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Archive for the ‘support enforcement’ tag

A Chapter 13 Plan to Catch up on Past-Due Support

February 3rd, 2020 at 8:00 am

Here’s an example of a Chapter 13 payment plan to pay past-due child and/or spousal support, showing how you can catch up safely and sanely

 

Today we put what we explained in the last three weeks of blog post into a sample Chapter 13 plan. It shows how powerfully Chapter 13 helps you if you owe past due child and/or spousal support. A Chapter 13 filing protects you from the aggressive collection of overdue support, immediately and as long as needed. And through the Chapter 13 payment plan you get a reasonable and even peaceful way to catch up on support.

The Example

Assume you’ve fallen behind on both child and spousal support because your income was interrupted. You owe $6,000 in past-due support. You’re back at work so you can now pay your ongoing monthly support but have no way to catch up. You have too many other debts.

Your ex-spouse’s support enforcement agency is poised to garnish your wages for the past-due support. If they did so you wouldn’t be able to pay your vehicle loan payment and you’d lose your vehicle.

Assume that the divorce decree requires you to pay $900 in monthly child support and $600 in monthly spousal support, $1,500 total, for 5 more years. So the $6,000 in past-due support represents 4 months of missed payments.

You got a good deal on the vehicle loan. So the vehicle is worth about as much as you owe on it—$10,000. Your monthly payments are $425 per month, with 25 more payments to go.

Besides the $5,000 in past-due support and the vehicle loan, you owe $95,000 in other debts. These other debts are all unsecured credit cards and medical bills—“general unsecured debts” under bankruptcy law. If you pay the monthly payments on the credit cards you have no money left for the medical debts, much less the $1,500 in ongoing support payments. You are in a very tight financial box.

Chapter 13 gets you out of that box fast, and solves these problems permanently.

Your Chapter 13 Budget and “Disposable Income”

Filing a Chapter 13 case stops the collection of past due support immediately. See our blog posts of 2 and 3 weeks ago about this works and the conditions you must meet. See the blog post of last week about how the Chapter 13 plan gives you a safe and flexible way to catch up on the support. Today’s example brings all this together.

In a Chapter 13 case you and your bankruptcy lawyer put together a monthly budget of your income and expenses. That budget gives you money to pay your ongoing monthly support as well as you own reasonable expenses. See Subsection 1325(b)(2)(A)(i) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The amount left over is your monthly “projected disposable income.” See Section 1325(b)(1)(B)  of the Bankruptcy Code.

The way this works is your monthly expenses exclude any debt payments. Your expenses DO include the $1,500 in child and support payments since that’s a required ongoing expense. But your expenses don’t include any money for the past-due support since that part is a debt.

Your expenses for determining your disposable income also don’t include the $425 vehicle loan payment. That is of course a debt as well.

Assume that after subtracting all of your monthly expenses (including the $1,500 in support) your monthly “projected disposable income” is $500. You commit to paying that amount to all of your creditors for the following 3 years in your Chapter 13 payment plan.  

The Chapter 13 Plan

Paying $500 per month for 3 years would in most situations be enough to take care of all your debts. This includes the $6,000 in past-due support. At the end of 3 years you would have paid off the vehicle loan, caught up on the support, and be free and clear on all your other debts.

How could this be when you owe $425 per month on just your vehicle loan? And what about the $95,000 in credit card and medical debts? How could just $500 per month over 3 years cover ALL of these debts?

This is possible for the following main reasons. Chapter 13 usually allows you to:

  1. Delay paying the past-due support until your plan pays certain other debts first—here the vehicle loan.
  2. Pay the general unsecured debts only as much as you have disposable income to pay them. The rest is forever written off (“discharged”).

In this present example $525 per month for 36 months provides a total of $18,900 to pay on all the debts. About $10,665 of that would go to the $10,000 vehicle loan (the extra amount being interest). $6,000 would go to pay the past-due support.

That leaves $2,235. The Chapter 13 trustee (who receives and distributes your $525 payments) gets a fee. In this case assume 5% of every dollar that flows through the plan, or $945 here.

That now leaves $1,290. Your bankruptcy lawyer gets paid out of your plan to the extent you didn’t pay him or her in advance. Most or all of that $1,290 would like go to your lawyer.

This leaves nothing for the $95,000 in general unsecured debts. In many circumstances that’s allowed. It’s called a 0% Chapter 13 plan—paying the general unsecured debts 0% of the debt amounts.

The Result Here

In this example you could stop paying all your debts when you filed your Chapter 13 case. Support enforcement would immediately stop as to the past-due support. All other collection of debts would stop as well. You would have a budget enabling you to take care of all your reasonable and necessary expenses. That would include your ongoing monthly support obligations. You would protect your vehicle loan and your vehicle.

After 3 years you’d have paid off your vehicle loan, caught up on support, paid all expenses of the Chapter 13 case, and paid nothing on the general unsecured debts and yet no longer owe anything on them. This is an incredibly good result.

Other Possibilities

In many circumstances Chapter 13 gives you results this good as to your past-due support and otherwise. But in other circumstances Chapter 13 is extremely helpful yet not as perfect results. For example, your case may take longer than 3 years—it can be as long as 5 years. You may have to pay general unsecured debts something instead of nothing, sometimes even a significant percentage. This blog post has been long enough so we’ll look at such other scenarios next week.

 

Catching up on Support through Chapter 13

January 27th, 2020 at 8:00 am

Chapter 13 gives you a powerful, reasonable, flexible, and even calm procedure for catching up on your past-due child or spousal support. 

 

The last two weeks we’ve shown how Chapter 13 can stop the collection of unpaid child and spousal support. First we talked about how this benefit is much better than Chapter 7 can provide. Then we focused on the ongoing conditions you must meet to keep up this protection.

But there’s a second benefit of Chapter 13 that deserves attention. It doesn’t just stop the collection of unpaid support. Chapter 13 provides a powerfully flexible way to catch up on that support debt.

Why This Is a Huge Benefit

Whatever child or spousal support you owe at the time of your bankruptcy filing, you can’t write off (“discharge”). It’s among the relatively few kinds of debts that bankruptcy does not discharge under any circumstances. See U.S. Bankruptcy Code Sections 523(a)(5) and 101(14A). So you have to pay it, whether you file bankruptcy or not. Whether you file Chapter 7 or 13 or any other kind of bankruptcy.

So this is a debt you have to pay. The issue is what is the easiest, most financially sensible and low-stress way to do so. 

As we discussed in our blog post 3 weeks ago, Chapter 7 doesn’t help much. It doesn’t stop the collection of unpaid support at all. You’re on your own catching up on any unpaid support.

Chapter 13 does stop the collection of unpaid support immediately, and continues to protect you as long as you meet some ongoing conditions.  What Chapter 13 also does is provide you the tool to pay off the support debt. That tool is a court-approved payment plan for all your debts, based on what you can actually afford to pay. That payment plan enables you to catch up on your support debt over time. The plan works into your budget all your other debts—especially other debts very important to you. So you can catch up on your support at a sensible pace without being hounded about it.

How the Chapter 13 Payment Plan Works

How could this possibly work in real life? Consider the following:

  1. The Chapter 13 payment plan is based on your actual income and reasonable expenses.
  2. The plan prioritizes debts in a way that’s generally in your favor.
  3. Other debts sometimes get your money ahead of the support debt, usually to your benefit.
  4. You have 3-to-5-years to catch up on all your unpaid support debt.

We’ll take these four one at a time.

1. Based on Actual Income and Expenses

The Chapter 13 payment plan usually involves a single monthly payment to all of your creditors. (Although sometimes a special debt is paid separately, like a home mortgage.) That single monthly payment is based on what you can actually afford to pay. It’s based on your actual income and reasonable expenses. The income is a projection based on your very best estimate of how much you’ll make each month. The expenses try to cover all your expenses, including ones that don’t happen every month. (For example, vehicle maintenance and repairs, and medical expenses.)

The point is to determine how much you can truly and reasonably afford to pay monthly in a sustainable way. It should not cause you anxiety. You should feel confident that you can fulfill your payment plan.

2. Prioritizing Debts

A Chapter 13 plan basically divides debts into those you must pay in full and those you pay only as much as you can afford to pay. 

The unpaid support debt is in the first category. This category may also include other such must-pay debts like recent income taxes. It can also include secured debts like vehicle or mortgage obligations.

The second category usually includes all other debts—your “general unsecured” debts. These you usually pay only as much as you can, if there’s any money left over for them at all.

So Chapter 13 lets you focus your limited financial resources on those debts that you need to pay. And it gives you an extended time to pay them, so that you can afford to do so.

3. Paying Other Debts Ahead of Support

Outside the protection of Chapter 13, arguably no debts come ahead of unpaid support. That’s because the law makes the support enforcement collection tools so powerful.

But within the protection of a Chapter 13 case and plan, those aggressive collection tools are tamed. So you don’t necessarily pay an unpaid support debt first in the plan. You may have other debts—especially a secured debt or two—that you can pay first. So if you are behind on your mortgage, or doing a cram-down on your vehicle loan, you can often pay these ahead of your support debt.   If you owe other “priority” debts like recent income taxes, your plan usually pays your support debt along with such other important debts.

With Chapter 13 you’re not at the mercy of these important creditors. Your court-approved payment plan gives you a great way to deal with them all, including the support.  

4. Pay Off Unpaid Support by Case Completion

As mentioned, you have as long as 5 years to catch up on your unpaid support. Your official plan does need to include enough money to accomplish that (and everything else that must get paid). And you do need to fulfill the terms of that plan successfully to the end. Of course if you have an ongoing support obligation you have to keep paying that. (It will be included in your monthly expenses.)

Then by the end of your payment plan you will be current on your support. You’ll have paid off or gotten current on all your other special debts. Whatever you haven’t paid on your general unsecured debts will get discharged. And you’ll be free and clear of all debts.

 

Conditions for Stopping Support Collections in Chapter 13

January 19th, 2020 at 8:00 am

Chapter 13 immediately stops the collection of past-due child or spousal support. But to keep that protection you must meet some conditions.  


Last week we showed how Chapter 13 stops the collection of unpaid child and spousal support, while Chapter 7 doesn’t. But we ended by emphasizing that anyone can quickly lose this huge benefit of Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts”. Avoiding this requires strictly complying with some conditions. These conditions are arguably sensible ones. But you need to know and understand them so you don’t lose this crucial Chapter 13 benefit. Because these conditions are so important we focus today’s entire blog post on them.

Ongoing Child and Spousal Support

But before we get to these conditions we need to make a strong point. We’re talking here about child and/or spousal support that is unpaid, past-due, at the time of the bankruptcy filing. This past-due support is different from ongoing support. 

Ongoing support is the support you need to keep paying, usually on a monthly basis, after your bankruptcy lawyer files your bankruptcy case. Past-due support is any amount of support that you’re behind on as of that filing date.  Ongoing support is the support due after that filing date.

Filing bankruptcy does NOT stop the collection of any ongoing support, under either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. The “automatic stay” that protects you from creditor collections does not apply. (See Section 362(b)(2)(B) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code—where ongoing support is called “domestic support obligation.”) So, if you are paying support by direct payments, you need to keep paying those after filing bankruptcy.  If you are paying through a payroll deduction or by garnishment, those should continue. You can only change those forward-looking payments through the divorce court which ordered them.

Chapter 13 only stops the collection of past-due support—which, again, Chapter 7 does not. (Past-due support is also sometimes called support arrears or support arrearage.) So the conditions we discuss now are ones you need to meet to stop the collection of past-due support.

Inform Your Collector of Support

Your bankruptcy lawyer’s Chapter 13 filing will immediately stop the collection of past-due support.  This does assume that either you or your lawyer informs your ex-spouse or the support enforcement agency about your Chapter 13 filing. The automatic stay applies at the moment of filing, but the creditor needs to know about it to be able to comply. Coordinate this with your lawyer.

Most support enforcement agencies understand this special power of Chapter 13 and will comply immediately. Although sometimes it may take some lawyerly persuasion.

Ex-spouses are more likely under the misimpression that your Chapter 13 filing has no effect whatsoever on your support obligation. He or she probably has never heard about this special benefit of Chapter 13 for past-due support. If so, your lawyer will likely contact him or her, or his or her lawyer if there is one, to inform him or her about the law.  

The Conditions to Avoid Collection of Past-Due Support

Once the automatic stay stops collection of past-due support, you’ll lose this benefit if you don’t maintain the following conditions:

1) keep current on your ongoing support

2) show in your Chapter 13 payment plan how you will pay off all the support arrearage during the 3–to-5-year life of the plan

3) consistently make your Chapter 13 plan payments so that you are in fact making continued progress towards paying off the past-due support

4) finish your Chapter 13 case successfully, which includes paying off the entire past-due support

Let’s look at these one by one.

1) Keep Current on Ongoing Support

Assuming you continue to owe ongoing support, you absolutely must keep paying it as long as you are obligated to. Otherwise you’d be going financially backwards instead of forwards. You’d be called on it by the support enforcement agency or your ex-spouse. The very likely result would be that you’d lose the automatic stay protection against collection of the past-due support.

Plus you need to be very strict on the timing. You have to pay the monthly payments precisely by the due dates. Otherwise there’s a good chance that your ex-spouse/support enforcement will inform the bankruptcy court and ask permission to resume collection.

In particular be fully aware of the first support payment due after your Chapter 13 case filing date. For example, if your case is filed on January 25 and your monthly support payments are due on the first of every month, you need to make that first after-filing support payment by February 1. Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about the timing of your Chapter 13 filing so that you have the funds to pay that first support payment.            

2) Payment Plan Includes Planned Pay-off

Bankruptcy law requires you to pay off all your past-due support during the 3–to-5-year life of the plan. Your Chapter 13 lawyer will make the necessary calculations to show how you will so so. Your monthly plan payments will be based on what you can afford to pay to all of your creditors. Incorporated into those monthly payments is money that will go to pay off the past -due support. You and your lawyer have to show that these plan payments are enough to accomplish this.

Otherwise your ex-spouse/support enforcement agency can object to the plan. He/she/it could also ask for permission to resume collections because the plan would not catch up on the past-due support.

3) Make ALL Chapter 13 Plan Payments 

Your Chapter 13 plan not only has to pencil out correctly, but you also must pay the plan payments timely. Otherwise you’re not doing what you agreed to do in the court-approved plan.  Paying the plan payments on time shows that you are actually making continued progress towards paying off the past-due support.

If you got late on the plan payments, your Chapter 13 trustee could ask that your case get thrown out. (The trustee is the person you pay your plan payments to, and who then pays your creditors.) Or any creditor—including your ex-spouse/support enforcement agency—could do the same. Or could just ask for permission to resume collection.

4) Finish Your Chapter 13 Case

So if you have a good payment plan, and you make all the payments, you’ll eventually complete it successfully. (Your plan very likely has some other requirements and this assumes you comply with them as well.) When you complete your plan, you will have paid off the entire past-due support. So it’s really important that you get all the way to the end of your Chapter 13 case successfully.

 

Unpaid Child and Spousal Support in Chapter 13

January 13th, 2020 at 8:00 am

Chapter 13 DOES stop the collection of unpaid child or spousal support from your after-filing income and other assets. Chapter 7 does NOT.    

Last week we discussed situations in which Chapter 7 would help if you’re behind on child or spousal support payments. We made clear that Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” provides only limited help. Mostly it gives you relief from your other debts so that you can concentrate on catching up on support.  Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” is a much more powerful option when Chapter 7 is not enough.

The Main Benefits of Chapter 13 When Behind on Support

Chapter 13 takes much, much longer than Chapter 7, and is generally more expensive. But it provides some remarkable benefits compared to Chapter 7. These benefits can make the longer time and greater expense of Chapter 13 more than worthwhile. The main benefits of Chapter 13 are that:

1) Filing Chapter 13 immediately stops the collection of unpaid child or spousal support. Chapter 7 does not.

2) Chapter 13 gives you a relatively flexible and protected way to catch up on the support. With Chapter 7 you have to make your own payment arrangements, without any protection or much leverage.

Basically, have a serious conversation with your bankruptcy lawyer about Chapter 13 if you need these significant benefits.

How Does Chapter 13 Stop the Collection of Unpaid Support?

Chapter 7 is a very straightforward kind of bankruptcy. It focuses on a point in time: the moment your bankruptcy lawyer files your Chapter 7 case. Your case essentially imagines your financial life frozen in time at that moment, including your debts and assets, income and expenses, and such.

Chapter 13 also cares a lot about your financial life at the moment of filing. But it also takes a longer view—the next 3 to 5 years of your court-approved payment plan. In particular, Chapter 13 is designed to protect you during that period of time from your ongoing creditors.

Chapter 7 mostly just writes off (“discharges”) certain debts and does not discharge others. It leaves you on your own to deal with those debts you still owe, such as support.

In contrast, in Chapter 13 the protection from creditors—the “automatic stay”—can last the full 3-to-5 years.  Specifically regarding spousal and child support owed at the time of filing, the automatic stay protects your employment income earned after the filing. This means that as of your filing date your paycheck is protected from wage garnishment or other kinds of forced payment.

Why Doesn’t This Happen under Chapter 13 But Not 7?

Here’s the legal answer. (You can skip this section if you don’t need this level of detail.)

The pertinent federal bankruptcy statute states that the automatic stay does not stop the collection of support out of “property that is not property of the [bankruptcy] estate.” See Subsection 362(b)(2)(B) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.  This means that a bankruptcy filing does stop the collection from property that is “property of the bankruptcy estate.”

In a Chapter 7 case the bankruptcy estate is essentially everything you own at the moment of filing the case. See Subsection 541 of the Bankruptcy Code on “Property of the estate” generally. This does not include what you earn and assets you acquire after that moment. Since those after-filing earnings and assets are not “property of the estate,” they can be targeted for support collection.

Chapter 13 is different for a simple reason: “the estate” does include after-filing earnings and assets. Only under Chapter 13 the estate includes “earnings from services performed by the debtor after the commencement of the case.” See Subsection 1306(a)(2).

This means that the automatic stay legally prevents your ex-spouse or support enforcement agency from continuing or starting to collect on your unpaid child or spousal support you’re your after-filing earnings the moment your bankruptcy lawyer files your Chapter 13 case. This is true even though a Chapter 7 filing would have absolutely no such effect.

This Chapter 13 Protection Comes with Important Conditions

We said that the automatic stay can last the entire 3-to-5-year period of your Chapter 13 payment plan. But especially when it comes to unpaid support that protection comes with some conditions.

Why are there conditions? Imagine the example of a vehicle loan. You want to keep the vehicle and prevent your lender from repossessing it. The automatic stay can protect your vehicle under Chapter 13 during the entire length of the case. But you have to meet some reasonable conditions like making payments and keeping the vehicle insured. If you don’t, the creditor can get the court to exclude the debt from being covered by the automatic stay. It can get permission to repossess your vehicle after all.

It’s similar with child and spousal support debt. Here the conditions are very time sensitive and are often enforced very strictly. Being able to stop support collection is a huge benefit of Chapter 13. It may even be a major reason for choosing this more time-consuming option. You don’t want to lose this benefit because you didn’t clearly understand and comply with the conditions.

Because of how important these conditions are, we’ll dedicate all of next week’s blog post to them.

 

Bankruptcy Does Not Write Off Child or Spousal Support Debts

March 11th, 2019 at 7:00 am

Child support and spousal support debts cannot get written off in bankruptcy. But is your specific divorce debt legally considered support? 

 

We’re in a series of blog posts about special kinds of debt which bankruptcy may not discharge—write off.  So far we’ve covered criminal fines and restitution, and income taxes.

Child and spousal support are more like criminal debts than like income taxes. Bankruptcy simply does not discharge a criminal debt, as long as it really is a criminal, not civil, obligation.  Bankruptcy does discharge income tax debts that meet certain conditions. Bankruptcy simply does not discharge child and spousal support, IF it fits bankruptcy’s definition of support.

No Discharge of Support

Bankruptcy law is clear that neither Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” nor Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” discharges support debts.

Section 523 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code lists the “Exceptions to discharge.” It includes that “A discharge under [Chapter 7] does not discharge an individual debtor from any debt—(5) for a domestic support obligation… “ Section 523(a)(5).

Chapter 13 says the same thing by incorporating this Chapter 7 exception to discharge in its own list of exceptions.  Section 1328(a)(2).

What’s Considered Support in Bankruptcy?

So if you owe a “domestic support obligation,” you’re not getting out of it through bankruptcy. But what does that phrase mean? What does it include and what might if not include?

The Bankruptcy Code’s definition of “domestic support obligation” is 221 words long, containing 10 clauses. Section 101(14) of the Bankruptcy Code.  It appears to be a broad definition, covering anything that would sensibly be considered child or spousal support. For example, the debt could be owed not just to your ex-spouse or your child, but also to a current spouse (through a separation agreement) or to the parent, legal guardian, or responsible relative of a child (based on a court order of support, even if not biologically your child). In other circumstances, to be considered support the debt does not necessarily need to be based on a court order. It can be based on a separation agreement or “a determination made in accordance with applicable nonbankruptcy law by a governmental unit.”

Yet there are some limitations. For example, support obligations are often assigned for collection to someone other than the ex-spouse or child. Usually it’s assigned to a state or county support enforcement agency—then it’s still considered support. However, a support obligation that was “assigned to a nongovernmental entity” for collection is no longer considered support in bankruptcy. That is, it isn’t “unless that obligation [was] assigned voluntarily by the spouse, former spouse, child of the debtor, or such child’s parent, legal guardian, or responsible relative for the purpose of collecting the debt.” Section 101(14)(D).

Obligations “In the Nature of” Child or Spousal Support

Sometimes a domestic relations court will call something support that really isn’t.  The bankruptcy court does not have to accept what your divorce court labeled as support.

The definition of a “domestic support obligation” (that is, support) includes the requirement that it really be “in the nature of alimony, maintenance, or support” on behalf of the pertinent person. Section 101(14)(B). If it’s not, the debt may be dischargeable.

“Support” That Might Be Dischargeable in Bankruptcy

For example, a debt that’s labeled as support might not really be “in the nature” of support if it’s actually a “property settlement” obligation that’s mislabeled as spousal or child support.

A property settlement obligation involves the resolution of a marital asset or debt. For example, you may owe money to your ex-spouse in return for receiving more than your share of marital assets. Or you may owe in return for your ex-spouse taking on what had been a joint debt. If a divorce judge requires you to pay “support” for what is really a property settlement, it may be discharged in bankruptcy.

The Difference This Can Make

Chapter 7 discharges neither support nor property settlement debts.  But Chapter 13 can discharge property settlement debts.

So if you have obligations called “support” but which are not “in the nature of support,” a Chapter 13 is worth looking into. Chapter 13 may especially be worthwhile if the debt at issue  is large.

Conclusion

If you owe a debt labeled as support by your divorce court, most of the time it will indeed be “in the nature of” support. But not always.

You can see that the interplay between divorce law and bankruptcy can get complicated. Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about all of your divorce obligations to get all the relief you’re entitled to.

 

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.

 

Chapter 7 with a Judgment Lien, HOA Debt, or Support Obligations

December 1st, 2017 at 8:00 am

Here are 3 more scenarios for when you are current on your mortgage, where Chapter 7 works well in dealing with other home-related debts.


Our last blog post was about situations in which Chapter 7 works well enough in the following 3 debt situations:

  1. Second or third mortgages
  2. Property taxes
  3. Income tax with a lien recorded on your home

In general, if you are current on your first mortgage but have any of these 3 debts, sometimes Chapter 13 helps much more than Chapter 7. But last time we showed scenarios when you don’t need the extra time and expense of Chapter 13.

We do the same today with the following 3 other home-related types of debts:

1. Judgment with a lien attached to your home

2. Homeowner association debt with a lien

3. Child/spousal support unpaid with a lien

Judgment Liens

In bankruptcy you can often remove a lien on your home arising from a creditor’s judgment against you. That’s important because otherwise the lien would continue on your home’s title even after you discharge (legally write off) the underlying debt.

Whether you can remove, or “avoid,” the judgment lien depends on the value of your home, the amount of its equity, and amount of your applicable homestead exemption. If all of the judgment lien “impairs,” or cuts into, your homestead exemption, you can remove that lien.

For example, assume your home is worth $200,000, you owe $175,000 on the mortgage, so you have $25,000 in equity. Your state’s homestead exemption is $30,000, covering all of your equity and more. You have a judgment lien on your home’s title in the amount of $10,000. All of that $10,000 cuts into the equity that’s protected by your $30,000 homestead exemption. So you can “avoid,” or remove the entire judgment lien in bankruptcy.

There are some tools affecting liens that are available only in Chapter 13, not in Chapter 7. This is not one of them. You can “avoid” a judgment lien under the same rules in either Chapter 7 or 13. So this is not a deciding factor between these two bankruptcy options.

Homeowner Association Lien

State laws differ on homeowner association liens. But in general not being current on your HOA dues and/or assessments can be a significant problem. It can catch you by surprise. So be sure to tell your bankruptcy lawyer if you are paying HOA dues or assessments. Of course be sure to tell if you are not current on them.

One of the reasons these liens are dangerous is that under some circumstances they are superior to your mortgage on your title. Falling behind is likely an independent basis for foreclosure by your mortgage lender—even if you’re current on the mortgage itself. Also, the timetable for action by your HOA may be quick compared to a home lender’s foreclosure.

If you have monthly HOA dues and you’re current on them, and intend to stay in the home, filing a Chapter 7 case should be fine.

But if you’re at all behind with your HOA and don’t have an agreed payment plan to catch up, talk with your lawyer about your options, including Chapter 13. You’d very likely have more time and flexibility in catching up and keeping your home protected while doing so.

Child/Spousal Support

Often, being behind on support creates a lien against your home. That may even happen when you’re current (through the judgment arising out of your divorce decree).

Filling a Chapter 7 case should be fine if you are current on all support obligations at time of filing. If you are not current but expect to be very shortly thereafter, be aware that filing a Chapter 7 case does NOT freeze the collection actions of any support obligations—neither ongoing monthly ones nor those in arrears.

However, Chapter 13 CAN stop the collection of support obligations that are in arrears. Those collections can be unusually aggressive—sometimes resulting in even the loss of your driver’s license, or possibly your occupational or professional license. So knowing that Chapter 13 can freeze collections and buy you time to catch up is important. If this debt is causing you serious problems this may be reason enough to choose Chapter 13.

 

Chapter 7 and Chapter 13–Unpaid Child or Spousal Support Lien on Your Home

October 23rd, 2015 at 7:00 am

One of the most important distinctions between these consumer bankruptcy options are how they help or don’t help with support arrearage debt.

 

 

Support Liens

If you are behind on your child or spousal support payments and you own a home, most likely there is a lien on that home for that unpaid support debt. This means that your ex-spouse (or the support enforcement agency in his or her name) may be able to foreclose on your home through that lien. In any event, the lien is a cloud on your title, very likely hurting your credit and potentially jeopardizing your ability to refinance or sell the home.

The support lien came about one of two ways (or possibly both).

First, your divorce decree is usually in the form of a court judgment, and so creates a continuous judgment lien for whatever amounts is then outstanding on the court-ordered support obligation. Each month that you fall further behind on support payments increases the amount of the debt that is secured by the judgment lien.

Second, under most state laws falling behind on support payments is itself grounds for your ex-spouse or support enforcement agency to record a support lien on any real estate that you own. This support lien often gives the ex-spouse or agency greater ammunition against you than a simple judgment lien would.

The Sacredness of Support Obligations in Bankruptcy

What bankruptcy can do for you if you are behind on support payments is limited, but what it can do could still be extremely helpful to you.

Support debts are treated with great deference by the bankruptcy laws. You can’t write off any child or spousal support through bankruptcy, either the regular monthly payments or any accrued unpaid support. That’s true of both Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” types of bankruptcy. Only the divorce court can change the amount of your ongoing support payment. These courts essentially only do so as to future payments, so they don’t relieve you of any accumulation of prior support payments.

Ongoing Support

In addition neither Chapter 7 nor 13 can stop collection of ongoing monthly support. Again, only the divorce court has power over that. Bankruptcy Court is a federal court, and under our federalist system of government domestic relations matters are left to the state courts. In matters such as child and spousal support the federal bankruptcy courts simply don’t intervene.

Protection from Support Lien Enforcement of the Accrued Arrearage

 While Chapter 7 doesn’t provide any protection from support collection efforts on accrued support arrearage, Chapter 13 does.

If you owe a chunk of support arrearage, filing a Chapter 7 case is not going to stop or delay any enforcement of a support lien against your home based on that support arrearage debt. But filing a Chapter 13 case instead is completely different. If there’s a support lien on your home that is under threat of being foreclosed, Chapter 13 stops that at once.

More importantly, if you play by the rules you will be protected from a support lien foreclosure AND all other support enforcement actions against you and your home during the full three to five years that the Chapter 13 case is active. Best of all, you have this three-to-five year period to catch up on the unpaid support payments so that by the end of the case you are current on your support. If the support lien on your home was imposed for being late on support payments, when you’re current that lien will come off your home’s title.

Playing by the Rules

Recall that even Chapter 13 doesn’t stop collection of ongoing monthly support payments. So you have to continue paying those if your divorce decree obligates you to.

Indeed it’s absolutely crucial that you pay those regular monthly payments (unless and until you reduce or eliminate that obligation through the divorce court). It’s crucial because if you don’t keep making those ongoing payments perfectly, your ex-spouse or support enforcement agency will have grounds to resume collection action on the support arrearage. That would include foreclosing on the lien against home and any of the other aggressive collection actions the law allows against you and your assets.

Beyond that, the rules also require your Chapter 13 court-approved payment plan to earmark enough money to pay off the entire support arrearage within the life of the payment plan. You must also actually pay the required payments into the payment plan throughout the life of the plan.

If you don’t do fulfill any of these obligations your ex-spouse or support enforcement agency will very likely ask the bankruptcy court for permission to collect on the support arrearage by foreclosing on the support lien or through other collection actions against you.

On the other hand, if you do play by these rules you get the advantages laid out above—a substantial amount of time to pay off the support arrearage, protection for your home (and other assets) from enforcement of the support lien, and under the right circumstances a release of that lien once you catch up on the support arrearage.

 

Making Sense of Bankruptcy: 5 More Powerful Ways Chapter 13 Saves Your Home

August 17th, 2015 at 7:00 am

Here are 5 additional tools that come with Chapter 13, each one neatly solving a different challenge to your home.

 

Here’s a summary of today’s blog post:

Adding to the 5 tools in our last blog post, today’s 5 include: 6) protecting your home equity if it’s greater than the homestead exemption, 7) giving you much more time to live in your home before selling it, 8) dealing effectively with child/spousal support liens against your home, 9) resolving an income tax lien on dischargeable income taxes, and 10) preventing foreclosure from overdue property taxes.

6. Avoid a Chapter 7 Trustee from Taking Your Home for Having Too Much Equity

If you have more equity in your home than the homestead exemption allows, you risk losing your home if you file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. The homestead exemption amount can differ state to state. Chapter 7 trustees have a lot of discretion about pursuing assets, and so it’s difficult to predict how aggressive yours will be about your home. If the amount of your equity is anywhere close to the homestead exemption maximum, you take a risk in filing a Chapter 7 case.

In contrast, Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” provides a much more predictable procedure for determining the value of a home, one which relies less on the whim of a trustee. And more importantly Chapter 13 provides a mechanism to protect the value of the home if it is in excess of the homestead exemption. That mechanism often involves paying extra to your creditors over the course of your overall payment plan in return for being able to keep your home and its too-much equity. But in some cases you don’t have to pay anything extra—overall the creditors just need to get paid no less than what they would have received in a hypothetical Chapter 7 “liquidation” case.

7. Get Lots More Time to Sell Your Home

If you have decided to sell your home but are now or expect soon to be under threat of foreclosure, Chapter 13 usually gives you much more time to sell than would a Chapter 7 filing. That means you’d have more market exposure, which gives you a better chance at selling at a better price. That’s especially true if you are being forced to sell during a traditionally slower time of the year, or are trying to sell on a short sale (in which the house is worth less than the amount of the mortgage(s) against it).

If you are behind on your mortgage payments and have a foreclosure scheduled, filing a Chapter 7 case will usually only buy you an extra three months or so. It may even get you less time if the creditor decides it wants to put pressure on you. Instead, in a Chapter 13 case you can usually stay in the home by making your regular monthly mortgage payments plus some progress towards paying the arrearage as you wait to sell your home. Or if there is enough equity in the property you likely wouldn’t have to pay any of the arrearage until the house sold and the entire balance owed to the mortgage lender would be paid from the proceeds of the sale.

8. Deal Effectively with a Child/Spousal Support Lien against Your Home

Filing a Chapter 7 case does nothing to stop collection efforts against you if you are behind on your child or spousal support obligations. This could be a problem for your home in two ways, both of which are solved by instead filing a Chapter 13 case.

First, support obligations usually turn into liens against the real estate you own, including your home. This gives your ex-spouse the ability to force the sale of your home to pay the support arrearage.

So assuming that a lien for unpaid support was already attached to your home before your bankruptcy is filed, Chapter 13 would stop the execution of that lien as long as you comply with your court-approved payment plan. Your plan must show how you are going to pay that support arrearage before your case is completed, and you must stay current on those payment obligations (plus any ongoing support payments). But as long as you do all this, the support lien cannot be executed against your home. Instead after the underlying support debt is paid off through your Chapter 13 payment plan, the lien would be released, with no further risk to your home.

Second, if no support lien has been placed yet on your home, Chapter 13 would prevent that from happening. Instead you’d have the opportunity to pay off the support arrearage while under bankruptcy protection, avoiding the need for a lien to be placed on your home.

9. Deal with a Recorded Tax Lien on a Dischargeable Income Tax

You may owe an income tax for which a tax lien has been recorded against your home. If the underlying tax is old enough and meets other conditions to be discharged (legally written off in bankruptcy), then dealing with the lien is likely much better under Chapter 13 than 7. Depending on the amount of equity you have in your home, under Chapter 7 the IRS or other tax authorities may well not release the tax lien even after the underlying tax debt is discharged. You may need to pay the tax anyway, or a substantial amount of it, to get the lien released.

In a Chapter 13 case, in contrast, there is an efficient court procedure for determining the value of that lien, and for paying it. As a result, at the completion of your case the tax debt is discharged and its lien is released.

10. Past Due Property Taxes Also Handled Well under Chapter 13.

If you are paying your home’s property taxes as part of your mortgage payment, and you’ve fallen well behind on those mortgage payments, your lender may have paid some of your past due property taxes with its own money. It does that to avoid a property tax foreclosure by the county or other tax authority, through which it would lose its own rights to your home (as would you).

If the lender did pay the past-due taxes, it would have added the amount of taxes paid to the total amount that you are behind to it. Your contract with your lender almost certainly allows it to do that. Then you would have the length of your Chapter 13 plan to pay your lender that tax amount, in the same way that you would catch up on the back mortgage payments.

If your mortgage lender hasn’t yet paid an overdue property tax, you would pay that tax directly to the county or other tax authority over time in your Chapter 13 payment plan. Your home would be protected from tax foreclosure in the meantime. So your lender would not be able to use the overdue property tax as justification to do its own foreclosure, as long as you make consistent progress on catching up, as well as keep current on new property taxes as they come due during your case (as well as kept up on the mortgage itself).

In the same way, if you pay your property taxes paid directly to the county or other tax authority (not through your mortgage lender), and you’ve fallen behind, your Chapter 13 plan would include payments to that tax authority until you were caught up.

 

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