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.
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 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.
Since I do not focus on a volume practice in bankruptcy and because I have become known as someone who is able and willing to tackle some unusual situations, I get to consult with debtors that have really tough circumstances. A recent case led me down a path of seeing just how creative I could be in a bankruptcy situation to forestall and ultimately pay their home loan lender. Anyone who has talked to me or read many of my posts know that I am quite fond of Chapter 13 bankruptcies. This is partly due to the flexibility afforded by them to accomplish many things, such as saving one’s house from foreclosure. So, I fully expected to find that a Chapter 13 would be the best vehicle to solving this client’s issue where they were nigh on losing their home.
In the scenario presented to me, the debtor had a sizable asset they had not been able to touch which was in trust but not much in ongoing income. The trust was not a spendthrift trust, or else we would not even venture far down this path. However, the debtor hoped that in bankruptcy, the trust assets could be obtained in order to pay their debts – likely at 100%. There are many twists and turns to this matter which I simply cannot go into here. Negotiating this one particular twist will just bring us to another turn and so the analysis is far more complicated than I am putting forth. Other issues involve the couple being unmarried and looking at who actually owns what. There are issues related to the automatic stay when a foreclosure has already been granted, but on appeal. And, just how tight the trust actually is will determine much. However, this particular issue I am focusing on may be helpful to others. In theory, the debtor’s notion of satisfying their debts with this currently unattainable asset is appealing.
We must look at 11 USC Sect. 1322(b)(8) to start the analysis. This section allows the plan proposed by the debtor to provide for payment of all or part of a claim from their property or property of the estate (let’s not worry about that distinction too much – it is often one and the same, but not always). The debtor can do this, in part, because under 11 USC Sect. 1306(b), the debtor remains in possession of all property of the estate. In other words, if you have property you cannot cover with exemption and you really want to keep that property, the way to be assured of that and file bankruptcy is in a Chapter 13. In a Chapter 7, what you cannot exempt is subject to being liquidated.
So far, so good – the debtor keeps the trust assets and keeps the house. Oh, but then we have to look at other provisions of the code. Next, we turn to 11 USC Sect. 1325 which requires that they are able to make payments. If my debtor’s only means to make payments on the plan is accessing their trust, then we run into a problem because there is no reasonable certainty that they will get into that trust in bankruptcy. After all, they were unsuccessful before considering bankruptcy. Because of this uncertainty and the absence of regular income, the plan may not get confirmed. The second barricade the debtor hits is the dreaded “adequate protection” called for in 11 USC Sect. 361. If they cannot protect the secured creditor’s interest in the Chapter 13, then they have no right to keep the asset securing the debt. In essence, this is a carve out of the Section 1306 provision.
Oh, but the secured property is land which typically increases in value; it does not decrease in value. However, in our situation, the amount owed on the property is far more than the value of the land under current market conditions. Still, we may be able to show adequate protection if we show that the value of the land is increasing faster that the debt is accruing interest and other allowed charges. Let us leave this one alone then, since it is driven by things I do not wish to get mired in.
The real problem I find myself up against is caused by the very provision that usually helps people out so much in a Chapter 13: Section 1306. When we combine the fact that the debtor keeps possession of their assets with the other nicety of Chapter 13s: the debtor has an absolute right to convert to a Chapter 7 or dismiss their Chapter 13 case, that is where get to the rub. My debtor cannot show that she can and will make payments to unsecured creditors as required by Section 1325 when she could dismiss the case as soon as she gets hold of the trust assets. Such a plan is unlikely to get confirmed.
Only if her income could pay an amount equal to the non-exempt asset could she get confirmed because there is one other hurdle not yet mentioned. The final hurdle is back in Section 1325 which basically says that creditors have to come out at least as well as or better than if the debtor filed a Chapter 7. This is the creditor’s “best interest” test that balances out the debtor’s benefits in Chapter 13s. In our case, if the debtor filed a Chapter 7 which cannot be converted dismissed without permission and where the assets of the estate go into the trustee’s hands, my debtor cannot pass this test.
Oddly enough, given many facts that I did not go into, this case is actually one where Chapter 7 gives a better likelihood of saving the house. The trustee would be vested with the ability to crack open that trust and has more resources with which to do it than the debtor in a Chapter 7. And, if successful, the home loan would still likely be paid in full even after the commission and other expenses.
Many people who own a home have more than one loan secured against their residence. These junior liens (a consensual lien against real property is also called a mortgage) may be home equity lines of credit, business loans where the lender insisted on a personal residence as security, judgment liens, and so on. Judgment liens can be “stripped off” (the security interest ended) in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 if it cuts into the debtor’s exemption. 11 USC Sect 522(f)(A). However, voluntary liens (one the debtor consented to) are more challenging.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that voluntary security interests against real estate in this neck of the woods (including Kentucky) cannot be stripped off in a Chapter 7. In re Talbert, 344 F.3d 555 (6th. Cir. 2003). They stuck with the pre-code rule that “real property liens emerge from bankruptcy unaffected.” Id. at 561. This case focused on the role of 11 USC Sect. 506 which provides for the determination of a secured debt status.
So, if the only way to save your home is to get rid of (strip off) a second or third mortgage, you must file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. However, the relief provided in a 13 is limited as well. If the loan is secured solely against the debtor’s real property which is also their principal residence, then the loan cannot be modified. 11 USC Sect. 1322(b)(2). The one exception to that takes us back to 11 USC Sect. 506: If the loan is completely underwater – that is, if there is zero equity in the property for the security interest to attach to (and I mean not even $1), then even such a loan can be stripped off and treated as wholly unsecured debt in the Chapter 13. When home prices were dropping consistently, this was a more common occurrence but it still happens.
What can be done with junior loans where there is some equity to which their lien attached? Well, this is where your bankruptcy attorney needs to take a careful look at the promissory notes, mortgages, and secured property. In an interesting case coming out of Ohio, the Sixth Circuit took a look at the meaning of the words “only”, “real property” and “principal residence” and found that they all three must come together for the 1322 protection to come into play. The In re Reinhardt, 563 F.3d 558 (6th. Cir. 2009) case involved a loan secured against a mobile home and the real property upon which it sat. Most would see that as real property which is the principal residence, but under Ohio law, the mobile home was personal property. Just like in Kentucky, that mobile home only became real property (affixed thereto) when the title was surrendered and the proper documents filed with the County Clerk.
Because the Reinhardt’s never surrendered the title of the mobile home, the loan was secured BOTH in the real property and an item of personal property. Therefore, the terms of the loan could be modified by the Chapter 13 plan. Basically, this means that the loan could be valued under 11 USC Sect. 506 and split into a secured claim and an unsecured claim. The part that was secured (equal to the value of the property at the time of the filing) would be paid in full (not necessarily in the plan though) and the rest would be paid pro-rata as with all the other unsecured debts. The other place where it is common for a loan to be secured against both one’s principal residence real estate and other property is with business loans. These lenders often want security in the home and in any assets of the business. However, this makes those loans vulnerable to modification (cram down).
Be sure that you bankruptcy attorney takes a careful look at all the factors that come into whether a secured debt with a lien against your home can be stripped off or crammed down.
In a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13, one 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 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. Or, 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, the court still granted their motion.
Chapter 13 is an extremely effective legal mechanism for saving one’s house if it is being threatened with foreclosure. The trend these days is for home loan lenders to refuse to accept payments while “modifications” are being “reviewed”. This means arrears mount higher and higher. I have known of an extremely few home loan modifications actually coming to fruition. However, I have heard person after person recount to me how the lenders “lost” paperwork submitted for modifications multiple times, countless delays, requests for more information, and ultimately refusal to modify. This whole process can destroy the chances of a Chapter 13 to save your home.
In a Chapter 13, the entire arrears on a house have to be paid in full during the 60 months of the plan duration. The arrears can include certain fees, penalties, and other costs prior to the filing, but gets zero (0%) percent interest in the plan in the Eastern District of Kentucky. So, if the arrears mount too high prior to filing the Chapter 13, then the plan payment can end up being so high that the plan is not feasible. On top of the plan payments, one has to resume making the ongoing regular monthly payment.
I strongly recommend that you consult a bankruptcy attorney about a Chapter 13 early in the process because modification efforts are usually unsuccessful. I do not know why lenders are taking the approach they are to home owners because it does not seem economically logical, but then we are talking about huge, mindless organizations. But, in a Chapter 13, the lenders HAVE to play by the rules.
Debtors also must play by the rules and they MUST make those monthly payment to the lender and their Chapter 13 plan payments for the whole thing to work. So, their budget must support both payments. This means taking action early.
In a Chapter 13, the debtor puts together a budget they present to the court. This budget encompasses Schedule I (income) and Schedule J (expenses). In order to get a Chapter 13 plan confirmed, it has to be feasible. Part of showing that a plan is feasible involves demonstrating that the debtor can actually make the payments proposed by the plan. If the money left over (the disposable income) when expenses are subtracted from income is substantially less than the proposed plan payment, then the plan is not feasible.
Sometimes the plan calls for payments that are just a bit of a stretch for debtors. This happens when the debtor is using the Chapter 13 to pay off arrears on a house facing foreclosure or when there is priority, non-discharged income tax debts that have to be paid in full during the plan. In these instances, the debtor and their attorney will likely engage in “belt-tightening” by shaving off amounts from expense items that they believe they can realistically accomplish.
However, there is a source of disposable income that may be lying hidden in all the paperwork. Many people over-withhold on their taxes. Some do this to avoid owing a tax debt at the end of the year and others like to have a self-created bonus. This latter practice is essentially loaning the United States government money for several months at zero percent interest. So, while it is a nice little psychological trick to force one to save money up, it is definitely not maximizing use of one’s resources.
Worst of all, if you have engaged in the belt-tightening on your budget as I mention above then you have created a set-point in the eyes of a trustee. They assume that is your actual budget. So, when they see tax refunds exceeding $1,200.00 per year (state and federal combined), then you belt-tightening budget may backfire.
Let me unpack that a little. In my hypothetical scenario, the debtor gets back an average of $3,600.00 per year in tax refunds. That comes to $2,400.00 more than the threshold that many trustees look too for reasonable withholding levels. This is $200.00 per month. The trustee would argue, and rightly so, that if the debtor used the proper withholding levels, they would have $200.00 more in pocket each month.
Now, in order to achieve the $200.00 plan payment needed to pay off the arrears on the house during the five-year bankruptcy, the debtor “shaved” expenses down by $200.00 each month less than actual expenses. This makes the budget really tight and barely sustainable, but the debtor thinks they can manage it. However, at the meeting of creditors, the trustee challenges the tax refunds and insists on a $400.00 per month plan payment reflecting what the debtor proposed plus the $200.00 per month that has been withheld in excess of taxes actually owed.
A quandary develops. The only way to preserve the $200.00 plan payment is to go back and amend Schedule J to show actual expenses. Ah, but that set-point I mentioned is already established. Now, the debtor will have to produce documentation to support higher expenses than they originally claimed (under oath I might add). Most people do not keep records accurate enough to document all their expenses.
So, if your attorney suggests that you plan to change your withholding on taxes so that less is taken out of your paycheck, trust them. This will allow you to set expenses at reasonable, sustainable levels from the very beginning and yet meet the needs of the plan. Honestly, $200.00 more in hand each month is exactly the same as $2,400.00 once a year. Actually, it is more because when you let that money build up with the Internal Revenue Service, you are losing a tiny bit of the “time value” of those dollars.
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. I mentioned this in my last post which you may want to look at if you are considering trying to save your house or let it go through foreclosure.
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 in order to secure the debt. If that is the case, it can be “stripped” off of the property and treated as an unsecured debt in its entirety.
However, if the lender can prove that there is even $1.00 worth of equity, the courts in the Sixth Circuit (such as Kentucky) will not strip the loan off; it has to be paid in full 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. So, they have made it an all or nothing sort of scenario.
Last week I responded to a quest as to which was better, “Bankruptcy versus Foreclosure”. And in typical lawyer fashion, I said it was the wrong question. Actually, one must decide between a Chapter 7 and a Chapter 13. You can see that last post for the explanation of why. A Chapter 7 would be preferable if you either do not want to keep the house or if you cannot afford to keep the house. A Chapter 13 is preferable if you want to keep the house and can afford it with help.
In a Chapter 13, you can ‘force’ your home lender to let you catch up the arrears (past due amounts plus certain pre-petition fees) over the course of up to 60 months. The lender has to let you start paying the regular loan payments during the bankruptcy so long as the plan payments you propose are feasible and cover all the arrears. They cannot charge interest on those arrears (at least not in the Eastern District of Kentucky) and only certain other post-petition fees are allowed.
For a plan to be feasible, you have to show in your Schedule I and Schedule J (income and expenses or “budget”) that you can pay a large enough plan payment that all those arrears will be satisfied. In considering your budget, you exclude any unsecured debt you are currently trying to pay, such as credit cards or old doctor bills.
So, if you want to keep your house and you can engage in sufficient belt-tightening to pay the arrears over 60 months so long as all your unsecured debts essentially go away, then you should consider a Chapter 13. An added benefit for a few home owners is that a second mortgage might get stripped off entirely. I will write more about that in the next post.
- What your bank CAN and CANNOT do when you file bankruptcy
- Tax Time!
- Interest Rates on Secured Claims in Chapter 13 Cases in the EDKY
- 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
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