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Archive for the ‘nondischargeability’ tag

“General Unsecured Debts” in Chapter 7

December 11th, 2017 at 8:00 am

In a Chapter 7 case all or most “general unsecured debts” get “discharged”—legally written off. That’s one of the big benefits of Chapter 7.  

 

Last time we said there are two kinds of unsecured debts, “priority” and “general unsecured”:

  • “Priority” debts are those that the law treats as special for various reasons. Past-due child support and unpaid recent income taxes are “priority” debts. The law treats them as special, by treating them much better than other unsecured debts. You can find a list of all the priority debts at Section  507 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
  • “General unsecured” debts are simply the rest of the unsecured debts, those that aren’t “priority.”  “General unsecured” debts include most unsecured ones. Examples are almost all medical and credit card debts, retail accounts, personal loans, many payday and internet loans, unpaid utilities and other similar bills, claims against you arising out accidents or other bodily injuries, damages arising from contracts and business disputes, overdrawn checking accounts, bounced checks, the remaining debt after a vehicle repossession or real estate foreclosure, and countless other kinds. If the debt is not secured, and isn’t “priority,” then its “general unsecured.”

We’ll get into “priority” debts later. Today’s post is about how “general unsecured” debts are dealt with in Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.

The Discharge of Debts

The main goals of a Chapter 7 case are 1) to stop creditors’ collection actions against you and then 2) to discharge as many of your debts as possible.

First, creditor collections are virtually all stopped by the “automatic stay.” This includes general unsecured debts. We discussed the automatic stay in our blog post of November 22, 2017. We compared how it works in Chapter 7 and 13. Also, see Section 362 of the Bankruptcy Code about it.

Second, in most Chapter 7 cases all “general unsecured debts” get discharged. See Section 727 of the Bankruptcy Code about the discharge of debts.

The discharge happens quite quickly. About 100 days after your bankruptcy lawyer files your case, the bankruptcy court enters a discharge order. Here is a very straightforward version of the Order of Discharge, consisting basically of this single short sentence: “A discharge under 11 U.S.C.  [the Bankruptcy Code] is granted to [Debtor].” Your assigned bankruptcy judge signs this order.

The Effect of Discharge

The effect of this discharge order is explained right on this form order, stating:

Creditors cannot collect discharged debts

This order means that no [creditor] may make any attempt to collect a discharged debt from the debtors personally. For example, creditors cannot sue, garnish wages, assert a deficiency, or otherwise try to collect from the debtors personally on discharged debts. Creditors cannot contact the debtors by mail, phone, or otherwise in any attempt to collect the debt personally. Creditors who violate this order can be required to pay debtors damages and attorney’s fees.

Most General Unsecured Debts Get Discharged

“Priority” debts don’t get discharged. For example, unpaid child or spousal support can never be discharged. Nor can recent income taxes.

But most general unsecured debts do get discharged. There are some exceptions. We’ll cover those next time.

 

Two Examples of Bankruptcy Timing with Medical Debts

September 20th, 2017 at 7:00 am

How to know whether to delay filing bankruptcy when you’re expecting new medical services and their medical debts?  Here are two examples.   


Our last blog post was about the importance of timing your bankruptcy filing to include more of your debts.

One example we used was of a person with unresolved medical issues requiring ongoing medical care. That person could be overwhelmed by medical and other debts already owed. But he or she may wonder whether it would be wise to hold off on filing bankruptcy until the anticipated medical debts were incurred and so could be included.

We’ll now present two examples of this situation, each with different facts. We’ll show how these different facts resulted in these two people getting quite different legal advice.

Jeremy’s Facts

Jeremy is 30 years old, and single. He was in a car accident a year ago, resulting in serious injuries and huge medical bills. He’s not yet medically stable. He was underinsured, so that a big chunk of his medical expenses were covered but a lot were not. Because he’s maxed out his vehicle insurance coverage he’ll be liable for most of his future medical expenses.

Jeremy currently owes $50,000 in medical debts, plus another $60,000 in credit cards and various other unsecured debts. In the next year or so he expects to add on another $30,000 to $40,000 in medical bills.

Jeremy does not have much in assets. His current income is low, as are his immediate prospects. That’s largely because he’s working a limited schedule as a result of his injuries, medical appointments and surgeries. He was in the military and so didn’t finish college until a couple of years ago. His future income prospects are quite good.

Should Jeremy File Bankruptcy Now or Wait?

If Jeremy would file bankruptcy now, it wouldn’t write off (“discharge”) his upcoming $30-40,000 in medical bills. A year from now he’ll be back in the hole that much.

He could then try to negotiate his way to paying reduced amounts. And if his income increases he may end up being able to pay off his debts, eventually. But that is not a satisfactory solution.

His bankruptcy lawyer instead advises that he wait to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” until he became medically stable and had incurred most or all of his medical debts.

Jeremy has limited exposure to harm by his creditors in the meantime. All of his assets are “exempt”—worth little enough to be fully protected from his creditors, even outside bankruptcy. His income is sporadic and low enough that he’d lose little if his wages were garnished. Jeremy hasn’t been sued yet. That may be in part because his creditors don’t see him as a good prospect for forced collection.

So Jeremy does wait, finishes his surgeries and other medical procedures, racking up another $35,000 in medical bills, and then files a Chapter 7 case to discharge all of his debts.

Mary’s Facts

Mary is 65 years old, also single. She had a heart attack two years ago. Like Jeremy she owes $50,000 in medical debts, plus another $60,000 in credit cards and various other unsecured debts. Her heart ailment is a chronic condition which will definitely require medical attention the rest of Mary’s life.

She works full time in the same job she’s had for a decade. Her income is modest but high enough so that if her wages were garnished she would lose a significant amount.

Indeed she just got served with a lawsuit by her largest medical creditor for $10,000. This creditor likely sued knowing that it could likely get paid through wage garnishments.

Should Mary File Bankruptcy Now or Wait?

Because Mary just turned 65 years old she now qualifies for Medicare. She expects to have both Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (medical insurance). She understands that these will pay for most of her anticipated medical costs.

So with her future medical expenses largely taken care of, there is no reason for Mary to wait to file bankruptcy. The just-filed lawsuit for $10,000 is good reason not to wait. If she files a Chapter 7 case through her bankruptcy lawyer before her deadline to respond to the lawsuit, she will prevent it from turning into a judgment and then a garnishment.

So Mary does just that. She files the Chapter 7 case, stops the lawsuit in its tracks, and within about 100 days discharges that $10,000 and all the rest of her debts. She gets a fresh financial start heading into her retirement years.

A Moral and Legal Note

Note that incurring a debt, medical or otherwise, when you intend not to pay it is questionable, legally and morally.

The moral question is a personal one. If it’s a matter of your life and death, or even just of your health more broadly, it’s likely defensible to have a surgery or other medical procedure done even if you knew you couldn’t pay for it and intended to discharge the resulting debt in bankruptcy.

The legal question is clearer but still murky. The law does not approve of incurring a debt when you don’t intend to pay it. That can be considered fraud on the creditor. It may turn on the facts of the case. If you’re in the midst of a medical emergency you may not be conscious and able to give your consent for medical services.  Also, most medical creditors don’t raise objections base on issues of fraud in bankruptcy. And when they don’t raise this issue by a quick deadline, they lose the opportunity to do so in the future. So this legal problem usually resolves itself in this practical way.

Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about these moral and legal issues if you are considering delaying your bankruptcy filing in order to include future debts.

 

Suing a Creditor in Bankruptcy

March 10th, 2017 at 8:00 am

Sue a creditor to confirm that a debt will be discharged, or to punish the creditor for violating the automatic stay or the discharge order. 

 

Last time we got into the advantages of using bankruptcy court to sue your creditor. Some of the advantages are:

  • The issues that can be raised by a debtor in bankruptcy court are narrow. This makes for simpler litigation, and a less expense way to resolve a dispute. That’s crucial when money’s tight.
  • Bankruptcy court is usually much faster and more efficient than state courts. This saves you both aggravation and money.
  • You already have your bankruptcy attorney in your corner, familiar with you and your circumstances, and likely very experienced in the narrow legal issue in dispute.

So what are the specific issues that you can sue a creditor for in bankruptcy court? We introduce three of the main ones today.

1) Discharging a Questionable Debt

Most debts are clearly either discharged—legally written off in bankruptcy—or they are not. A medical debt is virtually always dischargeable. A criminal fine is never.

But sometimes it’s not so clear, for one of two sets of reasons.

First, sometimes it’s not clear whether the debt in question fits that category of not dischargeable debts.

In our last blog post we gave an example of a dispute about spousal support. Genuine spousal support is never discharged in bankruptcy. Neither is a debt that the divorce court may not call spousal support but might be considered “in the nature of support.” (See Section 101(14A)(B) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) But property settlement debts can be discharged under Chapter 13. Our recent example referred to a debtor’s obligation in a divorce to sign over a vehicle to the ex-spouse in return for a reduction in support payments for one year. Would that obligation to sign over the vehicle be “in the nature of support” or not? It may be worth getting your bankruptcy court to decide that it is not, so that the obligation can be discharged and you can keep the vehicle.

Second, and much more common, there are certain kinds of debts that may or may not be discharged depending on the circumstances. Income taxes are a good example. An income tax debt can be discharge just like any straightforward debt under certain circumstances. Most of those circumstances are relatively easy to determine if they apply, dealing with fixed events like how long ago the pertinent tax return was filed. But they can involve more ambiguous considerations such as whether the taxpayer “willfully attempted in any manner to evade or defeat such tax.” (Section 523(a)(1)(C).) It may be worth litigating that to discharge a large tax debt.

2) Punishing a Creditor for Violating the Automatic Stay

The automatic stay is one of the most immediate and important benefits of filing bankruptcy. It’s the law that stops creditors from pursuing you and your assets the moment you file. (See Section 362.) It lets you catch your breath, and protects you throughout your case. The automatic stay enables the bankruptcy process to work by making everyone play by the same rules.

Creditors generally respect the automatic stay and comply with it. That’s in part because they can be punished quite strongly if they don’t. (Section 362(k).) Every once in a while a creditor keeps garnishing wages or takes some other action in spite of knowing about your bankruptcy case.

If you get harmed by such illegal behavior you can sue the creditor for violating the automatic stay. Your overly aggressive creditor may not only have to pay back your damages. It would likely have to pay your lawyer’s fees in this “adversary proceeding.” It may have to pay you significant “punitive damages” to punish it for its illegal action. The bankruptcy system relies on creditors’ compliance with the law and sometimes has to slap them into playing fair.

If a creditor takes any collection action against you after you file your case, immediately tell your bankruptcy lawyer. You may end up benefitting from your creditors misdeeds.

3) Punishing a Creditor for Violating the Discharge

Similarly, creditors usually, but not absolutely always, comply with the discharge of your debts. That is the court order at the end of your Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case stating that your debts are discharged—forever legally gone. Among other things the discharge

operates as an injunction against the commencement or continuation of an action, the employment of process, or an act, to collect, recover or offset any such debt as a personal liability of the debtor

(Section 524(a)(2).)

Naturally, it’s illegal for creditors to pursue you for a debt after it’s been discharged. Most never do. But there are some unscrupulous collection companies that do, often many years later. This is not something to lose sleep about because most people aren’t affected. But it’s something to keep in the back of your mind as you regularly monitor your credit reports in the years after you finish your bankruptcy case.

 

Creditors Paid Nothing under Chapter 13

December 19th, 2016 at 8:00 am

Chapter 13 payment plans usually have you pay something to all of your creditors. But not necessarily. Certain creditors may get nothing. 

 

Our last blog post was about the “discharge”—the permanent write-off—of debts through a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.” This discharge happens at the end of a successful case, which usually takes 3 to 5 years.

Misconceptions about Chapter 13

Although 3 to 5 years may sound like a long time, the length can actually be a big advantage. You have more time to catch up on or pay off debts that you either want to or must pay. So what seems like a disadvantage could actually be an advantage. 

There are lots of other misconceptions about how Chapter 13 works. That’s partly because it is such a flexible option. Chapter 13 cases can be very different from each another, with each addressing the unique circumstances of each person. So that leads to some confusion, as you hear about something in one case that may have little or nothing to do with how Chapter 13 would work for you.

One misconception is related to an objection often raised about Chapter 13: why pay my creditors all or part of what I owe them when I could just discharge those debts entirely in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case?

Actually, often in Chapter 13 you pay some creditors nothing at all. Sometimes even all of your creditors receive nothing, expect those you want or need to pay.

A Standard Chapter 13 Case

In maybe the most standard kind of Chapter 13 case (if there is such a thing!), you pay certain special debts in full and you pay other more ordinary debts only a percentage of what you owe, and often only a small percentage. The special debts you pay are often those secured by collateral you want to keep. So you may be catching up on a home mortgage arrearage or “cramming down” a vehicle loan. Oher special debts are ones that can’t be discharged in Chapter 7. Examples include recent income tax debt or unpaid child or spousal support.

Then your remaining “disposable income” goes towards the rest of your debts. Usually you pay those “general unsecured” debts only whatever’s left over. If the special debts you are paying in full are relatively small and your “disposable income” left over each month is relatively large, you could pay a relatively high percentage of what you owe on the “general unsecured” debts. But more often you don’t have much money left over and so you end up paying just a drop in the bucket of what you owe on those debts.

Debts Paid Nothing

So how could you pay nothing at all on certain debts in a Chapter 13 case? Here are four circumstances that would happen:

  1. No money available for “general unsecured” debts because ALL of your “disposable income” is spent on your special debts.
  2. A creditor does not file a proof of claim on the debt, or does not do so on time. So you don’t pay anything on that debt.
  3. Your bankruptcy lawyer objects to a creditor’s proof of claim. Then the creditor either fails to respond on time or you prevail on that objection.
  4. At some point in your Chapter 13 case your circumstances significantly change. So your lawyer converts your case into a Chapter 7 one, discharging all or most of your debts in full.

We’ll cover each one of these in our next 4 blog posts. This will give you a better idea how Chapter 13 really works.

 

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