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Paying Employee Debt in Chapter 13

March 2nd, 2020 at 8:00 am

If you prefer to pay back wages to a present or prior employee, you can do so in Chapter 13 especially well if that debt is a priority one.

 

Our last three blog posts have been about debts you owe to your employees or independent contractors. Specifically, we discussed the conditions under which past wages, commissions, or benefits qualify as a“priority” debt. These posts covered:

  • the conditions that apply to both employees and independent contractors (3 weeks ago)
  • the special additional condition applicable only to independent contractors (2 weeks ago)
  • an example of paying an employee’s wages as a priority debt in an “asset” Chapter 7 case (last week)

Today, we’ll show how you could pay an employee/independent contractor in full in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case.

Why Priority Matters under Chapter 13

Assume you’d really like your former (or ongoing) employee/independent contractor to receive payment on what you owe. Whether that debt qualifies for priority status often determines whether you’ll pay that debt or not. Or it may determine whether it’s paid in full, in large part, very little, or nothing at all.

Focusing on Chapter 13, whether or not a debt qualifies as a priority one is usually crucial. That’s because you are legally obligated to pay all priority debts in full. Debts that don’t qualify as priority usually receive much less, and sometime receive nothing.

Your Chapter 13 payment plan must show how you will pay all priority debts. The bankruptcy judge will otherwise not approve the payment plan. The U.S. Bankruptcy Code is straightforward:

(a) The plan—

(2) shall provide for the full payment, in deferred cash payments, of all claims entitled to priority under section 507

Section 1322 of the Bankruptcy Code.

(There’s an exception if the employee/independent contractor agreed not to receive “full payment.” But assume here that—as is almost always true—he or she does want to get fully paid and won’t agree not to be.)

So what happens under Chapter 13 if that wage/commission debt does not meet the conditions to be priority debt? That wage/commission is lumped in with all the other ordinary “general unsecured” debts. Very seldom do Chapter 13 plans pay general unsecured debts in full. (A so-called 100% plan.) Most often they receive significantly less than 100%. (Say, a 30% or 40% plan.) Quite often they receive payment of only pennies on the dollar. (For example, a 3% plan.) Finally, it’s not unusual that general unsecured debts—including a non-priority wage/commission debt—would receive absolutely nothing. (A so-called 0% plan.)

In summary, your plan must pay a priority debt in full. But the plan will very likely pay your general unsecured debts a fraction, or possibly even nothing.

Our Chapter 13 Case Example

Assume you owe a prior employee $5,000 for wages earned over a period of four months. This period was from 150 to 30 days ago, at which point you had to lay him off.

Your sole proprietorship business is still operating. You intend to close it and file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy soon. You have a decent job waiting for you as soon as you do, and have some flexibility when to start.

You owe $125,000 on all of the rest of your debts, which are all general unsecured. None are priority debts except potentially the $5.000 you owe to your prior employee.

Reminder about the Priority Conditions

As discussed in our last 3 blog posts, a wage is a priority debt if it meets two conditions:

  1. it was “earned within 180 days before the date of the filing of the [bankruptcy] petition or the date of the cessation of the debtor’s business, whichever occurs first …”. Section 507(a)(4) of the Bankruptcy Code.
  2. the amount is no more than $13,650. Section 507(a)(4) of the Bankruptcy Code, plus a cost-of-living adjustment of the $10,000 stated there.

With the amount of the wage owed in our example being $5,000, this debt meets the second, dollar-limit condition. So we focus the rest of this blog post on the first, timing condition.

Timing the Filing of Your Chapter 13 Case

As you can see from the timing language in the statute above, a wage’s priority status turns on when the employee earned it.  The wage (or commission or benefits) must have been earned within a 180-day period. That period must be immediately before either the closing of your business or your filing Chapter 13, whichever of those happens first.

Back to the Example

To pay the $5,000 wage debt in full, you need to have it meet the conditions of priority status. Your business is still operating at the moment. You have control over when to cease operating, and when to file the Chapter 13 case.

In the real world you actually likely have limited control over these two events. You likely have various constraints on both. Timing when to shut down even a small business usually involves a variety of practical, and sometime tough, choices. Timing a Chapter 13 filing likely turns on the creditor collection pressures and there are often other legal timing considerations.

But let’s assume you have at least some flexibility. Under our facts, if you want this employee’s wage debt to be a priority debt you need to do one of two things within the next 30 days. You need to either close down your business or file your Chapter 13 case within that time.  After that some of this employee’s wages will start turning into general unsecured debt. (Recall it was all earned 150 to 30 days ago.) So after 30 days the oldest of the wages will be start being more than 180 days old. Then 210 days from now the last of the wages would turn into general unsecured debt.

If you can’t file your Chapter 13 within 30 days for practical or legal reasons, it’s enough to just shut down your business. As you see from the statute’s language, that triggers the 180-day period, even if you don’t file the Chapter 13 case until later.

What Happens in the Chapter 13 Case

Assume you either shut down your business or file your Chapter 13 case within the next 30 days. Then the $5,000 wage debt would be a priority debt. Simply put, Chapter 13 law requires the payment plan you and your bankruptcy lawyer put together to include enough money to pay that $5,000. The bankruptcy court would otherwise not approve the plan. Furthermore, you could not complete the case without actually paying off that $5,000.

Now assume instead that you don’t shut down your business and don’t file Chapter 13 until after 210 days from now. Then, as just discussed, none of the wage debt would qualify as priority. It would all be general unsecured debt. Assume that in the next 3 years you would afford to pay $200 per month on all of your debts. That’s a total of $7,200. Assume that you paid all your attorney fees when you filed your case (leaving none to pay in the plan). In your jurisdiction assume the Chapter 13 trustee gets 5% of everything that flows through the plan—$360. That leaves the rest—$6,840—to go to all of the creditors. The general unsecured debts total $130,000—$125,000 plus the $5,000 wage debt. The $6,840 would be divided among this $130,000, meaning that these debts would receive about 5% of the amounts owed. Your former employee would receive only about $250 on the $5,000 wage debt.

So, if the $5,000 wage debt would qualify as priority, your former employer would receive payment in full. If none of it would so qualify, your employee would receive only about $250

.

Priority Debts in a Chapter 13 Case

December 9th, 2019 at 8:00 am

Chapter 13 gives you some huge advantages over Chapter 7 for paying your priority debts. You’re protected while you pay what you can afford.


Priority Debts under No-Asset and Asset Chapter 7

Our last two blog posts described how Chapter 7 can sometimes be a sensible way of dealing with priority debts. (Those are ones you can’t “discharge”—legally write off, the most common being recent income taxes and child/spousal support.) Our blog post two weeks ago: a no-asset Chapter 7 case discharges all or most of your other debts. So then afterwards you can better afford to pay your priority ones. Last week: in an asset Chapter 7 case your bankruptcy trustee collects your unprotected asset(s). He or she then pays part or all of your priority debt out of the proceeds from selling those asset(s).

But Chapter 7 is not well-designed to deal with priority debts in many situations. Here are the main problems:

  • You get only brief protection, or none at all, from your priority creditor(s). With income taxes, the IRS/state can resume collections when your Chapter 7 case is over. That’s only 3-4 months after you and your bankruptcy lawyer file the case. With child/spousal support, there is no protection at all: collection continues even during your Chapter 7 case.
  • Because of this lack of legal protection, you have little or no leverage about the dollar amount of payments you pay on your priority debts. You are largely at the mercy of the IRS/state or the support enforcement agencies.
  • In an asset Chapter 7 case, you have no control over the trustee’s sale of your asset(s). Plus you have to pay a significant amount for the trustee’s costs and fee. That reduces what goes to your priority debt(s).

The Benefits of Chapter 13

In contrast, Chapter 13 is well-designed for you to deal favorably with your priority debts. Here are its main benefits and advantages.

1. Ongoing Protection, for Years

The protection from creditors called the automatic stay lasts not 3-4 months but rather 3-to-5 years in Chapter 13. You can lose this protection under Chapter 13, if you don’t follow the requirements. But usually this sustained protection is a very powerful tool. It gives you tremendous peace of mind. It forces otherwise very aggressive creditors like the IRS/state and support enforcement to cooperate. It gives you an incredible and practical second chance to do what you need to do. Instead of these tough creditors having the law and the leverage on their side, Chapter 13 puts you much more in charge.

2. Pay Monthly What You Can Afford to Pay

The practical leverage Chapter 13 gives you helps where it counts. It enables you to pay your priority debts under sensible and manageable payment terms. Priority debts are ones you have to pay regardless of bankruptcy. You mostly just wish that there was a way to do so that was doable. Chapter 13 fulfills that wish.

Here’s how it works You and your bankruptcy lawyer propose, and the bankruptcy judge approves a payment plan. (This approval comes after possible input from the Chapter 13 trustee and your creditors.) This payment plan is mostly based on how much you can actually afford to pay the pool of your creditors. You have to pay all your priority debts in full, but you have 3 to 5 years to do so.

You generally pay nothing on your other unsecured debts until you pay your priority debts in full. Sometimes you don’t pay anything on those “general unsecured” debts. At the end of your case whatever you haven’t paid is forever discharged. At that point you will have paid off your priority debts in full, and usually owe nothing to anybody.

3. Avoid Interest and Penalties

You can often avoid paying any interest or penalties on your priority debt(s) under Chapter 13.

For example, with recent income taxes, interest and penalties continue to accrue after you file your case.  But as long as there no prior-recorded tax lien, and you successfully finish your case, you don’t pay these additional interest and penalties. You only pay the initial priority tax debt.

Furthermore, in most situations the penalties that accrued before your Chapter 13 filing are not a priority debt. This portion of your tax due at the time of filing is treated as “general unsecured.” This means it’s treated just like your unsecured credit cards or medical bills. You only pay it to the extent you have money available after paying the priority debts, if at all.

This combination—no accruing interest and penalties, and no penalties treated as priority—can significantly reduce how much you must pay. The less you have to pay as priority means the less you pay in your Chapter 13 payment plan. The less you have to pay usually means you finish your plan quicker. It’s more likely to last closer to 3 years rather than 5 years. And if you have to pay less there’d be less pressure to pay more per month to get it done on time.

4. Pay Priority (and Secured) Debts Ahead of (and Instead of) Other Debts

If you have secured debts you have to pay—a vehicle loan or home mortgage arrearage, for example—you often can pay these ahead of the priority debts. Your priority debts generally just have to wait, as long as you are appropriately following the payment plan.

This flexibility, and being able to essentially force priority creditors to be this flexible, can be extremely beneficial to you. You not only get to pay your important priority debts ahead of your other unsecured debts. You often get to favor debts that are very important to you—for example, to save your home and/or vehicle—ahead of the priority debts. You do have to pay the priority debts in fully before you can finish your Chapter 13 case. But often you are allowed to fit those payments in only after paying your crucial secured debts.

 

Resolve Mortgage Accounting Disagreements

October 21st, 2019 at 7:00 am

Chapter 13 gives you valuable power to force your mortgage lender to be up front about how much you owe, and to efficiently dispute the amount. 

 

Catching Up on Your Mortgage over Time

A Chapter 13 case gives you the power to catch up on your home mortgage(s) over an extended period.  This “adjustment of debts” type of bankruptcy can give you up to 5 years to catch up.

This power is found in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code language allowing you to cure “any default within a reasonable time.” Section 1322(b)(5). That amount of time is interpreted to mean, in most circumstances, the length of your Chapter 13 payment plan. Most payment plans are between 3 and 5 years long. If you need more than 3 years, usually you can extend your plan longer, up to 5 years.

The Mortgage Accounting Challenge

If you fall behind on your mortgage it can be ridiculously difficult to get accurate information from your lender about the amount you owe. If you don’t have accurate information, you can’t fulfill your desire and responsibility to cure the arrearage.

This problem is aggravated over the course of the case when the mortgage payment amount changes over time. This could be from normal changes in the interest rate, property tax and insurance, or the addition of fees.

You can’t cure the arrearage or maintain monthly payments if you aren’t timely told the amounts you owe. You can’t efficiently dispute the stated amounts if the lender does not respond in good faith.

This accounting confusion had been a serious problem for millions of homeowners trying to save their homes. In 2011 a new procedure was created within Chapter 13 to efficiently resolve mortgage accounting disputes. It’s contained in Rule 3002.1 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. It gives you the power to force your lender to work with you to determine how much you owe.

How the Procedure Works

The procedure focuses on changes to the ongoing mortgage payment amount.  You can’t catch up on the arrearage if that arrearage increases because you’re not paying the right monthly payment. 

Your lender “shall file and serve on” you, your bankruptcy lawyer, and your Chapter 13 trustee “any change in the payment amount.” This includes “any change that results from an interest rate or escrow account adjustment.” This notice must be given “no later than 21 days before a payment in the new amount is due.” Rule 3002.1(b) of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure.

You or your lawyer can object to the change in the lender’s notice. You must do so before that new payment is due. If you don’t object on time, the lender’s payment change goes into effect.

If you do object, the bankruptcy judge determines whether the lender’s proposed new amount is appropriate or not.

This procedure forces the lender to be up front about changes in how much you owe. It allows you to dispute those changes, and to get a quick court determination about who is right.

 

Scenario: Filing Chapter 13 Now Shortens a Case by Two Years

December 24th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Here’s a scenario showing how the timing of your Chapter 13 filing can shorten your payment plan from 5 years to only 3. 

 

In our last blog post we explained how your last 6 calendar months of income can determine whether your Chapter 13 payment plan lasts 3 years or instead 5 years. We showed how even relatively small shifts in the money you receive can cause this huge difference.

How this can happen will make more sense after reading through the following scenario.

Our Facts about “Income”

Remember from last time that your “income” includes money from just about all sources, except Social Security. Also, the only money that counts is that which you received during the 6 FULL CALENDAR months before filing. This means that money received DURING the calendar month of filing DOESN’T count. For example, if you file your Chapter 13 case on January 31 you count the income from the previous July 1 through December 31. You don’t count any income received in January.

In our scenario assume you worked a second job during the holidays. Your monthly paycheck for December from this job is arriving on January 4, 2019. The anticipated gross income amount is $2,500. This money could also come from just about any other source. For example, your ex-spouse may be able to catching up on some unpaid child support owed because he/she received an annual bonus. It could be from just about any source. The point is that there’s an extra $2,500 arriving in early January.

In addition you receive $3,600 gross income every month from your regular job.

You received no money from any sources other than your regular job from July 1, 2018 through December 31, 2018. You expect to receive no money in January 2019 other than the $3,600 gross income and the additional $2,500.

So, assume that your bankruptcy lawyer files your Chapter 13 case between January 1 and January 31, 2019. The income that counts is what you received during the 6 prior full calendar months. That’s from July 1 through December 31, 2018. That is $3,600 per month times 6 months, or $21,600, or $43,200 for the annualized amount.

Our Facts about “Median Family Income”

Your income, as just discussed, determines whether your minimum payment plan length is 3 vs. 5 years. If your income is less than the designated “median family income,” your minimum plan length is 3 years. If your income is the same as or more than “median family income,” your minimum plan length is 5 years. Section 1322(d) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The “median family income” amounts (Section 39A of the Bankruptcy Code) come from the U.S. Census Bureau. This source data is adjusted annually, and is also adjusted more often to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index. (The CPI comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) The U.S. Trustee conveniently gathers this information at this webpage. From there the most recent median family income amounts (as of this writing) are compiled in this table.

For our scenario assume that you are single and live in Kentucky. According to the above table the median family income for a single person in Kentucky is $44,552. (You can find your own median family income by finding your state and family size in the table.)

Filing a Chapter 13 Case in January 2019

Under the facts outlined above, if you filed a Chapter 13 case during January 2019, your case could last 2 years less than if you filed the case in February, conceivably just a few days later.

Why? Because if you file in January you don’t count the income from that month. That means that you don’t count the $2,500 in income from the holiday job. You only count the $3,600 per month you received July through December from your regular job. As calculated above, that means an annualized income of $43,200. That is less than the applicable median family income amount of $44,552. So you’d be allowed to have a Chapter 13 payment plan that lasts only 3 years, and not be required to pay for 5 years.

Filing a Chapter 13 Case after January 2019

But if you file in February 2019 (or any of the following 5 months) your Chapter 13 plan would be required to last 5 years.

Why? Because if you file in February (or during the next 5 months) you do count the income from that month. That includes the $2,500 in income from the holiday job. When filing in February, for example, you count the income from August 1, 2018 through January 31, 2019. That includes the $3,600 per month from your regular job, plus the $2,500 from the holiday job. Six times $3,600 is $21,600, plus $2,500 equals $24,100. Multiply this by 2 gives you an annualized income of $48,200.

That is more than the applicable median family income amount of $44,552. So you’d be required to pay into your Chapter 13 plan for a full 5 years.

Next week we’ll discuss the financial and other consequences of this, and some other very important considerations.


Filing Chapter 13 in December (or January!) May Greatly Shorten Your Case

December 17th, 2018 at 8:00 am

Do you need a Chapter 13 case? WHEN you file it can mean the difference between a payment plan that takes 3 years and one that takes 5.  

 

In two blog posts last month (November 12 and 19) we showed how filing bankruptcy by the end of December 31 might allow you to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case instead of being forced into a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” one. You could have your debts discharged (legally written off) within just 3 or 4 months under Chapter 7. Otherwise you may have to go through a 3-to-5-year payment plan under Chapter 13. Besides likely costing much more, you’d only discharge your remaining debts if you successfully completed your payment plan.

But What If You Need a Chapter 13 Case?

The benefits of Chapter 7 won’t matter much to you if you need a Chapter 13 case in the first place.

Yes, Chapter 13 takes so much longer than Chapter 7.

And Chapter 13 is much riskier. Most Chapter 7 cases—especially one in which the debtor has a bankruptcy lawyer—get completed successfully. Chapter 13 comes with longer odds. A lot can happen in the 3 to 5 years that they usually take. Chapter 13 is a flexible tool, one that you can often adjust to changing circumstances. But the truth is that a significant percentage of them do NOT get completed successfully.

Notwithstanding the extra time and risks, Chapter 13 could still be by far the best tool for you.  That’s simply because it can accomplish many things that Chapter 7 can’t. For example, Chapter 13 can:

  • give you time to catch up on home mortgage and/or property taxes
  • buy you time and save you money if you owe lots of income taxes, especially if you owe on more than one tax year
  • give you time to catch up on child or spousal support while protecting your income, assets, and license(s) from suspension while doing so
  • allow you to keep assets that are otherwise not protected in a Chapter 7 case
  • lower your monthly vehicle payments and reduce the total amount on the loan
  • hold off on student loan payments and collection until you qualify for an “undue hardship”

And these are just some of the ways that Chapter 13 can deal with your creditors more powerfully than Chapter 7.

A Shorter Chapter 13 Payment Plan

So, what if you’ve learned that you really need a Chapter 13 case? What if you also learned that filing your Chapter 13 case in December instead of January would allow you to finish your case in 3 years instead of 5 years? Or what if that was true if you filed your case in January instead of February?

Paying into a Chapter 13 payment plan for 2 years less could save you many thousands of dollars. Plus, that would get you out of bankruptcy 2 years sooner. You’d be that much ahead of the game in rebuilding your credit.  You’d have the emotional relief of finishing and getting on with life sooner

Here could filing a Chapter case a month sooner shorten the case so much? Here’s how.

Your Last-6-Full Months of Income Determines How Long Your Chapter 13 Lasts  

Our blog post of November 12 described an unusual way of calculating your income for the Chapter 7 “means test.” (That’s a test to qualify for filing a Chapter 7 case.)   That way of calculating income also determines whether your Chapter 13 plan lasts a minimum of 3 years or 5.

Income is calculated as follows:

1) Consider almost all sources of money coming to you in just about any form as income…. .  Pretty much the only money excluded are those received under the Social Security Act, including retirement, disability (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

2) The period of time that counts for the means test is exactly the 6 full calendar months before your bankruptcy filing date. Included as income is ONLY the money you receive during those specific months. This excludes money received before that 6-month block of time. It also excludes any money received during the calendar month that you file your Chapter 7 case.

The 6-month amount is multiplied by 2 for the annual “income” total to be compared to the “median income” for your state and family size.

When you combine the above two considerations, monthly changes in your “income” can make a big difference.  That’s especially true if your money coming in is more than usual in either December or January.  (That would most often be from more overtime, a seasonal job, a monetary gift from family, and/or an employer’s bonus.)

Because of the way “income” is calculated there’s a higher risk that it would be larger than the “median income” for your state and family size. If it is larger, then you must pay your Chapter 13 case for 5 years instead of 3 years.

What’s My Applicable “Median income”?

The “median income” amounts are adjusted regularly and published by the U.S. Trustee Program of the Department of Justice. Here’s a table showing the “median family income” amounts for cases filed on or after November 1, 2018. It shows the amount for each state, by family size. (The amounts are adjusted about three times a year; see this webpage to see if there has been an update.)

(For the actual steps used in this calculation, see the official form, Chapter 13 Statement of Your Current Monthly Income and Calculation of Commitment Period.)

So if your “income” as calculated above is larger than your applicable “median family income” than your Chapter 13 case gets pushed to 5 years.  If it’s smaller, your case can last as short as 3 years. (That 3 or 5 years is the “commitment period” referred to in the official form in the paragraph above.)

If your “income” is larger because of unusual money you received in December and/or January, it may make sense to file your Chapter 13 case in either December or January so that the income of that month would not count. (Remember, that’s because you only count income of the PRIOR 6 FULL calendar months before the filing date.)

In next week’s blog post we’ll put all this into an example to make better sense of it for you.

 

“Preferences” Around the Holidays

December 3rd, 2018 at 8:00 am

Do you feel like you should pay on or pay off a certain debt now, even though you’re behind on all your debts?  It may be dangerous to do so. 

 

Last week we explained how giving a significant gift before bankruptcy could cause problems during bankruptcy. This also applies to selling something for much less than it is worth. Such a gift or sale might possibly be considered a “fraudulent transfer.”

A similar problem could arise from paying a creditor before you file bankruptcy. That’s especially true if it’s somebody you want to favor or maybe don’t even see as a regular creditor. This payment might possibly be considered a “preference,” or a “preferential payment.”  This is today’s topic.

Your Desire and Ability to Pay a Special Creditor

Especially around this time of year you may be extra motivated to pay on or pay off a special debt. A relative, or a friend, may really need of the money. He or she may be pressuring you to pay.

You might be thinking about filing bankruptcy and you don’t want it to affect this person. So you pay him or her off thinking that would help. Or you do so because you don’t want the person to know about your bankruptcy, for whatever personal reason.  

Besides wanting to, you may be able to pay on a special debt this time of year more than usual. For many people because of the expenses of the holidays money is especially tight. But, as mentioned a couple weeks ago:

The month of December is the month that people receive more income than any other month of the year. [F]or at least the past 9 years U.S. personal income was the highest in December… .

You may be getting a bonus from work or more income from working extra hours or part-time job during the holidays. So you might be able to pay a special debt now more than at any recent time.

So you may have the desire and ability to pay a debt now, before filing bankruptcy. But it may not be a smart thing to do.

What Makes a “Preference”?

If during the 365 day-period BEFORE filing a bankruptcy case you pay a creditor more than you are paying at that time to your other creditors, then AFTER your bankruptcy is filed that favored creditor could be forced to surrender to your bankruptcy trustee the money that you’d paid to this creditor earlier. See Section 547(b) and (c) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. 

This one-year look-back period is shortened to only 90 days for creditors that are not “insiders.” The Bankruptcy Code defines “insiders” basically as relatives and business associates, but the definition is open-ended. See Section 101(31). So it could include friends and just about anybody that you have a personal reason to favor. Your bankruptcy lawyer will advise you whether a potential preferential payment was to an insider or not.

Your favored creditor could be required to return the money (or other form of payment) that you’d paid. The money would usually not be given to you but to your bankruptcy trustee. The trustee would then distribute it among your creditors.

The result: instead of satisfying your favored creditor as you’d intended, you could have an unhappy one. This is not.

What’s the Point of All This?

Preference law is related to one of the most basic principles of bankruptcy—equal treatment of legally similar creditors. People or businesses which are financially hurting must be discouraged from favoring any of their creditors before filing bankruptcy. Otherwise they would—the theory goes—pay all of their last money or other resources to their favored creditors, leaving nothing for the rest of the creditors. Under preference law, if they do so within the 365-day/90-day look-back periods, those payments made to the favored creditor could be taken back from that creditor. This disincentive is supposed to make the situation fairer to all the creditors.

“Preferences” Can Be Frustrating, But They’re Avoidable

“Preferences” are relatively rare problems in consumer bankruptcy cases, partly because they are relatively easy to avoid. Next week we’ll give you a scenario showing a potentially preferential payment made during the holidays, and practical ways to avoid it.

 

The Chapter 13 Trustee

September 8th, 2017 at 7:00 am

The Chapter 13 trustee is an important player in your “adjustment of debts” case so it helps to know how to deal with him or her. 

 

Chapter 13 Trustee vs. the Chapter 7 One

In a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case the bankruptcy trustee’s role is very different than in a Chapter 13 case.

Most Chapter 7 consumer cases involve a quick determination whether you can keep everything you own—whether it’s all “exempt.”  It’s the Chapter 7 trustee’s job to determine this. This would usually happen within about a month after you and your bankruptcy lawyer would file your case. If everything is exempt—as it usually is—your case is usually done 2 or 3 months later. The trustee has some other important roles but in most cases nothing comes of them. Within about 4 months of filing your case is finished.

A Chapter 13 case is very different and so the role of the trustee is as well. Your Chapter 13 case is based on a three-to-five-year payment plan. So a lot of it involves putting together, getting court approval for, and then implementing that payment plan. The plan usually greatly reduces what you need to pay to most of your creditors. It often allows you to pay much more to secured creditors and special “priority” creditors to achieve certain goals. Then by the end of your Chapter 13 case usually some of your debts have been paid off or else get written off then.

The Chapter 13 trustee is involved in every step of this process, and has various roles along the way.

Plan Requirements

The Chapter 13 payment plan you and your bankruptcy lawyer propose can have a fair amount of flexibility. But that plan also has to follow the law in many ways. The trustee’s first role is to ensure that your plan complies with legal requirements. So the trustee raises concerns about any aspects that he or she finds inappropriate. He or she works with you and your lawyer to adjust the plan accordingly. For example, the trustee tries to ensure you pay into your plan as much as the law requires you to. In this role the trustee acts on behalf of all the creditors, especially the unsecured ones. Usually these kinds of trustee concerns are resolved through compromise, or by having the bankruptcy judge decide the matter.

Monitoring the Plan

Your Chapter 13 plan is approved by the judge, usually about two or three months after you file your case. It’s approved, or “confirmed,” either as originally proposed or after it goes through some adjustments. After “confirmation” the trustee and his or her staff continues to monitor your case closely to see if you are complying with the plan throughout the three-to-five-years that it will likely take to complete. They make sure you’re making the monthly payments. They review your yearly income tax returns to see if your income stays reasonably stable. The trustee’s office contacts you and your lawyer about concerns that may arise. They can file a motion to dismiss your case if you don’t comply with your payment plan.

Disburse Payments to Creditors

The trustee collects payments from you and distributes the money according to the terms of the court-approved plan.  Related to this, the trustee’s staff reviews your creditors’ proofs of claim. These are documents filed by your creditors to show how much they claim you owe. The trustee may object to ones he or she believes are not appropriate. Then, when you have finished paying all that’s required under your plan, the trustee informs you and the bankruptcy court. Then the court discharges (writes off) the rest of your remaining debt (except for long-term debts like a home mortgage).

Final Comments

Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 trustees are not court employees but private individuals, carefully vetted and monitored. The Chapter 7 trustees are selected out of a “panel” of several trustees within each bankruptcy court. So your lawyer would usually not know which of the trustees from the panel would be assigned to your case. In contrast, there is usually only one “standing” Chapter 13 trustee assigned cases from each bankruptcy court or area. So your lawyer will usually know which Chapter 13 trustee will be assigned to your case.

 

Your Voluntary Dismissal of a Chapter 13 Case

August 25th, 2017 at 7:00 am

The Bankruptcy Code explicitly says that, at the request of the person in a Chapter 13 case, the bankruptcy “court shall dismiss” the case. 

 

The last three blog posts have been about amending, or “modifying,” your Chapter 13 payment plan. But what if you don’t want to be in the Chapter 13 case at all? Can you just end it altogether?

Yes, almost always you can end a Chapter 13 case, by getting it “dismissed.”.

A Clearly Stated, Special Right

You can dismiss a Chapter 13 case easily because the Bankruptcy Code says you can, and says so very clearly:

On request of the debtor at any time… the [bankruptcy] court shall dismiss a case under this chapter [13].

(Section 1307(b) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

Two parts of this deserve to be highlighted:

  1. You can ask for a dismissal “at any time”—at any point in the life of a Chapter 13 case. So you can dismiss it soon after filing, if you realize you’ve made a mistake and change your mind. And you can dismiss your case after your payment plan has been approved by the court, for example, if your circumstances change and you don’t want to be in it any more.  
  2. The law says that “the court shall” dismiss the case whenever you ask. This seems to mean that the bankruptcy court doesn’t have any choice about it. The wording isn’t that the court “may” but rather that it “shall” dismiss your Chapter 13 case.

As a result if you ever want your Chapter 13 case dismissed, usually within a day or so of your bankruptcy lawyer filing a motion to dismiss your case will be dismissed.

Be aware that there isn’t a similar statute enabling the easy dismissal of a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. So this is a powerful right special to Chapter 13.

Why Is This Reserved for Chapter 13?

Most likely Congress included this right to provide an incentive for people to file under Chapter 13. Naturally you’ll be more inclined to try a particular legal solution if you can always get out of it. The idea is to encourage people to pay part of their debts instead of writing them off under Chapter 7.

In fact Congress thought this right to dismiss so important that you can’t be forced to give it up. The statute finishes by saying: “Any waiver of [this] right to dismiss… is unenforceable.” (Section 1307(b)) You can‘t be forced to sign away this right by contract or otherwise.

The Importance of the Dismissal Option

A Chapter 13 case lasts a long time compared to a Chapter 7 case—usually 3 to 5 years. A lot can happen during that time. So it can be important to be able to get out.

The major reason you filed your case may no longer apply. For example, you may have filed to catch up on home mortgage payments but you get a job out of state. So now you decide to surrender or sell the home instead, and don’t need the Chapter 13 case.

Or your financial circumstances change so that you don’t need Chapter 13 help, or else it doesn’t help you enough. In the example of being behind on your mortgage, if you came into some money you might be able to quickly catch up and no longer need the time that Chapter 13 buys you. Or your income goes down significantly so that you can’t catch up even within the extended time Chapter 13 provides.

In these and countless other circumstances, it’s good to be able to get out if that’s your best option.

But IS Dismissal Your Best Option?

As easy as it is to do, simply dismissing the case is often not your best option. That’s because most likely you have debts which you would continue to owe. Chapter 13 does not result in a “discharge”—legal write-off—of your debts until its successful completion. So if you dismiss before then you will continue to owe those debts. It may be better to instead “convert” into a Chapter 7 case. But there are situations when dismissal is the best. We’ll address these issues in the next few blog posts.

Can You Definitely Dismiss Your Case If You Want To?

In spite of what we said about the clear language in the statute, there may be some extreme situations when a debtor could not dismiss a Chapter 13 case.

There has been debate among bankruptcy judges about this. Some have decided that in situations of serious debtor abuse or fraud, the debtor can’t escape the jurisdiction of the court by simply getting his or her case dismissed. There may be other statutes or legal principles that can defeat even the clearly stated right of dismissal.  So in limited situations a judge might prevent a Chapter 13 case from being dismissed. 

However, in the vast majority of situations, just about as soon as you ask your Chapter 13 case will be dismissed.

 

Plan Modification After It’s Court-Approved

August 23rd, 2017 at 7:00 am

It’s good to know that your Chapter 13 payment plan can be changed during the 3 to 5 years the case lasts to address changing circumstances.  

 

Last time we discussed making adjustments in your Chapter 13 plan during the first couple months of the case. That’s when you and your lawyer may adjust your plan to get court approval, or “confirmation.” Today we get into changes you may make to your payment plan AFTER confirmation.

Why Modify Your Plan After Confirmation?

A lot can happen during your Chapter 13 case, which will likely last 3 to 5 years.

  • Financial changes: Your income could go up or down; your expenses could do the same. If the changes are modest, that may not require a change in the terms of your plan. If they are more significant you may either benefit from changing your plan or you may be required to.
  • Goal changes: One or more of the goals of your case may have changed, resulting in changes to the plan. For example, you no longer want to keep your home because you got a job in a different state.
  • Legal assumption changes: Your plan might possibly get approved before some legal issue is resolved. For example, you may not yet know whether you’ll be able to establish that a big student loan debt qualifies for a “hardship discharge.” Or it may yet be clear whether a particular tax qualifies as a “priority” debt. Your plan may have to be modified depending on how such issues are resolved.
  • Planned-for changes:  Sometimes your lawyer puts together your Chapter 13 plan with the intent of modifying it later. For example, you intend to sell your home as soon as your two young adult children finish their schooling. So a couple of years into your case you modify your case reflecting that.

How Plans Are Modified After Confirmation

Changes to the terms of your Chapter 13 plan are made as follows:

  • After some change in your circumstances you and your bankruptcy lawyer discuss your options and you decide to modify your plan.
  • Based on information you provide him or her, the lawyer prepares the modified plan and any accompanying documents. Those documents include amended schedules of your income and expenses showing how those have changed.
  • You review and sign the modified plan and other documents; your lawyer files them at court. Copies are sent to all creditors or to all which are still legally involved.  (Those are mostly the ones who’ve filed proofs of claim in your case, confirming you owe them money). 
  • Creditors have an opportunity to object to the proposed modified plan. If one does your lawyer either resolves the objection informally with the creditor or else there’s a court hearing. (You very seldom need to attend such a hearing, but always can if you want to.) Often no one raises objections.
  • Once the deadline for objections has passed, or any objections are resolved, your new plan becomes the official plan in the case.

See Section 1329 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, “Modification of plan after confirmation.”

How Much Flexibility to Modify Your Plan

As we said a couple of blog posts ago, how much you can change your plan after it’s been court-approved is different in each case. Some plans have a huge amount of flexibility, some have very little.

Understandably a modified plan has to meet all the requirements of a Chapter 13 plan. Original plans that are on the edge of meeting the requirements tend to be harder to modify. Ones that easily meet the requirements tend to be easier.

An example of a plan that may be harder to modify is one in which a debtor fell far behind on a mortgage and is paying all they can afford in their plan to catch up. What happens if a couple years into their case their income significantly decreases or expenses increase? It may not be possible to reduce their plan payment to match what they can now afford. That’s because a plan can take no longer than 5 years. See Section 1329(c) of the Bankruptcy Code. If the original plan stretched payments out as long as possible there’s no flexibility to stretch them any further.

But there are many, many types of Chapter 13 plans with a lot of flexibility.

Take this example of a person who owes $4,000 in “priority” income taxes. This means these taxes can‘t be discharged under Chapter 7 and must be paid in full during a Chapter 13 plan. The original 3-year plan had monthly payments of $350 per month (covering all creditors). This was based on how much the person could afford. The remaining money beyond what was earmarked for the taxes went to pay the remaining creditors 30% of their debts. After a year of paying the $350 per month the person lost her job and got another one with $250 less net income. Her original plan can easily be modified to pay only $100 per month for the final two years. Why? That’s a total of $6,600  being paid into the plan. ($350 for the first 12 months and $100 for the remaining 24 = $4,200 + $2,400 = $6,600.) That’s more than enough to pay off the $4,000 in income taxes. The remaining creditors would receive much less than 30% but still receive all that the person can afford to pay. Assuming that the modified plan would meet all the other Chapter 13 requirements, it would be approved.

There are countless other kinds of successfully modifiable Chapter 13 plan. When you and your bankruptcy lawyer set up your original plan ask how modifiable it would likely be. You should not enter into a plan without discussing the scenarios in which it might need to be modified, and how successfully that could be done.

 

Chapter 13 Plan Modification

August 18th, 2017 at 7:00 am

Before committing to a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” it’s good to know that its plan can likely be “modified” if your situation changes. 

 

The Chapter 13 Plan

Chapter 13 is all about the payment plan. The point of Chapter 13 usually is to radically reduce most debts so you can afford to pay special debts. The Chapter 13 payment plan describes the details of how this is to happen.

For example, in your Chapter 13 plan you’ll pay a bunch of recent income taxes that can’t be discharged (written off) in a Chapter 7 case, while paying very little to the rest of your debts.

The most important practical aspect of such a plan is how much you will be paying each month—your plan payment. That payment generally covers all of your debts, although sometimes you’ll continue paying a mortgage or other secured debt directly.

The other main part of the plan describes which debts get paid, how much, and maybe when. Some debts are referred to by name in your plan, others just by category of debt. For example, the plan specifically lays out payment amounts going to a “priority” debt like the income taxes. But “general unsecured” debts are not named individually; the plan just states the anticipated percent-of-debt this category will be paid.

Here is a sample Chapter 13 plan form.

The Usual Procedure

A lot goes into preparing and getting approval for your plan, and then making it work.

Basically, your bankruptcy lawyer prepares a proposed Chapter 13 plan based on the information you provide him or her. He or she reviews and explains it to you in detail, making whatever changes are appropriate. The creditors have an opportunity to review the plan and raise objections based on alleged noncompliance with legal requirements. Often no creditors object, or only one or two do, and usually any objections are resolved. The Chapter 13 trustee carefully reviews the plan for legal compliance, and raises any concerns. This is usually done at the so-called Meeting of Creditors about a month after you file your case. Again, any objections are usually worked out.

Then the plan goes before the bankruptcy judge at the “confirmation hearing,” usually around two months after filing your case. If there were no objections or they’ve been resolved by then, the judge virtually always approves the plan. If there is a lingering objection sometimes the judge resolves it at that hearing. Or the judge may give the parties more time to resolve things by the time of an “adjourned confirmation hearing.”

Once the judge approves the plan through an Order Confirming Plan, that plan is essentially the law of your case.

Important to Know that Your Plan Can Be Modified

It’s important to realize that a lot goes into putting together and getting a Chapter 13 plan approved. But it’s also important to understand that the plan can usually be changed, or “modified.”

Most Chapter 13 plans last 3 to 5 years. That’s a long time to be living under one particular budget. So it helps to know that you’re not stuck with your original plan terms throughout this time.

Candidly, some Chapter 13 plans are put together with some doubt about whether a certain intended goal can be achieved. For example, you believe you can find a better job and increase your income during your Chapter 13 case. So you tie keeping your home (and catching up on the mortgage) onto that belief within your Chapter 13 plan. You need to know that if that higher income does not materialize that you can modify your plan (although you may also need to modify your goals).

Sometimes the goals themselves change. In the example of the better job, that job may unexpectedly come requiring a move to a different state. So now you may want to sell your home but remain in your Chapter 13 case because of other debts. It’s good to know that Chapter 13 gives you the flexibility often to adjust to even major life changes.

Limited Flexibility

Your Chapter 13 plan can stretch but that has limits. It’s good to get a feel of how much a plan can and cannot bend. We’ll explain this more in our next blog post or two.

 

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