When you meet with an attorney to discuss your debt and the options for relief from the weight of that debt, he or she should engage in a decision making process. Some attorneys tend to keep that process to themselves (this is more of a style thing for the lawyer), and others, like myself, try to explain and educate the client. While I cannot lay out every twist and turn that the discussion may take with any particular situation, I will put forth a few basics.
I typically start with an overview of the debt which includes the numbers of different creditors as well as the amounts of debt. Part of this inquiry involves what debts are secured and unsecured. If there are secured debts (a lien or mortgage is filed on some sort of property), I look at whether the client is behind on those debts and whether they wish to keep the property securing the debt.
If there is one primary debt that is creating the financial consternation, then I pursue questions about whether there is any deal that might be worked out with them. Some creditors simply dig their heels in and refuse to accept payments or refuse to reduce the debt to a manageable level. But, if they will work with the debtor on a reasonable and feasible repayment plan, then that is often the best way to proceed.
However, if there are jseveral creditors where the debtor has fallen behind, working out multiple deals to avoid bankruptcy just will not work. There is always one creditor that throws a wrench into such a process; if any single creditor refuses to work out a deal, then working with the other ones becomes futile. The one creditor that refused to work something out and so files suit would create a snowball effect because insufficient funds would be available to successfully pay all the people who did negotiate a deal.
If the debtor is behind on secured debts and they want to be sure to keep the assets, then I must look at a Chapter 13 as the most likely way to make that happen. This leads to my second primary consideration of income. Regardless of whether a Chapter 13 is likely, I must look at the disposable income of the household (even if only one person is filing). This inquiry gives me two key pieces of information: 1) is there left over money after necessary living expnses are paid that can fund a Chapter 13 or a work-out deal, and 2) could the debtor qualify for a Chapter 7 instead.
At this point, I have a good idea of the recommendation I am likely to make. If there is only one creditor who is a problem and there are some spare funds to make payments, then it is good to attempt a work-out with them. If there are multiple creditors or the one creditor refuses negotiations, then a bankruptcy will be inevitable. If there are assets with liens that the person wants to keep or the household income is pretty high, then I probably steer towards a Chapter 13. In all other circumstances, a Chapter 7 serves best.
As a tangent to all of the above for business owners, I look at whether the debt is primarily consumer debt or primarily business debt.I will take this inquiry up in a separate post. But, this is a glimpes into the process I use to help people in debt trouble navigate their way to being financially healthy.
I have written about this before, but it bears repeating. I am not offering smoke and mirrors here, but just straight up information. There is a competitor’s ad campaign that has garnered considerable attention and it promises to get a bankruptcy started for $78.00. The ad goes on to note that certain restrictions and qualifications apply to this offer. And, I am sure they do explain those once your come in to meet with them. I have not interviewed my competitors on this issue, so I cannot say with certainty, but I can only contemplate one way that they can actually get a bankruptcy started for $78.00 and that is in a Chapter 13. It just so happens that you can pay the $310.00 filing fee that the court charges for a Chapter 13 (or the $335.00 for a Chapter 7) in four monthly installments. Each installment for the Chapter 13 would be $77.50 and thus we have you entering into a Chapter 13 paying only that first installment (and rounding it up gives you the $78).
I can do this for you also. However, I would need to figure out how much of a plan payment you would be able to afford because paying payments each month makes up a Chapter 13 in contrast to a Chapter 7. That would be the restriction. The Chapter 13 can run as short as 36 months or as long as 60 months depending on your household income. Attorney fees run higher in a 13 than a 7 but those higher fees can be paid through the plan itself. I only recommend going this route if it is the only way you can get into a bankruptcy and get the relief you need. You must qualify for a Chapter 13 which includes having a regular source of income and that income must be sufficient to pay enough in a plan payment to cover the attorney fees, trustee commission, certain tax debts, and certain secured debt arrears. The hitch with going this route is that the less your pay up front on attorney fees, the higher the plan payment has to be after filing. That may be perfectly fine and work well, I just want you to know that in advance rather than when I have you already in my office. There is also a credit counseling course that must be done through a third party prior to filing and this can run anywhere from $10 to $25 directly to that company. This a legal requirement of the law and not something that can be circumvented.
How would I be able to go beyond a firm that can get you into a bankruptcy for $78.00? Well, I do all the work myself. From the initial phone call to the initial meeting all the way through to the discharge order being issued at the end of the bankruptcy – it is all with me personally. That is to say, you will not be interacting with secretaries, paralegals or other attorneys (unless there is a true emergency); you will be interacting with me. I will be the familiar face that shows up with you at the meeting of creditors and the same voice on the phone who helps explain things along the way. That is simply how I chose to practice law, by keeping overhead low and doing it myself rather than shooting for high volume. That competitor does a fine job from what I can tell; it just done using lots of staff. If my individualized and personal approach appeals to you, then come in to see me and I will see if I can match any competitors’ offer for a bankruptcy or even go beyond what they have to offer. There is no charge for that initial consultation and I do NOT limit it to 1/2 an hour.
Chapter 13s last either three (3) years or five (5) years depending on a households income at the inception. That is quite a long time and it can be easy to let it fade into the background of one’s mind after settling into the rhythm of monthly payments to a Chapter 13 trustee. A debtor in a Chapter 13 likely had considerable contact with their attorney at the very beginning of the case, but this becomes less and less frequent after the plan is confirmed and all the claims have come in. After a couple of years, some old habits can creep back in, and the debtor may never think to contact their lawyer when faced with certain financial decisions.
Many of my Chapter 13 clients come to me to help save their home from foreclosure. A Chapter 13 is a grand tool for just such a thing. Most of these clients got to the point of facing a foreclosure action in State court because they made choices between paying a house payment and getting needed car repairs or paying for a necessary medical procedure. That first time of missing the payment, they likely started getting some calls, but nothing earth shattering happened. Next thing they knew, several missed payments have racked up, they are served with a civil summons, and the only way to catch them up is through a five-year Chapter 13.
Then Christmas rolls around that second year into the Chapter 13 and the belt-tightening budget worked out with the trustee really only left room for macrame’ gifts for the children or perhaps a Chia pet or two. It is heartbreaking for a parent when their children’s friends are getting the newest iPhone or PlayStation 4. Perhaps the car broke down again or the refrigerator they had been nursing along for an extra 10 year lifespan finally goes out. Well, that old pattern kicks in and it seems pretty harmless to miss a house payment. After all, nothing bad happened before until a good six months down the line. Well, bankruptcy is a different world.
Most home loan creditors will file a motion for relief from the automatic stay (the law that precludes them from going ahead with the foreclosure once bankruptcy is filed) with just one or two missed payments post-petition. Being in Chapter 13 basically puts them on high alert and they are much quicker to pull the trigger.
This is not the end of the world – yet. Their attorney can object to the motion and almost always work out an Agreed Order to get caught back up again in about six (6) months. However, there is a hefty price to be paid. The creditor will add in their own attorney fees and they will also likely insist on a drop-dead provision where if those payments do not roll in on time, the stay will be lifted without filing another motion and they can then proceed with the foreclosure.
The better course of action is to call one’s bankruptcy attorney to do some problem solving when an unforeseen expense comes about. In the Eastern District of Kentucky, the Chapter 13 Trustee typically does not oppose a motion to suspend plan payments for a month or three if there is a good reason. That is often enough to get past some unexpected expense and get back on track making up the payments. The upside to this is that the debtor will not get hit with hundreds more in attorney fees or end up on a probation sort of situation. So, even if it has been a long time since you talked to your bankruptcy attorney, if things go awry, call them first and get help.
This post will only apply to a narrow segment of people forced to consider bankruptcy – those who have a bunch of equity in their house along with a hefty debt in which their spouse does not have liability. Most often, this would be an entrepreneur whose business venture took a downturn.
I have discussed previously how Chapter 13 is a great mechanism for preserving one’s house if there are arrears to be dealt with or if there is excess equity beyond what can be covered by a homestead exemption. However, Chapter 13 is not for everyone. There are debt ceilings in a Chapter 13 that can operate to knock out business people who have personally guaranteed large amounts of unsecured business debt or even larger levels of secured debt. There also needs to be a somewhat predictable income upon which to base the budget and plan payment. This makes Chapter 13 difficult for people who may go months at a time without income due to the way their employment is structured, such as an entrepreneur.
Going into a Chapter 7, though, with excess equity in one’s house can be dangerous. Excess equity exists if there is a substantial value to the house even after subtracting the secured debt on it and the exemptions available. You see, a Chapter 7 trustee only makes about $60.00 per case unless they find non-exempt assets they can liquidate and distribute to unsecured creditors. The trustee gets a percentage of all such assets.
This brings us to the strategy that relies on a number of “ifs” being true. This strategy can be helpful (though certainly not a panacea): 1) If the Debtor is married and their spouse is NOT also indebted on the majority of debt so that they do not have to file also, 2) If the husband and wife share the home as tenants in the entirety (the deed gives then ownership “for their joint lifetimes with the remainder in fee simple to the survivor of them”), and 3) the Debtor has some exempt or non-estate resource to make a lump-sum offer to the trustee. The strategy is simply to go into Chapter 7 bankruptcy as an individual and then hope your spouse outlives you or you can make a deal with the Trustee.
The Trustee can seize non-exempt assets of the Debtor and liquidate them in a Chapter 7, but they must do this liquidating under state law. Kentucky law only allows a creditor (or Trustee) to sell the expectancy interest of a Debtor in real estate that they own as tenants in the entirety with a non-debtor spouse. The expectancy interest is that if they outlive their non-debtor spouse, then they have the entire undivided homestead as their own, but if their spouse outlives them then there is nothing – the entire undivided homestead goes to the surviving non-debtor spouse. So, the question becomes: “How much would someone pay for a chance that the non-debtor spouse dies first?” That amount, whatever it may be, is the actual value that the trustee would receive in selling the Debtor’s interest in the house.
In other words, a home owned in the way I described by a husband and wife cannot be stripped away from the non-debtor spouse. He or she is entitled to all of that home concurrently with the Debtor; it cannot be divided. A creditor cannot even get half the rents, if there were any. They can only obtain that expectancy – that chance that they may get it all. Because of that, many Trustee’s would be open to a reasonable lump-sum payment from the Debtor to retain their expectancy interest rather than risk coming up with a goose-egg by trying to sell what essentially amounts to a lottery ticket on the court house steps.
Bankruptcy continues to evoke this notion of getting something for nothing. For some,that results in feeling a bit of judgment or disdain towards the whole idea of filing bankruptcy or the people who end up there. To that I say, “There, only by the grace of God go I”. Others see it with a bit of a glimmer in their eye as a great way to get free stuff. Both views are askew. Bankruptcy is a tough process to go through that is humbling and often anxiety provoking which is why people prefer to hire a lawyer than attempt it pro se. Few people actually abuse the system; most who file have tried everything they could think of to avoid it, but life’s curve balls and the accumulation of mistakes here and there just prove too daunting without assistance. For those hard working folks who end up in a bad spot, I do what I can to make the process smooth and effective so they can get on rebuilding their lives financially.
One of the things I do to ease the way is to stress the imperative in Chapter 13 bankruptcies that if you want to keep it, you must pay for it. This applies to bigger ticket items with a loan secured against it like a house or a car. Many people opt for a Chapter 13 because they fell behind in their house payments or their car payments but they do not want to lose that property. Well, a Chapter 13 can certainly make that happen, but they must still pay for the house or the car. There are NO free houses out there – and the only free cars are ones your would not want to drive.
Chapter 13 only halts the secured lenders collection process (and helps reduce interest costs in certain ways). That means that foreclosure proceedings for a house are stopped and repossession of a car is nixed. Then, the arrears that had accumulated must still be paid through the Chapter 13 plan payments as well as each ongoing payment as it comes due. Unfortunately, many home owners had the pre-bankruptcy experience of months going by without making house payments before the bank took legal action. That will NOT be the experience in the bankruptcy. The secured lenders are much quicker to file a Motion for Relief from the Stay (the automatic collection halting part of a bankruptcy). This motion allows them to then resume the foreclosure in state court if it is granted.
Often, this motion is filed by the lender quickly after a payment or two is missed as a wake-up call to the debtor. They really just want the debtor to get caught up on their payments and so they typically will enter into an agreed order with the debtor to do just that over the next few months rather than force their motion through. However, this is an exceedingly expensive process. The lenders insist on getting reimbursed for the hundreds of dollars they spent on an attorney and filing fees for that motion. So, you may have used that $1,000.00 house payment or two to buy Christmas gifts or cover an unexpected medical bill, but you will end up eating around $600 or $700 on top of catching up those missed payments.
To make it through your Chapter 13 smoothly and retain your house and car, those payment simply have to be a non-negotiable. There is no wiggle room on secured debt payments in a Chapter 13. If you want to keep it, you must pay for it.
No, this sort of garnishment is not found on a fancy Christmas dinner plate. This is a legal mechanism by which creditors can get the money you owe them without your consent. Once a creditor has obtained a judgment against you in a court of law (and there are some government creditors that do not have to go through the court process, but still have to issue notice), they can obtain a garnishment order that you will not be aware of until it hits.
Garnishments typically take two forms. The one most people are aware of is a wage garnishment. This is an order issued to the debtor’s employer to withhold up to a certain percentage of the pay. This can actually be a huge hit, but it is only the “one” punch that leaves your head spinning. The “two” knockout punch that often surprises people is a bank account garnishment. So, if your paycheck is direct deposited into an account, the creditor can scoop the rest of your income right out of the bank leaving you with no means to pay electricity, rent or a house payment.
While a wage garnishment is an ongoing order that allows for up to a certain percentage to be seized each month, the bank account is a one time hit, yet it takes all. However, the creditor can issue new bank account garnishments so as to hit the accounts repeatedly over time getting whatever happens to be in there at that moment.
The only defense once this barrage of punches starts flying is to file bankruptcy. If an individual creditor seizes more than $600.00 through these garnishments in the 90 days immediately preceding filing, then there is a chance of recovering them. So, it is important to take action and seek the counsel of a bankruptcy attorney before you are down for the count.
Well, no one does. That is a given. However, there are a few things to remain aware of if bankruptcy is something you have been contemplating here recently:
1) Any gifts you receive of substantial value at Christmas are going to have to be listed in your bankruptcy on Schedule B and exempted on Schedule C. You will need to individually identify any particular item you received that is worth hundreds of dollars.
2) Any expensive item you purchase, whether keeping it in house or giving it away to someone else, will have to be reported as well. If it is a luxury item, that is something costing more than $650.00, you will be raising red flags and risk losing the discharge of that debt.
3) Your right to receive a tax refund arises on December 31st of each year if you overpaid your income taxes. This is true whether you file a tax return right away or wait until the last minute. That tax refund is an asset of the bankruptcy estate upon filing your petition and must be listed on Schedule B and exempted on Schedule C even if you do not know the exact amount you will be receiving.
If you own a home and have a large amount of equity in that property (equity meaning value minus secured debt), you may have a very limited amount of exemption to put towards these assets mentioned above. Consulting with a bankruptcy attorney prior to Christmas may be a wise gift to yourself.
Overcoming the “presumption of abuse” in Chapter 7 bankruptcy is not always as daunting as it may sound. In order to qualify for an individual Chapter 7 one either must have predominantly business debts or qualify for it under a “means test”. The means test essentially looks at your household income for the six month preceding the month in which the bankruptcy is filed. Certain things can be deducted out of that income as well as certain standardized costs of living. Once the information has been run through the formula, a potential debtor either falls under the median income for their household size and state of residence, thus qualifying for a Chapter 7, or it does not.
One might be tempted to think that failing to fall under the median income is the end of the story and they cannot file a Chapter 7 (they almost always can still do a Chapter 13). This is true for the majority of persons where the presumption arises. However, it is not automatically the end of the analysis that your bankruptcy attorney should engage in. They need to also explore any changes in circumstances that would justify going into the Chapter 7 anyway.
So, having an income above the median only creates a “presumption” that doing a Chapter 7 would be abusive of the bankruptcy process. This presumption can be overcome by a showing of a change of circumstances. For example, a sudden change in one’s health could decrease the current income or increase health costs that can be deducted from that income. Such a sudden event may not show up in the means test results for months since one is looking at a six month snapshot but, one may not be able to wait that long to file.
The way to overcome that presumption of abuse requires your attorney to prepare two extra documents. First, they should prepare a sworn statement for you to sign (an affidavit) that explains the change in circumstance that justifies overcoming the presumption. Second, they should prepare a mock means test showing what that change in circumstances would look like over time. These can be filed concurrently with the petition.
The United States Trustee would look at these extra documents and make their own determination whether to pursue dismissal of the Chapter 7 or decline to pursue it. Even if the US Trustee declines to pursue the presumption of abuse dismissal, individual creditors could still pursue it, though they are unlikely to do so.
Well, I cannot actually make a second mortgage disappear, but I might be able to strip it off of your house and make it an unsecured debt instead of a secured debt.
In a Chapter 13, one can “value” the amount of a secured debt under 11 USC Sect. 506. Essentially, when one files a Chapter 13 a secured debt is only secured up to the value of the property it is secured against. There are some exceptions which I will not go into. If you own a home and have a second mortgage, then that second mortgage might be completely underwater. That is, there is no equity left to which the secured debt can attach. If that is the case, it can be “stripped” off of the property and treated as an unsecured debt.
However, if the lender can prove that there is even $1.00 worth of equity, the courts in the Sixth Circuit (including Kentucky) will not strip the loan off; it has to be paid in full to keep the house just like the primary loan. The rationale is that as one pays down the principal on the primary loan, more and more equity is realized to which that second loan can attach.
You can avoid a judicial lien on property that impairs an exemption pursuant to 11 USC Sect. 522(f). The most common way this plays out is that a creditor has filed suit, obtained a judgment, and then filed a lien on from that judgment against your real property. This lien can sit dormant against your home for fifteen years, but it must be satisfied if the property is ever sold. The creditor may pursue foreclosure but they rarely do that unless they believe there is enough equity in the property.
In order to strip off the judgment lien, your bankruptcy attorney must file a motion within the bankruptcy as a contested matter. In other words, if your attorney does nothing else, then the lien will survive the discharge. Previously, this was done within the plan of a Chapter 13, but the local rules have changed so that it must be done by motion in both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies.
If your attorney was unaware or the judgment lien or otherwise failed to file that motion to strip the lien, not all is lost. A decision in the Eastern District of Kentucky Bankruptcy Court, In re Cross, Case No. 93-50547, the Debtors failed to strip the lien off their real property while the bankruptcy remained open. Twenty months after the case closed, the Cross’ reopened the bankruptcy and moved to have the lien stripped. Despite the passage of time and the creditor arguing that the Debtors waived the right to strip the lien based on so much time passing, but the court rejected that argument.
For a judgment to qualify to be voided (stripped off) it must impair the exemption amount that the debtor claims in the property. Many debtors do not even know they have a judgment lien in their property so, it is important to go to the country clerk and obtain a copy of any active liens for your lawyer to evaluate.
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