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Prevent Future Judgment Liens

Posted by Kevin on September 19, 2019 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Bankruptcy can prevent future judgment liens. It usually stops a lawsuit from turning into a judgment, and then a judgment lien on your home. 

 

Judgment Liens Are Dangerous

Our last blog post was about how filing bankruptcy can sometimes remove, or “avoid,” a judgment lien from your home. This is a great potential benefit of bankruptcy if a judgment lien has already been recorded.

But it is often much better to file a bankruptcy case before a judgment lien hits your home’s title. Here are a few of the practical reasons why:

  • You have to meet certain strict conditions to be able to avoid the judgment lien. If you don’t meet them, even bankruptcy won’t get rid of that lien on your home. You may have to pay all or part of the debt in spite of filing bankruptcy.
  • Even if you succeed in avoiding the lien in your bankruptcy case, it is an extra step that can cost you more. And the cost can go up substantially if the creditor fights your lawyer’s efforts to avoid the lien. Besides higher lawyer fees, you may have to pay for a home appraisal and for the court testimony of the appraiser.
  • The existence of a judgment lien adds uncertainty, and thus some extra anxiety, to your bankruptcy process. The goal of bankruptcy is relief. So it’s better to prevent a judgment lien from hitting your home than messing with it after it has hit.

Judgment Liens Are Preventable

Filing bankruptcy usually stops an ongoing lawsuit against you from turning into a judgment. Bankruptcy’s “automatic stay” immediately stops “the… continuation… of a judicial, administrative, or other action or proceeding against the debtor…  .”

Filing bankruptcy also usually prevents future lawsuits against you from being filed much less turning into judgments. The automatic stay” immediately stops “the commencement… of a judicial, administrative, or other action or proceeding against the debtor…  .” Section 362(a)(1) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The exceptions are debts that cannot be written off (“discharged”) in bankruptcy, such as certain ones based on fraud, income taxes, child or spousal support, most student loan debt and criminal behavior. But bankruptcy does discharge most debts. So filing bankruptcy will stop ongoing and future lawsuits on most of your debts. And it will prevent those debts from turning into dangerous judgment liens on your home.

The Timing Can Be Crucial

You know when things are going south financially.  You are making no more than minimum payments on your credit cards.  You miss payments here and there but convince yourself that you will make it up next month.  But you don’t make it up.  Debt collectors are calling daily.  And the dunning letters are also coming in.  You could bury your head in the sand and that will lead to lawsuits, judgments, and judgment liens on your home.

Most times, it is best to be proactive.  At the very least, you should be seeking out an experienced bankruptcy attorney to analyze your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy can be an effective tool to deal with your creditors.

Bankruptcy Helps with Debt Problems Even without Writing off Every Debt

Posted by Kevin on September 14, 2019 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Neglecting Bankruptcy as an Option

If you have a debt that you have heard cannot be discharged (legally written off), you may not be seriously considering bankruptcy as an option. You probably have not seen a bankruptcy attorney. That could well be a mistake.

Getting the Law Right

But whether or not a specific debt can be discharged, you would be wise to get legal advice about it, for the following 4 reasons:

1. Some debts that can’t be discharged now perhaps can be in the future. Almost all income taxes can be discharged after a series of conditions have been met, which mostly just involve the passage of enough time. So your attorney can create a game plan for you using the tax timing rules to discharge as much tax debt as possible. Timing can also be important with student loans, especially if you have a worsening medical condition or are getting close to retirement age, making for a better argument of “undue hardship.”

2. Even if you can’t discharge a particular debt, bankruptcy can permanently solve an aggressive collection problem.  Often your biggest problem is how aggressively a debt is being collected. For example, you may want to pay your back child support (which is not dischargeable) but the state support enforcement agency is threatening to suspend your driver’s and/or occupational license.  The filing of a bankruptcy triggers the automatic stay which will stop collection efforts during the term of the bankruptcy or until the Court vacates the stay for just cause.  A Chapter 13 case then will allow you the time (3 to 5 years) to catch up on the back support payments based on your budget.

3. Bankruptcy can stop the adding of interest, penalties, and other costs, allowing you to pay off a debt much faster. Unpaid income taxes and certain other kinds of debts take more time to pay off because a part of each payment goes to the ongoing interest and penalties. Certain tax penalties in particular can be large. Most of these additions to the debt are stopped by a Chapter 13 filing, allowing you to become debt-free sooner and by paying less money.

4. Bankruptcy allows you to focus on paying off the debt(s) that you can’t discharge by discharging those you can. You may have a debt or two that can’t be discharged, but you likely also owe a set of debts that can be. Even if bankruptcy can’t solve your entire debt problem by simply discharging all you debts, as long as you can discharge most of your debts that would likely make your remaining debt problem much more manageable.

Conclusion

So don’t let the fact that you’ve heard that you have a debt or two that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy stop you from getting legal advice about it. Your financial life could well still be greatly improved through one of the bankruptcy options.

 

What Happens to Most of Your Debts in Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy”?

Posted by Kevin on September 1, 2019 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

First, let’s review the different types of debts in bankruptcy.

Secured debts are collateralized usually by your home, your car or your truck, maybe your furniture and appliances. Priority debts are ones that are usually not secured but are favored in various ways in the bankruptcy law. For most consumer debtors, they include child and spousal support, and certain taxes.

The remaining debts are called general unsecured debts.   Think credit cards and medical bills.   What do all these debts have in common-no collateral attached to these debts and not given a favored (priority) position under the law.

In most Chapter 7 bankruptcies, the vast majority of debts are general unsecured debts.  In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, most general unsecured debts are legally, permanently written off.  The legal term is “discharged”.  That means that once they are discharged—usually about 3-4 months after your case is filed—the creditors can take absolutely no steps to collect those debts.

The only way general unsecured debts can be paid anything is if either 1) the debt is NOT dischargeable or 2) it is paid (in part or in full) through an asset distribution in your Chapter 7 case.

 1) “Dischargeability”

A creditor can dispute your ability to get a discharge of your debt.  In the rare case that the discharge of one of your debts is challenged, you may have to pay that particular debt. That depends on whether the creditor is able to establish that the facts fit within the  narrow grounds for an exception to dischargeability.  This usually involving allegations of fraud, misrepresentation or other similar bad behavior on your part. If the creditor fails to establish the necessary grounds, the debt is discharged.

There are also some general unsecured debts that are not discharged unless you convince the court that they should be, such as student loans. The grounds for discharging student loans are quite difficult to establish.  Check /http://studentdebtnj.com/ for more detailed information relating to your student loans.

2) Asset Distribution

In order for a debtor to get a fresh start, the Bankruptcy Code allows a debtor to exempt certain property.  That means you keep that property.  If everything you own is exempt, or protected, then your Chapter 7 trustee will not take any of your assets from you. This is what usually happens—you’ll hear it referred to as a “no asset” case. But if the trustee DOES take possession of any of your assets for distribution to your creditors—an “asset case”— your “general unsecured creditors” may receive some of it. The trustee must first pay off any of your priority debts, as well as pay the trustee’s own fees and costs.  Whatever remains goes to the unsecured creditors on a pro rata basis.

Conclusion

In most Chapter 7 cases your general unsecured debts will all be discharged and, most of the time, general unsecured creditors will receive nothing from you.  Rarely, a creditor may challenge the discharge of its debt.  If the creditor is successful, you will still owe that debt after the close of the bankruptcy.  And if you have an “asset case,” the trustee may pay a part, or in extremely rare cases, all of the general unsecured debts, but only after paying all priority debts and his or her fees and costs.

The Truly Amazing History of Bankruptcy Law

Posted by Kevin on August 4, 2019 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

Debtors’ prisons? There’s that and a lot more to the very colorful history of bankruptcy law.

 

American bankruptcy law naturally grew out of the law of England during our colonial history. Pre-Revolutionary War bankruptcy laws were extremely different from current law.

  • The first bankruptcy law in England was enacted more than 450 years ago during the reign of Henry VIII. Debtors were called “offenders” under this first law, in effect seen as perpetrators of a property crime against their creditors. The purpose of this law, and as expanded during the following hundred and fifty years, was not to give relief to debtors. Rather it was to provide to creditors a more effective way to collect against their debtors.
  • Given this purpose, it is not surprising that this first law did not give debtors a discharge—a legal write-off—of their debts. In a bankruptcy the assets of the “offender” were seized, sold, and the proceeds distributed to creditors. And then the creditors could still continue pursuing the “offender” for any remaining balance owed.
  • A bankruptcy proceeding could only be started by creditors, not by debtors.  Creditors accused a debtor of an “act of bankruptcy,” such as physically hiding from creditors, or hiding assets by transferring them to someone else.  The current extremely seldom used “involuntary bankruptcy” is a remnant of this.
  • Strangely, only merchants could file bankruptcy. Why? Credit was seen as immoral, with only merchants being allowed to use credit, for whom it was seen as a necessary evil. As the only ones who had access to credit, only merchants had the capacity to become bankrupt.
  • For the following century and a half through the late 1600s, Parliament made the law even stronger for creditors, allowing bankruptcy “commissioners” to break into the homes of “offenders” to seize their assets, put them into pillories (structures with holes for head and hands used for public shaming), and even cut off their ears.
  • Finally in the early 1700s the discharge of debts was permitted for cooperative debtors, but only if the creditors consented!
  • Yet the law still provided for the death penalty for fraudulent debtors (although it was very seldom used).
  • Cooperative debtors received an allowance from their own assets, the very early beginnings of the current Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

So this was the English bankruptcy law that was largely in effect at the time that the U.S. Constitution was adopted. That gives some perspective on what the framers may have had in mind with the Bankruptcy Clause of the U. S. Constitution. That Clause gave Congress power to “pass uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies.” Fortunately the language is so open-ended that it gave bankruptcy laws the opportunity to evolve during the last two hundred fifty years into one infinitely both more compassionate and beneficial for the economy.

But this evolution during our national history was extremely rocky, until surprisingly recently. That is the topic of the next blog. 

 

If You File a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy with an Attorney, You Enhance Your Chances of Getting a Discharge

Posted by Kevin on September 20, 2018 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Over the years, I have received numerous phone calls from people who have tried to file a bankruptcy by themselves (known as “pro se” debtors) and have gotten into trouble.   I also see first hand what happens when people file without an attorney when I attend “meetings of creditors”, also known as 341a meetings.  A 341a meeting is the usually straightforward, usually short meeting with the bankruptcy trustee that everyone filing bankruptcy must attend.  Unfortunately, with many pro se debtors, the 341a meeting is not always straightforward or short.

But I wondered whether anybody has actually investigated this question. In searching the internet, I came across a book published a few years ago titled  Broke: How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class.  This book is a series of articles about current issues in bankruptcy.  One such article is titled  “The Do-It-Yourself Mirage: Complexity in the Bankruptcy System” by Professor Angela K. Littwin of the University of Texas School of Law.  Professor Littwin  analyzed data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, “the leading [ongoing] national study of consumer bankruptcy for nearly 30 years.” Her finding: “pro se filers were significantly more likely to have their cases dismissed than their represented counterparts.”

Very interestingly, she also learned from the data that

consumers with more education were significantly more likely than others to try filing for bankruptcy on their own, but that their education didn’t appear to help them navigate the process.  Pro se debtors with college degrees fared no better than those who had never set foot inside a college classroom.

She concluded that after bankruptcy law was significantly amended back in 2005 in an effort to discourage as many people from filing, “bankruptcy has become so complex that even the most potentially sophisticated consumers are unable to file correctly.”

Almost 10 Times More Likely to Get a Discharge of Your Debts

In another study, Prof. Littwin stated that “17.6 percent of unrepresented [Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy”] debtors had their cases dismissed or converted” into 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” cases.  “In contrast, only 1.9 percent of debtors with lawyers met this fate.”  Even after controlling for other factors such as “education, race and ethnicity, income, age, home ownership, prior bankruptcy, whether the debtor had any non-minimal unencumbered assets at the time of the filing,” “represented debtors were almost ten times more likely to receive a discharge than their pro se counterparts.”

The bottomline is that you are better off going to an experienced bankruptcy attorney.

 

 

Business Disputes that Follow You Into Your Bankruptcy Case

Posted by Kevin on September 7, 2018 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

A creditor can challenge the discharge of its debt in bankruptcy.

Why Creditor Challenges Are More Common in Closed-Business Bankruptcies

For the following reasons, creditors tend to object more to the discharge of their debts in bankruptcy cases that are filed after the debtor has operated and closed a business:

  • The amount of debt owed in business bankruptcies tends to be larger than in a  consumer case, making objection more tempting to the creditor.
  • In the business context some debtor-creditor relationships can be very personal.  Consider debts between former business-partners who are blaming each other for the failure of the business, or between a business owner and the business’ primary investor who believes the owner drove the business into the ground, or between the contract buyer of a business and its seller in which the buyer feels that the seller misrepresented the profitability of the business. In these situations the aggrieved creditor is more personally motivated to fight the discharge of its debt.
  • The owners of businesses in trouble find themselves desperate to keep their businesses afloat. So they may make questionable decisions which then expose them to objections to discharge.
  • In the kinds of close creditor-debtor relationships mentioned above, the creditor often has hints about the business owner’s questionable behavior, and so is more likely to believe it has the legally necessary grounds to object.

But Objections to Discharge Are Still Not Very Common

When former business owners hear that any creditor can raise objections to the discharge of its debt, they figure an objection would very likely be raised in their case. But in reality these objections occur much less frequently than might be expected, for the following reasons:

  • The legal grounds under which challenges to discharge must be raised are quite narrow. To be successful a creditor has to prove that the debtor engaged in rather egregious behavior, such as fraud in incurring the debt, embezzlement, larceny, fraud as a fiduciary, or intentional and malicious injury to property. These are not easy to prove.
  • In his or her bankruptcy case the debtor files, under oath, papers containing quite extensive information about his or her finances. The debtor is also subject to questioning by the creditors about that information and about anything else relevant to the discharge of his or her debts. If the information on the sworn documents or gleaned from any questioning reveals that the debtor truly has no assets worth pursuing, a rational creditor will often decide not to throw “good money after bad” by raising an objection.

Conclusion

In a closed-business bankruptcy case there are these two opposing tendencies. Challenges to discharge are more likely, especially by certain kinds of closely related creditors. But these challenges are still relatively rare because of the narrow legal grounds for them and the financial practicalities involved. A good bankruptcy attorney will advise you about this, will prepare your bankruptcy paperwork to discourage such challenges, and will help derail any such challenges if any are raised.

 

Can a Business File Under Chapter 7?

Posted by Kevin on March 3, 2018 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Under State law, a business entity, such as a corporation or an LLC, is considered a person and is separate from its shareholders (in the case of corporations) or members (in the case of LLC’s).   If  a corporation or LLC fails, it will probably have to deal with creditors who may sue the business, obtain judgments and levy on the business assets.  This can be a long, drawn out procedure.  As an alternative,  that failed business entity may file bankruptcy.  The entity will be the debtor.  If the plan is to shut down the business and walk away (as opposed to a restructuring and continuation of business), then Chapter 7 can be a useful vehicle.  Upon the filing, the automatic stay goes into effect as to the business entity.  A trustee is appointed who literally changes the locks on the door, deals with the landlord and other creditors, assembles and liquidates the assets, and pays off the creditors.

How does a business chapter differ from a personal Chapter 7?   In a personal Chapter 7, the debtor gets a discharge of many debts, and is allowed to keep a certain amount of property which is exempt.   The discharge and keeping a baseline of property is part of the concept of giving the debtor a fresh start.

However, there are no exemptions for the business in Chapter 7.  The trustee sells everything.  I could understand that concept because if you are going out of business, you do not need assets for a fresh start.   However, in Chapter 7, the business entity does not get a discharge.  I always thought that was strange and looked at the legislative history behind this rule.  The legislative history stated that discharges are not given to corporations (there were no LLC’s back then) so that people could not traffic in corporate shells???  My initial thought was, it only costs a few hundred dollars to set up a new corporation with no debt.  So, why traffic in corporate shells?  More history.  It was only about 100 years ago that state legislatures passed business corporation statutes like the one’s we have today.  Before that, if you wanted to incorporate, you would have to get your local State representative to sponsor a bill to establish your corporation.  The legislature actually voted on it.   It was an expensive and time consuming activity.  Not surprisingly, there were not that many corporations.  So, back in the day (as my kids would say) discharging debt within a corporation through bankruptcy could conceivably lead to a lucrative side deal if you were allowed to sell the debt free entity to a third party.

The bottom line is that business entities can file under Chapter 7.  However, business Chapter 7’s tend to be more complicated because assets are involved, and the Trustee is usually more involved than in personal Chapter 7’s.  If you are the owner of a failing business, it may be a good idea to consult with an experienced bankruptcy attorney.

 

U. S. Bankruptcy Laws Took Very Long to Get Off the Ground

Posted by Kevin on January 30, 2018 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

The Constitution empowered Congress to “pass uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies,” which then took more than 100 years to do so.

 

  • The United States started its existence without a national bankruptcy law. The Second Continental Congress established the United States with its founding constitution consisting of the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” drafted in 1776-1777.  The Articles of Confederation were not ratified by the original 13 states until 1781.  The Articles did not provide for a nationwide bankruptcy system.
  • The American Revolutionary War formally ended in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  The Articles of Confederation proved inadequate, so in 1787, a constitutional convention was called to draft a new constitution.  The U.S. Constitution was ratified by the states in 1789.  It did allow for, yet did not create, a national bankruptcy law. It merely empowered Congress to “pass uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies”.
  • Three different times during the 1800s, a federal bankruptcy law was passed in direct reaction to a financial “panic.” But these federal laws were each repealed after the financial crises were over. The first act was passed in 1800 but repealed in 1803. The second was passed in 1841 but repealed in 1847.  The third bankruptcy act was passed in 1867 but repealed in 1878.
  • During the long periods when there was no nationwide law in effect, the states developed a patchwork of bankruptcy and debtor-creditor laws. But these local laws became more and more cumbersome as commerce became ever more interstate.
  • Finally, Congress got it right when it passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1898.   The 1898 Act lasted 80 years.  This law was inspired by commercial creditors to help in the collection of debts.  However, it included the following very important debtor-friendly provisions: most debts became dischargeable, and creditors no longer had to be paid a certain minimum percentage of their debts.
  • This Bankruptcy Act of 1898 was amended many times, significantly in 1938 in reaction to the Great Depression. Among other things, the 1938 amendment added the “chapter XIII” wage earners’ plans, the predecessor to today’s Chapter 13s.
  • The 1978 Bankruptcy Reform Act, the result of a decade of study and debate, gave us the Bankruptcy Code. It has been amended every few years since then, most significantly in 2005 with BAPCPA, the so–called Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act.

Satisfying the Credit Counseling Requirement

Posted by Andy Toth-Fejel on November 20, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Since the 2005 amendments to the Bankruptcy Code, you can’t file an individual bankruptcy case  (Chapter 7, 13 or individual Chapter 11) without first taking the so-called “credit counseling.” course from an approved nonprofit budget and credit counseling agency.

What’s Actually Required?

Not much.  It’s actually a simple procedure you do on the internet, or by phone if you prefer. You simply provide some information about your debts, income, and expenses. Then are almost always told that your income is not sufficient to pay for your expenses.

180 Days before Filing

The “counseling” session must take place “during the 180-day period” before filing bankruptcy. So be sure that you’re going to be filing bankruptcy within that length of time after you do it. Otherwise, if your bankruptcy filing is delayed beyond the 180 days, you will  have to take the course again.

Usually people run into the opposite problem, putting it off too long.  Even though you can usually get the requirement out of the way within 24-48 hours, there are situations where debtors come to an attorney to file on the day of a foreclosure sale.  In that case, the debtor can be  SOL.

Reason for this Requirement

The supposed reason for this requirement was to encourage people to consider options other than bankruptcy.

The United States Government Accountability Office has issued a report which questions that viability of that rationale:

“The counseling was intended to help consumers make informed choices about bankruptcy and its alternatives. Yet… by the time most clients receive the counseling, their financial situations are dire, leaving them with no viable alternative to bankruptcy. As a result, the requirement may often serve more as an administrative obstacle than as a timely presentation of meaningful options.”

My opinion is that one of unspoken policies for the 2005 amendments was to discourage bankruptcy filings by making them more time consuming and expensive.   The credit counseling requirement (and the financial management course requirements, see below) are just additional hoops through which a debtor is forced to jump.

Costs/Where to Go ?

When the requirement first came out, it cost about $75-100 for the credit counseling course.  Now, the cost is down to $20-35 on the average.  You can find a list of approved providers on the US Trustee’s website, but it is easier to get a recommendation from your lawyer.

You also have to take a financial management course after the filing.  Same cost.  No course, no discharge.

 

Chapter 7 Basics

Posted by Kevin on October 15, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

The Bankruptcy Code is divided into chapters.  Chapters 1, 3, and 5 deal with basic concepts that apply to all the various types of bankruptcies.  Chapter 7 deals with liquidations for individuals or businesses.  Chapter 9 deals with municipalities.  Chapter 11 deals with reorganizations and/or planned liquidations of mainly businesses.  Chapter 12 deals with family farms (do not get many of them in northern New Jersey).  Chapter 13 deals with repayment plans for individuals.  For the average consumer, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 are the two alternatives methods of filing bankruptcy.  For individuals, the object of any bankruptcy is to get a discharge of your debts.  In other words, wiped out.

Let’s look at Chapter 7.  This is sometimes called a straight bankruptcy or a liquidation.  Chapter 7 is basically an asset driven analysis.  You do not make payments, but a trustee can sell your non-exempt property, and pay out your creditors.  The repayment scheme is set out in the Bankruptcy Code.  Upon the conclusion, many of your debts are discharged.  Certain enumerated debts are not wiped out such as domestic support obligations, debts incurred by fraud, certain taxes and most student loans.

After the Bankruptcy Code went into effect, creditor groups complained for the next 25 years that it was too easy for debtors to file under Chapter 7, which in a vast majority of cases, translated into no payments to creditors.  Creditors wanted more debtors to file under Chapter 13 where monthly payments must be made to a trustee and certain creditors need be paid in full.  The 2005 revisions to the Bankruptcy Code considers a debtor’s income in whether he or she can file under Chapter 7.  If the debtor’s income is below the median income for the State based on family size, it is presumed that the debtor can file under Chapter 7.  If the income is above median, a debtor has to pass the “means test” to qualify for Chapter 7.  The means test looks at the debtor’s income for the 6 months prior to filing to arrive arrive at what is called current monthly income.  It then subtracts categories of expenses- some based on national or regional averages, and others based on actually cost.  If the net income is above a certain amount, the debtor cannot file under Chapter 7.

Assuming that you qualify for Chapter 7, the next issue is what property is exempt.  In New Jersey, we can use either the exemptions set forth in the Bankruptcy Code or the exemptions listed in New Jersey statutes.  The New Jersey statutes are mostly about 100 years old and have not been adjusted for inflation, so we almost always use the federal exemptions.

You file a Chapter 7 by filing with the Bankruptcy Clerk a Petition, Schedules of assets, liabilities, income and expenses, and various ancillary documents (over 40 pages).  A trustee is appointed to oversee the case.  If the exemptions cover the value of all of your assets, the case is called a no-asset case.  That means no assets go to the Trustee-you get to keep them subject to any security interests (mortgages and the like).

About 4 weeks after filing, the debtor (and legal counsel) appear before the trustee.  The debtor is required to answer questions from the trustee and any creditors.  Creditors rarely appear at this hearing.  If the trustee believes that your filing is in order and no further action is necessary, a discharge order will be issued within about 6 weeks.  The whole process takes about 4 months.  You cannot file another Chapter 7 and obtain a discharge for 8 years from filing date of the first Chapter 7.

Clearly, Chapter 7 is a bit more complex, but as the title states, these are Chapter 7 basics.

 

Should I Put My Business in Chapter 7?

Posted by Kevin on September 9, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

You wanted to follow the American dream and set up your own business.   Two years down the road, however, you realize that you are working 70 hours per week and the business is not making money.  You have exhausted all your savings and the business has incurred debt out the wazoo.  You just want out, and you have heard about Chapter 11 or Chapter 7.  What to do?

While you can liquidate your business in a Chapter 11 (liquidating plan), this is very expensive and time consuming.  Unless, the business is very large, this may not be the way to go.  But what about a Chapter 7?

The first question you have to answer is who (or what) is going into Chapter 7?  To a degree, it may depend on how your business was set up.  If you have a sole proprietorship (DBA), then under the law of New Jersey, you are the business.  So, if the business fails and you want out, you will have to file a Chapter 7.  A trustee will be appointed and will administer not only your business assets and liabilities, but also your personal assets and liabilities.

If the business is a corporation or LLC, then under the law, the business is considered an entity separate and apart from you.  So, now the issue is who files bankruptcy?  One of the primary reasons to file bankruptcy is to get a discharge of your debts.  However, the Bankruptcy Code states that a discharge in a Chapter 7 is limited to individuals.  The Code defines “individuals with regular income” but not “individuals”.  The Code also defines “persons” which includes people but also includes corporations and partnerships.  Well, without going into too much more detail, the bottomline is that people can get discharged in a Chapter 7 but corporations and partnerships and LLC’s cannot.  So, if you put your LLC into Chapter 7, it does not get a discharge.

But, the analysis does not end there.  Your LLC may be have sued by numerous creditors so you have lawsuits pending.  Also, these creditors have a penchant for not only suing the LLC but suing the principal and that is you.  You have other creditors who have not sued yet but are hounding you on phone.  You have inventory and accounts receivable.  You have the bank pressuring you on that line of credit which you guaranteed.

Even though the LLC does not get a discharge in Chapter 7, it may be worthwhile to file a Chapter 7 for the business.  First of all, because of the automatic stay, all pending lawsuits are put on hold, and your creditors cannot file any new actions unless they get the permission of the bankruptcy court (relief from automatic stay).  Also, the trustee takes over and chases the business’s creditors, deals with the landlord and liquidates the inventory.  You must cooperate, but the trustee does the heavy lifting.

If you cannot work a deal out with lenders on guarantees, or if the collection lawsuits naming you become too much of a hassle, then the owner should seriously consider an individual Chapter 7.

Bankruptcy issues involving a failing business are complicated.  You should seek experienced bankruptcy counsel work work you through the process.

Why You Should or Should Not Worry about Creditors Objecting in Your Bankruptcy Case

Posted by Kevin on September 1, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

FACT: In bankruptcy, creditors seldom fight the write-off of their debts. Why not? And when DO they tend to fight?

 

Debts That Creditors Must Object To

This blog post is NOT about the kinds of debts that simply can’t be discharged (legally written off), and don’t need the creditor to object for that to happen. Examples of those are child and spousal support obligations, recent income taxes debts, and criminal fines. Those survive bankruptcy without any effect on them.

Instead this is about ordinary debts and the ability of any creditor to raise certain limited kinds of objections (like fraud) to the discharge of its debt.

Why Objections Aren’t Usually Raised

But if creditors have a right to object, why don’t they do so? If they can make trouble for you, why don’t they?

Simply because doing so is very seldom worth their trouble.

Why not?

1. Creditors seldom have the factual basis on which to object.

2. It takes money for creditors to object, money they may well not recoup.

3. The risk that the creditor would have to pay your attorney fees.

That would happen if the judge decided that “the position of the creditor was not substantially justified.” So if creditors are not very confident of their argument, they could be dissuaded further by the risk of having to pay your costs fighting the objection.

So that’s why most creditors just write off the debt and you hear nothing from them during your bankruptcy case.

When Creditors Tend to Object

Creditors do object sometimes, often involving one of the following two situations:

1. Using leverage against you.

If a creditor thinks it has a sensible case against you, it could raise an objection knowing that you are not willing or able to pay a lot of attorney fees to fight it. The creditor knows that even if you have a good defense to its accusations so that you could well win if the matter went all the way to trial, it would cost you a lot to get to that point. So they raise the objection in hopes of inducing you to enter into a settlement quickly.

2. A Personal Grudge

If a creditor is very angry at you for some reason, he, she, or it might be looking for an excuse to harm you or cause you problems. Ex-spouses and ex-business partners are the most common creditors of this sort. Irrationality is unpredictable, so it sometime drives an objection even when there are little or no factual grounds for it.

The Creditors’ Firm Deadline to Object

Creditors have a very limited time to raise objections: their deadline is only 60 days after the Meeting of Creditors (so around 3 months after your bankruptcy case is filed).

So, talk with your attorney if you have any concerns along these lines. And then if whatever assurances he or she gives you doesn’t stop you from worrying about this, you’ll at least know that you won’t have long to worry before the creditors’ right to object expires.

 

Discharge of Your Debts: THE Goal of Bankruptcy

Posted by Kevin on June 15, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

 Bankruptcy is about Discharge

The point of bankruptcy is to get you a fresh financial start through the legal discharge of your debts.

Both kinds of consumer bankruptcy—Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts”—can discharge debts.

This blog post focuses on Chapter 7 discharge of debts.

What Debts Get Discharged?

Is there a simple way of knowing what debts will and will not be discharged in a Chapter 7 case?

Yes and no.

We CAN give you a list of the categories of debts that can’t, or might not, be discharged (see below). But some of those categories are not always clear which situations they include and which they don’t. Sometimes whether a debt is discharged or not depends on whether the creditor challenges the discharge of the debt, on how hard it fights for this, and then on how a judge might rule.

Why Can’t It Be Simpler?

Laws in general are often not straightforward, both because life can get complicated and because laws are usually compromises between competing interests. Bankruptcy laws, and those about which debts can be discharged, are the result of a constant political tug of war between creditors and debtors. There have been lots of compromises, which has resulted in a bunch of hair-splitting laws.

Rules of Thumb

Here are the basics:

#1:  All debts are discharged, EXCEPT those that fit within a specified exception.

#2:  There are quite a few of exceptions, and they may sound like they exclude many kinds of debts from being discharged. It may also seem like it’s hard to know if you will be able to discharge all your debts. But it’s almost always much easier than all that. As long as you are thorough and candid with your attorney, he or she will almost always be able to tell you whether you have any debts that will not, or may not, be discharged. Most of the time there are no surprises.

#3:  Some types of debts are never discharged. Examples are child or spousal support, criminal fines and fees, and withholding taxes.

#4:  Some other types of debts are never discharged, but only if the debt at issue fits certain conditions. An example is income tax, with the discharge of a particular tax debt depending on conditions like how long ago those taxes were due and when its tax return was received by the taxing authority.

#5:  Some debts are discharged, unless timely challenged by the creditor, followed by a judge’s ruling that the debt met certain conditions involving fraud, misrepresentation, larceny, embezzlement, or intentional injury to person or property.

#6:  A few debts can’t be discharged in Chapter 7, BUT can be in Chapter 13. An example is an obligation arising out of a divorce other than support (which  can never be discharged).

The Bottom Line

#1: For most people the debts they want to discharge WILL be discharged. #2: An experienced bankruptcy attorney will usually be able to predict whether all of your debts will be discharged. #3: If you have debts that can’t be discharged, Chapter 13 is often a decent way to keep those under control.

 

Why Can’t a Creditor Chase You After Your Bankruptcy Discharge?

Posted by Kevin on June 7, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Chasing a Discharged Debt is a Violation of Federal Law

The Bankruptcy Code makes it perfectly clear that for a creditor to try to collect on a debt after it is discharged under either Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” or Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” is illegal. Section 524 of the Bankruptcy Code is about the legal effect of a discharge of debt. Subsection (a)(2) of that section says that a discharge of debts in a bankruptcy “operates as an injunction against” any acts to collect debts included in that bankruptcy case. Acts explicitly stated as illegal include:

the commencement or continuation of an action, the employment of process, or an act, to collect, recover or offset any such debt as a personal liability of the debtor.

In other words, the creditor can’t start or continue a lawsuit or any legal procedure against you, and can’t act in any other way to collect the debt.

What If a Creditor Violates This Injunction?

Nowhere in Section 524 of the Code does it say anything about what happens if a creditor violates the law by disregarding that injunction. The section does not clearly say what, if anything, the penalties are for a creditor caught doing so.

However, even though no penalties are specified in THAT section, there is a strong consensus among courts all over the country that bankruptcy courts can penalize creditors for violating the discharge injunction through another section of the Bankruptcy Code, Section 105, titled “Power of Court.” The idea is that the injunction against pursuing a discharged debt is a court order, and so a creditor violating it is in contempt of court. So the usual penalties for those who act in civil contempt of court apply.

Penalties Assessed Against Violating Creditors

These penalties for civil contempt can include “compensatory” damages and “punitive” damages.

Compensatory damages are intended to compensate you for harm you suffered because of the creditor’s violation of the injunction. These potentially include actual damages such as time lost from work or other financial losses, emotional distress caused by the illegal action against you, and attorney fees and costs you’ve incurred as a result.

Punitive damages are to punish the creditor for its illegal behavior. So the judge looks at how bad the creditor’s behavior was in determining whether punitive damages are appropriate and how much to award.

Conclusion

The vast majority of the time creditors in a bankruptcy case write the debts off their books and you never hear about those debts again. But even though it’s illegal for creditors to try to collect on a debt that’s been legally written off in bankruptcy, once in a while they do try. Some creditors don’t keep good records or simply aren’t all that serious about following the law.

So after you receive your bankruptcy discharge, if you hear from one of your old creditors trying to collect its debt contact your attorney right away.  This needs immediate attention. If the creditor’s behavior is particularly egregious, you and your attorney should discuss whether to strike back at the creditor for violating the law. There might possibly even be some money in it for you.

 

Student Loans- Bankruptcy Basics

Posted by Kevin on May 31, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, referred to as the Bankruptcy Code, provided that student loans made by a governmental unit or a non profit institution of higher education was not dischargeable in bankruptcy unless (a) the loan became due before five years before the date of the filing of the petition (in plain English, after 5 years of payments), or (b) if not discharging the loan imposed an undue hardship on the debtor or the debtor’s dependents.   Note, private student loans were dischargeable under the 1978 statute.  Many students took advantage of the ability to discharge their student loans after five years.

Since in the 1970’s and 1980’s student loans were to be repaid in 10 years, many said that it was unfair to allow students, in effect, to wipe half their debt obligation by filing bankruptcy.  So, in the latter part of the 1980’s, the statute was amended to require 7 years of payments or undue hardship.   In 1998, Congress amended that statute again to limit the discharge of student loans only to cases where the debtor could demonstrate undue hardship.   In the meanwhile, the regulations relating to federal loans started to allow more flexibility in paying back student loans based on the borrower’s income.  Those income driven repayment plans morphed into today’s IBR, ICR and REPAY programs.

In 2005, once again, there were major amendments to the Bankruptcy Code under BAPCPA which states for the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (still trying to figure out where the consumer protection comes in). Under BAPCPA,  a debtor cannot get a discharge of a student loan unless the debtor can demonstrate an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.  The types of student loans that are not dischargeable included the following:

1.  loans made, issued or guaranteed by a governmental unit;

2.  made by any program funded in whole or part by a governmental unit or non-profit institution: or

3.  any other educational loan that is a qualified education loan, as defined in section 221(d)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code, incurred by the debtor who is an individual.

Since many private loans are qualified education loans under the Internal Revenue Codes, private lenders received a windfall under BAPCPA- their loans became non-dischargeable but the private lender was not required to provide income driven repayment plans.

It is difficult to get a undue hardship discharge.  You must file an adversary proceeding (lawsuit) in the bankruptcy.   The test used by the bankruptcy court in New Jersey to determine undue hardship is called the “Brunner test”, and consists of the following:

1.  Based on current income and expenses, the debtor cannot maintain a “minimal” standard of living for the himself and the his dependents if forced to repay the student loans;

2.  Circumstances exist which indicate that the debtor’s economic situation is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the loan(s); and

3.  The debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the loan(s).

The Court has wide latitude in either granting or withholding a discharge to student loans.  It also means that if you lose at the trial level, it is very difficult to get the decision overturned on appeal.  Obtaining a discharge of a student loan under the Bankruptcy Code is an expensive and not always successful way to deal with student loan debt.  However, given the right set of circumstances, it can eliminate your student debt.

Because of the difficulties of proving undue hardship, student loan lawyers have developed various strategies outside of bankruptcy arena to deal with the ever increasing problem of repaying your student loans. I welcome you to visit my student loan website (http://studentdebtnj.com) which provides more options in dealing with your student loan debt.

Chapter 13 Handles Both Older and Newer Income Tax Debts

Posted by Kevin on April 3, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

Same facts as previous blog.

  • Without a bankruptcy, a couple would have to pay about $30,000 to the IRS for back taxes, plus about another $45,000 in medical bills and credit cards, a total of about $75,000.
  • Under Chapter 13, this same couple would pay only about $18,000—36 months of $500 payments.

How Does Chapter 13 Work to Save So Much on Taxes and Other Debts?

  • Tax debts that are old enough are grouped with the “general unsecured” debts—such as medical bills and credit cards. These are paid usually based on how much money there is left over after paying other more important debts. This means that often these older taxes are paid either nothing or only a few pennies on the dollar.
  • The more recent “priority” taxes DO have to be paid in full in a Chapter 13 case, along with interest accrued until the filing of the case. However: 1) penalties—which can be a significant portion of the debt—are treated like “general unsecured” debts and thus paid little or nothing, and 2) usually interest or penalties stop when the Chapter 13 is filed.
  • “Priority” taxes—those more recent ones that do have to be paid in full—are all paid before anything is paid to the “general unsecured” debts—the medical bills, credit cards, older income taxes and such. In many cases this means that having these “priority” taxes to pay simply reduces the amount of money which would otherwise have been paid to those “general unsecured” creditors. As a result, in these situations having tax debt does not increase the amount that would have to be paid in a Chapter 13 case, which is after all based on what the debtors can afford. In our example, the couple pays $500 per month because that is what their budget allows.
  • The bankruptcy law that stops creditors from trying to collect their debts while a bankruptcy case is active—the “automatic stay”—is as effective stopping the IRS as any other creditor. The IRS can continue to do some very limited and sensible things like demand the filing of a tax return or conduct an audit, but it can’t use the aggressive collection tools that the law otherwise grants to it.

Deciding Between Chapter 7 and 13 for Income Taxes

If, unlike the example, all of the taxes were old enough to meet the conditions for discharging them under Chapter 7, there would be no need for a Chapter 13 case (but may require additional work in a Chapter 7).  On the other hand if more “priority” tax debts had to be paid than in the example, the debtors would have to pay more into their Chapter 13 plan, either through larger monthly payments or for a longer period of time.

There are definitely situations where it is a close call choosing between Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. And sometimes preparing an offer in compromise with the IRS—either instead of or together with a bankruptcy filing—is the best route. To decide which of these is best for you, you need the advice of an experienced bankruptcy attorney to help you make an informed decision and then to execute on it.

 

Timing is Important When it Comes to Filing Bankruptcy

Posted by on July 22, 2016 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

 

 

Many of the laws about bankruptcy are time-sensitive. When your case is filed can have significant consequences. This blog will address how timing of a bankruptcy filing can effect what debts can be discharged.

Income Taxes Can Be Discharged, with the Right Timing

Federal and state income taxes are forever discharged if you meet a number of conditions. Two of the most important of these conditions are met by just waiting long enough before filing your bankruptcy case:

  • Three years must have passed since the time that the tax return for that tax was due (plus any extension if you asked for one).
  • Two years must have passed since you actually filed the pertinent tax return.

For example, assume a taxpayer owes $10,000 to the IRS for the 2009 tax year. She had asked for an extension to file that year to October 15, 2010, but then did not actually file that tax return until October 31, 2011. The above 3-year condition is met after October 15, 2013, because that is three years after the tax return was due. But the 2-year condition has to be met as well, which would not occur until after October 31, 2013, two years after the actual tax return filing date. So filing a bankruptcy case on or before October 31, 2013 would leave that $10,000 tax debt still owing; filing on November 1, 2013 or after would result in it being discharged forever. Simply waiting this one day makes a difference of $10,000.

Now, there are other conditions involved in getting taxes discharged.  So, it would be wise to seek professional help.

 

Discharge in Chapter 7

Posted by Kevin on March 27, 2016 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

The policy behind bankruptcy is to give an honest debtor a fresh start.  The fresh start begins with the filing of the bankruptcy petition.  By just filing, almost all attempts at collection of a debt are stopped by the automatic stay.  The fresh start is completed when the debtor receives a discharge.  A discharge means that the debt is cancelled, wiped out.

Not all debts are discharged, however.  And a discharge does not mean, in certain circumstances, that a creditor cannot make some recovery.  For example, in the case of a mortgage on your house, the bankruptcy discharge only applies to the debt.  Say, you borrower $500,000 from the bank.  You sign a note which is a promise to pay back the $500,000 with interest.  That is the debt.  And you sign a mortgage which is the collateral for the debt.  The mortgage says that if you do not pay back the $500,000, the bank can take your house.  The bankruptcy discharge knocks out the note, the debt, but not the mortgage.  So, the lender can foreclose on the house and get what it is owed from the house.  What if the house is only worth $300,000?  Then, that is what the bank gets.  The bank cannot come after you for the deficiency because the debt is discharged.

What debts are discharged in bankruptcy? Credit card debt, medical bills, personal loans without collateral, as stated above deficiencies on home mortgages but also deficiencies on car loans, most claims for injury based on negligence (car accidents, slip and fall, etc.), most judgments, business debts, guarantees, leases and older taxes for which you have filed a return which is not fraudulent, and the taxing authority has not filed a tax lien.

The Bankruptcy Code, however, does not discharge all debts.  Some are dischargeable sometimes.  Some are not dischargeable. For example, students loans are not usually dischargeable absent a showing of undue hardship.  The burden is on the debtor to prove undue hardship which is not easy in New Jersey.  Willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another, some debts incurred by fraud and/or dishonesty, and embezzlement may not be dischargeable, but the creditor must go to court to challenge the discharge.  The bankruptcy judge makes the decision whether the debt is dischargeable in these cases.

Payroll and sales taxes are not dischargeable (called trust fund taxes).  Other debts not dischargeable include income taxes recently incurred, domestic support obligations, criminal fines or restitution, injuries suffered when the debtor is intoxicated because of alcohol or drugs, post filing condo fees, and debts not put down in your schedules except in a no asset case.

So, if you are thinking about filing bankruptcy, you should speak first with an experienced lawyer so you can determine which of your debts may or may not be dischargeable.

Use Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 to Resolve Your Tax Debts from a Closed or About-to-Close Business

Posted by on August 15, 2015 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

If you had struggled to keep a business open, but have decided to throw in the towel, there’s a good chance you owe taxes. Here’s how to deal with them.

 

The Basic Choice

Let’s assume that you are seriously considering filing bankruptcy, but want to know your options.

You have two choices within bankruptcy for addressing tax debts after closing down a small business:

1. File a Chapter 7 case to discharge (legally write-off) all the debt that you can, which may include some of your tax debt, and then deal directly with the IRS and any other tax authorities to either pay the rest of the taxes in monthly installment payments or to negotiate a settlement (called an Offer in Compromise in the case of the IRS).

2. File a Chapter 13 case to deal with all your debts, which again may include the discharge of some of your tax debt, while you pay the rest of the taxes through a court-approved Chapter 13 plan, and being protected throughout the process from collection actions by the IRS and any other tax authorities.

Putting aside the many factors distinct from taxes, choosing between Chapter 7 or 13 comes down to this key question: Would the amount of tax that you would still owe after completing a Chapter 7 case be small enough so that you could reliably make reasonable payments to the Internal Revenue Service (or other tax authority) which would satisfy that obligation within a sensible time period?

Answering that Question

The idea is that Chapter 7 is likely the way to go if you don’t need the long-term protection that comes with Chapter 13. In a Chapter 7 case, once that case is completed—usually only about three to four months after it is filed—the IRS/state can resume collection activity on the taxes that were not discharged in bankruptcy. You clearly want to avoid that. So a Chapter 7 makes sense ONLY IF before any collection activity begins you have arranged with the IRS/state to make payments, and 1) those payments are reasonable in amount, 2) your circumstances are stable enough so that you are confident that you will be able to pay them consistently, and 3) the length of time you would be making payments does not stretch out so long that the interest and penalties get too high.

Your attorney will be able to tell you—usually with high reliability—which tax debts will and will not be discharged in a Chapter 7 case, and thus how much in taxes you still owe. Then the next step is determining what the IRS/state would require you to pay in monthly payments, or possibly would accept in settlement. Your bankruptcy attorney may be able to give you guidance about this, or may need to refer you to a tax  specialist (usually an accountant). Once you know the likely monthly installment payment amount—assuming you go that route—then you need to seriously consider whether that would be an amount you could reliably, reasonably pay, without incurring too much in interest and penalties before you paid it off.

If so, Chapter 7 likely is more appropriate. If not, then Chapter 13 is likely better because it gives you much more protection.

 

The “Automatic Stay” Applied to the IRS

Posted by on August 11, 2015 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

The IRS is just another creditor that you can get immediate protection from by filing bankruptcy. With some exceptions.

 

The “Automatic Stay”

The filing of a bankruptcy case—either Chapter 7 or 13—triggers one of the most powerful tools of bankruptcy—the “automatic stay.” That’s the aggressively protective law that goes into effect 1) automatically the instant your bankruptcy case is filed at court 2) to stay—which means stop—all collection activity against you and against any of your assets.

The Bankruptcy Code includes a list of what creditors cannot do because of the “automatic stay.” Here are some of them (focusing on those readily applicable to the IRS):

  • start or continue a lawsuit or administrative proceeding to recover a debt you owe
  • take possession or exercise control over property you own as of the time your bankruptcy is filed
  • create or enforce a lien against such property
  • collect by any means any debt that existed before the bankruptcy filing

Applied to the IRS

The IRS and similar state agencies are certainly not treated like your conventional creditors when it comes to the discharge (legal write-off) of your debts. But in most respects they ARE treated the same for purposes of the “automatic stay.”

The Bankruptcy Code says that the “automatic stay” “operates as a stay, applicable to all entities.” (11 U.S.C. Section 362 (a).)  Is the IRS an “entity”? The Code explicitly defines that term to include “governmental unit.” (Section 101(15).) So the IRS and all tax collecting “governmental units” are governed by the “automatic stay.”

What If the IRS Still Tries to Collect

Just like any other creditor, the IRS can get slapped pretty hard if it violates the “automatic stay” by continuing to collect on a debt or taking any other of the forbidden actions. If you are
“injured by any willful violation of [the automatic] stay… [you] shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages” against the IRS. (Section 362(k).) Indeed on occasion the IRS HAS been slapped hard. It now tends to follow the law and respect the “automatic stay” quite faithfully.

Special Exceptions to the “Automatic Stay” for “Governmental Units”

The IRS and state tax agencies do have some specialized exceptions—things they can continue doing in spite of your bankruptcy filing. (Section 362(b)(9).) But these are sensible exceptions that apply more to the determination of amount of a tax debt than to its actual collection. These tax agencies can demand that you file your tax returns, can make an assessment of the tax and tell you how much you owe, and can do an audit to figure out the amount you owe. They cannot create a tax lien or take any other collection action.