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Priority Debts in a Chapter 13 Case

Posted by Kevin on July 26, 2020 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Chapter 13 gives you some advantages over Chapter 7 for paying your priority debts. 

 Priority Debts under No-Asset and Asset Chapter 7

Our last two blog posts dealt with priority debts in a No-Asset Chapter 7 case and in an Asset Chapter 7 case.  While there are certain Chapter 7 strategies which may be somewhat helpful in dealing with priority debts, it is far from a panacea.  Here are some of its shortcomings.

  • You get only brief protection, or none at all, from your priority creditor(s). With income taxes, the IRS/state can resume collections when your Chapter 7 case is over. That’s only 3-4 months after you and you file the case. With child/spousal support, there is no protection at all: collection continues even during your Chapter 7 case.
  • Because of this lack of legal protection, you have little or no leverage about the dollar amount of payments you pay on your priority debts. You are largely at the mercy of the IRS/state or the support enforcement agencies.
  • In an asset Chapter 7 case, you have no control over the trustee’s sale of your asset(s). Plus you have to pay a significant amount for the trustee’s costs and fee. That reduces what goes to your priority debt(s).

The Benefits of Chapter 13

In contrast, Chapter 13, although not perfect, is better-designed for you to deal favorably with your priority debts. Here are its main benefits and advantages.

1. Ongoing Protection, for Years

The protection from creditors, called the automatic stay, lasts not 3-4 months but rather 3-to-5 years in Chapter 13. You can lose this protection under Chapter 13 if you don’t follow the requirements including making required payments in a timely fashion. But usually this sustained protection can be a powerful tool.  It forces otherwise very aggressive creditors like the IRS/state and support enforcement to cooperate, or at least to back off during the course of the bankruptcy.  Instead of these tough creditors having the law and the leverage on their side, Chapter 13 puts you much more in charge to formulate a plan that works for you.

2. Pay Monthly What You Can Afford to Pay

The practical leverage Chapter 13 gives you helps where it counts. It enables you to pay your priority debts under sensible and manageable payment terms. Priority debts are ones you have to pay regardless of bankruptcy. You mostly just wish that there was a way that you can spread these payments out. Chapter 13 can, under the right circumstances, provide that opportunity.

Here’s how it works.  You and your bankruptcy lawyer propose, and the bankruptcy judge approves a payment plan. (This approval comes after permitted input from the Chapter 13 trustee and your creditors.) This payment plan is mostly based on how much you can actually afford to pay the pool of your creditors. You have to pay all your priority debts in full, but you have 3 to 5 years to do so.

You generally pay nothing on your other unsecured debts until you pay your priority debts in full.  Under certain circumstances you may not be required to pay anything to general unsecured creditors. At the end of your case, if all payments are made and you otherwise comply with all the other requirements of Chapter 13, whatever you haven’t paid is discharged or wiped out. At that point you will have paid off your priority debts in full, and usually owe nothing to anybody.

3. Avoid Interest and Penalties

You can also avoid paying any interest or penalties on your priority debt(s) under Chapter 13.

For example, with recent income taxes, interest and penalties continue to accrue after you file your case.  But as long as there no prior-recorded tax lien, and you successfully finish your case, you don’t pay these additional interest and penalties. You only pay the initial priority tax debt.

Furthermore, in most situations the penalties that accrued before your Chapter 13 filing are not a priority debt. This portion of your tax due at the time of filing is treated as general unsecured debt.  This means it’s treated just like your unsecured credit cards or medical bills. You only pay it to the extent you have money available after paying the priority debts, if at all.

This combination—no accruing interest and penalties, and no penalties treated as priority—can significantly reduce how much you must pay. The less you have to pay as priority means the less you pay in your Chapter 13 payment plan. In bankruptcy speak, that means you need less money to propose a plan which is feasible.  Among other things, you need a feasible plan to be considered for confirmation.

4. Pay Priority (and Secured) Debts Ahead of (and Instead of) Other Debts

If you have secured debts —a vehicle loan or home mortgage arrearage, for example—you often can pay these ahead of the priority debts. Your priority debts generally just have to wait, as long as you are appropriately following the payment plan and pay the priority debts in full by the end of the plan.  Once again, in certain circumstances, the payment of secured and priority claims can lead to a discharge even if the general unsecured claims get nothing.

Five Tremendous Tools to Save Your Home through Chapter 13

Posted by Kevin on October 3, 2019 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Powerful Chapter 13 gives you tools to solve your mortgage and other home lien problems from a number of different angles. 


The Limits of Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy”

In my last blog I described how a Chapter 7 case can under certain circumstances help you enough to save your home., or, at least, delay a foreclosure for a limited time.

The Extraordinary Tools of Chapter 13

Chapter 13, on the other hand, provides you a range of much more powerful and flexible tools for solving many, many debt issues so that you can keep your home.

Here are the first five of ten significant ways that Chapter 13 can save your home (with the other five to come in my next blog).

Under Chapter 13 case you can:

1.  stretch out the amount of time for catching up on back mortgage payments for as long as 5 years. This is in contrast to the one year or so that most mortgage lenders will give you to catch up if you do a Chapter 7 case instead. This longer period can greatly lower your monthly catch-up payments, making more likely that you would succeed in actually catching up and keeping your home.

2. slash your other debt obligations so that you can afford your mortgage payments. The mortgage debt—especially your first mortgage—can’t be significantly changed under Chapter 13. So you are usually required to pay your full monthly mortgage payment, and to catch up any arrearage, but to accomplish this you are allowed to pay to most of your other debts.

3.  permanently prevent income tax liens, and child and spousal support liens, and such from attaching to your home. The “automatic stay” preventing such liens under Chapter 7 last usually only about 3 months, and there’s no mechanism for dealing with these kinds of debts. Instead under Chapter 13, these liens are prevented throughout the three-to-five-year length of the case.

4.  have the time to pay debts that can’t be discharged (legally written off) in bankruptcy, all the while being protected from those creditors attacking your home. So even if a tax or support lien is already in place before you file, you are given the opportunity to pay the debt while under the protection of the bankruptcy laws. That undercuts the leverage of those liens against your home. Then by the end of your case, the debts are paid and those liens are released.

5.  discharge (write off) debts owed to creditors which could otherwise attack your home. For example, certain (generally older) income taxes can be discharged, leaving you owing nothing. But had you not filed the Chapter 13 case, or delayed doing so, a tax lien could have been recorded, which would have required you to pay some or all of the balance to free your home from that lien. Even most standard debts can turn into judgment liens against your house once you are sued and a judgment is entered. Depending on the facts, a judgment liens may or may not be able to be gotten rid of in bankruptcy.  If instead you file a Chapter 13 case to prevent these liens from happening, at the end of your case the debt is gone, and no such liens attach to your home.

See my next blog post for the other five house-saving tools of Chapter 13.

If You Owe Both 2018 AND Earlier Income Taxes

Posted by Kevin on June 3, 2019 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case enables you to include 2018 income taxes into your Chapter 13 payment plan. That would:

    1. Save you money on payment of your 2018 tax;
    2. Give you financial flexibility;
    3. Stop any present and future tax collections and the recording and enforcement of a tax lien on the 2018 tax.

So Chapter 13 is a helpful tool for dealing with taxes you owe for the 2018 tax year. Sometimes it’s even absolutely indispensable—it solves a debt dilemma that appeared otherwise insolvable.

When You Also Owe Income Taxes for Earlier Years

However, Chapter 13 is a particularly powerful tool if you owe not just for 2018 but for other tax years (or year) as well. This is true wherever you stand with the earlier tax debt, whether:

    1. the IRS/state is now aggressively collecting the taxes;
    2. you are currently paying them through an agreed monthly payment plan;
    3. you haven’t yet filed the tax returns for the prior years.

1. Dealing with Aggressive Collection of Earlier Tax Debt

The minute your bankruptcy lawyer files the Chapter 13 case for you all the aggressive tax collection actions will stop. That is the power of bankruptcy’s “automatic stay.” You will have 3 to 5 years to deal with ALL of your debts through a payment plan. This includes all your income taxes. The Chapter 13 payment plan will be based on what you can genuinely afford to pay. You may well not need to pay some of your earlier taxes. You will likely not need to pay any more accruing interest and penalties on ANY of the income taxes. You will not need to worry about tax collections throughout the time you’re in the case—including the recording of tax liens. At the completion of your case you will owe no income taxes.

2. In a Monthly Payment Plan

Are you already in a payment plan with the IRS/state for the prior tax debt?

In most cases, installment plans push you to your financial limits.  The end result is that you probably did not withhold enough to pay your current year taxes.  That digs you into a deeper hole and the IRS could care less.

Furthermore, you know that you’ll violate your installment agreement if you don’t stay current in future income taxes. As stated in IRS Form 9465, the Installment Agreement Request form, “you agree to meet all your future tax obligations.”

Chapter 13 avoids this trouble. As mentioned above, the “automatic stay” immediately protects you from the IRS/state. Your monthly installment plan is cancelled right away. You make no further payments on it once you file you file your Chapter 13 case. All your prior income taxes AND your 2018 one(s) are handled through your Chapter 13 payment plan. You get the financial advantages and the peace-of-mind referenced in the above section. When you successfully complete your Chapter 13 case you’ll be totally free of any tax debt.

3. Not Filing Tax Returns

You may be in the scary situation that you can’t pay your taxes so you don’t file your tax returns.

Or you may be in an installment payment plan and you don’t want to violate it by admitting you owe more for 2018. You know you’ll be in violation of it upon filing the 2018 tax return, so you simply don’t do so.

But you know that not filing your 2018 tax return (and any prior unfiled ones) only delays the inevitable. You’re in a vicious cycle in which you may well be falling further behind instead of getting ahead.

Chapter 13 can likely enable you to break out of that cycle. The vicious cycle is broken because your Chapter 13 budget will also address your 2019 and future income tax situation. It does so because your new budget will include enough withholding or quarterly estimated payments so you can stay current for 2019 and thereafter. Again, you should end the Chapter 13 plan being completely tax-debt free.

Are You Eligible to File a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Case? How About a Chapter 13?

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

Eligibility depends on 1) the kind of debtor, 2) the kinds and amounts of debts, 3) the amount of income and 4) of expenses.


1) The Kind of Debtor

If you are a human person, you may be eligible for either a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” or a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case. You and your spouse may also be eligible to file one or the other of these together in a joint case.

However, if you are the owner or part-owner of a business partnership, corporation, limited liability company or other similar business entity, that business entity could not file its own Chapter 13 case. But it could file under Chapter 7.

2) The Kinds and Amounts of Debts

If your debts are “primarily consumer debts” (more than 50% by dollar amount), then to be able to file a successful Chapter 7 case you have to pass the “means test.” That’s a test related to your income and expenses (discussed more below.)  If 50% or more of your debts are not consumer debts, than you can skip the “means test.”

Chapter 7 does not limit the amount of debt you can have to be eligible to file a case. However, you cannot file a Chapter 13 case if your debts exceed the maximums of $394,725 in unsecured debts and $1,184,200 in secured debts (or if you do file a case it will very likely be “dismissed” (thrown  out)).

3) Amount of Income

You can quickly and easily satisfy the “means test” and be eligible for a Chapter 7 case if your income is no more than the regularly adjusted and published “median income” for your family size and state.

To be eligible for Chapter 13 you must have “regular income.” That is defined not very helpfully as income “sufficiently stable and regular” to enable you to “make payments under a [Chapter 13] plan.”

Also for Chapter 13, if your income is less than the “median income” for your family size and state of residence, then the plan generally must last a minimum of three years (but in many situations it can last longer, especially if you need it to, but for no longer than five years). If your income is at or above the applicable “median income” amount, the plan must almost always last five years.

4) The Amount of Expenses

In Chapter 7, if your income is NOT less than “median income” for your family size and state of residence, then you may still pass the “means test” and be eligible for filing a Chapter 7 case IF, after accounting for all your allowed expenses, you don’t have enough money left over to pay a meaningful amount to your creditors.

In Chapter 13, a similar accounting of your allowed expenses determines the amount of your “disposable income,” the amount you must pay into your plan each month.


Once you recognize that you need relief from your creditors, choosing between Chapter 7 and 13 is often not difficult. But because there are many, many differences between them, the choice can sometimes turn into a delicate balancing act between the advantages and disadvantages of those two options. That’s why when you have your initial meeting with your bankruptcy attorney, it’s smart to be aware of and communicate your goals, but also be open-minded about how best to accomplish them.


Get a New Financial Start with this New Year

Posted by Kevin on January 21, 2018 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

The beginning of a year is a good time to take stock of yourself.  People routinely make New Year’s resolutions about diet, exercise, going back to school.

Are your debts getting out of control?  Worried about harassing telephone calls from debt collectors?  Getting sued?  Wages being garnished?  Now is the right time to do some financial assessment.  Bankruptcy may be the right tool for you to put your financial problems in the rear view mirror.

A New Start with Chapter 7

With Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” you get a new start very fast. As soon as your case is filed most of your creditors can’t collect their debts against you. They can’t go after your money or your property. Then usually about 3-4 months later the bankruptcy court enters an order discharging your debts. As quick as that, you become debt-free. The only exceptions would possibly be debts you want to keep and special debts you can’t discharge under the Bankruptcy Code.. Debts you might want to keep could include a vehicle loan or home mortgage. Debts you can’t discharge include recent income taxes, unpaid child and spousal support, and criminal fines.

A New Start with Chapter 13

With Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” the new start is more nuanced, but sometimes much better.

Just as with Chapter 7 your creditors can’t take any action to collect their debts as of the moment you file your case. But under Chapter 13 that protection from creditors lasts not just a few months but for years. You finish your Chapter 13 payment plan in  3 to 5 years. Whatever debts you have not paid off get discharged. The final discharge of debts happens much later but in the meantime you can get many benefits unavailable under Chapter 7. You can deal in creative ways with special debts like home mortgages and car loans. Same thing with income taxes and child support arrearages that can’t be discharged. Plus you get protection from collection actions against any co-signers that you don’t get under Chapter 7.


Don’t kick the can down the road.  Take control.  We are available for consultation.


Chapter 13 Basics-Why File?

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

In Chapter 7, debtors make no payments to their creditors but a Chapter 7 trustee can sell all non-exempt property and pay unsecured creditors.  The process is over in 4 months or so, and the debtor obtains a discharge of most of her debts.  In Chapter 13, however, debtors get to keep even their non-exempt property but must make monthly payments to the Chapter 13 trustee for a period of 36 to 60 months before they can get a discharge of most of their debts.

So, we are assuming that you are having trouble paying your bills.  You are contemplating bankruptcy.  Why would you choose to make payments for 3 to 5 years to get a discharge when you can pay nothing and get a discharge in 4 months.  Well, there are a number of reasons why prospective debtors pick Chapter 13.  In 2005, Bankruptcy Code was amended by a law referred to as BAPCPA.   BAPCPA adopted what is called the Means Test to determine if you could file under Chapter 7.  If your income based on family size exceeds the median for your State, you must pass the Means Test to file under Chapter 7.  The Means Test is based on IRS tests to determine how much a taxpayer can pay in back taxes.  So, if you are above median income and you fail the Means Test, you cannot file Chapter 7, and are be required to file under Chapter 13 if you otherwise qualify.

But, there are other reasons to file under Chapter 13 even if you pass the Means Test.  Say you own a home with significant equity.  In a Chapter 7, the trustee can sell your home and pay off your creditors.  In a Chapter 13, if you make all payments under a Plan confirmed by the Court, you can keep your home.  In addition, let’s say that you own a home but are in arrears on the mortgage.  In Chapter 13, you can pay off the arrears over the term of the Plan.  That could be up to 60 months.

Finally, say your house was worth $400,000 when you bought it, but after the mortgage crisis, it is only worth $250,000.  You owe $270,000 on a first mortgage and $50,000 on a second mortgage.  In this case, the collateral covers most of the first mortgage, but the second mortgage is completely unsecured.  In other words, if there was a foreclosure, the first mortgage holder would be paid a good amount of what it is owed, but the second mortgage holder would get nothing.  In Chapter 13 in our example, you can “strip off” that second mortgage and treat it as unsecured debt since there is no collateral to attach to that mortgage.  So, instead of making monthly payments of, say, $300 per month on the second, that creditor gets only a pro rata share of what is paid to the unsecured creditors.  If your plan payment is, say, $100 per month, then the second mortgage holder gets to share that $100 with the other unsecured creditors instead of getting $300 per month.  A substantial savings.   If you make all the payments, the second mortgage holder is required to release the mortgage lien of record.

In some cases, you are forced into Chapter 13, but that does not mean that Chapter 13 cannot provide some real benefits, especially to homeowners.  If you think Chapter 13 can help your situation, you should speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney.  Chapter 13 is not a DIY project.

Chapter 13 Gives You Lots More Time to Pay Crucial Creditors

Posted by Kevin on May 10, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

When you’d like to favor certain important debts over others, often Chapter 13 makes this possible. 

Using the Bankruptcy Laws to Your Advantage

One of the basic principles of bankruptcy is that you usually can’t favor one debt over your other debts. However, under the Bankruptcy Code, certain creditors are recognized to be legally different. For example, secured creditors have rights over your property that you’ve given as collateral, rights that unsecured creditors don’t have. Also, bankruptcy does not discharge (write off) certain debts. These include child support, many types of taxes and many student loans, and certain other debts. These can’t be discharged while most debts can.

Chapter 13 requires that you treat certain debts differently- and that can be to your advantage.

Here are two good examples.

Catching up on Your Mortgage Arrearage

The law highly favors residential mortgage debts, especially your primary mortgage. Why?  The policy reason is that these lenders should be protected in bankruptcy to lessen their risks. Arguably this encourages more investment in the residential mortgage capital markets which makes mortgages more readily available to homeowners.

So, if you were behind on your home mortgage and wanted to keep the home, you’d have to catch up.  That is referred to in the Chapter 13 context as paying the mortgage arrearage.   You can’t escape doing so just because the home is worth less than the debt (as you often can with a vehicle loan).

In a Chapter 13, you have up to 60 months to pay your mortgage arrearage.  In New Jersey, those payments are made to the trustee while you make your regular mortgage payments going forward directly to the lender or servicer.  As long as you make these payments, the automatic stay remains in effect and your mortgage lender cannot file a foreclosure.  Moreover, the lender cannot demand payments that exceed 1/60 of the arrearage (assuming a 5 year plan) and cannot add late or other fees.

Child Support Arrearage

Another kind of debt that is highly favored in the law is child support. As a result, if you get behind on support payments, the collection procedures that can be used against you are extremely aggressive.  In New Jersey, you can go to jail, have your driver’s license suspended or have a professional license suspended.

Chapter 7 provides no direct help if you owe back support. The “automatic stay” that protects you from other creditors does not even apply to support debt under Chapter 7. This means that the aggressive collections can just continue; the bankruptcy filing has no effect on it.

But a Chapter 13 is very different. The “automatic stay” does protect you and your property from collection of the support arrearage. You ARE protected from support collections, as long as you follow some strict rules. After the Chapter 13 filing, you must pay ongoing regular support payments, and your Chapter 13 plan payments. In addition, you have to pay off the entire support arrearage before completing the case (up to 60 months).



Bankruptcy: a Tool for Business Success

Posted by Kevin on April 7, 2017 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

Your Business as a Sole Proprietorship

Practically speaking, your business is operated as a sole proprietorship if you did not create a corporation, limited liability (LLC), partnership, or any other kind of formal legal entity when you set up that business. You own and operate your business by yourself for yourself, although the business may have a formal or informal “assumed business name” or “DBA” (“doing business as”).

There are various advantages and disadvantages of operating your business this way. For our immediate purposes what’s important is that you and your business are legally treated as a single economic entity. That’s different than if your business operated as a corporation which would legally own its own assets and owe its own debts, distinct from you and any other shareholder(s). This blog post, and the next few on this broad topic of business bankruptcies, assumes that you operate your business as a sole proprietorship.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7, “straight bankruptcy,” or “liquidating bankruptcy,” allows you to “discharge” (legally write off) your debts in return for liquidation—surrendering your assets to the bankruptcy trustee in order to be sold and the proceeds distributed to your creditors. In most Chapter 7 cases you receive a discharge of your debts even though none of your assets are surrendered and liquidated, because everything you own is protected–“exempt.”

But if you own an ongoing business—again, a sole proprietorship—which you intend to keep operating, Chapter 7 may be a risky option. You and your attorney would need to determine if all your business’ assets would be exempt under the laws applicable to your state. Certain crucial assets of your business—perhaps its accounts receivable, customer list, business name, or favorable premises lease—may not be exempt, and thus subject to being taken by the trustee. Proceed very carefully to avoid having your business effectively shut down in this way.

Chapter 13

The Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” bankruptcy option is generally better designed than Chapter 7 for ongoing sole proprietorship businesses. It provides much better mechanisms for retaining your personal and business assets. Even business (and personal) assets that are not “exempt” can usually be protected through a Chapter 13 plan.

You and your business get immediate relief from your creditors, usually along with a significant reduction in the amount of debt to be repaid.  So Chapter 13 helps both your immediate cash flow and the long-term prospects for the business. It is also an excellent way to deal with tax debts, often a major issue for struggling businesses. Overall, it allows you to continue operating your business while taking care of a streamlined set of debts.


In the next few blogs we will focus on some of the most important benefits of filing a business Chapter 13 case.


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.


Qualifying for Chapter 13

Posted by on June 5, 2016 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

Chapter 13 sometimes gives you huge advantages over Chapter 7. So how do you qualify for those advantages?  


You can file a Chapter 13 case if:

  • the amount of your debts does not exceed the legal debt limits
  • you are “an individual with regular income”

Debt Limits

Under Chapter 7 there is no limit how much debt you can have. But under Chapter 13 there are maximums for both secured and unsecured debts.

Debt limits were imposed back in the late 1970s when the modern Chapter 13 procedure was created.  Congress wanted to restrict this new, relatively streamlined option to simpler situations. With a very large debt amount, the more elaborate Chapter 11 was instead considered appropriate.

The original debt limits were $350,000 of secured debts and $100,000 of unsecured debts. In the mid-1990s these limits were raised to $750,000 and $250,000 respectively, with automatic inflation adjustments to be made every 3 years thereafter. The most recent of these adjustments applied to cases filed starting April 1, 2016, with a secured debt limit of $1,184,200 and unsecured debt limit of $394,725. These limits apply whether the Chapter 13 case is filed by an individual or a married couple—they are NOT doubled or increased for a married couple. Reaching EITHER of the two limits disqualifies you from Chapter 13.

These limits may sound high, and indeed do not get in the way of most people who want to file a Chapter 13 case. But they can cause problems unexpectedly. As just one example, a serious medical emergency or medical condition that is either uninsured or exceeds insurance coverage can climb to a few hundred thousand dollars of debt shockingly fast.

“Individual with Regular Income”

First, only “individuals”—human beings, not corporations or partnerships—can file a Chapter 13 case.

Second, an “individual with regular income” is defined in the Bankruptcy Code as one “whose income is sufficiently stable and regular to enable such individual to make payments under a plan under Chapter 13.”

If that doesn’t sound very helpful to you, you’re not alone. How “stable and regular” does a debtor’s income need to be before it is “sufficiently” so, in that it enables the debtor to make plan payments?  How is a bankruptcy judge going to make that determination at the beginning of the Chapter 13 case, especially if there hadn’t yet been any history of income from its intended source?

Having such a ambiguous definition gives bankruptcy judges a great deal of leeway about how they read this qualification. Most are pretty flexible at least at the beginning of the case, giving debtors a chance to make the plan payments, thereby proving by action that their income is “stable and regular” enough. But if your income has been inconsistent, you may need to persuade the judge that your income is steady enough to qualify. A good attorney, especially one who has experience with your judge, can present your circumstances in the best light and get you over this hurdle.

Choosing Between Filing Chapter 7 and 13–Easy or Not?

Posted by on April 28, 2016 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

Chapter 7 and 13 are very different debt-fighting tools. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s obvious which is right for you.


The Not Always So Easy Choice

Once it is clear that you need bankruptcy relief, picking the right Chapter to file can be simple. Your circumstances may all point towards one option or the other. But sometimes it can be far from clear cut.


The First Impression IS Often Right

To be clear, when my clients first come in to see me, many have a good idea whether they want to file a Chapter 7 or a 13.  There is lots of information available about this, including on this website. So lots of my clients come in having done some homework. Or at least they’ve heard something about the two Chapters and have an impression which makes sense to them.   But sometimes after we have reviewed all the facts and options, the initial impression  proves wrong.


An Illustration

Let’s say you have a home you’ve been struggling to hold onto for the last year or two, but by now have pretty much decided it wasn’t worth doing so any more. You’re seriously behind on both the first and the second mortgages. Like so many other people, the home is worth a lot less than you owe. In fact, let’s say you owe on the first mortgage a little more than what the home is worth, plus another $75,000 on the second mortgage, so the home is “under water” by that amount. Although for the last couple of years you’ve been hoping that the market value will start heading back up, but it’s just held steady. You and your family would definitely like to stay there, buy you absolutely can’t pay both mortgages. Besides it makes little economic sense to keep struggling to hang onto property worth $75,000 less than what you owe. So you’ve decided it’s time to give up on the home, and just file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

But then you meet with your bankruptcy attorney and find out some surprising good news. Because your home is worth less than the balance on the first mortgage, through a Chapter 13 case you can “strip” the second mortgage off the title of your home. You no longer have to make the monthly payments on it, making keeping your home all of a sudden hundreds of dollars cheaper each month.  In return for paying into your Chapter 13 Plan a designated amount each month based on your budget, and doing so for the three-to-five year length of your Chapter 13 case, you can keep your home usually by paying very little—and sometimes nothing—on that $75,000 second mortgage. At the end of your case, whatever amount is left unpaid on that second mortgages would be “discharged”—legally written-off—so you own the home without that mortgage. You are debt-free, other than your first mortgage.

This “stripping” of the second mortgage is NOT available under the Chapter 7 that you initially thought you should file. The ability to keep your home by significantly lowering its monthly cost to you and bringing the debt against it much closer to its value could well swing your choice towards filing Chapter 13, contrary to your initial intention.

So, the Best Advice:  Meet with Your Attorney with an Open Mind


Income Tax Refunds in Bankruptcy-Chapter 13

Posted by on July 21, 2015 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

If you’re filing a Chapter 13 case, what choices do you have about your income tax refund?


Start with What Happens with Refunds in Chapter 7

To understand how tax refunds are treated under Chapter 13, it helps to compare how they are treated under Chapter 7.  For more details about that, see my last blog. But to summarize, when you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy usually you can keep your tax refund either by 1) smart timing of the bankruptcy filing, or 2) by the use of “exemptions.” If you wait to file your case until after you have received and appropriately spent the refund (carefully following the advice of your attorney on where to spend it), then this refund is not an “asset of your bankruptcy estate”—the bankruptcy trustee and your creditors have no claim on it. On the other hand, if the refund IS an “asset of your bankruptcy estate” but it is covered by an “exemption,” then the refund is protected and you get to keep it.

The Good News about Tax Refunds under Chapter 13

  • As with Chapter 7, if you are flexible about when to file your case, wait until you have received and spent the refund appropriately.
  • Better than Chapter 7, if you have to file your Chapter 13 case when your tax refund is still pending, you may be able to get permission to spend that refund—or part of it—for some urgent and necessary expense, instead of having it just go to pay creditors.
  • Also better than Chapter 7, to the extent that you are required to pay all or part of the refund to the trustee, you would likely have some discretion about where that money would get paid, by including that in the terms of your Chapter 13 plan.

But This Comes with Some Not So Good News 

  • Chapter 7 focuses only on assets you own or have a right to when the case is filed. So it involves only the tax refunds that are pending at that point in time. Chapter 13 in contrast involves your income throughout the three to five years that your case is active. Since future tax refunds are considered part of your ongoing income, they need to be accounted for, and generally must be paid to the trustee to pay to your creditors.

Paying the Trustee Future Tax Refunds Is Usually Not So Bad

  • Usually you can minimize the issue by reducing the payroll tax withholdings made by your employer, thereby reducing that tax year’s refund. As a result you are giving yourself more money each month for living expenses or for making your Chapter 13 plan payments.
  • If you still do receive a relatively large refund during your case, and you have some out-of-the-ordinary urgent need for all or part of that money, you may be able to get trustee and/or court permission to use it for that purpose.
  •  Even to the extent that you still have refunds going to the Chapter 13 trustee during the years of your case, that money could well be doing some serious good work, such as:
    • In many situations that additional money beyond your regular monthly plan payments allows you to complete your case faster, giving you an earlier fresh start.
    • Important creditors would likely be paid more quickly—such as a child support arrearage or the payoff of a vehicle.
    • The extra money from the refunds may be critical in allowing you to pay off the plan within the mandatory maximum 5-years, so that you can discharge all your remaining debts and have a successful Chapter 13 case.


As with Chapter 7, you can usually time the filing of your Chapter 13 case so that you can keep your current-year income tax refund(s). But if you can’t wait to file, then under Chapter 13 you tend to have more control over what happens with the pending tax refund(s). You do have the disadvantage of losing some control over the next few years of tax refunds, but that is less of a practical problem than it may seem for the reasons just outlined.

The Trustee in Chapter 13

Posted by Kevin on November 16, 2012 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

In Chapter 13 the trustee is a gate-keeper, overseer, and payment distributor. Quite different than in Chapter 7.

To understand what a Chapter 13 trustee does, we need to get on the same page about what Chapter 13  is. It’s an “adjustment of debts” based on a three-to-five-year payment plan. Moreover, upon successful completion of your Chapter 13 Plan, you get a discharge, and you get to keep your stuff- whether it is exempt or not.

The Chapter 13 Trustee as Gate-Keeper. The trustee’s first role as gate-keeper is to review your plan and object to any aspects of it that he or she believes does not follow the law. Usually any trustee objections are resolved by your attorney through persuasion or compromise, or by having the bankruptcy judge make a ruling on it.

The Trustee as Overseer

After the plan is approved, or “confirmed,” by the judge, the trustee and his or her staff continues to monitor your case throughout its three-to-five-year life.  They track your payments, usually review your income tax returns each year to see if your income stays reasonably stable, and file motions to dismiss your case if you don’t comply with these and other requirements.

The Trustee as Payment Distributor

The trustee collects payments from you and distributes the money as specified by the terms of the court-approved plan. As part of that, the trustee’s staff reviews your creditors’ proofs of claim—documents filed by your creditors to show how much you owe—and may object to ones that do not seem appropriate. And when you have finished paying all you need to pay, the trustee informs you and the bankruptcy court, so that the court can discharge the rest of your remaining debt (except for long-term debts such as perhaps a home mortgage or student loan).

Practical Differences between Chapter  7 and 13 Trustees

  • The Chapter 7 trustee liquidates assets, or, more often, determines if you have any assets which can be liquidated, fixating on your assets at the point in time when you filed your case. In contrast, the Chapter 13 trustee receives and pays out money over a period of years, based on a bunch of factors but mostly on your ongoing income and expenses.
  • Both types of trustees are private individuals, carefully vetted and monitored. The Chapter 7 trustees are chosen out of a “panel” of several trustees within each bankruptcy court, so your attorney will not know (or be able to influence) which one of the trustees will be assigned to your case. In contrast, there is usually only one “standing” Chapter 13 trustee assigned cases from each court or each geographic area within the court’s jurisdiction. So your attorney will almost for sure know which Chapter 13 trustee will be assigned to your case.