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.
It is Christmas time! For many, this is a time of reflection and celebration of the birth of Jesus. For them and for many others, it is a time of celebrating one another and the giving of gifts. Hopefully, this gift giving is done out of the excess of resources that people find in their lives but, honestly, we know that a huge percentage of those gifts are purchased on lines of credit. As a bankruptcy attorney, I have noticed a seasonal drop in the number of bankruptcy filings in November and December followed by an uptick a few months later.
The courts and trustees recognize this seasonal event and seasonal spending as well but, let’s be reasonable in it because abuse has consequences. There are a few laws in place in the bankruptcy code that prevent debtors (the name given to the person who has the debts and seeks bankruptcy protection) from abusing the creditors (what those companies or persons are called who extend lines of credit). The chief provisions are found in 11 USC Sect. 523(2)(C)(i)(I) & (II).
The first one prevents debts being discharged if the money owed went to purchase “luxury goods”. A luxury good is defined as a single item or service that is worth more than $500.00. If this item was purchased using borrowed money from a single creditor within ninety days of the date the bankruptcy is filed, then that creditor has a valid objection to that particular debt getting discharged. Because of inflation, $500.00 does not go as far as it used to, so more and more things will count as luxury goods. I do not mean to suggest creditors pursue these claims often, because they do not, but it could happen and I would hate for you to be a creditor’s test case.
There is a sort of “safe haven” for luxury goods that specifies that they are NOT items or services to meet the needs of the debtor or a dependent of the debtor. So, if someone needs to get groceries, medical care, car repairs, or replace a NECESSARY and defunct appliance such as a dead refrigerator, then the luxury good prohibition does not apply even if purchased during Christmas. It must not be a gift for someone and, let’s still be reasonable, just because your refrigerator stops workings on the eve of a bankruptcy does not give license to buy the very best replacement (usually though, appliances purchased on credit create a type of debt called a purchase money security interests or PMSI which is a whole separate topic).
The second prohibition is for cash advances that aggregate more than $750.00 from an open end line of credit within seventy days of the filing date of bankruptcy. A an open ended line of credit is typically an unsecured signature loan or a credit card. Here, one needs to be careful because multiple cash advances from one line of credit can end up surpassing that limit in those seventy pre-filing day pretty quickly.
Finally, there is a specific protection built into the Chapter 7 bankruptcy laws. Some refer to Chapter 7 as “full” or “whole” bankruptcy though that is a bit of a misnomer. Anyway, 11 USC Sect. 727 stops ALL debts from being discharged if the debtor has engaged in fraud in creating their debts or obtaining a discharge of those debts. This statute has been interpreted on a practical level to require a pattern of conduct by the debtor instead of a single incident since it stops the discharge entirely rather than individual debts.
So, enjoy the season. Be generous from the bounty you have. Use credit judiciously if you must to meet your family’s needs. And feel free to contact us if you end up buried under more debt than you can handle.
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.
There is a nice little Kentucky Supreme Court opinion called Howard v Howard, 336 S.W.3d 433 (Ky. 2011) every Kentucky family lawyer and consumer bankruptcy lawyer should read. The first part of the opinion addresses child support and contempt sanctions, which to be sure are fun things to know about, but the meat of the opinion spells out the concurrent jurisdiction of Kentucky Courts with the Federal Bankruptcy Courts and how that effects discharge of certain kinds of debt.
Under 28 U.S.C. Sect. 1334(b), a state court has the same and concurrent jurisdiction as a bankruptcy court to make a determination as to whether a particular debt is discharged by a bankruptcy. In the Howard case, the ex-husband had agreed to be responsible for certain debts the ex-wife had also co-signed. However, he went into a Chapter 7 and received a discharge of that debt. Even though the ex-wife had notice of the bankruptcy and did NOT file any objection in the Chapter 7, she was still able to go to the Kentucky Circuit Court where the divorce had occurred and get a ruling that ex-husband still owed the obligation to her.
You see, the divorce decree created an obligation between the ex-husband and ex-wife even though a third party was the direct creditor. This obligation was found to be an 11 U.S.C. Sect. 523(a)(15) obligation as a result of a divorce. Therefore, by operation of that law, that obligation to the ex-wife was not touched by the bankruptcy. When the original creditor came back to collect from the ex-wife, she was able to pursue contempt against the ex-husband and win. This saved ex-wife from having to pay for a lawyer in the bankruptcy in addition to paying for a lawyer in the Circuit Court case.
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.
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.
When faced with bankruptcy, people hate to turn away from family that have helped them. The natural and common thing to do is try to repay those family members instead of other debts or to protect family assets by giving them away. This very human reaction may be understandable, but under the law it is not forgivable. Such transfers can create real problems for yourself and for the family you were trying to help.
The bankruptcy code provides for a trustee over a Chapter 7 estate to go after assets transferred prior to the filing of a Chapter 7. These transfers can take the form of favorable repayment of one (or some) debts over others or in the form of a gift. A favorable repayment may constitute a “preference” and a gift may qualify as a “fraudulent conveyance (or transfer)”. When the person receiving the preferential payment or the gift is a family member, the bankruptcy code is especially tough. The trustee can go after preferences made up to a year prior to the filing of the bankruptcy if made to an “insider”. Family members are insiders by definition.
Trustees can go after fraudulent transfers (gifts) to insiders made two years prior to filing under the bankruptcy code. However, one cannot rely on that two-year period because the bankruptcy code also has a “strong arm” provision that allows trustees to use state law to go after preferences and fraudulent transfers. In Kentucky preferences are treated the same, but the reach back period for fraudulent conveyances to insiders is five (5) years prior to the filing date.
Two situations recently came to me that point out the need for caution. In the first situation, a person borrowed from a close relative to put into a business. They intended to pay this relative back in a lump sum from a retirement account, but then it began looking like a Chapter 7 might be imminent. This would have created a double impact: first, exempt fundsthat would have ridden through the bankruptcy would have been converted to non-exempt funds and second, the trustee would have pulled that large lump sum payment back into the estate from the relative. From those reclaimed funds, the trustee would pay himself a percentage and the rest would have gone to unsecured creditors. This is a good example of a preferential payment within a year of bankruptcy to an insider. The retirement would be gone and the relative would remain largely unpaid (they would be treated the same as any other unsecured creditor and recieve cents on the dollar).
The second situation involved a person who had racked up considerable unsecured debt and had their personal residence secured to the hilt, but they owned several acres in another state free and clear of any lien. It was important to this person to retain the out-of-state land because it contained a family cemetery. They wanted to give the land to someone else to keep it in the family. Unfortunately, this would have been a fraudulent conveyance and the land would be taken and sold by the trustee with proceeds going to unsecured creditors. The cemetery itself would likely be protected and the family could still access it, but ownership of it and all the surrounding acreage would leave the family.
With a five (5) year reach back in Kentucky anyone would be hard pressed to plan for hard financial times well enough to preserve such an asset, but this example highlights the importance of sitting down with a bankruptcy practitioner who will help devise a comprehensive plan. In this scenario and with other factors beyond the limits of this posting (such as the age and health of the debtor), delaying bankruptcy by using this land as collateral to obtain enough funds to live on would be a wise alternative.
- CAUTION: Tax Refund
- When Business Owners Should File Bankruptcy
- To File or Not to File: Attorney decision making
- Deadlines for Filing Prepetition Tax Returns in Chapter 13 Cases
- Delinquent Property Tax Claims in Chapter 13 Cases
- Lessons Learned the Hard Way
- Miscellaneous Hot Topics in the EDKY
- ‘Tis the Season
- How to Choose a Bankruptcy Lawyer
- The Entrepreneurship – Bankruptcy Intersection
- Making Chapter 13 Plan Payments in the E.D. Ky. – New Online Payment Option
- “I’ve Changed My Mind – I Want to Surrender My House”: What Effect Does Post-Confirmation Surrender Have on the Debtor’s Discharge?
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