Chapter 7 vs. 13 What is the Difference?

Picking the right Chapter to file can be simple, or it can be a very delicate, even difficult choice. And appearances can be deceiving. A situation that seems at first to call out for an obvious choice can turn out to have a twist or two that turns the case upside down.  

That twist can come in the form of an unexpected disadvantage in filing a bankruptcy under the intended Chapter, or instead an unexpected advantage in filing under the other Chapter.

Let me be clear. The majority of my clients walk into their initial consultation meeting with me with a strong idea whether they want to file a Chapter 7 or a 13.  After all, there is a wealth of information available—like this blog that you’re looking at now. So lots of my clients come in having read up on their alternatives. Whether their inclination to file one or the other Chapter comes from their head or from their gut, it’s often correct.

But often it is not correct.

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Choosing the Right Strategy for Saving Your Home through Bankruptcy

Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 stop a foreclosure of your home. One or the other COULD be better for you, but which one is it?

Many considerations come into play in deciding whether a Chapter 7 or 13 is better medicine for you.  I could list literally dozens of possible ones. Focusing here just on factors involved in saving your house, there are still lots of advantages and disadvantages to each one. The answer turns on your unique circumstances. Lawyers are sometimes given a bad time for seemingly answering every question with “it depends.” But when it comes to your home and your financial well-being, the fact is that what you want and deserve are what is best for you in your unique circumstances. You don’t want a cookie-cutter answer but rather one that does in fact “depend” on your individual facts and on your personal financial goals.

Let’s assume that after looking at all the other aspects of your financial life, the choice between the two Chapters comes down to how that choice impacts on your house. And let’s also assume that this is a house in distress, where a foreclosure is already scheduled or is just around the corner.

In one sentence, the key difference between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 is that the first one generally buys you a relatively short time while the second one buys you a much longer time.

So that leaves as the main question whether—in your unique situation—a Chapter 7 would buy you enough time, or if you instead need the much stronger medicine of Chapter 13.

Chapter 13 deservedly has the reputation of being the home-saving chapter of bankruptcy. But every day of the week Chapter 7 bankruptcies are filed which save people’s homes. If you have a sale pending on your house but you’ve run out of time with a scheduled foreclosure; if you have some money coming to cure the arrearage but again have run out of time; if you are very close to getting a mortgage modification approved or are more likely get it approved after discharging you debts in bankruptcy; or if you’ve decided to surrender the house but need a little more time to get into another home—these are possible circumstances where Chapter 7 could well buy you enough time to do what you need to do for your home.

Admittedly, these are relatively rare situations. The much more common one is that you had lost some income or had emergency expenses, making it impossible to keep up the home mortgage payments. And then you regained that income, but maybe not all of it, and now you owe a whole lot in missed payments, late charges and other fees. No way can you catch up all that in just a few months. Chapter 13 can give you as much as five years to do so. Chapter 13 can also buy you much more time to sell your home, such as to get to a better selling season, or even maybe to allow a kid to finish high school. Chapter 13 can also be much better at dealing with other house-related debts, such as property taxes, second mortgages, and income tax liens. As I said, these choices depend on your unique set of circumstances.

You can build a nice gingerbread house out of cookie-cutters. But when it comes to your home, and you and your family’s well being, get the advice of an experienced attorney. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than helping save a family home. Let me help you make the very best choices about yours.

Avoid Paying “Special” Creditors Before Filing Bankruptcy

One of the worst ways to hurt one of your creditors is by being nice to him, her, or it. Specifically, if, before you file a bankruptcy, you pay a creditor more than you are paying at that time to your other creditors, then that favored creditor may be required to give back that extra money so that it is shared among all the creditors. This is especially true if you are paying one creditor when you are no longer paying anything to anyone else. Your payment to your favored creditor is called a “preference”—you are considered to be paying that creditor in “preference” to your other creditors.

So your good intentions backfire. Your desire to be nice to that special creditor, who is often a family member or some other kind of sensitive creditor, by paying off that debt and keeping it out of your bankruptcy case results in the opposite. Your favored creditor gets mixed up in the bankruptcy case you may well have been trying to avoid having him or her even know about. He or she has to give up the money you paid—and may have to come up with it somehow after having spent what you paid him or her. The trustee may well sue him or her to get the money back. And afterwards, assuming that you feel a moral or family obligation to make that person whole, you would be paying that debt a second time after your bankruptcy is done.

The good news about this problem is that it can be avoided altogether if you get legal advice from an experienced bankruptcy attorney before you make the “preferential” payment or series of payments to that favored creditor. Or even if you’ve already made that payment or series of payments when you see your attorney for the first time, there are often ways to get around it.

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More Reasons to Get Legal Advice Before Deciding to Sell Your Home

Bankruptcy gives you a wide range of tools that can help you keep your home or sell it on your own schedule. Many of these tools provide surprising advantages for you. Especially when it comes to your home, know your options before you make decisions.

This is the last of a series of three blogs covering ten reasons why you should get advice from a bankruptcy attorney before selling your home. Here are the final four of those reasons.

1.  Want to Pay off Ex-Spouse: After going through a divorce, you are often required to sell the marital home to pay off your ex-spouse. In most circumstances, debts that you owe from a divorce are not written off by a bankruptcy. But sometimes they are. And even with debts that are not written off, bankruptcy can affect the timing of payment or favor you in other ways. Divorce is often such a traumatic process. Even if during the divorce you received advice about how a possible future bankruptcy filing would affect the terms of your divorce, understandably you may not remember that advice. And frankly, many divorce attorneys do not understand bankruptcy enough to give thorough advice about it. You do not want to base decisions about your home without advice about your options, or, often worse, with incomplete advice. So now, before you sell your home to pay off your ex-spouse, get that advice, from a competent bankruptcy attorney.

2.  Need to Pay off Property Taxes, Homeowners’ Association Dues: Creditors with the strongest rights against you and your home include your county or similar governmental entity which collects your property taxes, and your homeowners’ association. So you may feel powerless in dealing with them if you fall behind on paying them, especially if they are threatening to foreclose on your home. Bankruptcy can give you a leg up on fighting them, and so find out about this before you are pushed into selling your home to pay them off.

3.  Selling to Avoid a Foreclosure: You’ve likely heard that the filing of a bankruptcy stops a foreclosure. And you probably know that Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 each deal with foreclosures differently. The truth is that every homeowner who is facing a foreclosure has a unique set of circumstances, and requires and deserves an individual analysis. Bankruptcy gives you many different combinations for addressing the issues you’re facing. Only by being informed about and thoroughly understanding those options can you make the right choices about whether and when to sell your home, and how all these fit into your whole financial picture.

4.  Can’t Afford an Attorney: If you’re selling your home because you believe it’s the best way to deal with your debts, and you can’t afford to pay an attorney to get legal advice about that decision, consider the following. A decision about your home is likely about your biggest asset and your biggest debts. I assume you agree that if you could get solid, practical advice about that, you would do so. Since I do not charge for my initial consultation, I can give you that advice. Let me help you create the best possible game plan for dealing with your home.

10 Big Reasons to Get Legal Advice about Bankruptcy Before Selling Your Home

The SINGLE overarching reason to get advice from a bankruptcy attorney before selling your home is to save money, possibly a great deal of money.  I’ll tell you ten ways to do so—three today and then the rest in my next couple blogs.

1.  Avoiding judgment liens:  If some creditor has sued you in the past, that creditor likely has a judgment against you. You might not even realize or remember if this has happened to you. Or, a creditor may sue you in the near future, and get a judgment against you before the sale of your home closes. If a judgment has been entered against you, this usually means the creditor has a lien against your home. That lien amount is almost always substantially larger than the amount you owed the creditor. Most of the time, that judgment lien has to be paid in full before the house can sell. If the judgment is paid out of the proceeds of the house sale, this reduces the amount you receive. Or the lien could reduce the money you thought would go to more important debts, such as taxes, child support, or an ex-spouse. If there aren’t enough sale proceeds to cover the judgment, you will either have to pay the full judgment amount out of your pocket, or at least some discounted amount to get the creditor to release the lien. If you don’t pay it in full, you would likely continue owing the balance. And if the creditor won’t settle, you may not be able to go through with the sale. In contrast, either a Chapter 7 or 13 case often can get rid of that judgment lien and write off the underlying debt, allowing you to sell the home without paying anything on that debt.

2.  Stripping second and other junior mortgages:  Chapter 13 often allows you to “strip” your second (or third) mortgage from the title of your home. The law changes that debt from a secured debt to an unsecured one. It can do this when your home is worth no more than the first mortgage (plus any property taxes or other “senior” liens) by acknowledging that all of the home’s value is exhausted by liens that legally come ahead of that junior mortgage. As a result, these junior mortgage balances are thrown into the same pot as the rest of your other regular unsecured debts—all your other debts that have no collateral attached to them. When this happens, depending on your situation, you often don’t pay anything more into your Chapter 13 Plan. And even if you do have to pay something more because of that stripped “junior” mortgage, almost always you only have to pay pennies on the dollar. And you end up with your home completely free and clear of that mortgage.

3.  Buying time for a better offer:  A home sold in a hurry is seldom going to get you the best price. A basic rule of home sales is that the maximum price is gotten through maximum exposure. If you feel under serious time pressure to sell because of creditor problems, the extra time provided by filing either a Chapter 7 or 13 case could get you just the additional market exposure you need. No question–filing a bankruptcy can in some respects complicate the sale of your house, and there many situations when a bankruptcy filing will not likely help you reach your goals. But in the right situations the advantage of getting more time on the market far outweighs any potential disadvantage.

In my next blog I’ll give you more ways that bankruptcy can give you huge advantages involving your home. If some of these apply to your situation, they can totally change whether or not you should sell your home, and if so, when you should do so.

Know This Before Deciding to Sell Your Home

If you’re a homeowner who is selling his or her home for any of the following three reasons, think again: 1) you can’t afford the house payments, 2) you owe income taxes with a tax lien on your house, and/or 3) your mortgage modification application was rejected.

In my last blog I told you the first three of ten reasons why you should get advice from a bankruptcy attorney before selling your home. Here are the next three. All of these are about saving you money, and helping you make much better decisions about your home.

1.  Can’t Afford the House Payments:   It’s sensible to sell your home if it’s more house than you need, or you’re not able to make the payments. But you may really need to hang onto the house, and are selling it because you think you have no choice. If so, you may instead be able to keep your home either by reducing the debt attached to the house or by reducing the rest of your debt so that you can afford the house debt. I gave you some ways to reduce the debts on the house in my last blog, and will give some more in the next one. As for reducing or getting rid of the rest of your debt, even if you are resisting the idea of filing bankruptcy “just so I can afford my house,” you still owe it to yourself to know your options. We live in truly extraordinary times in terms of home values and economic uncertainty. So especially now, it’s wise to be open to creative ways of meeting your financial needs.

2.  Have Income Tax Debt:   If you owe back income taxes, these taxes may have already attached to your home’s title with the recording of a tax lien. Or that may happen in the near future. You may feel extra pressure to sell your home to pay those taxes. But Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy options can often help you deal with your tax debts, sometimes in ways better than you expect. Some income taxes can be legally written off altogether. Others would likely be able to be paid much less than outside bankruptcy, through huge savings in interest and penalties, and other possible advantages. The details are beyond what I can cover in this blog. But if income tax debts or tax liens are part of why you are selling your home, first find out how bankruptcy would deal with them.

3.  Your Mortgage Modification Application Was Rejected:   Mortgage modification programs—both governmental ones like HAMP as well as private ones—have been tremendously controversial and of questionable benefit to homeowners.  They are almost always terribly frustrating to go through. Without getting into all that here, there are definitely times when mortgage modification requests are rejected because the homeowner did not fully complete the application or the mortgage lender did not process it accurately. Often it is not really clear why the modification was not approved. After going through this challenging process without a reduction in your mortgage payments, understandably you may well feel like you have no choice but to sell your home. But sometimes a bankruptcy filing—either Chapter 7 or 13, depending on the circumstances—can help get a mortgage modification approved, either the first time or in a renewed application. Reducing your debts through bankruptcy provides you more resources to put into your house, generally making you a better candidate for mortgage modification.

Deciding whether to sell your home involves a whole lot of factors–personal, financial, and legal. Virtually every time I meet with new clients who are thinking about selling their home, they learn a bunch of things which puts that decision in a whole different light.  Often, my clients are pleasantly surprised by options and advantages they did not know were available. Let me help you, too, make an informed and wise choice about most important asset.

 

The Dangers of Allowing a Creditor to Get a Judgment Against You

What you don’t know CAN hurt you, if it’s a judgment against you by a creditor. Judgments can hurt in three big ways. 1) They enable the creditor to use powerful collection mechanisms against you to collect the debt. 2) A judgment can rush you into filing bankruptcy at a legally disadvantageous time. 3) And under some circumstances a judgment can make it harder to write off the debt in your bankruptcy.  I’ll tell you about the first one of these in this blog, and the other two in my next ones.

The vast majority of lawsuits by creditors and collection agencies that are filed to collect their debts end with judgments against the people owing the debts. That’s because the main point of these lawsuits is to establish that the debt is legally owed, which is usually not disputed. Also, much of the time the debtors are at the end of their financial rope and can’t afford to hire an attorney to find out what their options are, much less to defend the lawsuit. So judgments are entered “by default”—meaning the deadline for the debtors to respond passed without any action by them, allowing the creditor to get a judgment. Often debtors are not given any notice that a judgment has been entered against them, so many do not realize that it has, especially when nothing seems to happen for months or even years afterwards. And very few people are fully aware of the possible consequences.

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Filing Bankruptcy to Preserve Your Assets, Not Just to Eliminate Your Debts

Bankruptcy helps both sides of your balance sheet. Getting a financial fresh start means not just getting relieved of your debts, but also protecting your assets. You can preserve assets in bankruptcy by not selling, using up, or borrowing against your protected assets BEFORE the filing of your bankruptcy case.

It is much more difficult to get your financial footing if you have nothing to stand on—if you don’t have at least basic housing, household goods, clothing, transportation, and, where appropriate, tools of trade, unemployment or disability benefits, and retirement savings.

Bankruptcy usually protects most or all of your assets. On the one hand, Chapter 7 protects all “exempt” assets, so that a very high percentage of people who file under Chapter 7 lose nothing. And if you have assets which are worth more than the applicable exemptions, Chapter 13 usually protects those additional or higher-value assets as well.

But bankruptcy cannot protect what you’ve already squandered. It saddens me when just about every day new clients tell me how in the months or year or two before coming in to file bankruptcy they depleted their assets in a desperate attempt at avoiding bankruptcy. Most of the time, the assets they sold, spent, or borrowed against would have been completely protected had they filed bankruptcy while they still had them.

I recognize that it’s easy being a Monday morning quarterback—to say, after a client comes in needing to file bankruptcy, that they should not have used up assets in an effort to avoid filing. After all there undoubtedly are some people who were able avoid bankruptcy by selling their assets, and I don’t see them because they don’t need my services.

But I challenge you—if you are considering spending, selling, or borrowing against any of your assets, do you know whether that asset is one which would be protected in bankruptcy?

What concerns me are decisions with serious long-term consequences made without any legal advice about the alternatives. If a person in her 50s cashes in a substantial amount of a 401(k) retirement plan to pay creditors who would be written off, that can significantly harm the quality of her retirement lifetime.  Or if a husband and wife sell a free-and-clear vehicle that’s in good condition on the assumption that they’ll lose it once they file bankruptcy, only to be left with a single older vehicle that cannot reliably get them to work, that decision would lead to anything but a fresh start.

For a bunch of reasons, people tend to get legal advice when at the absolute end of their rope, well after these kinds of dangerous decisions have been made.  Let me help you avoid that. You have the capacity to get a better fresh start by getting the necessary advice on time in order to to preserve your assets.

Whether or Not You Can File a Chapter 7 Case Depends on the US Census

It is a little bit easier or a little bit harder to qualify to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” every six months. Whether it’ll be easier or harder for you depends on the state where you reside and on your family size.

The last change happened on March 15, 2013 and was effective for all cases filed after April 1, 2013 and the next change will take place on November 15, 2013. The bankruptcy system looks to the U.S. Census to calculate each state’s median income, as applicable to each size of family. Median income is the amount at which half of the state’s families have incomes higher and half have lower. If your income is below your state’s median income for your size of family, then in almost all situations you can file a Chapter 7 case. But if your income is above that median income amount and you still want to file a Chapter 7 case, then you have to fill out a long and rather complicated form about your allowed expenses to determine whether or not filing a Chapter 7 case would be “abusive.” So if you want to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it’s a lot easier if you’re below the median.

On March 15, 2013, new median income amounts become applicable. Some people were predicting these amounts would be lower because of the faltering economy. But in many states the income figures went up instead of down. For example, among single-person families, 31 of the states’ median incomes went up and only 19 went down. Remember, if the median income goes up, that makes it a little more likely that your income will fall below that median, and you’ll have smoother sailing qualifying for Chapter 7.

So, if your income is close to the applicable median amount, and the median is increasing for your family size in your state on November 1, then you have a better chance at falling under the median if you file on or after that date. But if the applicable median is decreasing, then you have a better chance of falling under the median if you file your bankruptcy before then, by no later than October 31.

I’m about to give you the two lists of median income amounts—the one applicable through October 1, and the other starting November 1. But before you start comparing those annual income amounts to your income, please understand that the meaning of “income” in this context is quite different than conventional meanings of that word. “Income” here is calculated using a six-calendar-month look back period that is doubled and then divided by 12 for an average monthly income. It includes all sources of income from all family members other than social security, not just taxable income.

Because of this and many other sorts of complications, yon truly need to consult with a bankruptcy attorney about whether this November 15 2013 median income changes matter to you, and whether you should try to file before then or instead after that date.

Avoiding Judgments that Can Really Hurt You, and Hurt Your Bankruptcy

Many judgments against you don’t matter once you file a bankruptcy. But certain ones are very dangerous. How can you tell the difference?

Letting a creditor get a judgment against you after it has sued you can sometimes result in that debt not being written off (“discharged”) in a later bankruptcy case. Or that debt may instead become much more difficult to discharge, even if eventually it is. But in the meantime it can turn an otherwise straightforward case into one much more complicated.

So how can certain judgments make a debt not dischargeable? Because of a basic principle of law which says that once one court has decided an issue, another court must respect that decision. The theory is that litigants should only get to use court resources once to resolve a dispute. Once a court decides an issue, it’s been decided (except for the limited exception of appeals to a higher court).

But as I said, most judgments by creditors are NOT a problem in bankruptcy. That’s because most creditor lawsuits are about only one thing: whether the debt is legally owed. A judgment that establishes nothing more than that can generally be discharged in a subsequent bankruptcy.

The judgments that are dangerous are more complicated. They arise in lawsuits in which the creditor is alleging that the person owing the debt incurred it in some fraudulent or inappropriate way. If the judgment clearly establishes that’s what happened, then the bankruptcy court later has to accept that decision. If the wording of the lawsuit and judgment shows that the behavior was of the kind that the bankruptcy laws say results in the debt not being discharged, then without further litigation the bankruptcy court would rule the same way.

These cases can get complicated because often it’s not clear precisely what the previous lawsuit decided, or whether what was decided meshes closely enough with the dischargeablility rules of bankruptcy. There’s also the question whether the matter was “actually litigated” if the person against whom the judgment was entered did not appear to defend the lawsuit or did not have an attorney.  In other words you may or may not be able to get your day in bankruptcy court depending on whether in the eyes of the law you really already had your day in the prior court.

This risk of losing your chance to defend your case in bankruptcy court can be avoided by not waiting until after a judgment has been entered against you to see a bankruptcy attorney. That is especially true if the allegations against you involve any bad behavior other than not repaying the debt. As a general rule, if you get sued by any creditor you should see an attorney, even if you don’t plan on fighting the lawsuit and hiring an attorney for that purpose. That allows you to find out if the lawsuit could lead to a judgment making the debt not be dischargeable in a bankruptcy. And if so, you would then still have to option of filing the bankruptcy to prevent such a harmful judgment from being entered, instead of being stuck with it once you file a bankruptcy later.