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Archive for the ‘Chapter 7 trustee’ tag

The Means Test is Based on Timing

October 6th, 2017 at 7:00 am

Most people easily pass the means test based on their relatively low income. Timing plays a huge role in calculating your income.   


The Means Test

To file and complete a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case you have to qualify for it. The main hurdle in qualifying is what’s called the “means test.”  That is, to qualify for Chapter 7 you have to show that you don’t have too much “means.”

You do that mostly through your income. The start, and for most people the end, of the means test involves comparing your income to a set median income amount. If your income is no more than median income amount for your family size in your state, you pass the means test.                  

Being able to file a Chapter 7 case by passing the means test is usually very important. That’s because if you have more “means” (income) than you’re allowed, you usually have to file a Chapter 13 case instead. That involves a 3-to-5-year payment plan, instead of the 3-4-month Chapter 7 procedure. Chapter 13 is great in the right circumstances. It has great tools unavailable under Chapter 7. But if you just need the quick relief of Chapter 7 being forced instead into a Chapter 13 case is a serious setback.

The Timing Focus of the Means Test

As we said above, the easiest way to pay the means test is for your income to be no larger than the published “median income” amount for a family of your size in your state. If your income is no more than that then right away you’ve passed the test. You’ve overcome the biggest qualification for filing a Chapter 7 case.

But your income for purposes of the means test is not calculated in any way you might think. In particular the timing aspect of how your income is calculated is unusual.

Your income for purposes of the means test is not based on your income for the previous calendar year, or prior 365 days or 12 months. It’s not based on any kind of annual basis. Instead it’s based on your income of the six full calendar months prior to the filing of your case.

  • For example, if you and your bankruptcy lawyer file your case during any day in October 2017, the pertinent prior-six-full-calendar-month period is from April 1 through September 30, 2017. After adding up the income received during that six-month period multiply it by two for the annual amount.
  • Your income for the means test is not just your “taxable income.” Instead include just about every bit of income or money you receive from all sources during that period of time. This includes irregular sources of money such as child and spousal support payments, insurance settlements, unemployment benefits, and bonuses. However, exclude all types of social security-based income.

The Median Income Amount for Your Family Size and State

The last step is to compare your income amount as you just calculated to the median income for your state and your size of family. You can find that median income amount in the table that you can access through this website. (This median income information gets updated every few months so be sure to use the current table.)

Conclusion

If your income, as calculated in this distinct way, is no more than the median income for your state and family size, then you’ve cleared the means test hurdle! You can very likely proceed through Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Next time we’ll focus on the opportunities presented by this quirky way of calculating income for the means test.

 

Timing: Avoiding “Fraudulent Transfers”

October 4th, 2017 at 7:00 am

Giving a gift, or selling for less than true value, can cause problems when done before bankruptcy, but usually only if the amount is large. 

 

“Fraudulent Transfers” Are Uncommon

So-called “fraudulent transfers” do not come up in most consumer or small business bankruptcy cases. But they can sneak up on you. And if one does, it can be a real headache. So it’s important to know what it is, its crucial timing factors, and how to avoid it.

What’s a “Fraudulent Transfer”?

A fraudulent transfer is a reflection of human nature. If someone in financial trouble has an asset or money she wants to keep from her creditors she may be tempted to give it to someone so the creditors can’t reach it. Or she may be tempted to sell it for lots less than its worth.

The gift or sale may be to someone who would give it back later. Or the gift or sale may be to a friend or relative, keeping it within the debtor’s circle. The point is that the asset would no longer be available for her creditors to seize to pay the debts.

It’s human nature that if you have something valuable and are afraid of losing it, you hide it. You keep it from those who could take it. But that doesn’t mean this impulse is legal or moral. Because it’s an understandable impulse, there have been laws against it for at least 400 years in the English law we inherited.

The Results of a Fraudulent Transfer

So, a fraudulent transfer is a debtor’s giving away of an asset to avoiding paying creditors the value of that asset.

Under both federal and state fraudulent transfer laws if you give away something of value within the last two years, then your creditors could require the person to whom you gave that gift to surrender it to the creditors.

Legal proceedings to undo fraudulent transfers can happen both in state courts and in bankruptcy court. In a bankruptcy case, a bankruptcy trustee acts on behalf of the creditors to undo the transfer.

Actual and Constructive Fraudulent Transfers

There are two kinds of fraudulent transfers, based on either “actual fraud” or “constructive fraud.”

The one based on “actual fraud” happens when a debtor gives a gift or makes a transfer “with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud” a particular creditor, or his or her creditors in general. (See Section 548(a)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.) The debtor is acting with the direct intent to keep the asset or its value away from creditor(s).

Fraudulent transfers based on “constructive fraud” happen in consumer situations most often when a debtor gives a gift or makes a transfer receiving “less than a reasonably equivalent value in exchange,” AND the debtor “was insolvent on the date that such transfer was made.  . .  , or became insolvent as a result of such transfer.” (See Section 548(a)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.) With a constructive fraudulent transfer the debtor does NOT need to intend to defraud anybody. Yet the transfer can be undone if the right conditions are met.

Why Fraudulent Transfers Are Uncommon

There are three practical reasons why most people filing bankruptcy don’t have to worry about fraudulent transfers.

First, most people in financial trouble simply don’t give away their things before filing bankruptcy. They usually need what they have. Plus most of the time everything they do own is protected in bankruptcy through property “exemptions.” So there’s usually no reason to give away or sell anything.

Modest Gifts Are OK

Second, the bankruptcy system doesn’t care about relatively modest gifts. And most people considering bankruptcy don’t have the means to give anything but modest gifts.

By “modest” the bankruptcy system generally means a gift or gifts given over the course of two years to any particular person with a value of more than $600. The Bankruptcy Code does not refer to that threshold amount. But the pertinent official form that you sign “under penalty of perjury” does so.

The Statement of Financial Affairs for Individuals (effective 12/1/15) includes the following question (#13):

Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you give any gifts with a total value of more than $600 per person?

The next question (#14) is very similar:                                            

Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you give any gifts or contributions with a total value of more than $600 to any charity?

The Trustee Has to Consider Collection Costs

The third practical reason there usually isn’t a fraudulent transfer problem is what it costs the trustee to pursue one. The trustee has to pay attorney fees and other expenses to try to undo a gift or transfer. Or the trustee has to use his or her time or pay staff to do this. So the practical threshold value of the transferred asset is likely many hundreds of dollars. The trustee is not going to pay a lawyer or use his or her time when the likely benefits outweigh the costs.

This is important because there is a question in the Statement of Financial Affairs without a stated threshold dollar amount. This question (#18) asks:

Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you sell, trade, or otherwise transfer any property to anyone, other than property transferred in the ordinary course of your business or financial affairs?

Notice the lack of a $600 minimum threshold found in the two questions referred to above. So, every applicable transfer must be listed here regardless of value.  But again, the bankruptcy trustee would likely not do anything about this unless the asset transferred was valuable enough to make the effort to undo the transfer worthwhile.

Caution

The trustee may be more inclined to try to undo a gift or transfer in one situation. If the trustee already has non-exempt (unprotected) assets to liquidate and distribute among the creditors, he or she may be more inclined to pursue a fraudulent transfer. That’s because then the trustee is not risking using his or her own money for the collection costs. The trustee knows there will likely be some money from liquidation of the non-exempt assets to pay those costs.

 

A Sample Completed Chapter 7 Case

September 15th, 2017 at 7:00 am

What does the completion of a successful Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case look like? What happens to your debts?

 

A Sample Chapter 7 Case

In our last blog post we wrote about completing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case. Today we’re doing the same thing with a Chapter 7 case.

And like last time we’ll show what a finished Chapter 7 case looks like through tangible facts.

So imagine Jennifer filing a Chapter 7 case through the help of her bankruptcy lawyer to stop a lawsuit by a collection company, write off some old income taxes she’d been struggling to make monthly payments on, hang onto a vehicle whose loan she’d started falling behind on, and write off a bunch of medical, credit card and other personal debts.

The Facts

Jennifer had fallen behind on virtually all of her debts 18 months ago. She’d lost her job and it took her 3 months to find a new one.

She couldn’t pay a $1,200 medical bill, so a few months later it was sent to collections. For 12 months Jennifer disregarded collection letter and phone calls because she had absolutely no money to pay this debt. Then the collector sued her. She was justifiably very concerned about getting her paycheck garnished. She’s a bookkeeper. Her employer made clear that employees in her position better not have their wages garnished. Stopping that lawsuit from turning into a judgment pushed her into filing a Chapter 7 case.

In 2012 she’d started a side business to try to get ahead in life. It made some money for a while but then the income fell off and she had to close it down. She couldn’t afford to pay federal income taxes on that income, so she owed $8,000. In 2015 she’d arranged with the IRS to make $150 monthly payments, and struggled to pay those. She was really afraid what would happen if she stopped paying. She still owed $5,000 in income taxes, interest and penalties.

In the midst of all these financial pressures she struggled to pay her $390 vehicle loan payments. She was often late on the payments, racking up late charges. The last month or two before filing bankruptcy she’d gotten right to the brink of getting her car repossessed. She had absolutely no way to get to work or doctor appointments without her car. So being able to pay for her car was another big reason for filing bankruptcy.

The Filing of Her Case

When Jennifer’s case was filed that immediately stopped the collection lawsuit. She could also stop paying the $150 monthly installments on her income tax debt. That’s because the tax was old enough and otherwise qualified for discharge—legal write-off. She no longer had to pay on any of the $75,000 in other unsecured debts—other medical bills, credit cards, and various other obligations. So she was able to quickly catch up on her car loan and be able to pay it without distress.

The End of the Chapter 7 Case

Jennifer filed her case 100 days ago. That’s about how long most consumer Chapter 7 cases take to finish. Completing her case successfully is crucial because otherwise she’d lose the benefits of her case.

Regarding her vehicle loan, a few weeks earlier she had entered into a reaffirmation agreement with her lender. That agreement formally excluded the loan from the discharge of the rest of her debts. She agreed to remain liable on that loan in return for being able to keep her car. She was happy to continue owing on this debt, now that she had no trouble making the payments. Reaffirming the debt also allowed her to quickly start re-establishing her credit.

So now Jennifer receives a copy of a Discharge Order from the bankruptcy court. Her creditors all also receive copies. This court order prevents any of her creditors—other than the vehicle lender—from pursuing her or her assets. From the time her Chapter 7 case was filed until now the debts were on hold. The “automatic stay” prevented any of her creditors from taking any collection action against her. But Jennifer still owed the debts. Now the Discharge Order makes her debts permanently uncollectible.

All of her creditors—again with the exception of the vehicle lender lender—now each write off her debt from their books. This includes the IRS. It becomes illegal for any of these creditors to do anything to collect its debt. They must report to credit reporting agencies that the debt has been written off and is no longer owed.

Conclusion

So Jennifer can get on with her life in financial peace. She doesn’t worry about lawsuits and garnishments. She doesn’t fear what the IRS will do to her if she misses an installment payment. And she can comfortably pay her vehicle loan payment and looks forward to paying it off. Other than that manageable single payment she is debt-free, and appreciating her fresh financial start.

 

Protecting Your Co-Signer in Bankruptcy

August 2nd, 2017 at 7:00 am

Don’t be afraid to file bankruptcy because of how it would affect a co-signer. Your bankruptcy often actually helps that co-signer.

 

Practical Protection for Your Co-Signer

You may not want to file bankruptcy because you don’t want to hurt a co-signer. You may not want to write off your obligation on the debt and leave your co-signer owing it alone.

If so you’ll be relieved to hear that by filing bankruptcy you can often get both financial relief for yourself and the best practical protection for your co-signer.

Today we’ll show how filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case could provide that relief and that protection. Next time we’ll show how a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case could protect your co-signer when Chapter 7 cannot.

Assumptions

We’re making a couple assumptions here:

  • Between you and your co-signer, you were the one who benefitted from the co-signed credit. (You co-signer was helping you out, not the other way around.)
  • You care enough about your co-signer and feel responsible enough that you’d be willing to pay the debt if you were able to.

Protect Your Co-Signer from Having to Pay Your Debt

Here is how filing Chapter 7 can protect your co-signer.

“Discharging” (legally writing off) all or most of your other debts may enable you to pay the co-signed debt. It may free up enough of your monthly cash flow so that you could afford its monthly payments. That would of course prevent your co-signer from being required to make those payments.

But what if your co-signer has already paid the debt in part or in full? Discharging your other debts would make it easier to pay back your co-signer, if you want to do so.

Allowed to Pay the Co-Signed Debt, Allowed to Pay the Co-Signer

Filing a Chapter 7 case would legally allow you to stop paying all or most of your debts immediately. This includes the co-signed debt. Then about 3 or 4 months later your legal obligation to pay that co-signed debt would likely be forever discharged. In addition any legal obligation to your co-signer would very likely also be discharged.

However, bankruptcy law clearly allows you to pay any debt afterwards if you want to. This is a way that the law respects you feelings of moral obligation towards a debt. So, you could decide to pay the co-signed debt even if you’d have no legal obligation to pay it.

Similarly, if your co-signer already paid all or part of a debt, you could decide to pay the co-signer back.

Get Your Lawyer’s Advice

Is it really wise to pay the co-signed debt, or to reimburse the co-signer? Are you acting out of an oversized sense of guilt that maybe you should just let go? Are there better places to put your after-bankruptcy resources?

Talk these questions and concerns over very carefully with your bankruptcy lawyer. He or she will not make these kinds of decisions for you, or take them away from you. But it’s likely healthy for you to express your intentions to someone who’s not personally involved. It’s wise to at least listen to the counsel of someone who is legally and ethically bound to serve you.

Plus there’s a very concrete purpose for discussing this with your lawyer. As part of the bankruptcy documentation, the two of you would have prepared a monthly budget. Relatedly, you’d have been informed about the debts that’ll likely be discharged and those that you’ll continue to pay. (These would be your mortgage, vehicle loan, recent income taxes, and such, if applicable.)

From this information you’ll be able to make a better decision about your co-signed obligation. You’ll see whether you could realistically start making the payments on a co-signed debt, or to the co-signor.

Why This Is Better for Your Co-signer than Not Filing Bankruptcy

You’ve got to be very practical about your alternatives. If you are in serious financial hurt, how likely is it that you are going to be able to reliably pay the co-signed debt without some bankruptcy help? So, not filing bankruptcy may be the worst thing for your co-signer. And if you want to protect that person, your Chapter 7 bankruptcy may be the best thing for him or her.

 

The Chapter 13 Plan

July 24th, 2017 at 7:00 am

Chapter 13 revolves around your payment plan, which you propose based on your budget, and possibly negotiate with creditors and the trustee. 

 

In our last two blog posts we introduced Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” bankruptcy. We explained how to qualify for it and how it can buy you extremely valuable time. Today we get to the heart of this option: the Chapter 13 payment plan.

The Length of the Plan

A Chapter 13 case almost always requires a 3-to-5-year payment plan. That may sound like a long time, but the length itself is often an advantage. That’s because your Chapter 13 plan often has you paying special debts that you want or need to pay, and the more time you have the less you have to pay each month. That makes achieving your plan goals easier and more realistic.

Whether a plan has to be at least 3 years long vs. 5 years depends on two main factors. First, your income plays a major role. Without explaining this in detail here, relatively lower income results in a minimum 3-year plan. Higher income results in a 5-year plan. 

Second, even if your minimum plan length is 3 years, you may want to stretch it out longer. You’d do that to reduce how much you pay each month into the plan. 

Your Chapter 13 Plan

Your plan is a blueprint for how you will deal with your debts for the 3 to 5 years of your Chapter 13 case. It must meet a list of requirements. See Section 1322, “Contents of plan,” of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The core of the plan states how much you will pay to ALL of your creditors each month, and who gets paid from that amount. There are other provisions in the plan that don’t directly involve money. We’ll cover these in more detail in upcoming blog posts.

The Plan Approval Procedure

You and your bankruptcy lawyer prepare and then present your Chapter 13 plan to the bankruptcy court. This is usually done at the same time as your lawyer electronically files your case. But sometimes the plan is filed a week or two later, especially if your case was filed in a hurry.

Your creditors receive a copy of your plan and are allowed limited kinds of objections to it. If your plan follows the legal requirements the creditors usually don’t have much room for objection.

The Chapter 13 trustee also has a role in determining whether the plan meets the appropriate rules. The trustee suggests changes, usually in the form of objections. Usually these are resolved informally between the trustee and your lawyer. They often involve only minor tweaks in the plan terms, so that it’s still meeting your intended goals.

The bankruptcy judge resolves any disagreements about the plan between you and your creditors, or between you and the trustee, as needed. This usually happen quite quickly, although can delay the approval of your plan for several weeks.

The approval of a plan is called its confirmation, and usually takes place at a confirmation hearing. Your lawyer usually attends, but you almost never need to. The confirmation hearing usually happens about two months after your lawyer files your case. But it can be postponed (“adjourned”) once or even more often if there are objections which take time to resolve.

The judge approves your plan by signing a confirmation order. Your confirmed plan plus the confirmation order together largely govern your relationships with your creditors throughout the rest of your Chapter 13 case.

Next…

In our next blog post we’ll cover how a Chapter 13 plan deals with the different categories of your debts.

 

Timing Can Be Crucial for Passing the Means Test

July 10th, 2017 at 7:00 am

With smart timing you can take advantage of the unusual way that your “income” is calculated for the Chapter 7 means test.  

Passing the Means Test

We introduced the means test a couple of weeks ago and said that many people pass this test simply by having low enough income.  Their income is no larger than the published median income for their state and family size.

We also explained that income for this purpose has an unusual definition. It includes:

  • not just employment income but virtually all funds received from all sources—including from irregular ones like child and spousal support payments, insurance settlements, cash gifts from relatives, and unemployment benefits (but excluding Social Security);
  • funds received ONLY during the 6 FULL CALENDAR months before the date of filing, multiplied by two for the annual amount.

In other words, if you file a Chapter 7 case on any day of July, you count all funds received during the period January 1 through June 30. Then you double it and compare that to the applicable median income amount.

This very broad definition of “income” received within this very definite time period has some important tactical consequences for you. Under the right facts your “income” for the means test could shift significantly if you file your Chapter 7 case one month vs. the next. It could increase or reduce your “income” by enough to qualify or not qualify under Chapter 7.

We’ll show how this is possible through the following example.

An Example

Assume the following facts:

  • You have employment income grossing $3,750 per month that you consistently earned and received through the last several years.
  • Back in January you also received a modest auto insurance settlement of $2,500 from an insurance company.
  • The median annual income for your state and family size is $46,412.

Your “income” for means test purposes in July is:

  • 6 times $3,750 employment income = $22,500.
  • $22,500 plus $2,500 insurance proceeds = $25,000 total income from January 1 through June 30.
  • $25,000 times 2 = $50,000 annually.

Since $50,000 is more than the applicable median annual income amount of $46,412, you don’t pass the means test. (At least you don’t on the first income-only step. You may still pass by going through the expenses part of the test, but that’s beyond today’s blog post.)

So what happens if you don’t file your Chapter 7 case in July but rather wait until August? Here is the new income calculation:

  • 6 times $3,750 employment income = $22,500.
  • There’s no additional $2,500 from the insurance settlement because you received it in January while the pertinent 6-month period now is February 1 through July 31.
  • So $22,500 times 2 = $45,000 annually.

Since $45,000 is less than the applicable median annual income amount of $46,412, you now pass the means test. You qualify for Chapter 7. 

 

Example of a Simple Chapter 7 “Asset Case”

June 21st, 2017 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 “asset” cases may sound scary. They needn’t be. We walk you through a very straightforward example to demystify this.  

 

Asset and No-Asset Chapter 7 Cases

Our last blog post discussed the difference between a no-asset and asset Chapter 7 case. Simply put, in a no-asset case everything you own is covered and protected by available property exemptions. So your trustee takes nothing from you. In contrast, in an asset case, something you own is not covered by a property exemption. So the trustee takes it, sells (“liquidates”) it, and distributes the proceeds to your creditors.

We ended our last blog post with a short example of what happens in an asset case if you happen to owe certain kinds of debt that you’d still have to pay after bankruptcy, such as accrued child support or recent income taxes. The Chapter 7 trustee pays such special “priority” debts in full before paying anything on ordinary debts. That way most of your asset proceeds go to a debt that you have to pay anyway.

But what if you don’t have any such priority debts? What happens in an otherwise simple Chapter 7 case in which you to have an asset that the trustee gets and liquidates?

Our Simple Example

Assume someone named Hannah owes $80,000 in a combination of personal loans, credit cards, and medical bills. Her income qualifies her for a Chapter 7 case under the “means test” in her state with her family size. Under the property exemptions that the law provides to her, everything she owns is exempt except for one thing. She owns, free and clear, a sailboat with a fair market value of $8,000. (Such a boat may be exempt in some states, probably depending on what else she owns, but let’s assume it’s not exempt here.)

Hannah would partly like to keep the boat, because her kids enjoy sailing with her. But it is quite expensive to maintain, draining money she needs for much  more important expenses. So she doesn’t terribly mind losing the boat.

Keeping the Boat

Her bankruptcy lawyer tells Hannah she does have two possible ways to keep the boat. One is under Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and another under Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

She could likely keep the boat by essentially paying for the right to keep it, in a different way with these two options.

Chapter 7 Option for Keeping the Boat

In a Chapter 7 case, if she could come up with around $8,000 she could offer it to the trustee. The trustee would almost certainly accept the money instead of taking the boat. In fact the trustee would likely accept somewhat less because Hannah would be saving the trustee the costs involved in liquidating the boat. The trustee may even allow Hannah to pay off the boat over the course of several months. Then after receiving Hannah’s money, the trustee would distribute it out to her creditors.

Assuming that Hannah doesn’t have ready access to $8,000, either immediately or over the next several months, this is not a very practical option. And even if she could borrow or otherwise raise the money, she’d likely decide that that much effort wasn’t worthwhile. Again, she doesn’t really want the boat anymore.

Chapter 13 Option for Keeping the Boat

Chapter 13 makes hanging onto the boat easier. Hannah would likely have 3 to 5 years to make payments into a Chapter 13 payment plan. Those payments would reflect how much she could afford to pay, and would have to be enough over time to pay at least the $8,000 value of the boat.

So she’d have much more time to pay than under Chapter 7. But she’d be stuck in a bankruptcy case for years, simply to be able to keep something she no longer thinks is wise to keep.

The Best Option Here—the Asset Chapter 7 Case

Hannah decides that simply giving the boat to the Chapter 7 trustee would be the best for her here.

So, with the help of her lawyer she files a Chapter 7 case. A few weeks later she signs over the boat to her assigned trustee. The trustee sells the boat, and after expenses (for the boat broker’s commission, storage fees and such), has a net amount of $7,000.

The trustee is entitled to a fee. It’s generally calculated to be no more than 25% of the first $5,000 distributed, plus 10% of the next $45,000. (See Section 326(a) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) That amounts to a $1,950 fee here, which would come out of the $7,000.

That leaves $5,050 for the creditors. Since Hannah owes no “priority debts,” the $5,050 is divided pro rata among the $80,000 of debts. This means that her creditors would all receive a little more than 6 cents on the dollar.

Although Hannah is losing the boat to her creditors, under her circumstances this is her best option. She gets rid of something that she doesn’t need, finishes her case in a matter of a few months, and gets a fresh financial start by being debt-free.

 

Chapter 7 Trustee’s Abandonment of Property

June 16th, 2017 at 7:00 am

Just because you own something that’s not exempt doesn’t always mean that the Chapter 7 trustee will take it. The trustee could abandon it. 

 

Our last blog post discussed factors that a trustee would consider in deciding whether to liquidate one of your assets. In most consumer Chapter 7 cases the trustee liquidates nothing because everything the debtor owns is “exempt,” or protected.  That’s called a “no asset” case because the trustee does not claim anything for the “bankruptcy estate.”

The trustee can get interested in something a debtor owns only if it is not exempt—not protected.  But even when something isn’t exempt, the trustee may still decide it’s not worth liquidating. If that’s the trustee’s decision, he or she could then “abandon” the property.                

Reasons to Abandon

The United States Bankruptcy Code says that

the trustee may abandon any property of the [bankruptcy] estate that is burdensome to the estate or that is of inconsequential value and benefit to the estate.

See Section 554(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.

The Chapter 7 trustee’s main job is to “collect and reduce to money the property of the estate” (to the extent the property is not exempt). Section 704(a)(1). After the trustee liquidates any non-exempt property, he or she distributes that money to the creditors.

The point is to pay creditors a part of the debts owed (or, rarely, pay those in full). So it makes sense for the trustee to not have to mess with property that won’t help in that. It makes sense for the trustee to abandon property that is either “burdensome” or “of inconsequential value and benefit.”

“Burdensome”

“Burdensome” essentially means more trouble than it’s worth. An asset can be burdensome by being a liability—for example, real estate that has a severe hazardous waste problem. And it can be burdensome by costing more to liquidate than the asset is worth—for example, a modest boat worth $1,000 but which is in such of a remote location that it would cost more than that to retrieve, market, and sell it. And the asset could be both a potential liability and cost too much to liquidate. An example would be a questionable debt owed to the debtor, which would take attorney and court fees to collect, and may also result in counterclaims against the trustee.

“Of Inconsequential Value and Benefit”

A trustee has to consider whether something is worth so little that it’s not worth the trouble to collect and sell it. The usual considerations come into play about accounting for liquidation costs in arriving at the net cash proceeds.

But there’s another overarching consideration. The net cash proceeds need to be large enough to justify the trustee’s efforts involved in an asset case. Trustees get paid a maximum of 25% of the first $5,000 collected and 10% of the next $45,000. There is more to administering an asset-distribution case than you might think. Many trustees won’t bother chasing even $1,000 net cash proceeds because the $250 fee would not be worth all their trouble administering the case. Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer to find out your local trustees’ practices. At what threshold dollar amount do your panel of trustees consider that an asset is beyond “inconsequential value”?

Deemed Abandoned

A Chapter 7 trustee can do a formal abandonment procedure through a motion to the bankruptcy court. Otherwise, everything listed on your bankruptcy asset schedules “at the time of the closing of a case is abandoned to the debtor.” Section 554(c).

Practically speaking, trustees usually don’t bother to do a formal abandonment unless they want to quickly avoid the risk of liability from a detrimental asset. Most consumer no asset cases are closed within about 100 days after filing. So at that point all your assets are deemed to be abandoned by the trustee to you.

 

When a Chapter 7 Trustee Doesn’t Liquidate Non-Exempt Property

June 14th, 2017 at 7:00 am

Just because you own something that isn’t exempt does not necessarily mean that your Chapter 7 trustee will liquidate it. Maybe not.


Our last blog post was about the most straightforward kind of no asset” Chapter 7 case. That’s when it’s clear that everything you own is “exempt”—fully protected. The property and exemption schedules that you and your bankruptcy lawyer prepare and file at court show this. Your trustee asks a few confirming questions at the “meeting of creditors” and announces that your case is a “no asset” one. That means that there’s nothing you own that the trustee wants to liquidate and pay its proceeds to your creditors.

But if you do own something that isn’t exempt. What happens then?                                     

The Chapter 7 Trustee’s Task

If you have an asset which isn’t exempt from the trustee’s liquidation, he or she doesn’t necessarily liquidate it. According to the Handbook for Chapter 7 Trustees:

The trustee should consider the likelihood that sufficient funds will be generated to make a meaningful distribution to creditors prior to administering a case as an asset case.

In other words, before liquidating anything the trustee needs to decide whether it’s practical to do so. The trustee needs to consider whether enough money would come from the liquidation for a “meaningful distribution” to your creditors.

Considerations about Whether to Liquidate

The following are some of the considerations for the trustee about whether to liquidate an asset of the debtor:

  1. accessibility—is it readily available or not?
  2. liquidation costs—do those costs eat up a substantial amount of the anticipated proceeds?
  3. marketability—is there a risk that the asset cannot be liquidated for a worthwhile price?
  4. burdensome—does the asset have attributes that make is potentially detrimental to the trustee?
  5. “meaningful distribution”—given the number and nature of your debts, will the creditors receive an amount worth the administrative effort involved?

Examples
 
1. Accessibility:

You own a boat that is worth about a $1,000. It was located 1,000 miles away in a remote area on lakeside land that got foreclosed last year. You have not seen it in two years and so are not even sure if it’s still there. Its accessibility is questionable.

2. Liquidation Costs:

Assume that you’ve had a relative verify that this boat is still in the boat shed on the property. But because of the remote and rustic location, the trustee would have to pay a substantial amount to have an agent retrieve, transport, and sell the boat. Those costs could be more than the boat is worth.

3. Marketability:

Under the same facts the boat is not readily marketable at its present location because of its remoteness. The lake is very small, with only very few other landowners who might be interested in buying the boat. There’s no marina or boat broker for a couple hundred miles, with the the nearest local newspaper nearly as far.

4. Burdensome:

The new owner of the foreclosed property does not want the boat and indeed is threatening to charge storage fees. The boat not only has no net liquidation value, it is turning into a burdensome liability.

5. “Meaningful Distribution:

Even if the facts were different so that a trustee believed the boat could net $800 after some relatively modest costs of sale, most likely the trustee would not bother. The trustee is entitled to a 25% fee, or $200 here, leaving only $600 for the creditors. If, for example, you have any “priority” debts (recent income taxes or child/spousal support arrearage), those would be paid first out of that $600 before your other debts would receive anything. Since you’d have to pay these tax/support debts anyway, there’s no practical benefit to going through all the administrative effort of liquidating the boat and distributing the proceeds. The creditors would not receive a “meaningful distribution”—nothing or close to nothing, in this example.

Next

So what happens next, once the trustee decides not to liquidate your otherwise non-exempt asset? We cover that in our next blog post about “abandonment.”

 

“Property of the Estate” May Include Life Insurance Proceeds

June 2nd, 2017 at 7:00 am

The 180-day rule applies to life insurance proceeds in a Chapter 7 case. But life insurance proceeds are often exempt, or protected. 

 

Last time, we explained the 180-day rule about inheritances. If within 180 days after you file bankruptcy you “acquire or become entitled to acquire” an inheritance, then the property being inherited is “property of your bankruptcy estate.” It’s counted as if it was your property at the time you filed, even though it wasn’t.  (See Section 541(a)(5)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

That means to whatever extent the inherited property isn’t covered by a property exemption, or protected some other way, the Chapter 7 trustee can take and liquidate it to pay your creditors.

That 180-day rule also applies to life insurance proceeds, our topic today. (See Section 541(a)(5)(C) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

“Property Exemptions”

Most—but by no means all—people who file Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” can keep everything they own. That’s because everything they own fits within “property exemptions. These are protected categories of property, usually—but not always—with specific maximum value amounts.

For example, you may have available a vehicle exemption of $5,000. This allows you to keep a vehicle if it is worth no more than that. Or if you owe on the vehicle, you can have up to that much in equity (its value minus the debt).

Property exemptions can get complicated. There are often “wildcard’ exemptions that you can use on anything. Exemptions are often double the usual amount if you file a joint case with your spouse—but not necessarily. It’s not always clear what property fits within a particular exemption. Coming up with the value of your property isn’t always easy. Also, each state has its own set of exemptions, and these can be wildly different, even in adjoining states. In 19 states you can choose between that state’s exemptions or a set of federal ones. In the rest you must use the state’s exemptions. And you have to live in a state for a certain length of time or else you have to use what’s available in a prior state.

“Property of the Bankruptcy Estate” and “Property Exemptions”

It’s actually a two-step process to determine whether you get to keep everything you own.

The first step is whether it is “property of the bankruptcy estate.” If something is not “property of the estate,” it doesn’t come under bankruptcy jurisdiction. You don’t need to exempt it. If something is “property of the estate” you need to fit it within an available exemption. Otherwise the Chapter 7 trustee could take it, liquidate it, and pay the proceeds to your creditors.

Then the second step is whether something that IS “property of the estate” is protected by a property exemption.

Are Life Insurance Proceeds “Property of the Estate”?

What if someone dies before you file a Chapter 7 case leaving you money in life insurance proceeds? To the extent any of that money is still around, it’s “property of the estate.” (Be sure to talk with a bankruptcy lawyer before trying to dispose of such money before filing bankruptcy. That can be dangerous if done without competent legal advice.)

If you haven’t received the insurance proceeds at the time of filing, it would all be “property of the estate.” That’s because you are legally entitled to it even if it hasn’t arrived yet.

What if someone dies seven months after you file your Chapter 7 case, leaving life insurance money? The life insurance money is NOT property of the estate. Why? Because you did not “acquire or become entitled to acquire” the life insurance benefits “within 180 days after” filing bankruptcy.

What if someone dies within 180 days after you file your Chapter 7 case? As just implied, the life insurance proceeds would be “property of the estate.”

Are Life Insurance Proceeds Covered by a Property Exemption?

IF your life insurance proceeds ARE property of your bankruptcy estate, they may still be exempt. It depends on your state. It often also depends on your relationship with the decedent. The amount of proceeds may also matter.

For example, if you qualify to use the federal exemptions you can exempt funds from a life insurance policy that insured the life of someone of who you were a dependent so long as the funds are “reasonably necessary” for your support and that of any of your dependents.

In contrast, a number of states exempt unlimited amounts of life insurance proceeds to a spouse or dependent.

So, whether the life insurance coming to you are exempt really depends on which exemption laws apply to you.

 

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