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.
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.
You home is an incredible source of collateral for loans when there is equity (value minus debt secured against it), but there is also danger in using your home this way. There are still lenders who will do rather large, short-term loans secured against a private residence. These loans can be tempting because they often will provide for relatively low-interest loans. However, they can be dangerous. especially when they are balloon loans. Such loans are seductive because they have low monthly payments with a final huge payment due at the end.
I have seen these often used by people trying to get a business venture off the ground. However, people sign up for them for many reasons. The business folks are essentially betting on having a solid and very profitable business going in three to five years. I admire their confidence, but most businesses that survive take three years just to start making a modest return. And so, many find their balloon payment looming without adequate resources to cover the debt. Sometimes banks will roll it into a new loan, but there is no guarantee of this. Therefore, it is wise to talk to a lawyer who knows about bankruptcy prior to that maturity date.
Banks like loans against your personal residence because the revisions to the bankruptcy code back in 2005 gave special treatment to loans secured solely against one’s residence. Basically, 11 USC Section 1322(b)(2) prevents such loans from being modified in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Therefore, the only thing one can do is cure the arrears through the bankruptcy, but the underlying agreement remains intact. There is a nice little exception, though, found in 11 USC Section 1322(c)(2) for loans that come due DURING the Chapter 13. So, if one times things right and files a Chapter 13 BEFORE the last payment on your short-term loan is due, a Debtor CAN modify that loan to some extent.
The most likely use for this exception is to move the maturity date of the loan out for the duration of the Chapter 13 plan and thus provide for the cure of arrears on that loan. The Debtor still has to show that the lender is adequately protected, but that hurdle is usually overcome easily with real estate that is either holding its value or increasing in value. This is NOT a complete remedy, but it can buy more time for a Debtor to either find alternative financing that has no balloon payment or make those profits they hoped for that would cover the debt.
I have written in the past about the ability to “force” down interest high interest rates on car loans in a Chapter 13 and even to decrease the principal mount due on cars purchased over two and a half years prior to the bankruptcy. These are tremendous benefits to a Chapter 13, but there is a downside to including your vehicle to be paid through the plan. That is, at least in the Sixth Circuit which includes Kentucky.
The case, In re Nolan, 232 F.3d 528 (6th Cir. 2000) is the prevailing law in Kentucky on surrendering a car after a Chapter 13 plan has been confirmed. Whereas some other courts have adopted only a “good faith on the totality of the circumstances test” as to whether surrendering a car post-confirmation allows the claimed debt to become an unsecured debt, the Nolan case precludes such judicial discretion.
Nolan dictates that if a debtor seeks to surrender a car that is being paid through a confirmed Chapter 13 plan, the creditor still gets paid in full through the plan. The creditor gets to seize the car and auction it, applying the sale price to the debt owed. However, cars rarely auction for much and so most of the debt remains. Since that debt, which outside of bankruptcy would become an unsecured deficiency debt, must be paid in full, then debtor will likely not be able to decrease their plan payment much if at all. All the other unsecured creditors realize no benefit, nor any noticeable harm.
The debtor’s position is harmed even though they will be making the same plan payment as before. This is because they are likely having to purchase a new vehicle which will NOT be paid through the plan. This makes the debtor budget all the tighter and possibly untenable.
I have often written about Chapter 13 and how it is a great mechanism for resolving tax debt. And it is! When looking at income tax debt, there are basically two kinds: that which can be discharged and that which cannot be discharged. Simple enough.
The basic rules of figuring out which tax debts can be discharged are also simple, but the various times and ways the time-frames of these rules get “tolled” gets tricky:
- The most recent date (remember extensions) the filing was due is over three years ago.
- The tax was assessed at least 240 days ago.
- The tax return was actually filed more than two years ago.
- The tax return was not fraudulent.
- The taxpayer was not willfully trying to evade the taxes.
So, in a Chapter 7 or 13, the income tax debts that meet these rules get discharged. If there are tax debts that are not discharged, then in a Chapter 7 they keep on accruing interest and penalties and must get paid. In a Chapter 13, these non-dischargeable tax debts must be paid in full. So, if you have enough disposable income to accomplish it, then in three to five years the tax debt PRINCIPAL is paid in full on tax debt that cannot be discharged.
Ahhh, the rainbow is at hand! Oh, but wait, Federal tax debt can still accumulate 4% interest while in bankruptcy and Kentucky income tax can accumulate 5% interest. You see, 11 USC Sect. 1322(b)(10) has a little catch. A debtor in Chapter 13 can ONLY pay the accruing interest on these income tax debts IF AND ONLY IF all the claims filed by creditors are paid at 100%.
There is nothing for it other than to give plenty of advance notice to Chapter 13 debtors. There is no way to change the fact that the interest can accumulate and there is no way to make it get discharged. So, unless you have a 100% Chapter 13 plan, be prepared to have to pay the accumulated interest on your income tax debt EVEN after the Chapter 13 is closed out. Don’t fret too much though. When you have gotten that far, you are going to be much more freed up financially to take care of that last issue.
A couple of days ago I wrote a post about refinancing your home loan during an active Chapter 13. In that post I addressed the issue of how such refinancing impacts your budget and plan payment. You need to think long-term in refinancing, because your will not be able to hold onto the savings from the lower mortgage payments. This is aggravating, but benign.
There is a much more sinister trap that refinancing can land you in. You need to be careful when looking at refinancing within an active Chapter 13 as to how to any existing arrears on the original loan are treated. If you are paying substantial arrears through the plan, but refinance, then those pre-petition arrears are most likely to be paid off with the new loan. Essentially, a lender with arrears is not going to release their lien to allow a new lien to take priority over theirs until all sums due are paid. This includes those arrears.
If that happens, then your plan payment is still going to be just as high or higher depending on your new loan payment. But, where a certain amount of those payments were going to pay off the arrears at zero (0%) percent interest, now you will be paying interest on the same arrears in the new loan. Not only that, but the percentage of your plan going to unsecured creditors will likely increase significantly. This may all be fine with you if your heart’s desire is to pay as much of your debts as possible. However, it needs to be a conscious decision rather than one your stumble into.
So, if you are paying $10,000 in arrears at 0% interest in the plan on the original loan and then refinance, the $10,000 arrears gets “paid” from the proceeds of the new loan. Your principal is now $10,000 higher than on the original loan, but your plan payment stays the same or higher. You essentially just cost yourself $10,000 plus interest. Your may not feel it, though, because the actual month to month cost remains relatively stagnant.
When looking at refinancing, it is best to look at all factors to make a wise decision: new interest rate and savings from that, length of time left on mortgage, amount of arrears in the plan, and how much additional interest you will pay if the arrears are then out of the plan and in the new note.
A common concern of clients who are contemplating a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is the expectation that they will live within a budget for three to five years with NO new debt. I have two responses to this: 1) it can be done and 2) it does not have to be done. Okay, that is confusing so let me unpack it a little. I know that it runs very counter-cultural to suggest living without debt. The commonality of people I help expressing shock at living without credit is evidence of how our culture has bought into the idea of credit being necessary. It is almost universal that my clients ask about what the bankruptcy will do to their credit score. Again, this is evidence of the pervasive lie that credit is necessary; that one must borrow money to make it in this world.
I know that living without the use of credit is achievable. I am not entirely sure how long it has been, but it has been more than five years since I used a credit card for anything. The only loans my family carries are student loans and home loans and there are plans in place actively eliminating those. I have no idea what my credit score is because I have no need to know. I have a friend who has never incurred debt in their entire life and they are fifty years old. Also, I have a number of Chapter 13 debtor clients who are successfully living within their budgets. So, living without credit is entirely feasible. That is my first explanation and the default position I recommend: live debt free.
The second response is that a debtor in a Chapter 13 can apply to take on additional debt. Despite my best laid plans to be debt free, I am also entirely aware that there could be circumstances that would necessitate borrowing money: sudden illness, excess damage to a vehicle, a major appliance failing, and so on. These things can come about during those three to five years of a Chapter 13 bankruptcy because life goes on, bankruptcy or no. The difference is that the bankruptcy court plays a gatekeeper role in obtaining credit. This benefits both potential creditors and the debtors as well. The court’s oversight helps insure that a debtor does indeed receive and enjoy a fresh start financially by allowing only reasonably necessary new debt.
The process of obtaining additional debt requires some advance planning when possible. There is an application that must be completed and submitted to the court showing what the debt is for and why it is needed. The trustee has a chance to weigh in on the matter. Usually, a new income and expense schedule must be filed and sometimes the plan must be modified. But, if the new debt is reasonably necessary and can be managed within the budget, the court nearly always grants it, even if it may cause some reduction in the pro-rata distribution to unsecured creditors.
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