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Chapter 13 and the Eviction Moratorium

September 21st, 2020 at 7:00 am

Use Chapter 13 to catch up on back rent that piles up during the eviction moratorium, so that you can stay in your rental long term. 

 

Our blog post two weeks ago was about a recent federal order temporarily stopping certain residential evictions throughout the country. Check out that blog post to see who is covered and how to take advantage of this eviction moratorium.

Asserting Your Right Not to Be Evicted

Assuming you qualify, you must act to assert your right not to be evicted. This mostly means you need to print up, review, sign, and give your landlord a two-page declaration form. Here is that Declaration form.

The Declaration starts with a quick explanation for how to use it, then lists the qualifying conditions you must meet. You have to be truthful about qualifying for the conditions, so read those carefully. You sign under penalty of perjury. So, “you can be prosecuted, go to jail, or pay a fine if you lie, mislead, or omit important information.”

Also, every adult renter included on “the lease, rental agreement, or housing contract should complete” it. Then get it to your landlord.

Important: as broad and clear the moratorium may seem, it is being interpreted differently by different state and local judges. For example, some judges believe that landlords can’t file eviction lawsuits at all. Others believe that they can be filed and processed, with only the eviction itself stopped by the moratorium. See this New York Times article about these inconsistencies: How Does the Federal Eviction Moratorium Work? It Depends Where You Live.

The Challenge Created by the Moratorium

Let’s assume you qualify and deliver the Declaration to your landlord. The big problem with the eviction moratorium is that it is temporary. It expires on December 31, 2020. Just as big of a problem is that it does not forgive any rental payments whatsoever. So even if you do everything right, you’d owe a pile of rent money on January 1, 2021. (You’d owe the piled up rent earlier if you earlier reach the point when can afford to pay rent again.)

So let’s now assume that you could afford to start paying your monthly rent in January 2021. (Or at any point earlier.) What to do with the months of back rent you owe then?

One option: move somewhere else and forever write off (“discharge”) the back rent with a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” See our last blog post about that, and other possible ways Chapter 7 may help.

But the challenge is if you really want to stay in your rental long term. Chapter 7 does not give you a reliable legal mechanism to pay the unpaid rent. Is there’s a better solution?

The Opportunity Created by Chapter 13

At the heart of a Chapter 13 case is a 3-to-5-year partial-payment plan. You and your bankruptcy lawyer prepare and file this plan at the bankruptcy court. Here’s the court’s official Chapter 13 Plan form.

Just as in Chapter 7, under Chapter 13 you have to choose whether to “accept” or “reject” your rental agreement. If you want to stay in your rental you have to “accept” the agreement and say so in your proposed plan. See Part 6 (starting on page 6, titled Executory Contracts and Unexpired Leases) of the Chapter 13 Plan form.

The crucial benefit under Chapter 13 is that generally you can catch-up on the accrued late rent payments over time. The payment plan that you submit contains the terms of repayment of those accrued rent payments. You could theoretically stretch those catch-up payments over the 3-to-5-year life of your plan.

The real beauty of Chapter 13 is that once your bankruptcy judge formally approves your payment plan, your landlord is forced to accept your repayments terms.

Landlord Challenges to Your Terms

Your landlord could object to the payment terms, before your Chapter 13 plan gets court approval. But you have a number of advantages.

First, your filing of the Chapter 13 stops the landlord from being able to proceed with eviction. This is true even if the national eviction moratorium had expired by then. The “automatic stay” imposed by any bankruptcy filing stops virtually any eviction proceeding in its tracks, at least temporarily. So time is more on your side.

Second, the landlord has the burden of objecting. If your plan shows that you can resume regular rent payments and presents a reasonable schedule for catching up on the late payments, the landlord may decide to accept your proposal. The landlord thereby avoids paying out more attorney fees. Under your proposed plan the landlord gets rent payments every month starting right away. Your plan should give the landlord some confidence in getting the back rent paid. The alternative is losing it all, and maybe another few months of no rent payments if you’re forced out.

Third, if the landlord does object to what you and your bankruptcy lawyer propose, there is often room for compromise. You have a lawyer on your side to look out for your interests. You’d likely be able to amend your Chapter 13 plan to satisfy both sides.  

More Chapter 13 Advantages

The way Chapter 13 works is that usually you pay “general unsecured” debts only to the extent that you can afford to do so. “General unsecured” debts are ones like medical bills, most credit cards, and such. Most likely you will want to pay your rental arrearage ahead of your “general unsecured” debts. Indeed you’ll be forced to if you want to stay in your rental.

The nice thing is that in many situations the money you need to pay for the past due rent reduces the amount you pay on your “general unsecured” debts. That’s because you can only afford to pay a certain amount to all of your debts over the course of your case. Your budget dictates that amount. The catch-up rent in effect comes out of what you’d otherwise have to pay the “general unsecured debts.

Another Chapter 13 advantage is that you can often delay paying certain debts until you’re better able to do so. For example, you may be able to pay less monthly on the back rent for several months, then more later. This may be because you anticipate increase in income, such as when a spouse returns to work. Or it may be because you anticipate a future reduction in expenses, such as paying off a vehicle loan.

Finally, Chapter 13 is flexible in other ways. You’re not necessarily tied into your payment plan forever. Its terms can shift with your changing financial circumstances even after it’s approved by the court. Or if you change your mind about staying in your rental, you can amend the terms of the plan. Or you can even convert into a Chapter 7 case and likely discharge whatever you then owe to the landlord.

 

Bankruptcy and the Eviction Moratorium

September 14th, 2020 at 7:00 am

  

The CDC’s recent order stopping all U.S. residential evictions gives you a new tool to use with some wise bankruptcy planning. 

 

Last week’s blog post was about a new federal order temporarily stopping certain residential evictions throughout the country. Please see that blog post about which renters and rental properties are covered, and how renters qualify for the moratorium.

If you are a tenant and are considering filing bankruptcy, this eviction moratorium can affect the timing and tactics of your filing. We start addressing that today.   

The Moratorium Ends on December 31, 2020

The most important aspects of the eviction moratorium are that it is temporary and does NOT forgive any rental payments. The “order prevents you from being evicted or removed from where you are living through December 31, 2020.”  However, “[y]ou are still required to pay rent… .”  

The obligation to pay the rent is just delayed. “[A]t the end of this temporary halt on evictions on December 31, 2020, [your] housing provider may require payment in full for all payments not made prior to and during the temporary halt… .” Your “failure to pay” then would make you subject to eviction at that point. 85 Federal Register 55292, 55297.

Note that you would almost certainly then owe more than just the missed rental payments. You also continue to be liable for “fees, penalties, or interest for not paying rent” imposed under your lease agreement. See Declaration, p. 2.

The Bankruptcy Timing Consequences—Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy”

Bankruptcy generally allows you to discharge—permanently write off—debts that you owe at the time you file the bankruptcy. It does not discharge future debts.

So one seemingly straightforward option is to delay filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, then file to discharge the accrued rent. Any other contractual fees and penalties could also be discharged. Assuming you qualify for the moratorium, this lets you live rent-free for several months.

The crucial practical question is whether you’d be able to continue living at this rental or would have to move.

The situation is relatively simple if you do move away at that point. You would be liable for any rent or other fees accrued after you and your bankruptcy lawyer file your case. That’s because again the bankruptcy discharge does not cover any obligations accrued after the filing. So you’d have to move before or at the time you file the Chapter 7 case. Or else you’d have to pay rent and any other fees accrued after the date of your bankruptcy filing.  

Staying at Your Rental after Filing a Chapter 7 Case

But could you discharge any pre-filing obligations to your landlord and continue living there by paying all after-filing obligations? There’s a legal answer and a practical one.

The legal answer is very likely “no.”  You have to pay the pre-filing obligations if you want to stay. After filing a Chapter 7 case you have a short time to decide to “accept or reject” the lease agreement. You have 60 days. If you “reject” it, you leave and then usually don’t owe any pre-filing obligations to your landlord. If you “accept” the lease agreement, you have a very limited time to pay any pre-filing obligations. If you don’t accept the lease agreement on time, your landlord can evict you.  Or if you do timely accept your lease but then don’t pay the pre-filing obligations on time, your landlord can also evict you. (See Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code on unexpired leases, one of its more complicated provisions.)

Notwithstanding all this, under some circumstances you might be able to persuade your landlord to let you stay. We live in crazy times. Your landlord may have multiple renters unable to pay their back rent, and may prefer that you stay. Your bankruptcy filing, in which you’re presumably discharging lots of other debts, will likely make you better able to afford your rent. The landlord may be open to negotiating something you can live with.

Obligation to Make Partial Rental Payments

Relatedly, be aware that to qualify for the eviction moratorium you have to try to make partial rental payments.  You have to certify the following:

I am using best efforts to make timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment as the individual’s circumstances may permit, taking into account other nondiscretionary expenses… 

85 Federal Register 55292, 55297.

The point of this is that it opens you and your bankruptcy lawyer to some creative planning and negotiations. You could agree with your landlord to make partial rent payments during the period before filing bankruptcy (which you could otherwise discharge). In return you or your bankruptcy lawyer could ask for the landlord’s flexibility about payment terms after your bankruptcy filing.  

Or more likely, you use the threat to reject the lease and discharge all the pre-filing debt as leverage. Instead you agree to accept the lease but pay only part of the debt and/or get payment terms you can tolerate.

A Chapter 13 Teaser

As you can see Chapter 7  is quite helpful, used with the eviction moratorium, if you’re leaving the rental property. You live there without paying the rent for months and then discharge that obligation in bankruptcy.

But if you want to stay, Chapter 7 leaves you to a large extent at the mercy of your landlord. You only get a bit of leverage, which may or may not work with your particular landlord.

What if you could legally force your landlord to give you much more time to catch up? What if you had many months to pay the rent not paid during the moratorium? In our next blog we’ll show you how a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case may let you do this.

 

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