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Can I Keep My Car if I File for a Texas Bankruptcy?

February 28th, 2020 at 10:10 pm

bankruptcyFor most people in the United States, owning a vehicle is a necessity that allows them to get to work, go to school or even just go about their daily lives. Because of this, those who are struggling to make car payments or who are aiming to file for bankruptcy tend to be worried about whether or not they can keep their vehicle. For most people, keeping your vehicle after a Texas bankruptcy is entirely possible, though it depends on whether or not you are still making payments on your car and what type of bankruptcy you file.

Understanding Secured Debt

The first thing you should understand is that your car loan is a secured debt, which is unlike other types of debt such as credit card debt. A secured debt is one that is backed by physical property used as collateral, such as a vehicle. If you stop paying on your secured debt, your lender has the right to repossess your property.

If you file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you must include all of your assets and debts, including your vehicle, even if you plan to still make payments after the bankruptcy. If you file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you can continue to make payments under your current plan, include your car payment into your monthly bankruptcy payments or work out a “cramdown” agreement which allows you to keep your vehicle.

Options for Dealing with Your Vehicle

For the most part, there are three choices when it comes to dealing with your vehicle during your bankruptcy: you can stop making payments on your vehicle, sign a reaffirmation agreement or you can redeem your car.

If you take no actions on your car loan when you file for bankruptcy, you are technically relieved of your obligation to repay your car loan afterward, but bankruptcy cannot remove the right of the lender to repossess your property. So, if you stop making payments on your car after your bankruptcy, you will lose your vehicle.

You can keep your vehicle if you either reaffirm or redeem your car. Reaffirming your car is basically just resigning a loan agreement to keep paying off the remaining balance of your auto loan. Typically, the terms of the reaffirmation agreement are the same as the terms of your original loan unless you can renegotiate better terms, such as a better interest rate.

Redeeming your vehicle will also allow you to keep it and is an especially attractive option for those who owe more on their car loan than what their vehicle is worth. Redeeming your vehicle allows you to purchase your car outright for the current retail value, though it can be difficult for some to come up with a large amount of money all at once.

A Boerne, TX Bankruptcy Attorney Can Help You Keep Your Vehicle

If you are filing for a Texas bankruptcy and you are concerned about whether or not you will be able to keep your vehicle, the best thing to do is to contact a knowledgeable San Antonio, TX bankruptcy lawyer. At the Law Offices of Chance M. McGhee, we can help you understand your rights when it comes to bankruptcy exemptions and your vehicle. Call our office today at 210-342-3400 to schedule a free consultation.




Bankruptcy May Strip Off a Junior Mortgage

August 12th, 2019 at 7:00 am


Do you have a second or third mortgage on your home? Imagine if you could stop paying that monthly mortgage payment. Imagine over the course of the next 3 to 5 years paying only as much as you could readily afford to pay on the balance of that mortgage. This is often only a small portion of the mortgage balance. Or, if over that time you could afford to pay nothing, you’d likely pay nothing on that mortgage balance. Then at the end of that time, whatever you couldn’t pay would get completely written off.  That’s what happens in a second or third mortgage strip under Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

Qualifying to Strip Your Second or Third Mortgage

The economic environment that is most likely to result in stripping mortgages is one of declining or static home prices. That’s not currently the situation in most parts of the country. Yet, given the huge potential advantages, it’s still worth looking to see if you qualify.

To qualify, your home can’t be worth more than the value of the liens legally ahead of the mortgage being stripped. You want to strip your second mortgage? Your home’s value can’t be more than the sum of first mortgage’s balance plus any other senior liens. Examples of liens possibly senior to the second mortgage: unpaid property taxes, an income tax lien, a homeowner association assessment.

For example, let’s say a home is worth $200,000 and the first mortgage balance is $197,500. You have a second mortgage of $20,000. But say you are also behind on property taxes totaling $4,000. By law the lien on that property tax usually legally comes ahead of the mortgages. So the liens ahead of the second mortgage—$4,000 plus $197,500—total $202,500. That’s more than the $200,000 that the home is worth. The $20,000 second mortgage could likely be stripped.

How Mortgage Stripping Works

Procedures can vary. There is a place in your Chapter 13 plan where your bankruptcy lawyer indicates you are stripping a mortgage. See question 3.2 in the official Chapter 13 Plan form. In most bankruptcy courts your lawyer will also file a motion to strip the mortgage. He or she may instead need to file a more formal adversary proceeding—a specialized bankruptcy lawsuit. The primary issue in all of these procedures is usually the true value of the home. Other pertinent facts are the accurate balances and legal order of the prior liens.

Once those facts are determined, either by consent or the judge’s ruling based on the evidence, it becomes clear whether the mortgage at issue can be stripped. If it can, the mortgage debt turns from one secured by your home into a completely unsecured debt. That allows you to stop making the mortgage payments on the stripped (second or third) mortgage.

How Much the Stripped Unsecured Mortgage Gets Paid

Once the mortgage balance becomes unsecured, you pay it to the same extent as all your other general unsecured debts. As mentioned above, that is often not very much, and may even be nothing.

How much depends usually on what you can afford to pay on these lowest priority debts. That’s called your disposable income—your net income minus reasonable expenses.

However, often much of your disposable income goes elsewhere, not to your general unsecured debts. Other debts are considered legally more important—such as catching up on a first mortgage, vehicle loan, child or spousal support, or income taxes. These secured or priority debts usually get paid in full before anything goes to the general unsecured debts. If all of your disposable income goes to pay secured and priority debts (plus trustee and attorney fees), then there may be nothing left for the general unsecured debts. If so, you may pay nothing on your stripped mortgage balance.

Why You Usually Don’t Pay Any More on General Unsecured Debts

What if you do have some money left over during your 3-to-5-year plan to pay towards your general unsecured debts? This is important: you likely won’t end up paying any more on these unsecured debts if you strip a mortgage.  That’s because usually you have only a set amount of money available for all the general unsecured debts. Remember, that’s based on what you can afford to pay, minus what goes to higher priority debts and fees. That set amount of money just gets divided up among an additional unsecured debt—your stripped mortgage balance.

Example: You have $50,000 in general unsecured debts. You can afford to pay a total of $5,000 towards those debts during your 3-year plan. That’s a 10% payout. Now you strip a $20,000 second mortgage, so now your total general unsecured debt balance is $70,000. Your other circumstances haven’t changed, so you still can afford to pay $5,000 towards your unsecured debts. That money is just spread out over more debt (resulting in about 7% payout on them).

The result is that in this example you’d pay about 7% on your stripped mortgage, or about $1,400 of the $20,000. More importantly, you wouldn’t pay a dime more to complete your case than if you didn’t have that stripped mortgage. Then at your Chapter 13 case’s completion, the remaining mortgage balance would be wiped clean and the mortgage’s lien wiped off your home’s title.  


Your Debts in Bankruptcy

February 4th, 2019 at 8:00 am

Bankruptcy is about debts. Different categories of debts are treated differently. The categories are secured, priority and general unsecured 

Your debts are the reason you are reading this. You want to know how bankruptcy would deal with your debts.

  • Will bankruptcy write off all your debts?
  • Can you keep paying some of your debts like a vehicle loan or home mortgage to keep that vehicle or home?
  • What happens to special debts that you can’t write off like child support and some income taxes?

To answer these and other similar questions we start by getting to know the 3 legally different categories of debts: 

  • secured
  • priority
  • general unsecured

Your rights and obligations, and those of the creditor, are different with each category of debt.

Secured Debts

Each of your debts is either secured by something you own or it is not. A secured debt is backed up by a lien, a legal interest of the creditor in some kind of property of yours. See Section 101(37) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Usually you know whether a debt is secured. For example, in a vehicle loan the vehicle’s title states that your lender is the lienholder. That lien on the title makes the loan secured by the vehicle. That, together with the security agreement you signed, gives the lender certain rights over your vehicle.

Sometimes you don’t know whether a debt is secured. For example, most purchases on major credit cards create a debt that is not secured by whatever you purchased. But some card purchases—such as on some retail store affiliated cards—do create a secured debt. The paperwork that came with your card (which you’ve likely thrown away!) should tell you. Your bankruptcy lawyer will also likely know, or can find out.

Occasionally, a creditor wanted the debt to be secured but it isn’t because the creditor messed up. It didn’t take the legal steps required to make that happen. This could mean that you don’t have to pay the underlying debt and still get to keep the property at issue.

A debt could also be only partially secured. If you owe $10,000 on a vehicle worth only $6,000, the debt is partially secured. It’s secured as to the $6,000 value of the vehicle and unsecured as to the remaining $4,000 of the debt. (See Section 506 of the Bankruptcy Code.) In the right circumstances you would not need to pay the full $10,000 debt and could still keep the vehicle.

Priority Debts

The law has selected some debts to be treated better than others, each for certain specific reasons. For example, child support payments are given many advantages, both inside and outside bankruptcy, because legislatures have decided that paying child support is an extremely high societal priority.

Priority debts are themselves prioritized within their different types. The higher-priority priority debts are treated better than the lower-priority one. Here’s a list of the most common priority debts for consumers or small business owners in order of priority:

  • child and spousal support
  • certain wages and other compensation owed to a debtor’s employees
  • certain (usually more recent) income taxes, and some other kinds of taxes

Priority debts are important in bankruptcy for a practical reason. Often only certain debts get paid, or get paid more than other debts. So a priority debt may get paid in full while other debts get paid little or nothing. We’ll explore how this works in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 in our upcoming blog posts.

General Unsecured Debts

All debts that are not secured are unsecured debts.  “General” unsecured debts are just unsecured debts that are also not priority debts. So if a debt is not secured and does not fit any of the priority debt types, it’s general unsecured.  

Most people considering bankruptcy have mostly (and sometimes only) general unsecured debts. These include every possible way you can owe a debt. Examples include: most credit cards, just about all medical debts, personal loans without collateral, NSF checks, payday loans without collateral, unpaid rent and utilities, older income taxes, repossessed vehicle balances, most student loans, and other contract or legal claims against you.

Previously secured debts sometimes become general unsecured ones. One example: after a vehicle gets repossessed and sold, any remaining debt is a general unsecured one. Also, previously unsecured debts sometimes get secured. A general unsecured credit card balance can become secured by your home if the creditor sues you, gets a judgment, and records a judgment lien against your home.


Starting next week we’ll show how these different categories of debts are treated in bankruptcy.


A Creditor Challenge to the Automatic Stay

February 19th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Filing bankruptcy stops creditors’ collections against you immediately. But sometimes a creditor tries to get permission to collect anyway. 


In our last 10 blog posts we’ve been talking about the “automatic stay.” It is one of the most important and immediate benefits of bankruptcy. The automatic stay stops most kinds of creditor attempts to collect their debts against you, your income, and your assets.

We’ve been looking at the relatively few special situations where the automatic stay protection does not apply. (Examples have included certain family court debts and proceedings, and some tax procedures.)

Today we focus in on how creditors can react to bankruptcy’s automatic stay. Creditors can sometimes challenge whether the automatic stay remains in effect or not, or whether conditions apply to its protection.

Creditor Challenges to the Automatic Stay

When you think of “relief” in bankruptcy what comes to mind is relief from your creditors. At the heart of the bankruptcy petition are the words, “I request relief.” (See page 6 just above the signature line of Official Form 101.)

But the meaning of “relief” when used in this phrase, “relief from the automatic stay,” the meaning is very different. This phrase refers a creditor’s “relief” from the protection that the automatic stay gives you. A creditor challenges your right to that protection by asking the bankruptcy court for “relief from the automatic stay” (or simply “relief from stay”).  

This might also be referred to as a creditor’s motion to lift the automatic stay injunction.

Most Creditors Don’t Ask for Relief from Stay

Creditors get relief from stay only if they qualify under certain circumstances laid out in the law. (See Section 362(d) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about creditor requests for “relief from the stay.”)

So don’t be concerned that all or many of your creditors will try to take this protection away from you.

Most Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” cases are completed without ANY creditor trying to do so. They do happen but often don’t change the outcome.

These challenges are more common in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.” That’s because these kinds of case last much longer, and often involve changes to the payment terms of secured debts, resulting in more opportunities for negotiations and legal wrangling. Still this usually only involves one or two creditors. And even in Chapter 13 there are many cases with no such challenges.

Secured Creditors Requesting Relief from Stay

Most creditors which ask for relief from stay do so to get permission to take back collateral. Or often their goal is to put conditions on the automatic stay to encourage you to keep making payments on the collateral-secured debt. Here’s an example.

  • You file a Chapter 7 case when you are 2 payments behind on a vehicle loan. You want to keep this vehicle and have said so in your bankruptcy paperwork. Because of your payment history the lender files a motion for relief from the automatic stay. It wants to push you to catch up on those late payments quickly. It also wants court permission to repossess the vehicle if you don’t make those payments or fall behind later. The lender and you and your bankruptcy lawyer enter into negotiations. If necessary the issue goes to the bankruptcy judge for a decision. Usually the result is a negotiated agreement on the terms for catching up and keeping current on the payments. If you don’t comply you would likely quickly lose the automatic stay protection and lose your vehicle. If you comply you keep your vehicle.

Other Creditors Requesting Relief from Stay

Much less common, but sometimes a creditor without a secured debt has reason to ask for relief from stay. Here’s an example.

  • You file a Chapter 13 case right after being served with an eviction lawsuit by your residential landlord. The automatic stay stops the eviction. Your Chapter 13 payment plan shows how you will catch up on the unpaid rent payments and keep current thereafter. The landlord wants to proceed with the eviction. Most likely the automatic stay will continue in effect and stop the eviction as long as your payment plan does show how you’ll comply with the rental agreement, and then you in fact do what your plan says you will.  


Treatment of Different Types of Creditors in Chapter 13

July 26th, 2017 at 7:00 am

The laws about the treatment of different types of creditors can often be used in your favor to pay who you want or need to pay. 

Your Chapter 13 payment plan has to treat debts that are legally the same type of debts essentially the same way. But your plan can and must treat different types of debts quite differently. The laws related to this can be used to your advantage in many, many ways. Today we begin showing how this works with each of the three major types of debts.

Secured Debts

A secured debt is one which is legally tied to something you own. The secured creditor has rights against that property you own. Those rights usually include to repossess or foreclose on the property if you don’t pay the debt.

For example, your home mortgage(s), unpaid property taxes, judgments with liens on your home, income tax liens can all be debts secured against your home. And your vehicle loan is secured against your vehicle.

Debts may be secured because you directly agreed to make them secured, like a vehicle loan. But debts can also be secured involuntarily by certain creditors in certain circumstances. An involuntary example is an income tax lien on your home.

Secured creditors have rights against whatever property of yours secures their debt. That gives them leverage in a Chapter 13 case if you want to keep that property. You usually have to pay part or all of the debt to keep the property.

If you want to keep the property securing the debt, and it’s something reasonably necessary for you to keep (like your primary vehicle or your home), that creditor leverage actually helps you. It usually allows you to favor that creditor over most of your other creditors.  This means that you can pay your secured debt ahead of or instead of most other debts.

For example, you would usually be allowed to catch up on a vehicle loan in your Chapter 13 plan ahead of paying your unsecured credit cards. Often as a result your vehicle loan gets paid in full while your credit cards get only partially paid. Sometimes the credit cards (and other such unsecured debts) get nothing at all.

Priority Debts

Priority debts are simply those which the law has determine are worthy of more favored treatment over other debts. Each type of priority debt has a particular reason for being treated specially.

Some of the most common and important priority debts for consumers are child and spousal support and recent income taxes. Support obligations are treated as special because of the hardship nonpayment tends to cause. Taxes are treated as special because their nonpayment hurts everyone.

In a Chapter 13 payment plan, you must pay priority debts in full before paying other unsecured creditors anything. As with secured debts, you usually want and need to pay your priority debts. You may well have decided to file a Chapter 13 case because you are protected while paying your priority debt(s).

As with secured debts, being required to pay your priority debt(s) ahead of other unsecured debts means those other debts get less, and sometimes nothing. You are essentially paying the priority debts to the detriment of your other debts.

General Unsecured Debts

This third type includes everything else. These are debts that have no rights to anything you own, and are not on the list of priority debts.

A Chapter 13 plan may pay general unsecured debts anything from 0% of what you owe them to 100%, depending on the circumstances. How much you pay your general unsecured debts depends on many factors. Broadly speaking, these debts get paid whatever is left over after you pay the secured and priority debts.

Limited Flexibility 

In Chapter 13 you and your bankruptcy lawyer have to follow a detailed set of rules about treatment of creditors. But those rules come with a certain amount of flexibility. The rules give structure to a Chapter 13 plan. The flexibility can help make it work to fit your unique personal circumstances.

We’ll show specific ways that these somewhat flexible rules can help you in our next few blog posts.


Statutory Liens in Chapter 7

January 18th, 2017 at 8:00 am

Statutory liens survive bankruptcy. Chapter 7 may still be able to help in various ways and be your best solution.  


In our last blog post we introduced statutory liens as a less common but still potentially important kind of lien. A statutory lien on your home is one that is usually imposed on your home without court action. It’s imposed when you meet certain conditions specified in a written law—a statute. The most common examples are income tax liens, contractor and mechanic’s liens, and homeowners’ association liens.

The most important practical concern about statutory liens is that they cannot be removed from your home in bankruptcy like judgment liens often can. Nevertheless, bankruptcy can often help solve your financial problems if you have a statutory lien. Today we show how that can happen under Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy,” tomorrow in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

Chapter 7 Discharge of Personal Liability

Although Chapter 7 does not remove a statutory lien, it may take away your personal liability on the underlying debt. Bankruptcy may “discharge” the debt. This is an important and possibly confusing distinction.

There’s the debt—your personal liability to pay the money owed. And then there’s the lien on your home imposed because you didn’t pay the debt.

Some debts that result in statutory liens can be discharged and some cannot. It depends on the type of debt and often the circumstances of each case.

With income taxes, you can discharge the tax debt if it meets certain conditions, usually based on its age. But you can’t discharge more recent income taxes.

You can usually discharge debts underlying contractor/mechanic’s liens for work done on or materials supplied for your home. But sometimes the contractor or supplier might try to challenge the discharge based on allegation of fraud or misrepresentation.

Bankruptcy may discharge homeowners’ association fees and assessments, but they continue to be assessed as long as you own the property, even after you file your Chapter 7 case. They present special issue which we’ll address in a separate upcoming blog post.

The Benefit of Discharge

If you can discharge the debt underlying your statutory lien, that may give you major advantages.

First, if you are surrendering your home, the lien stays on the home but your debt goes away.

Let’s say you put a huge amount of money into trying to fix up a fixer-upper home. That resulted in major bills to a couple subcontractors and suppliers. The house has turned into a major liability and you’re throwing in the towel, surrendering it to your mortgage lender.  You would likely be able to discharge those debts to the subcontractors and suppliers. The contractor/mechanic’s liens would stay with the surrendered house, and be out of your life.

Second, sometimes you can keep the home and the lien goes away, eventually.

Let’s say you owe an income tax that is old enough that it qualifies for discharge. But the IRS or state has recorded a tax lien. Also assume that your home is seriously underwater—the first mortgage is lots more than the home is worth. There is effectively no equity for the tax lien to attach to. After your Chapter 7 case discharges the underlying tax debt the tax lien survives. But the IRS/state may recognize that its lien has no equity backing it up. It may do nothing until the lien expires. The home may increase in value sufficiently in the meantime to give them more leverage. They may even try to enforce their lien in spite of the tax debt being gone. So be sure to talk with your bankruptcy lawyer directly about this.  

The Big Indirect Benefit of Chapter 7

You may not be willing to give up your home to get away from the statutory lien. You may not be able to discharge the underlying debt. Or either way you may need to pay to get rid of the lien regardless. That’s where the indirect benefit of Chapter 7 comes in. Sometimes it’s worth filing a Chapter 7 case to get rid of all or most of your other debts so that afterwards you can concentrate all your financial energy on one debt. It may make sense to file bankruptcy on your other debts so that you can pay the one with the statutory lien on your home. That may be best solution for your overall situation.


“Adequate Protection”

October 17th, 2016 at 7:00 am

To keep possession of your property that is collateral on a secured debt, you need to give the creditor “adequate protection.”


The Balancing of the Interests of Creditors and Debtors

Bankruptcy law attempts to balance the interests of debtors and creditors. That’s true as to how the law deals with debtors’ and creditors’ opposing interests as to the collateral on secured debts.

For example, once you file bankruptcy what does the law require you to do in order to keep your vehicle if you are behind on its payments and the creditor wants to repossess it? Or if you are many months behind on your home mortgage, how long do you have to catch up?

The “Automatic Stay” and “Adequate Protection”

In the balancing of the interests of debtors and creditors in these situations, both get certain kinds of protections. One major type of protection debtors receive is the “automatic stay.” That’s the part of bankruptcy law which stops a creditor from repossessing or foreclosing any collateral. It kicks in the moment you file a bankruptcy case. (See Section 362(a) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

“Adequate protection” relates to what you must do to be able to keep your vehicle or other property long-term. It’s the creditor that’s entitled to “adequate protection.” The term refers to conditions you must meet to keep the automatic stay in effect. To keep protecting your property through the automatic stay, you must provide “adequate protection” to the creditor. (See Section 361 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

These two protections are designed to balance out each other.

Why the Creditor is Entitled to “Adequate Protection”

One of the main principles of bankruptcy law is that debtors and creditors deserve to have their property rights respected. When it comes to secured debts, the original contract gave you a conditional right to possession of the collateral. You could keep possession as long as you made payments when due and kept up the insurance.

But that contract gives the creditor the right to repossess or foreclose if you don’t make payments on time. If you prevent the creditor from taking possession of the collateral by filing bankruptcy, you still have to satisfy its property rights. You do so by providing the creditor “adequate protection.”

What “Adequate Protection” Requires

The Bankruptcy Code says that “adequate protection… of an interest of [a creditor] in property” is “provided by… mak[ing]…  periodic cash payments to [the creditor] to the extent that the [automatic] stay… results in a decrease in the value of such [creditor’s] interest in such property.” Section 361(a).

What this means is that to maintain the automatic stay and keep collateral you just need to:

  • pay the creditor periodic (usually monthly) payments
  • in an amount large enough to at least offset any reduction of the creditor’s interest in the property while you keep the property

Payments to Offset the Decrease in the Value of Creditor’s Interest in the Property

This simply means that the payments need to be large enough to make up for depreciation of the collateral while you continue in possession of it.

For example, a vehicle loses value through the passage of time and you using the vehicle. Let’s assume that a $10,000 used vehicle is expected to depreciate by $1,200 to $8,800 in one year. That’s $100 per month. To provide adequate protection you would have to pay the creditor at least $100 per month.

Besides depreciation, owning and driving a vehicle creates a risk that it could be damaged or destroyed in an accident. There is also a risk it could be stolen. The creditor is entitled to protection from these potentially sudden decreases in the value of its collateral. So besides the $100 per month, adequate protection requires you to maintain insurance on the vehicle.

Adequate Protection Is Just One Requirement

Maintaining your adequate protection obligation to the creditor allows you to tread water. But most likely you don’t want to stay still but rather get ahead! You want to pay off your vehicle loan under a Chapter 7 “reaffirmation.” Or maybe you can get clean title to the vehicle for less in a Chapter 13 “cramdown.”

Meeting the adequate protection requirement enables you to keep the automatic stay protection intact.  But there’s a lot more to dealing favorably with your secured debts in bankruptcy. Our next few blog posts will get into terms pertaining to secured debts, such as “reaffirmation” and “cramdown,” and lots more.


Example of How Chapter 13 Handles a Creditor with a Disputed Lien

September 2nd, 2016 at 7:00 am

Here’s a scenario showing how Chapter 13 solves problems that Chapter 7 doesn’t solve in dealing with a creditor’s disputed lien. 

Our last blog post got into what happens when you don’t think a creditor has a legally enforceable lien in something you own. We explored some practical problems if you addressed this situation in a Chapter 7 case. Essentially, the creditor has a lot of leverage to make you pay the debt, even with a questionable lien. We showed how Chapter 13 elegantly takes that leverage away, minimizing what you pay on that debt.

That last blog post begged for an example how this all works. We’re giving you that here today.

Our Example

Imagine that a year ago you bought one of those laptop computers that fold into a tablet for $500.  You got it an electronics store where you had an account, and put the whole purchase price on that account. The previous balance had been $750 from the purchase of a variety of items over the previous couple years. Then during the 6 months after buying the computer you bought other minor items totaling $250. After making minimum monthly payments for most of the last year you now owe $1,300 on the account.

For unrelated reasons you now have serious debt problems and need bankruptcy relief.

The Questionable Lien

So you meet with a competent bankruptcy lawyer who carefully reviews your situation with you.  You are left with the conclusion that both a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” would greatly help, and you are trying to decide which way to go.

After this first meeting the lawyer reviews your paperwork from the electronics store. He or she informs you that the store arguably does not have a lien on anything you bought there. That includes your only significant purchase there, the laptop/tablet. The paperwork shows that the store likely intended to create a lien in the items purchased but did not seem to follow the legally required steps to do so.  In other words, the store would likely assert that it has a right to repossess the laptop/tablet, but there’s a good chance your lawyer could persuade a court that it does not have that right.

What Would Happen under Chapter 7

Your lawyer informs you that this situation causes some practical problems under Chapter 7. The store could try to enforce a lien against the laptop/tablet and whatever else you purchased. Your bankruptcy documents would have asserted that no valid lien attaches to this debt. But the store could instead demand that you pay the $1,300 debt to be allowed to keep what you bought.

Your lawyer would counter by arguing on your behalf that:

  • The store did not have a valid lien on anything that you had purchased.
  • Even if there was a lien, the only item sensibly worth repossessing and reselling was the laptop/tablet.  
  • But even that had greatly depreciated in value because electronics become quickly obsolete and are hard to resell.

So with your prior permission your lawyer would offer a compromise: you’d pay $100 to keep the computer. That’s sensible because the store would not likely get any more for it, especially after accounting for its resale costs.

But the store may dig in its heels. It may sensibly figure that the computer is worth a lot more than $100 to you.  Over the last year you may indeed have gotten really comfortable with it and now greatly rely on it. So the store could threaten to ask for a bankruptcy court determination that the lien is valid and, if successful, would repossess the computer, unless you agreed to pay the entire debt of $1,300 in monthly payments.

Your lawyer would inform you that you have a better than even chance of persuading the court there’s no valid lien. But the litigation to get there would cost you at least $1,000. So, because you really do need the laptop/tablet, you’d agree to settle the dispute by making monthly payments totaling some compromise amount, say $750.

The Chapter 13 Solution

But paying $750 is not a very satisfying result if the store really doesn’t have a legal right to anything you bought. So, to avoid the above scenario, on your lawyer’s advice you decide to file a Chapter 13 case instead.  You had other unrelated reasons to do so, but this store debt helped swing your decision in that direction.

So, you and your bankruptcy lawyer list the store’s debt as unsecured in Schedule F. Your Chapter 13 payment plan treats the debt accordingly.

One of two things then happens.

If the Store Objects

The store may object to it being treated as an unsecured creditor. If it does, and does so before the “confirmation hearing” (which is about two months after you file your case), there’s a streamlined court procedure for determining whether or not the store has a valid lien in what you purchased.

If the bankruptcy judge determines there’s no lien, the debt is treated as an unsecured debt just as you’d proposed.

This means that you pay only as much of the $1,300 balance as you can afford to pay during the length of the case. That’s after reasonable living expenses plus after first paying other debts that legally have higher priority. Often you would pay only pennies on the dollar; sometimes you would pay nothing of that $1,300. Then after you finish your Chapter 13 case the court permanently writes off whatever you haven’t paid.

This all assumes that the store files a proof of claim on time. If it doesn’t do so within a deadline about 4 months after your case is filed, it’s paid nothing. Then the entire debt is written off at the end of your case.

But what if early in the case the court instead determines that the store DOES have a valid lien? Then you’d have to pay a portion of that $1,300 as a secured debt in your Chapter 13 plan. That portion is determined by the fair market value of whatever the lien attaches to. Here the only item of meaningful value is the laptop/tablet. Although there would likely be some dickering about the appropriate dollar value, the store would not likely be able to establish that it’s worth more than about $150. So you would pay that amount over time in your plan. The rest of the debt—$1,150—would be treated as an unsecured debt, as discussed above.

If the Store Doesn’t Object

It’s not unusual for a creditor in the position of the store to simply not object to be treated as unsecured. Why would such a creditor just stay silent?

Because it knows that it has so much less leverage under Chapter 13 than under Chapter 7. It knows that you and your lawyer have a relatively inexpensive way to establish that its lien isn’t valid. It knows that even if it has a lien, its debt’s secured portion is going to be small. Depending on the case, even without objecting the store knows it will be paid something as an unsecured creditor (as long as it files a timely proof of claim). So any additional money the store would get by objecting would not likely justify its costs in doing so.

If the store doesn’t object by the time of the “confirmation hearing,” its debt is treated as unsecured. If it also doesn’t file a proof of claim by the deadline (about 4 months after filing), you pay it nothing in the Chapter 13 case. And the entire debt is permanently written off.

If the store doesn’t object but it does file a proof of claim for the $1,300 debt, the entire debt will be treated as unsecured. So you pay only what you can afford during the case (if any), and the rest is permanently written off.


Chapter 13 gives you so much more leverage in this situation than under Chapter 7. For a bunch of practical reasons the debt would more likely be treated as an unsecured one. If the lien is found to be valid you will much more likely be able to pay a relatively modest amount to keep your property. So, especially in a situation in which you are paying a small portion or nothing of your unsecured debts, Chapter 13 may well be the way to go if you have a disputed lien.


Surrendering a Vehicle in a Chapter 13 Case

August 22nd, 2016 at 7:00 am

Chapter 13 gives you powerful ways to hold onto a vehicle, but it also lets you give up that vehicle without paying its debt.  

Our last several blog posts have been about situations in which secured debts can be turned into unsecured debts. They’ve all been about how this can happen in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” But how about in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case?

Today we’ll start a series of blog post about secured debts turning into unsecured ones under Chapter 13.  We start with surrendering a vehicle, how that’s done, and why that might be better, or at least usually no worse, in a Chapter 13 case.

Avoiding a “Deficiency Balance” through Bankruptcy Discharge

You have a major advantage in surrendering your vehicle to the vehicle lender when filing bankruptcy. That advantage is that you get to legally and permanently write off—“discharge”—whatever balance you owe—the “deficiency balance.” Without a bankruptcy discharge you would have to pay that “deficiency balance” after giving up your vehicle.

The “deficiency balance” is the amount you owe on your vehicle loan after your lender credits to your account the proceeds of the sale of your surrendered vehicle and debits the costs of that sale. This “deficiency balance” is usually much more than you expect. That’s because your lender tends to sell the vehicle at an auto auction for much less than you’d expect. And the expenses of the sale pile up more than you’d expect—auction fees, storage fees, extra late charges, etc.

The end result is that even when you think your vehicle is worth about what you owe, you could still end owing thousands of dollars of a “deficiency balance” after surrendering your vehicle.

Disadvantages under Chapter 13

If you give your vehicle up to your lender in a Chapter 7 case, the “deficiency balance” will be discharged quickly—usually only about 3 months after you file your case. In contrast, in a Chapter 13 case the discharge only happens at the end of the payment plan. That’s almost always between 3 to 5 YEARS after you file the case. The vehicle lender can’t try to collect the debt in the meantime. But during this time while this debt is in limbo at the very least you delay getting a fresh start on your credit record.

Also, the discharge of the “deficiency balance” doesn’t occur AT ALL unless you successfully complete the Chapter 13 payment plan. For countless reasons debtors do not successfully complete a certain percentage of Chapter 13 cases. So there’s this risk to contend with.

Lastly, in a Chapter 13 case most of the time you pay the “general unsecured” debts a certain percentage of the total owed. A “deficiency balance” would be one of your “general unsecured” debts. Why pay something on that debt when you don’t pay anything in a Chapter 7 case?

If You Need Chapter 13 for Other Reasons

In spite of these seeming disadvantages, Chapter 13 would still be better for you in many circumstances.

First, you may have major reasons to file a Chapter 13 case nothing to do with your vehicle loan. It may enable you to save your home. It may give you the best way to deal with a huge amount of income taxes you owe. There are many other potential reasons to file a Chapter 13 case. Dealing with your vehicle debt may be a minor issue in the big picture.

Big Timing Advantages

Second, Chapter 13 gives you a great timing advantage that Chapter 7 simply can’t give you. It lets you try to keep your vehicle and then decide to surrender it later. Down the line you may not be able to afford to pay for the vehicle after all. Months or even a couple years after filing your case your income may go down or expenses may go up. The vehicle may turn into a “lemon,” or need too many expensive repairs. It may get into an accident. You may no longer need the vehicle as much or may be able to get a less expensive one.

Pretty much at any point in your 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 case you can decide to surrender your vehicle. At that point any “deficiency balance” becomes part of your “general unsecured” debts. It gets discharged at the end of your case.

The longer you wait more the more likely the “deficiency balance” will be less, because you will have paid off more of the vehicle debt. Still it’s a significant advantage to be able to hedge your bets somewhat by being able to surrender later.

Usually You Don’t Pay Anything More under Chapter 13 Because of the “Deficiency Balance”

We raised the question above, why pay anything on the “deficiency balance” under Chapter 13 when you can pay nothing under Chapter 7? One answer is that in practical terms you usually don’t pay anything more in your Chapter 13 case if you owe a “deficiency balance.”

How can that be when usually a Chapter 13 case pays at least some percentage of the “general unsecured” debts?

First, in SOME cases the debtor pays NONE of the “general unsecured” debts, 0% of the amount due.

Second, in MOST cases the debtor ends up paying a fixed amount into the pool of “general unsecured” debts. That fixed amount is a based on how much the debtor can afford to pay all of his or her debts during the period of time the case lasts. Some of the money usually goes first to other legally more important debts. The amount left over is divided pro rata among all the “general unsecured” debts, including the “deficiency balance.” The existence of the “deficiency balance” does not change the amount the debtor pays towards the “general unsecured” debts. It only changes who gets paid how much within that pool.


For all these reasons, it makes sense to surrender a vehicle to its lender in a Chapter 13 case.

When a Creditor Does Not Have an Enforceable Lien

August 19th, 2016 at 7:00 am

For a debt to be secured, the creditor has to go through the right legal steps. Otherwise you don’t have to pay the debt.


Expressing Your Intentions with Your Secured Debts

When you file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case you list all your debts on the bankruptcy court documents. You separately list secured and unsecured ones. A secured debts is one in which the creditor has a lien on an asset you own. For example, a vehicle loan is a secured debt in which the lender is a lienholder on your vehicle’s title.

As to each of your secured debts, you inform the creditor whether you intend to keep the asset or not. If you intend to keep it, you also state what you intend to do with the debt. For example, with a vehicle loan, if you state that you intend to keep the vehicle you would likely also state that you intend to “reaffirm” the debt—that is, pay the debt under its usual terms in order to be able to keep the vehicle.

These disclosures are done through the “Chapter 7 Individual Debtor’s Statement of Intention” form. Your lawyer will help you complete it; after you sign it copies are mailed to your creditors and it’s filed at the bankruptcy court.

What It Takes for a Debt to Be Legally Secured

Creditors must take certain legal steps to create a legally enforceable lien in something you purchase or in something you already owed. Those legal steps are determined by state laws, which tend to be similar from state to state. But they can differ a lot in the details.

Those legal steps vary a lot among different kinds of collateral. Let’s go back to our example of a lender’s lien on a vehicle. The paperwork and procedure to create a lien on a vehicle title is completely different from the paperwork and procedure that your home mortgage lender used to create a lien on your home. And those are completely different from how a furniture store creates a lien on what you buy there.

If a Creditor Doesn’t Go Through the Legal Steps

It’s usually the creditor’s job to do what is necessary to create a lien on what you are buying or on what you are providing as collateral. After all, the creditor is the one who wants the extra leverage against you. You’ll more likely pay a debt it it’s backed up by a lien on something you need or want. And if you don’t pay, the creditor will at least be able to repossess or foreclose on the collateral to get back some of the money it lent.

For countless reasons creditors don’t always go through the legally necessary steps. If not, what happens to that debt in a Chapter 7 case?  

Debts Unexpectedly Not Secured

As mentioned above, there are different procedures for creating liens for different kinds of collateral. Those procedures differ in sometimes crucial details from state to state, and those state laws change over time. Notwithstanding these challenges, you’d think creditors would keep on top of this given how important it would be for them. But they don’t always know the laws as well as you’d think. Or even if their official procedures are appropriate, their employees don’t always follow those procedures perfectly. Creditors can mess up.

As a result when you file a bankruptcy case it’s smart to find out whether debts that you think are secured really are. The difference can be huge. Simply put, it can make the difference between having to pay a debt in full vs. paying nothing at all.

We’ll illustrate this with an example.

The Example

Assume that you bought your stove, refrigerator, clothes washer and drier at a local appliance store 18 months ago.  You and your family had moved into a rental home which didn’t have these appliances. You bought them all on credit for $3,000, financed on a contract through the store. You thought you remember hearing or reading somewhere that the store had a right to repossess what you bought if you didn’t pay off the contract. That would’ve meant that the store had a legally enforceable lien on the appliances to secure the debt you owed.

You didn’t have to make payments on the contract for the first 3 months (“90 days same as cash”). Then a high interest rate kicked in, and you made most of the relatively small payments. But then you didn’t pay the last couple payments, and now still owe $2,600.

You and your spouse have now filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case to get a fresh financial start.

Your family really needs these appliances. You have no spare cash with which to replace them, and no credit with which to do so. So you figure you’ll have to keep paying on the high interest contract until it’s paid off. With the low payments and high interest you’d probably end up paying close to $4,000 more on appliances that currently likely have a fair market value of no more than a combined $1,500. But you figure you really don’t have a choice.

The Store Contract Didn’t Actually Create a Secured Debt

However, your bankruptcy lawyer looks through the purchase contract and finds out that the store did not create a lien in the appliances. To create a lien, the contract needed to clearly state that it was doing so. But it did not. As a result, the debt is not legally secured by those appliances or by anything else you own. It’s an unsecured debt, one that can almost certainly be discharged—legally written off—without paying for the appliances.

So, instead of having to pay anything more on the appliances, much less the $4,000 or so that you thought you would, you pay nothing. And the appliances are yours to keep free and clear.


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