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Archive for the ‘automatic stay’ tag

The Surprising Benefits: Chapter 13 AFTER the Recording of an Income Tax Lien

August 13th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 13 protects you from a recorded tax lien in crucial ways, and can reduce how much you pay on the underlying dischargeable tax debt. 

 

Last week’s blog post was about dealing with a recorded tax lien by filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case.  Usually the IRS’ or state’s recording of a tax lien against you effectively requires you to pay the underlying tax. That’s true even if that tax otherwise qualifies for total discharge—legal write-off in bankruptcy. That’s because a recorded tax lien converts that tax debt from being unsecured to being fully secured by your property and possessions. You pay the tax—sooner or later—to avoid losing what you own.

When Chapter 7 Might Help

Last week we outlined some circumstances in which Chapter 7 might satisfactorily deal with a recorded tax lien. Those circumstances were when the tax lien either failed to apply to any assets you own or the assets were worth much less than the tax debt at issue. For example, the IRS/state may record a lien on your home which in the process of getting foreclosed. If you’re letting the house go then that tax lien has no leverage over you. Your Chapter 7 case would discharge the income tax debt and the subsequent home foreclosure would undo the tax lien.

But these situations are quite rare. Usually a recorded tax lien (or more than one) covers everything you own. Usually the value of your assets encumbered by the lien(s) well exceeds the amount of the tax at issue. Or even if your assets’ value is less than the tax(es) owed, you don’t want to lose those assets. So you have no choice but to pay the tax owed. That’s true even if that tax otherwise qualified to be fully discharged.

However, if filing a Chapter 7 case takes care of all your other debts, maybe that’s okay. It would have been better to file before the tax lien’s recording so you could have just discharged the tax. But if it’s too late for that, clearing the deck of all or most of your other debts so you can concentrate on the tax debt afterwards may be your best option.

When Chapter 13 Could Be Much Better

The last paragraph assumes you could afford to pay the tax covered by the tax lien. But what if after finishing your Chapter 7 case you still didn’t have enough money each month? The protection from creditor collections (the “automatic stay”) you get from filing bankruptcy disappears when the case is over. That’s only about 3-4 months after your bankruptcy lawyer files your Chapter 7 case. With the tax lien putting your assets at risk you’d have tremendous pressure on you to pay the tax. So if you couldn’t afford to pay as fast as the IRS/state would demand you’d have a serious problem.

Filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case could significantly help.

First, the automatic stay protection against the IRS/state usually lasts the 3 to 5 years that a Chapter 13 case takes to complete. That alone greatly reduces the constant tension of being at the mercy of the tax authorities. During the Chapter 13 case your assets that are encumbered by the lien are protected from seizure. And your income and other assets are protected from any other tax collection efforts.

Second, you usually have much more flexibility in your payoff of the underlying tax. You have much more control over the amount and timing of payments on the tax debt. Your monthly Chapter 13 plan payments are based on your realistic budget. In earmarking where the money from those payments goes you can often pay other even more urgent debts (such as catching up on a home mortgage or child suport) ahead of the tax debt. You can sometimes delay paying the tax until some future event, like the sale of your home or other asset.

When Chapter 13 Is Even Better

When the assets covered by the tax lien have no present value, Chapter 13 is particularly powerful.

Consider a tax lien on a home with no present equity beyond the prior liens. After a Chapter 7 case the IRS/state could just sit on that recorded tax lien until you built up equity in the home. You’d pay down the obligations and the property would rise in value until there was equity to cover the tax lien. The IRS/state would have huge leverage over you. But under Chapter 13 the bankruptcy judge would declare that there’s no present equity secured by the tax lien. The tax would effectively be unsecured—as if there was no tax lien. You’d lump that tax debt in with your general unsecured creditors. You would likely pay only a small portion of that tax debt. Often you would actually pay no more into your Chapter 13 payment plan as a result of that tax.

For example, assume you owed $10,000 in dischargeable income tax.  The IRS recently recorded a tax lien on your home for that tax. Your home is worth $250,000, has $5,000 in property taxes, $210,000 on a first mortgage and $40,000 on a second mortgage. Owing $255,000 you have no equity in the home. But as you pay down the property taxes and the mortgage, and assuming the property value increases, there’d soon be equity securing the tax lien. But Chapter 13 allows you to freeze the present equity situation. The tax lien presently does not cover any equity in your home, the tax debt is thus unsecured, and would be treated just like the rest of your unsecured debt. Adding the tax debt to your other unsecured debt would usually result in you paying no more than you would have otherwise.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Chapter 13 Stops the Recording of an Income Tax Lien

July 30th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 and 13 can both prevent the recording of a tax lien. But if the tax qualifies for discharge Chapter 7 is quicker and less risky. 

 

Last week we showed how detrimental the recording of an income tax lien can be for you. It can turn a tax that you could fully discharge (legally write off in bankruptcy) into one you’d have to fully pay. We showed how Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” could prevent recording of the tax lien and could discharge the tax.

How about a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case? Would filing one also stop an income tax lien recording?  If so, what would happen to that tax debt?

Chapter 13’s Automatic Stay

The filing of a Chapter 13 case stops the recording of a tax lien by the IRS or state just like a Chapter 7 would. Any voluntarily filed bankruptcy case by a person entitled to file that case imposes the “automatic stay” against almost all creditor collection activities against that person and his or her property. (See Sections 301 and 362(a)  of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) Those “stayed” or stopped activities specifically include “any act to create, perfect, or enforce” a lien. (See Section 362(a)(4) and (5).)

So filing under Chapter 13 stops a tax lien recording just as fast and just as well a Chapter 7 would.

But Would Chapter 13 Be Better than Chapter 7?

That depends. It depends at the outset on whether the tax is one that qualifies for discharge. If it does qualify (mostly by being old enough) then a Chapter 7 is actually often better.

Under Chapter 7 the automatic stay protection lasts only the 3-4 months that the case is active.  But that’s long enough since the discharge of the tax debt would happen just before the case was closed. Once the tax debt is discharged the IRS/state could no longer do anything to collect that tax. It would certainly have no further ability to record a tax lien on that tax.

What would happen in this situation under Chapter 13, with a tax debt that qualifies for discharge? It would get discharged like under Chapter 7, but with two big differences.

First, the discharge would happened not 3-4 months after case filing but usually 3 to 5 years later.  The automatic stay protection usually lasts throughout that time, preventing tax collection, including the recording of a tax lien. But that long period of time under Chapter 13 does create more opportunities for things to go wrong. That’s all the more true because throughout that time you have various obligations, such as to make monthly Chapter 13 plan payments. If for any reason you don’t successfully complete your Chapter 13 case, the otherwise dischargeable tax debt still won’t get discharged.

Second, under Chapter 13 you may have to pay part of the tax debt before it is discharged. This is in contrast to usually paying nothing on it under Chapter 7. (This assumes that you’d have a “no-asset” Chapter 7 case—in which all of your assets would be “exempt”, protected.) Whether  you’d pay anything on a dischargeable tax debt in a Chapter 13 case, and if so how much, depends on many factors, mostly the nature and amount of your other debts and your income and expenses. But why risk paying something on a tax debt under Chapter 13 if you wouldn’t have to pay anything under Chapter 7?

So Chapter 7 Is Usually Better at Dealing with a Dischargeable Tax Debt?

The answer is likely “yes” if you focus only on this one part of your financial life.

But you may have other reasons to file a Chapter 13 case. For example, you may owe a more recent income tax debt that does not qualify for discharge, in addition to the one that does qualify. Chapter 13 provides a number of significant advantages in dealing with the nondischargeable tax. These could make Chapter 13 much better for you overall.

Or you may have considerations nothing to do with taxes, such as being behind on a home mortgage, a vehicle loan, or child support. Chapter 13 gives you huge advantages with each of these kinds of debts. Your bankruptcy lawyer and you will sort out all the advantages and disadvantages of each legal option to choose the best one.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Stop Student Loan Collection

July 2nd, 2018 at 7:00 am

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” stops student loan collection actions for a few months. Sometimes it can stop these actions permanently. 

 

Bankruptcy gives you tools to deal with special debts—including those you can’t easily write off. Last week we got into income taxes. Today we discuss student loans, focusing on this special kind of debt in Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” Next week, we’ll cover student loans under Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

Let’s assume you owe a student loan that you can’t afford to pay. Here’s how Chapter 7 can help.

Student Loan Collection

Student loan creditors and collectors have extraordinary collection powers. Often they don’t need to sue you first and get a legal judgment against you, as most creditors must. These creditors and their collections have very aggressive collection procedures available to them. Besides the usual garnishment of bank accounts and paychecks, these special creditors can often grab your tax refund or a portion of a Social Security benefit check.

The “Automatic Stay” from a Chapter 7 Filing 

Student loans are special in a number of ways. However, just like ordinary debts, student loan collections are immediately stopped by the “automatic stay” imposed by your bankruptcy filing. It doesn’t matter whether or not the student loan would be discharged (written off) in your Chapter 7 case.

The “automatic stay” stops “any act to collect, assess, or recover a claim against the debtor.”  (Section 362(a)(6) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) (A “claim” is a “right to payment”—essentially, a debt. See Section 101(5).) More specifically, the “automatic stay” stops “the commencement or continuation…  of a[n]..  .   administrative…  proceeding against the debtor. (Section 362(a)(1).) “Administrative proceedings” include the non-judicial collection actions mentioned above that don’t include a lawsuit. The Chapter 7 filing also specifically stops “the setoff of any debt” owed to you, such as a tax refund or Social Security setoff. (Section 362(a)(7).)  So, filing bankruptcy stops all student loan collection actions.

This break from collections lasts throughout the 3-4 months that most consumer Chapter 7 cases take to finish. But unless you deal with the student loan appropriately in the meantime, after that its collection can continue.

Dischargeability of Student Loans

Bankruptcy permanently discharges some student loans. A dischargeable student loan must meet just one condition, albeit a tough and confusing condition. The student loan must cause you an “undue hardship.” As the Bankruptcy Code puts it, you can’t discharge a student loan unless that loan “would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.” (Section 523(a)(8).)

What does “undue hardship” mean? How much harder must it be than just a simple “hardship”?

You may feel like your student loans are causing you a great financial hardship. However, the federal courts have interpreted this phrase very narrowly.  The details are beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but just keep in mind this condition is challenging to meet.

During the Chapter 7 Break in Collections      

During the 3-4 months of your Chapter 7 case you want to take steps to make the temporary break in collections a permanent one. Here are three ways to accomplish this.

  • If you and your bankruptcy lawyer believe you meet the “undue hardship” condition, your bankruptcy lawyer would file an “adversary proceeding” during your Chapter 7 case. That’s a specialized lawsuit designed to determine whether you qualify for “undue hardship.” If you persuade the bankruptcy judge that you do, the student loan debt would be permanently discharged. Then the temporary break in collections would become permanent. There would be no more collection on a debt once you no longer legally owe it.
  • The bankruptcy judge may give you only a partial discharge of your student loan(s). In this situation the judge is determining that repaying all of the loan(s) would cause you an “undue hardship.” But paying back only a portion would not. So you’d make arrangements to pay the remaining student loan debt, probably at a reduced monthly payment. As long as you made the payments your student loan creditor would take no further collection action against you.
  • If you don’t qualify for a full or partial “undue hardship” discharge, your Chapter 7 case would still at least discharge all or most of your other debts. That should leave you better able to pay the remaining student loans. Hopefully you’d be in a position to make payment arrangements. This may be done through a payment-reduction program which are available for various student loans. If so, then your situation would hopefully be resolved by the end of your Chapter 7 case. Then, at the time that the automatic stay would expire you won’t be facing any more student loan collections.

Avoiding Default and Preserving Options

Even if you don’t qualify for “undue hardship,” the bankruptcy pause in collections can be extremely helpful. It could maybe even be critical. That’s because you can only qualify for most student loan workout programs before you are too far behind on payments. So filing a Chapter 7 case before you’ve fallen too far behind could allow you to take advantage of these programs. But if you waited too long you could lose out, and be seriously disadvantaged.

Conclusion

It’s really crucial to talk with an experienced bankruptcy lawyer about all this. Student loans are complicated and often very challenging to deal with. This is true both outside and inside bankruptcy. You need a lawyer on your side who deeply understands both bankruptcy law and student loans.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Stop Income Tax Collection

June 25th, 2018 at 7:00 am

Income tax debts can be handled in bankruptcy more than you think. This is true even with those taxes that are too new to be discharged. 

 

The Automatic Staying, and the Discharge, of Income Tax Debts

Sometimes people are surprised to learn that filing bankruptcy gives you power over income taxes. It does so in two big ways. First, filing bankruptcy stops the IRS and state from collecting your tax debts—either temporarily or permanently. This is the “automatic stay” applicable to pretty much all of your creditors. Second, bankruptcy permanently writes off (“discharges”) some income tax debts—generally older taxes.

If all the income taxes you owe qualify for discharge, then your situation is quite straightforward. You file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, which stops any ongoing tax collection during the case. Then 3-4 months later, near the end of the Chapter 7 case, your tax debt is discharged. The “automatic stay” protection against tax collection ends. But you no longer need to worry about tax collection because you no long owe any taxes.

Or if instead you file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case (for reasons other than the tax debt), there’s a similar result. The dischargeable income taxes are treated just like your other “general unsecured” debts. They only get paid to the extent you can afford to do so, if at all, during your case. Often, during the 3-5-year Chapter 13 payment plan most or all of your available money goes elsewhere. It goes towards priority debts like child/spousal support or more recent taxes. Or it goes to catch up on a home mortgage or vehicle loan payments. Regardless how much, if any, you pay on the dischargeable taxes, at the end of your case the rest is discharged. So, as with Chapter 7, you then owe no more on those taxes so you don’t need to worry about any more tax collection.

The Expiring Automatic Stay and Nondischargeable Income Taxes

But what happens if some or all of your income tax debts do not qualify for discharge?  The “automatic stay” does still go into effect as to those nondischargeable taxes. Your filing of a Chapter 7 case gives you a break from most collection actions of the IRS and/or state. If you are being garnished, that would stop. If the IRS/state was about to record a tax lien against your home, that would be prevented. If you are being pressured to enter into a monthly tax payment plan, that pressure would stop.

But this break from collection would not last long.  The “automatic stay” expires in a Chapter 7 case at “the time a discharge is granted.” (See Section 362(c)(2)(C) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about the expiration of the “automatic stay.”) In just about all consumer Chapter 7 cases the bankruptcy court grants the discharge only 3-4 months after case filing. So you get a break but not much of one.

So what do you do if you have income taxes that would not be discharged in a Chapter 7 case?

The Chapter 7 Solution

If you filed a Chapter 7 case, it may discharge enough of your other debts that you could afford to enter into a monthly installment payment plan with the IRS/state for the remaining tax debts. The discharged debts may include some older, dischargeable income taxes, leaving you with less tax liability to still pay.

If discharging other debts leaves you in a position to pay your remaining tax debts over time, you (or your lawyer) should contact the tax authority immediately after the discharge to make payment arrangements. It may make sense to make contact even earlier so that the IRS/state knows your intentions. Ask your bankruptcy lawyer about the best timing.

You might also qualify for a reduction in the surviving tax debt amount. The IRS has a procedure for “offers in compromise” to settle a tax debt by paying less than the full balance. Most states have similar procedures. These are somewhat complicated to go through. You should not enter into such an attempt without getting solid legal advice about your chances of being successful.  

The Chapter 13 Solution

Your financial situation after a Chapter 7 discharge may not allow you to pay off the remaining income tax debts through a tax payment plan. You may not have enough cash flow to pay it off fast enough to qualify. Furthermore, interest and tax penalties will continue to accrue, requiring you to pay substantially more over time.

You may also not be a good candidate for getting a reduction in the tax amount through a “compromise.”

So if instead you file a Chapter 13 case, the protection of the “automatic stay” remains in effect throughout the 3-to-5-year length of the case. This gives you up to 5 years to pay off the nondischargeable income taxes without any tax collections against you. This allows you to pay off those taxes under very flexible terms. You can often pay other even more urgent debts—like child support or home mortgage arrearages—ahead of the taxes.

Usually you don’t have to pay any additional interest and penalties. That alone could save you a significant amount, enabling you to pay off the tax faster and easier.

Also, the IRS/state can’t record a tax lien against you during the Chapter 13 case. That takes significant leverage away from the taxing authority. And if a tax lien had already been recorded against you, Chapter 13 usually can deal with it very favorably.

Overall, if a Chapter 7 would leave you too much at the mercy of the IRS/state, Chapter 13 is often a good alternative.

 

What the IRS/State Can and Can’t Do After You File Bankruptcy

February 16th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Filing bankruptcy stops tax collection just like it stops other debt collection by more conventional creditors. But there are exceptions.  

 

The last several weeks of blog posts have been about bankruptcy’s “automatic stay” protection from creditor collections.  We’ve also gotten into many of the exceptions to that protection—when certain creditors CAN take certain actions.

Today we focus on some very limited exceptions to the automatic stay protection, those which apply specifically to income taxes. In bankruptcy you don’t want surprises, especially from a tax collector. These limited exceptions are reasonable. But it’ll still help you to understand them in order to not be surprised by them.

Tax Determination is Allowed, Tax Collection is Not

Simply put, the exceptions to the automatic stay protections are about determining the amount of tax owed. The IRS and the state tax authorities can take steps during bankruptcy to figure out how much you owe. They can make you do what the law requires along these lines. For example, they can require you to file your tax returns, regardless that you’ve filed bankruptcy. But then they can’t take any action beyond that to collect any taxes owed.

The IRS/State CAN’T. . .

The automatic stay immediately stops virtually all debt collection activity against you when you file bankruptcy. This protects you, your income, and your assets. Everything is put on hold so that the bankruptcy laws can be applied to your entire financial situation.

Debts that the law discharges—legally writes off—disappear. Other possible debts that the law does not discharge you continue to owe. With income taxes, if they’re old enough and meet other conditions, they’re discharged. Otherwise you’ll either owe them after completing the Chapter 7 case or you’ll pay them through the Chapter 13 case. But in the meantime the IRS and state are forbidden from collecting the debt. They are also forbidden to take any action directly related to collection, like recording a tax lien against your home or vehicle.

So to be clear, the automatic stay exceptions we’re discussing here do NOT allow the tax authorities to take any action to get your money or assets. The IRS and state tax authority can’t start or continue garnishing your paychecks or bank accounts. They can’t levy on (take away) anything else you own. They can’t call you to pay the tax, and can’t send you tax bills.

The IRS/State CAN. . .

As we said above, the taxing authorities can take certain specific steps to determine how much tax you owe. Some of these steps you wouldn’t expect your bankruptcy filing to affect—they’re probably not surprising. You filing bankruptcy does not prevent the IRS/state from doing the following:

  • Start or finish a tax audit “to determine tax liability.” (See Section 362(b)(9)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.) But there can be no attempt to collect whatever that tax liability ends up being.
  • Send you a notice about the amount of tax that you owe—a “notice of tax deficiency.” (Section 362(b)(9)(B).) That notice is NOT a demand to pay the tax.
  • Demand that you file your tax returns. (Section 362(b)(9)(C).) In fact this step is often essential for the processing of your bankruptcy case.
  • Make an “assessment” of your taxes and issue a “notice and demand for payment.” (Section 362(b)(9)(D).) “Assessment” is a formal determination of the tax amount. The “demand” here is a term of art meaning that you are put on notice that you are obligated to pay the debt. But whether and when you really owe it usually depends on bankruptcy law.

Conclusion

The interplay between bankruptcy law and tax law can be quite complex. The rule of thumb is that bankruptcy stops tax collection but not tax determination. But your situation may have nuances that could make that rule of thumb misleading. If you are in the midst of, or fear, tax collections, be sure to see an experienced bankruptcy lawyer to find out what would happen in your unique situation. And it really does make sense to do so as early as possible. Tax debts are very much an area where early and wise planning could save you a lot of money.

 

Landlord’s Power over Bankruptcy to Evict Bad Tenants

February 14th, 2018 at 8:00 am

A landlord can take possession of a rental fast if you’re endangering the rental property or illegally using a controlled substance there. [

 

Bankruptcy Stopping Eviction

Two blog posts ago we got into how bankruptcy can stop a residential eviction.  Basically, you can stop an eviction if you file a bankruptcy case before the landlord gets a judgment of possession. That’s a court’s decision that the landlord has the right to take possession of your rental. That means you no longer have a property right that bankruptcy law can protect. So after this judgment, the eviction can go forward (except under some unusual circumstances discussed in that earlier blog post).

Special Reasons to Evict

However, there’s a way for a landlord to quickly evict you even if you do file bankruptcy before the judgment of possession. The landlord could accuse you of one of two kinds of bad behavior:

  • “endangerment of [the rental] property”
  • “illegal use of controlled substances on [the] property”

(See Section 362(b)(23) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

The Procedure If a Landlord Accuses You of These

The landlord can file with the bankruptcy court a certification asserting one or both of such bad behavior. That certification would state, under penalty of perjury, either that:

  • within the prior 30 days you have “endangered [the rental] property” or else have “illegally used or allowed to be used a controlled substance on the property”
  • an eviction proceeding had been filed asserting such facts

(Again, see Section 362(b)(23) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

Defeating the Landlord’s Certification

If you take no action in response to the landlord’s filed certification, 15 days later it can proceed to evict. If the landlord started the eviction before you filed bankruptcy, it can finish it. If it hadn’t started before, it could now start and complete the eviction. Your bankruptcy’s usual protection against the landlord taking possession of your rental property would no longer apply. (See Section 362(m)(3).)

However, if you dispute what the landlord states in its certification, you can file an objection to it. You and your bankruptcy lawyer must file the objection at the bankruptcy court within 15 days of the certification’s filing.  You’d have to object “to the truth or legal sufficiency of the certification.”

The bankruptcy court then holds a hearing within 10 days. It rules on whether “the situation giving rise to the [landlord’s] certification… existed or has been remedied.” If the court is convinced that the “situation… did not exist or has been remedied,” the automatic stay protection continues.

Otherwise, the court allows the landlord to immediately proceed with eviction. 

(See Section 362(m)(1 and 2).)

Conclusion

Bankruptcy stops a residential eviction if the landlord hasn’t already gotten a judgment of possession. But if the landlord has grounds that you were a bad tenant as outlined above, then you can be evicted even if your bankruptcy filing happens before the judgment. You can fight back and still win if the facts are in your favor. If so then you are protected from eviction during the 3-4 months of your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. That would hopefully give you time to catch up on your rent or cure whatever else is wrong. Or if necessary Chapter 13 would likely give you much more time to catch up or cure.

 

Family Court Proceedings and Debts in Bankruptcy

February 12th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Bankruptcy prevents or stops only certain limited divorce/family law proceedings. Others, including collection of ongoing support, continue. 

 

Our last several blog posts have been about creditor collection actions stopped or not stopped by a bankruptcy filing. Today we get into divorce and family court related proceedings and debts.

Family Court Proceedings

The bankruptcy law that stops creditor collections immediately when filing bankruptcy is called the “automatic stay.”

The automatic stay doesn’t just stop creditor phone calls, wage and bank account garnishments, and vehicle repossessions and home foreclosures. It also stops most creditor lawsuits from being filed and prevents ongoing lawsuits from continuing. This makes sense because a creditor’s lawsuit is clearly part of its efforts to collect its debt.

However, there are certain kinds of lawsuits that have little or nothing to do with collecting a debt. Many of such lawsuits are in family or domestic relations court. Bankruptcy law creates exceptions to the automatic stay to allow certain specific family court proceedings. Such proceedings can be started or continued regardless of your bankruptcy case.

Each of these specific exceptions to the automatic stay makes sense. These proceedings mostly deal with personal matters not pertaining to collecting a debt or taking an asset from you. They include court proceedings

  • to establish the paternity of a child
  • to establish or modify the amount of child or spousal support
  • to resolve issues of child custody or visitation
  • to address domestic violence

See Section 362(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code.

So, your ex-spouse/domestic partner or about-to-be ex-spouse/domestic partner can start or continue these specific kinds of proceedings regardless of your active bankruptcy case. So can somebody acting on his or her behalf (such as a state support enforcement department).

The Divorce Proceeding

The automatic stay also does not prevent or stop the divorce or dissolution of marriage proceeding itself. When you file a bankruptcy case it doesn’t affect an ongoing divorce proceeding or the filing of a new one.

But that’s not quite true on a practical level. The automatic stay DOES apply to and does stop what is a crucial part of most divorce proceedings. That’s the division of marital property and marital debt. If there is no marital property or debt being addressed in your divorce, if only the dissolution of the marriage is being adjudicated, then that proceeding can continue and the marriage can be dissolved, regardless of your bankruptcy case.

But if, as usual, there’s some property or debt to divide, the automatic stay stops that from going ahead.

The Bankruptcy Code excludes from the automatic stay “a civil action or proceeding… for the dissolution of marriage, except to the extent that such proceeding seeks to determine the division of property…  .” (See Section 362(b)(2)(A)(iv).)

That exception makes sense because of what bankruptcy deals with—property and debt. Chapter 7, especially, looks to your property and debts as of a certain point in time—your date of filing.  It would not be a very sensible use of court time for two courts to be dealing simultaneously with your property and debts. The bankruptcy court would be dealing with a fluid situation as the divorce court shifted the debtor’s property and debts. So, a divorce court is stopped from proceeding on these issues while the automatic stay is in effect.

Collection of Child and Spousal Support

(We’ve addressed the special situation of child and spousal support separately in a recent blog post so we’ll be brief here.)

The automatic stay does not stop the collection of ongoing child or spousal support in either Chapter 7 or 13.

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” also does not stop the collection of prior unpaid support. But Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” can stop prior unpaid support collection, IF you act proactively and with consistency. You must:

  • continue paying any  ongoing monthly support payments
  • arrange to pay all unpaid support current during your Chapter 13 payment plan
  • actually make the proposed and court-approved plan payments so that you do catch up on all unpaid support during your 3-to-5-year plan

 

Limited Automatic Stay Protection for Unpaid Child/Spousal Support

February 7th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Chapter 7 doesn’t stop collection of unpaid support, but may enable you to catch up. Chapter 13 does stop this collection, conditionally.   

 

Our recent blog posts have been about situations when creditor collection actions are not stopped by a bankruptcy filing.  An example is a criminal fine or restitution. A bankruptcy filing has no effect on your obligation to pay criminal debts or on the collection of those debts.

We’ve also gotten into situations when collections are stopped only temporarily, including when that’s long enough to solve your problem. An example is a recent income tax debt. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing stops tax collections only for a few months. But that should be long enough to start a monthly payment plan, especially one that you can now afford after getting rid of all or most of your other debts.

So today we get into one special kind of debt for which the debt collection either doesn’t stop at all, is stopped only temporarily, or is stopped permanently. If you are behind on child or spousal support, you have three options in bankruptcy.

  • Filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” does not stop collections on unpaid support at all. But it may write off enough other debts so that you can catch up on support.
  • Filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” can stop collections on unpaid support. But that can easily become only temporary.
  • A Chapter 13 case can stop such collections IF you act very proactively and consistently.

We explain these today.

The “Automatic Stay” on Support Collections

Unpaid child and spousal support is a very special kind of debt. It is treated as an almost sacredly among debt. Without cataloging all the differences, you can never discharge (legally write off) a support debt. (See Sections 523(a)(5) and 101(14A) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code). It is the highest priority of the many so-called priority debts—meaning it must be paid ahead of all other debts. (See Section 507(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

Unpaid support is special also in that you’re helped by the automatic stay only in to a limited extent. However that limited extent may nevertheless be extremely helpful.

Some Limited Help in Chapter 7

As we said above, the automatic stay does not even come into play under Chapter 7 as to unpaid support. But in the right situations Chapter 7 still helps by discharging all or most of your other debts so that you can afford to catch up on your unpaid support.

You or your attorney would negotiate terms for catching up with your ex-spouse or with the support enforcement agency. If getting rid of your other debts gives you the financial ability to catch up quickly on support, Chapter 7 could be a practical solution.

The Practical Problem

The problem is that your spouse or support enforcement may no longer accept terms that would work for you.  Since Chapter 7 does nothing to stop your ex-spouse or support enforcement from continuing or starting collection efforts against you, you have no leverage and no protection.

Temporary Help in Chapter 13

Filing a Chapter 13 case DOES stop support collections at least temporarily. But your ex-spouse or the support agency can quickly file a motion asking to resume collections. The bankruptcy court would likely grant this motion unless you meet a set of requirements, and do so timely and extremely consistently. If you don’t, actions to collect on the unpaid support could resume quickly.

Permanent Help in Chapter 13

However, IF you DO strictly follow the requirement, the collection of unpaid support obligations IS stopped under Chapter 13. And this collection continues being on hold throughout the 3-to-5-year course of the Chapter 13 case as long as you continue meeting those requirements.

Here are those crucial requirements:

  • Your Chapter 13 payment PLAN shows how you will pay all the upaid support debt during the plan period.
  • You pay any future ONGOING monthly support payments on time. It’s especially important that you’re on time with the payments due shortly after you file the Chapter 13 case.
  • You actually DO pay your monthly Chapter 13 plan payments on time throughout the case. Otherwise you’re not paying the unpaid support debt as you committed to do in your plan.

If you follow these requirements to the letter your ex-spouse/support enforcement agency would not be able to get court permission to take any collection actions against you throughout the Chapter 13 case. Then by the end of the payment plan you’d be current on the support. Your problems on this front would be fully resolved.

 

Prevent Losing the Automatic Stay Because of a Prior Bankruptcy Filing

February 2nd, 2018 at 8:00 am

Either 1) wait one year to file your bankruptcy case after getting a prior bankruptcy case dismissed or 2) justify why the dismissal happened. 


The last few blog posts have been about situations in which the automatic stay is temporary, but still very effective. These situations have involved individual debts or sets of debts—such as income taxes or student loans. The automatic stay’s protection from debt collection in a Chapter 7 case is temporary for debts which survive the bankruptcy case because the automatic stay expires once the case is completed—usually just 3-4 months after filing. But that may be fine with income taxes and student loans for reasons explained in the last two blog posts.

Today we get into a situation much more dangerous. Here the automatic stay protection from debt collection could be lost as to ALL your debts.

The Automatic Stay

We start first with a bit of background. One of the most important and immediate benefits of filing bankruptcy is the automatic stay. This is the federal law that stops creditors from collecting your debts immediately when you file your bankruptcy case. It protects you, your income, and your assets. The automatic stay usually provides this protection as long as your case is open. (See Section 362 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

This is a crucial to bankruptcy relief. You certainly don’t want to lose this tremendously important benefit of bankruptcy. You especially don’t want to lose it unexpectedly, just when you are most counting on it. Yet there is a situation this could happen, so you want to know about and prevent it.

Losing the Automatic Stay

You could file a bankruptcy case and lose his protection essentially without warning 30 days later. The situation at issue is if you are now considering filing a bankruptcy case and you filed one prior bankruptcy within the last 365 days, which was subsequently dismissed. (See Section 362(c)(3) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

Don’t immediately assume this does not apply to you. IF you didn’t even think about and take ANY action to file a case in the last 365 days then in fact this problem likely doesn’t apply to you. But be very careful. We have seen circumstances when a prior bankruptcy was filed and dismissed without the debtor being fully aware of it then and so without remembering it later when filing another case later.

Avoid Losing the Automatic Stay 30 Days After Filing

Assume that about 10 months ago you had filed a bankruptcy case. But immediately after filing you settled the debt that had pushed you into bankruptcy. So you didn’t take any further action on your bankruptcy case, and it got dismissed (thrown out and closed).

Now, many months later, your other creditors are causing you big trouble so you again file a bankruptcy case. You don’t consider the prior case to have been a real bankruptcy filing because you didn’t follow through on it. You consider the new case to really be your first bankruptcy filing. You may even tell your bankruptcy lawyer about the prior filing.

But that would be a mistake. As a result, the automatic stay would immediately go into effect with the current bankruptcy filing as usual. However, the automatic stay would automatically expire 30 days later. That is, it would expire unless by then you and your attorney would show the court that you meet certain conditions. 

Those conditions involve justifying why the previous case was dismissed and why the present case is being filed. Depending on the exact circumstances, you may be able to justify filing a second case within a year. These circumstances involve the reasons for the prior case dismissal, and financial changes from the prior filing until the present one. (Again, see Section 362(c)(3).)

However, if you are not be able to convince the court, you’d be subject to ongoing debt collection from 30 days after filing until the debts were discharged 2-3 months later. That would make for an unexpected mess, and likely quite an expensive one.

Conclusion

So, make sure there was no prior filed and dismissed bankruptcy case within the last 365 days before the filing of your current case. If there was one, consider waiting for a full year to pass before filing the new case. If that’s not feasible, discuss with your lawyer whether your circumstances would result in your bankruptcy judge preserving the automatic stay because your prior filing/dismissal and new filing were justified.

 

Stop Student Loan Collections to Discharge or Deal with the Loan

January 31st, 2018 at 8:00 am

Filing Chapter 7 stops a student loan garnishment and other collection activities. Then use “undue hardship” or focus on the student loan.  

 

Our last blog post was about a Chapter 7 bankruptcy stopping a tax garnishment only temporarily. In that situation this was OK because it gave time to set up a payment program with the IRS/state. With the bankruptcy discharging (writing off) all or most other debts, the taxpayer could afford a reasonable monthly payment to pay off the tax debt over time.  

Today we deal with a somewhat similar situation. Assume you owe a student loan that you don’t have the cash flow to make payments on. Here’s how this situation can be greatly helped through a Chapter 7 filing.

Student Loan Collection and the Chapter 7 Filing

Similar to the tax authorities, student loan creditors and collectors have extraordinary collection powers. In most situations they don’t need to sue and get a legal judgment against you to begin aggressive collection procedures. These can include wage garnishment, tax refund setoff, and Social Security benefit capture. (This is true of federal student loans; private student loan lenders must first sue you and get a judgment.)

Also like income tax debts, student loan collection is immediately stopped by the “automatic stay” imposed by your bankruptcy filing. It doesn’t matter if the student loan would not be discharged in the Chapter 7 case. During the 3-4 months that most consumer Chapter 7 cases last, you get a break from student loan collections.

The automatic stay statute stops “any act to collect, assess, or recover a claim against the debtor.” (See Section 362(a)(6) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) More specifically it stops “the commencement or continuation…  of a[n]..  .   administrative…  proceeding against the debtor. (Section 362(a)(1).) This covers the non-judicial collection actions mentioned above that are administrative in nature. The Chapter 7 filing also specifically stops “the setoff of any debt,” such as a tax refund or Social Security setoff. (Section 362(a)(7).)                             

Dischargeability of Student Loans

Somewhat similar to income tax debts, student loans can be permanently discharged under certain circumstances. An income tax is almost always discharged as long as it meets certain timing conditions. (These are based on how long ago the pertinent tax return was due and was actually submitted.)

In contrast, the condition that almost all student loans must meet for discharge is much more ambiguous. And the condition, called “undue hardship,” is often quite difficult to meet. You can’t discharge most student loans unless that loan “would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.” (Section 523(a)(8) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

While it may very much feel like your student loan(s) is (are) causing you a huge financial hardship, the federal courts have interpreted this phrase very narrowly.  So “undue hardship” is, as we said, a difficult condition to meet to discharge your student loan(s).

What You Can Accomplish During the Chapter 7 Pause in Collection      

The goal during the 3-4 months of no collection is to make that pause permanent. This can happen three ways.

First, IF you believe you do meet the “undue hardship” condition, your bankruptcy lawyer would file an “adversary proceeding” soon after filing the Chapter 7 case in order to persuade your bankruptcy judge that you qualify for “undue hardship.” If you’d be completely successful then the pause in collection would become permanent because you’d no longer owe the debt(s).

Second, sometimes in this situation the judge gives only a partial discharge of your student loan(s). In effect the judge decides that repaying all of the loan(s) would be an “undue hardship” but paying back a portion would not be. In this situation you’d make arrangements to pay the student loans at a reduced monthly payment. Your student loan creditor(s) would agree to no further collection action against you as long as you made those payments.

Third, if you don’t qualify for “undue hardship” your Chapter 7 case would discharge your other debts. That should leave you better able to pay the remaining student loans. You’d make arrangements to make payments, maybe through one of the various payment-reduction programs potentially available to you. Assuming you’d do so, they by the end of your Chapter 7 case when the automatic stay would expire your situation would be resolved and you wouldn’t be facing student loan collection actions.

Avoiding Default and Preserving Options

Even if you don’t qualify for “undue hardship,” the bankruptcy pause in collections can be extremely important for student loans. Again, there are various programs that help you deal with student loans, depending on exactly what type(s) you have. Some of these programs can be extremely helpful.

However, most of these programs require you to apply for them before you are too far behind on payments. So filing a Chapter 7 case sooner could enable you to take advantage of these programs. Whereas if you waited and filed later you may very well miss out because you’d no longer qualify.

Conclusion

Talk with an experienced bankruptcy lawyer about all this. Candidly, student loans are challenging to deal with, both outside and inside bankruptcy. You need a seasoned lawyer who understands the interplay between bankruptcy law and student loans, in detail.

 

Call today for a FREE Consultation

210-342-3400

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