an uncertain economy.

And although the pace of filings might be easing, the West is seeing higher levels of bankruptcies than other parts of the country — and more older Utahns appear to be seeking debt relief than during the past.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Utah reported it received 17,968 bankruptcy petitions last year, a 24 percent increase compared with the 14,481 filings in 2009.

"I would guess that we will probably see the upward trend in filings continue in the coming year, but perhaps at a little bit slower pace," said David Sime, clerk of Utah's Bankruptcy Court.

Although filings surged in 2010, they were only up 16 percent in the last quarter of the year, compared with the final three months of 2009, Sime said.

Nationwide, consumer bankruptcies increased 9 percent last year, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute, a Virginia-based research organization that studies issues surrounding insolvency.

But there were some stark regional differences.

Thirteen states recorded a year-over-year decline, mainly in the South, with West Virginia leading the way with a 10 percent drop in cases. The West, however, saw a continued increase, with numbers rising in Hawaii (22 percent), California (19 percent) and Arizona (18 percent).

"The steady climb of consumer filings notwithstanding, the 2005 bankruptcy law restrictions demonstrate that families continue to turn to bankruptcy as a result of high debt burdens and stagnant income growth," said Samuel J. Gerdano, the institute's executive director, in a statement announcing the 2010 results.

Like the rest of the country, the lull in Utah bankruptcies that began in late 2005 when a new law made it harder for consumers to declare themselves insolvent appears to be about over.

Although the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act created hoops for people to jump through, it failed to address what some contend are the root causes of many insolvencies: job losses, divorces and unexpected medical bills.

In another trend, Utah attorney Duane Gillman, who frequently serves as an appointed trustee for the Bankruptcy Court, said he has noticed an increase in bankruptcy filings by older Utahns.

"What that tells me is that maybe Social Security and Medicare are just not cutting it for many people," Gillman said.

Rob Ence, executive director of AARP Utah, said Utah's elderly can be particularly vulnerable because many are living on fixed incomes.

He said there has been a freeze on cost-of-living increases for those on Social Security and that "a lot of our seniors are still having to deal with rising food and utility costs. Many on Medicare still have to come up with 20 percent of their medical expenses out of pocket."

Of those who filed bankruptcy petitions in Utah during 2010, 66 percent sought relief from their debts under Chapter 7, which involves a trustee liquidating a debtor's assets and distributing the proceeds to creditors. Any remaining debts are wiped out, and the debtor gets a fresh start.

The remaining 34 percent sought Chapter 13, which allows the financially troubled to formulate a plan to repay all, or at least part, of what they owe over a period of time, typically three to five years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.