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The Surprising Benefits: Removing a Judgment Lien on Your Home

May 7th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Bankruptcy usually does not get rid of liens against your assets. However, in many situations you can “avoid” a judgment lien on your home. 


We’re on a series of blog posts about the powerful but less obvious benefits of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy can do much more than just give you immediate and long-term relief from your debts. Today we get into the extremely helpful way bankruptcy can take judgment liens off the title to your home.

The Problem Begging for a Solution

When a creditor sues you, most often it gets a judgment against you. If you do not respond to the lawsuit, the creditor gets a default judgment. That’s a court determination that you owe the debt. The judgment also usually includes substantial fees related to the lawsuit that you then also legally owe.

Even if you do respond, formally or informally, to the lawsuit and work out some kind of deal with the creditor, that deal often includes the creditor getting a judgment against you.

Either way, the creditor’s judgment against you usually results in a judgment lien against your home. That’s often true whether you owned a home at that time or not. For example, if you bought a home years later, a previously entered judgment lien could attach to it. Or if you are buying a home on a contract with the seller, including a rent-to-own, the judgment could attach to your right to the home. Sometimes a new or old judgment lien could even attach to your rights under a residential lease.

Any such judgment lien is separate from the debt you owe to that creditor. Bankruptcy can usually write off (“discharge”) debts but not liens. For example, if you are making payments on a vehicle, bankruptcy can discharge the debt but does not affect the lien that the creditor has on the vehicle. So unless you surrender the vehicle, you have to pay for the right to keep the vehicle. Similarly, bankruptcy may write off the debt that resulted in the judgment, but that could still leave the judgment lien on your home. This is a significant problem because you would likely have to pay to get rid of the lien when you sell or refinance the home.

Judgment Lien “Avoidance”

However, bankruptcy law does have a solution that works in many situations. As long as you meet certain conditions, you can “avoid”—undo—a judgment lien as part of your bankruptcy case. You may well be able to meet these conditions.

The Conditions for Judgment Liens “Avoidance”

You can take a judgment lien off your home by meeting the following conditions:

  • The judgment lien at issue is attached is your “homestead.” That’s the real estate or other property right that the homestead exemption protects for you under the law.
  • That lien must be a “judicial lien.” That’s defined in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code as “a lien obtained by judgment, levy, sequestration, or other legal or equitable process or proceeding.”
  • This “judicial lien” cannot be for child or spousal support or for a mortgage foreclosure.
  • The judgment lien must “impair” the homestead exemption. This usually means that the lien cuts into the equity protected by the applicable homestead exemption.  

See Section 522(f)(1)(A) of the  Bankruptcy Code.

Example

Assume the following:

  • You were previously sued by a collection agency on a medical debt for $15,000. You didn’t respond because you knew you owed the debt. So the collection agency got a judgment of $15,000 plus another $2,500 for costs and fees, totaling $17,500. Then a judgment lien in that amount was recorded against your home.
  • You file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. It will discharge—forever write off-the $17,500 debt. But without lien avoidance the judgment lien would survive.
  • You owe a $200,000 mortgage on your home, which is worth $210,000. So you have equity of $10,000. The judgment lien attaches to that $10,000 of equity.
  • In your state you have a $25,000 homestead exemption—protecting the first $25,000 of equity in your home. Since you have less equity than that, the full $10,000 of your equity is protected by your homestead exemption.

The judgment lien “impairs” (or absorbs) the full $10,000 of equity in your home. This equity is all protected by the applicable homestead exemption. Therefore, the judgment lien impairs the homestead exemption.

Because all of the conditions are met in this example, your bankruptcy lawyer could successfully file a motion to “avoid” the judgment lien. You’d permanently be rid of both the $17,500 debt and the judgment lien on your home.

A Dozen Surprising Benefits of Bankruptcy

March 19th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Bankruptcy can go beyond giving you immediate and long-term relief from your debts. It comes with many other surprising benefits. 

 

The next 12 blog posts will be about some of the most powerful and surprising benefits of bankruptcy.

You’re likely considering bankruptcy because you’re financially overwhelmed and need relief. You need immediate relief from debt collection pressures. You need long-term relief from having to pay debts you can’t handle. Bankruptcy provides that immediate and long-term relief.

But bankruptcy can often also give you some other rather amazing benefits, beyond the basic relief you expect. The next dozen weekly blog posts will give you details about the following benefits:

1. Get Back Money Recently Paid to a Creditor

Through “preference” law you could get back money you’ve recently paid to a creditor—paid either voluntarily or not.  

2. Undo Judgment Liens on Your Home

Through judgment lien “avoidance” you can often permanently remove a judgment lien, a tremendous practical benefit.   

3. Get Back Your Driver’s License after an Unpaid Judgment

Reinstate your license if you lost it by not paying a debt from an uninsured or underinsured motor vehicle accident.

4. Reinstate Your Driver’s License from Failing to Pay Tickets

Reinstate your license if it had been suspended for unpaid traffic infractions.

5. Get Back Your Just-Repossessed Vehicle

Filing bankruptcy not only prevents vehicle repossession; it may be able to get your vehicle back to you after it’s already been repossessed.

6. Get Out of an Unaffordable Payment Plan with the IRS/State

Bankruptcy comes with a surprising array of tools to use against your tax debts, allowing you to prevent or get you out of an onerous monthly payment plan.

7. Prevent Debt Collections from Re-Starting after Being “Stayed”

Bankruptcy doesn’t stop or only temporarily stops certain select debts from being collected—such as child/spousal support arrearage, recent income taxes, student loans, and debts incurred through fraud. But there are tools bankruptcy provides for resolving special debts like these permanently.

8. Prevent an Income Tax Lien Recording and Its Potentially Huge Damage

An income tax lien can turn a debt that could be discharged—permanently written off—into a debt that you must pay in full. A timely bankruptcy filing can prevent this financial hit.            

9. Bankruptcy Can Often Reduce Some or All of a Tax Lien’s Financial Impact

In some situations a tax lien can be made either wholly or partially ineffective. Besides saving you lots of money you get the peace of mind that your home is not at risk.

10. Avoid Paying Your Ex-Spouse Most of Your Property Settlement Debts

Chapter 13 allows you to discharge—write-off—some or all non-support obligations of your divorce.

11. “Cram down” and Change the Payment Terms of Your Vehicle Loan

If your vehicle loan is more than two and a half years old, you can usually reduce your monthly payments and the total amount you pay on the loan.

12. Get Out of Your Vehicle Lease through Bankruptcy

Leasing is often the cheapest way to have a vehicle short term, but is actually usually the most expensive long-term. Bankruptcy can be the best way to get out of this expensive obligation.

 

Chapter 13 with a Judgment Lien, HOA Lien, or Child/Spousal Support

December 6th, 2017 at 8:00 am

Chapter 13 can work much better than Chapter 7 if you have a judgment or HOA lien on your home, or get behind on child or spousal support.  


You may need the extra help of Chapter 13 if you have any of the following liens against your home:

  • Judgment lien
  • Homeowner association lien
  • Unpaid child or spousal support

Or you may not need that extra help. Two blog posts ago we showed scenarios where Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” could handle these situations well. If you’re current on your mortgage but have any of these three issues, check out that earlier blog post.

But even if you are current on your first mortgage, if you do have any of these 3 debts/liens in some circumstances Chapter 13 could definitely be better for you. Today we show you how.

Judgment Liens

When we got into judgment liens two blog posts ago, we ended by saying that having a judgment (or “judicial”) lien is not a deciding factor in choosing between Chapter 7 and 13. That’s because judgment lien “avoidance” is available under both, with the same rules for qualifying for it. (That’s in contrast to a number of legal benefits only available under Chapter 13.)

However, getting rid of (“avoiding”) a judgment lien may be procedurally easier under Chapter 13. And arguably the judgment creditor is less likely to respond and object.

To avoid a judgment lien in Chapter 7 your bankruptcy lawyer has to file a Motion for Avoidance of Lien. It’s filed at bankruptcy court along with a formal Notice of that Motion. For example, see these Local Bankruptcy Forms 717 and 717.05. Both have to be formally served on the judgment creditor. So the creditor receives these documents that no other creditor receives.

In contrast, under Chapter 13 the judgment lien avoidance language is buried within the multi-page proposed payment plan. See page 4 of the bankruptcy court’s 8-page Official Form 113 Chapter 13 Plan. All creditors receive a copy of this proposed plan. So, there’s more of a tendency for a judgment creditor to not notice the lien avoidance. And if it does notice, it’s more likely to just shrug it away if the resulting unsecured debt is being paid anything under the plan.

(Please see our earlier blog post for the rules about qualifying for judgment lien avoidance, applicable to both Chapters. Also see the applicable Section 522(f)(1)(A) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

Homeowner Association Lien

Homeowner association liens are special, and especially dangerous, for a number of reasons. In certain circumstances they can be superior to your mortgage lender’s lien. (That means it comes ahead of the mortgage itself on your home’s title.) State laws differ but generally HOAs have unusually aggressive collection powers. So you need be especially attentive if you fall behind on your HOA dues or assessments. Doing so can result in serious risks for your home, both from the HOA and your mortgage lender.                          

You can protect yourself from those risks much better in a Chapter 13 case. In a Chapter 7 case, if you’re behind on any HOA obligation you essentially have to work it out with your HOA. And you may well have to placate your mortgage lender at the same time. You don’t have much leverage with either.

In contrast, in a Chapter 13 case you and your home are protected while you catch up on your HOA arrearage. You do need to keep current on any ongoing dues and/or assessment payments. But as far as the past-due payments, you’d generally have up to 5 years to bring them current. As long as you stick to the court-approved payment plan you won’t have to worry about the HOA. Nor your lender.

Child/Spousal Support

In most circumstances, being behind on support creates a lien against your home. (This is usually the result of the legal judgment arising out of your divorce decree).

Filing a Chapter 7 case doesn’t freeze the collection actions of any support obligations. The “automatic stay” is the usual protection from creditor collections during bankruptcy. There is an exception in the “automatic stay” for the collection of support. See Section 362(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code.

However, filing a Chapter 13 case DOES freeze the collection of PAST-DUE support. (The collection of ongoing monthly support payments can continue, but you’d want to pay those anyway.) Because support collections can be extraordinarily aggressive, this can be a crucial benefit of Chapter 13. You DO need to fastidiously keep current on any ongoing support, and maintain your Chapter 13 commitments. But as long as you do so you’d have up to 5 years to get current on the past-due support.

 

Chapter 7 with a Judgment Lien, HOA Debt, or Support Obligations

December 1st, 2017 at 8:00 am

Here are 3 more scenarios for when you are current on your mortgage, where Chapter 7 works well in dealing with other home-related debts.


Our last blog post was about situations in which Chapter 7 works well enough in the following 3 debt situations:

  1. Second or third mortgages
  2. Property taxes
  3. Income tax with a lien recorded on your home

In general, if you are current on your first mortgage but have any of these 3 debts, sometimes Chapter 13 helps much more than Chapter 7. But last time we showed scenarios when you don’t need the extra time and expense of Chapter 13.

We do the same today with the following 3 other home-related types of debts:

1. Judgment with a lien attached to your home

2. Homeowner association debt with a lien

3. Child/spousal support unpaid with a lien

Judgment Liens

In bankruptcy you can often remove a lien on your home arising from a creditor’s judgment against you. That’s important because otherwise the lien would continue on your home’s title even after you discharge (legally write off) the underlying debt.

Whether you can remove, or “avoid,” the judgment lien depends on the value of your home, the amount of its equity, and amount of your applicable homestead exemption. If all of the judgment lien “impairs,” or cuts into, your homestead exemption, you can remove that lien.

For example, assume your home is worth $200,000, you owe $175,000 on the mortgage, so you have $25,000 in equity. Your state’s homestead exemption is $30,000, covering all of your equity and more. You have a judgment lien on your home’s title in the amount of $10,000. All of that $10,000 cuts into the equity that’s protected by your $30,000 homestead exemption. So you can “avoid,” or remove the entire judgment lien in bankruptcy.

There are some tools affecting liens that are available only in Chapter 13, not in Chapter 7. This is not one of them. You can “avoid” a judgment lien under the same rules in either Chapter 7 or 13. So this is not a deciding factor between these two bankruptcy options.

Homeowner Association Lien

State laws differ on homeowner association liens. But in general not being current on your HOA dues and/or assessments can be a significant problem. It can catch you by surprise. So be sure to tell your bankruptcy lawyer if you are paying HOA dues or assessments. Of course be sure to tell if you are not current on them.

One of the reasons these liens are dangerous is that under some circumstances they are superior to your mortgage on your title. Falling behind is likely an independent basis for foreclosure by your mortgage lender—even if you’re current on the mortgage itself. Also, the timetable for action by your HOA may be quick compared to a home lender’s foreclosure.

If you have monthly HOA dues and you’re current on them, and intend to stay in the home, filing a Chapter 7 case should be fine.

But if you’re at all behind with your HOA and don’t have an agreed payment plan to catch up, talk with your lawyer about your options, including Chapter 13. You’d very likely have more time and flexibility in catching up and keeping your home protected while doing so.

Child/Spousal Support

Often, being behind on support creates a lien against your home. That may even happen when you’re current (through the judgment arising out of your divorce decree).

Filling a Chapter 7 case should be fine if you are current on all support obligations at time of filing. If you are not current but expect to be very shortly thereafter, be aware that filing a Chapter 7 case does NOT freeze the collection actions of any support obligations—neither ongoing monthly ones nor those in arrears.

However, Chapter 13 CAN stop the collection of support obligations that are in arrears. Those collections can be unusually aggressive—sometimes resulting in even the loss of your driver’s license, or possibly your occupational or professional license. So knowing that Chapter 13 can freeze collections and buy you time to catch up is important. If this debt is causing you serious problems this may be reason enough to choose Chapter 13.

 

Chapter 7 Prevents Judgment Liens on Your Home

November 13th, 2017 at 8:00 am

Filing a Chapter 7 case stops foreclosure of your home temporarily, helping you gather funds for your transition to your next housing. 


Recently we went through a list of ways Chapter 7 buys you time when dealing with debts affecting your home. Included was that filing a Chapter 7 case can “stop a lawsuit from turning into a judgment lien.” That judgment lien could turn a debt that you wouldn’t have to pay after bankruptcy into one you would. That’s certainly a result you want to avoid.

Some judgment liens against your home can be “avoided”—or undone– in bankruptcy. Then maybe you wouldn’t have to pay the underlying debt. But some judgment liens can’t be “avoided.” The debt behind such a lien would therefore have to be paid, even after filing bankruptcy. Again, that’s a result you really want to avoid.

In those situations filing a Chapter 7 case before there’s a judgment usually prevents that bad result. Let’s dig into this more to better understand it.

Lawsuits by Conventional Creditors

If you’re thinking about bankruptcy the judgments you mostly likely need to be worrying about are those by creditors. By “creditors” we mean conventional ones like those you might owe for credit cards, medical bills, a repossessed vehicle, personal loans, and such.

Lawsuits by such creditors often don’t leave you with much defense. You concede owing the money you’ve contracted to pay, haven’t paid, so usually (but not always) you have no defense. The creditor will get a judgment by default against you if you don’t respond to the lawsuit in time.

Less Conventional Creditors

But you might also be involved in other kinds of legal disputes potentially resulting in a judgment against you. That could arise from just about anything. A few examples would be:

  • a vehicle accident with a dispute about fault, damages, or insurance coverage
  • an injury to someone on your property that for some reason isn’t covered by your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance
  • a disagreement with a contractor or other service provider on repairs to your home
  • a dispute with family members about the proceeds of a deceased relative’s estate
  • a disagreement with your business’ investor, co-founder, employee, supplier, or its commercial landlord

It’s not unusual for people involved in such disputes to file bankruptcy if such litigation is not going well. They have much financially riding on wining the lawsuit. Then when it becomes clear that’s not happening they desparately need to cut their losses.

Filing Bankruptcy Prevents a Judgment against You

Whether with conventional creditor lawsuits or these other kinds of disputes, the timing of your bankruptcy filing is crucial. It has to be filed in time to prevent the lawsuit from turning into a judgment, and then into a judgment lien against your home.

So when dealing with a conventional creditor lawsuit, your bankruptcy lawyer generally needs to file your Chapter 7 case in bankruptcy court before your deadline to file the formal answer to the creditor’s complaint in the state court. (There are also likely other more expensive ways to prevent a default judgment from being entered against you.)

When dealing with ongoing litigation, talk with your lawyer about when you’d have to file bankruptcy to prevent entry of a judgment.

Judgments and Judgment Liens

State laws differ about what it takes for a creditor who gets a judgment against you to turn that into a judgment lien against your home. This may take an extra procedure. Or it may happen simultaneously with the court’s entry of the judgment. Again, talk with your lawyer. But in most situations, the judgment lien can happen very fast after the judgment, if not at the same time. So, for practical purposes, you’re going to want to file bankruptcy before the entry of the judgment.

Next: Avoidable vs. Unavoidable Judgment Liens

If you already have a judgment lien against your home, don’t despair. As we said in the first couple paragraphs, bankruptcy allows you to “avoid” some judgment liens against your home. In our next blog post we’ll distinguish between judgments that can and can’t be “avoided”—or undone—in bankruptcy.

 

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