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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 Can Remove a Judgment Lien

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

Do you have a judgment lien on your home? If so, the debt on that judgment is secured by whatever equity you have in your home.

A judgment lien on your home gives the creditor holding the judgment lien legal rights against your home.  A judgment lien holder on your home can, under some circumstances, foreclose on your home. At the least, it can force you to pay the debt when you sell or refinance your home.

Bankruptcy can help. Filing bankruptcy usually results in the legal write-off (the “discharge”) of the debt.  The problem is that in many situations bankruptcy does not curtail creditors’ lien rights which pass through the bankruptcy.  Even though you discharge that debt, the lien still survives. It can and does come back to haunt you even after a successful bankruptcy.

However, with a judgment lien on your home, bankruptcy often CAN get rid of the judgment lien.  This is a potentially huge benefit of filing bankruptcy. The process of getting rid of a judgment lien within bankruptcy is called “judgment lien avoidance.” 

The Conditions for Judgment Lien Avoidance

Here’s how the process works.

When you file bankruptcy, to “avoid” a judgment lien you must file what is called a motion with the Court and meet certain conditions:

  • The lien you’re getting rid of must be a “judicial lien.” That’s legally defined as “a lien obtained by judgment, levy, sequestration, or other legal or equitable process or proceeding.”  Mostly, this refers to judgment liens.
  • The judgment lien can attach to “real property or personal property that the debtor or a dependent of the debtor uses as a residence.”
  • The judgment lien can’t be for child or spousal support or for a mortgage.
  • The judgment lien “impairs” the homestead exemption.  In earlier versions of the Bankruptcy Code, the concept of impairment was, at times, confusing.  However, under the current Code, it is pretty much a straightforward analysis.

Essentially, you’re entitled to protect the equity in your home provided by the homestead exemption. To the extent a judgment lien eats into that homestead exemption-protected equity, that portion of the lien is avoided, or negated.

For Example

Assume you had $20,000 of equity in your home beyond your first mortgage. Assume also that your designated homestead exemption amount is $25,000. (This varies by state.) This would mean that all of that $20,000 in equity would be protected by the homestead exemption. Then add that a hospital got a judgment against you of $15,000 which became a judgment lien recorded against your home. If you filed a bankruptcy case and moved to avoid that judgment lien, it would be completely avoided because:

  • It’s a judicial lien—one “obtained by judgment.”
  • The lien attaches to your homestead—the place you “use as a residence.”
  • The lien was not for child or spousal support or related to a mortgage.
  • All of this $15,000 judgment lien impairs your homestead exemption—eats into the home equity, all of which is protected by the exemption.

In this example, bankruptcy would very likely discharge the $15,000 hospital debt itself. And the motion to avoid the judgment lien would very likely be successful. You would no longer owe the debt. And your home would no longer be encumbered by the judgment lien.

When a Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy” Helps You Enough on Your Home

Posted by Kevin on February 11, 2019 under Bankruptcy Blog | Comments are off for this article

Chapter 13 Is a Powerful Package

If you want to keep your home but are behind on your mortgage payments, a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” is often what you need. It comes with an impressive set of tools to address many home debt problems. It gives you more time to catch up on the mortgage, may enable you to “strip” a second or third mortgage off your title, and gives you very helpful ways for dealing with property taxes, income tax liens, judgment liens, and such.

When Chapter 7 is Enough

But what if you have managed to fall only a few months behind on your mortgage, and could afford the payments if you just got relief from your other debts?

Or what if you aren’t even keeping the house, but do need a little more time to find another place to live?

Then you may not need a Chapter 13 case, and could save the extra time and cost that it would take compared to Chapter 7.

Buying Just Enough Time for What You Need

The “automatic stay”—the bankruptcy provision that stops virtually all actions by creditors against you or your property—applies to Chapter 7 just as it does to Chapter 13.  So the filing of a Chapter 7 case stops a foreclosure just as quickly as a Chapter 13 filing.

But Chapter 7 usually buys you much less time than a Chapter 13 could.

If you are not very far behind on your mortgage payment(s) and want to keep your home, when you file a Chapter 7 case your mortgage lenders will usually give you several months to catch up on your back payments. You must immediately start making your regular monthly payments, if you had not been making them, and must enter a strict schedule for catching up on the arrearage. In return the lender agrees to hold off foreclosing, as long as you make the payments as agreed.

Where do you get the money to make these extra payments?  By discharging your pre-petition debt in the Chapter 7, it could free up hundreds of dollars per month.  The key, then, is to make sure that you use that money to pay the mortgage arrearage and not spend it on other items.

If instead, you are not keeping the house but just need to have more time to save money for moving into a rental home, a well-timed Chapter 7 case will buy you more time in your house. During that time you don’t pay mortgage payments, enabling you to get together first and last month’s rent payment, any necessary security deposit and other moving costs.

The tough-to-answer question is how much extra time would a Chapter 7 filing give you. It mostly depends on how aggressive your mortgage company is about trying to start or restart the foreclosure efforts.  A pushy lender could, soon after you file your case, ask the bankruptcy court for “relief from the stay”—permission to start or restart the foreclosure process. If so, then your bankruptcy filing would buy you only an extra month or so.

Or on the other extreme, a mortgage lender could potentially take no action during the 3-4 months or so until your Chapter 7 case is finished. At that point the “automatic stay” protection expires, and the lender can start or restart the foreclosure. Or it may sit on its hands even longer.  Your bankruptcy attorney will likely have some experience in how aggressive your particular mortgage lender is under facts similar to yours.

Stopping a Home Foreclosure with a Bankruptcy, Temporarily or Permanently

Posted by Kevin on July 22, 2013 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

Filing bankruptcy can buy you a little time or a lot of time, enough time either to transition to a new home or else to save your present home.

The same bankruptcy power that stops a lawsuit or garnishment of your wages or bank account, also stops a home foreclosure. The practical question is: what happens to your home after the foreclosure is stopped?

Chapter 7: the Option that Buys You a Little Time

A Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy,” is by far the most common type. It gives you protection against foreclosure for three months or so, or potentially for even less time if the mortgage lender is aggressive.

With such a short period of protection, a Chapter 7 would help you in two quite different situations:

1. if you have decided to surrender your home but need just a few weeks to move; or

2. if you want to keep the home, and can afford to catch up on the late payments within about a year of extra payments.

Filing a Chapter 7 is like hitting a pause button. If you’re letting your house go, it lets you catch your breath before you have to leave. If you’re hanging on to the house, a Chapter 7 gives us time to do a deal with the mortgage lender.

Chapter 13: the Option that Can Buy You Years of Time

Filing under Chapter 13 can potentially give you five years to pay off your back payments, and does so in a more flexible and powerful package.

Instead of negotiating with the mortgage lender and hoping that it will give you terms that you can live with, Chapter 13 generally gives you a set of rules to follow for catching up with that lender. It also gives you time to catch up on any back property taxes, can often get rid of a second mortgage or a judgment lien, and usually provides a practical way of dealing with other liens on your home, such as an income tax or child support lien.

A Chapter 13 case is flexible, so that if you have changes in your circumstances during your case your plan can be adjusted to account for the changes. That makes holding on to your real estate more feasible. It also means you can change your mind and decide to surrender it, months or even years after your case was filed.

The mortgage lender can always ask the bankruptcy court for permission to begin or restart a foreclosure. These kinds of creditors tend to do so either at the beginning of your case if they don’t like the Chapter 13 payment plan that you and your attorney are proposing, or later in the case if you’ve not made the payments that you said in your plan that you would make. The court balances your rights against those of the lender in deciding whether to give you the extra time you need.

Just Been Sued by a Creditor? How Bankruptcy Helps Right Away

Posted by Kevin on July 16, 2013 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

Getting sued by a creditor is a wake-up call to consider filing bankruptcy. If it is the right thing to do, there are advantages to filing before your deadline to respond to the lawsuit.

If you get sued by a creditor, as discussed in my last blog it’s dangerous both short-term and long-term not to consult with an attorney. Today’s blog is about the immediate effect on that lawsuit if you do file bankruptcy.

The Basic Automatic Stay

The filing of your bankruptcy stops that lawsuit instantaneously. It doesn’t take a separate court order or any action by the bankruptcy court or judge to stop it. It’s the mere act of filing the bankruptcy case of itself that stops the lawsuit against you. The word “stay” in that statute means “stop.”

The Immediate Effect of the Automatic Stay

Timing is important with a lawsuit. A judgment will be entered against you if you don’t formally respond to the lawsuit by the stated deadline, and that judgment would give the creditor more ways to get money out of you. The entry of a judgment can also create a lien against your real estate, and filing bankruptcy afterwards will create complications in trying to clear that lien off your title.

So stopping the judgment from being entered in the first place can be very important.  The safe way to do that is to file bankruptcy plenty of time before your deadline to respond to the lawsuit. But if you are cutting it close, it helps that the automatic stay is effective instantaneously. If the creditor’s attorney is about to file documents to enter a judgment at court, but your bankruptcy is filed before that happens, that attorney can’t try to get a judgment quickly before the bankruptcy court acts, because the bankruptcy court doesn’t need to act. As its name says, the stay is automatic.

Telling the Suing Creditor about the Bankruptcy Filing

All your creditors will receive a formal notice of your bankruptcy filing, by mail and in some situations perhaps electronically. But that mailed notice is of course not instantaneous. It is mailed out a few days after the filing of your bankruptcy case, so that all of your creditors should know about it within about a week after you file. But that may well not be fast enough to stop the judgment documents from being filed by the creditor’s attorney and entered by that court. So in urgent situations either you or your attorney need to directly inform that attorney about the bankruptcy filing.

Creditors’ Violations of the Automatic Stay

But what if that attorney just goes ahead and submits the judgment papers, either from not finding out in time about your bankruptcy filing or in spite of knowing about it?

The judgment will not be effective, and the attorney will be required to undo the paperwork. If the entry of the judgment results in any damage to you (such as a garnishment of your bank account), the creditor would likely have to compensate you for the damage it (or its attorney) caused. These damages can include your attorney’s fees for enforcing the automatic stay. In circumstances where the bankruptcy court is persuaded that the creditor needs to be taught a lesson, the court may order the creditor to pay you punitive damages.  Because of these potential penalties, most creditors are cooperative about stopping their lawsuits immediately when they are informed about a bankruptcy filing.

The Bottom Line

As soon as you are sued by a creditor, the clock is ticking for a judgment to be entered against you. So use this lawsuit as an incentive to see an attorney right away to find out the short-term and long-term ways the judgment could hurt you. Find out whether bankruptcy is or is not a sensible option, and whether it is in your best interest to file a bankruptcy case before a judgment can be entered against you in the lawsuit.

Power to Protect Your Home Against Your Mortgage Lender and Lienholders

Posted by Kevin on June 17, 2013 under Bankruptcy Blog | Be the First to Comment

If you want to hold onto your home, Chapter 13 gives you many extraordinary advantages.

A. If you are current on your mortgage: In most situations you will be allowed to keep making payments directly to your mortgage holder. The bankruptcy system puts a high priority on home mortgages, so almost always your Chapter 13 plan will be structured to pay your mortgage ahead of most other creditors.

B. If you are behind on your mortgage: You will likely have the whole 3-to-5-year length of your Chapter 13 case to catch up on your missed payments. Although theoretically you want to finish your case sooner than later, from a practical perspective the longer you have to catch up the less it will cost each month to do so. In fact because of this, homeowners often intentionally stay in their cases longer than their income requires just to make it easier on their monthly budget.

C. If you have a second mortgage: We may be able to “strip” that mortgage off your house, so that you won’t have to pay it. This is possible only if the home is worth no more than the balance owed on the first mortgage. And this can only be done in Chapter 13, not Chapter 7. Note that when the second (or third) mortgage is stripped off your title, you will be that much closer to eventually building some equity in your home

D. If you are behind on homeowner association dues: These special creditors usually have very aggressive collection methods available to them. But Chapter 13 can stop them and keep them at bay while you get current through payments earmarked to them through your plan.

E. If you are behind on your property taxes: Same thing. The county or other property tax agency is put on hold with any tax foreclosure or other collection procedures while the back taxes are paid through your Chapter 13 plan. Your mortgage company also sees that you are taking care of this responsibility and can monitor your performance in doing so.

F. If you have a judgment lien on your home: In many circumstances, judgment liens attached to your home can be “voided”—the lien undone and the underlying debt written off.  The debt itself is treated as an unsecured debt and is paid whatever percentage all your unsecured creditors receive through your Chapter 13 plan. Usually this does not increase how much you end up paying to the creditors, but rather just shifts how much each of your creditors gets paid (if anything at all).

G. If you have an income tax lien: Chapter 7 does not have an effective way of dealing with an income tax secured through a tax lien. Chapter 13 does. Whether the tax lien is on a tax which can or cannot be discharged, your Chapter 13 plan will arrange to pay only those taxes that must be paid during the life of your case. So at the end of your case all necessary taxes will have been paid in full and the tax lien will be released.

H. If you have a child or spousal support lien: Another situation where Chapter 7 cannot help, under Chapter 13  the ex-spouse or support enforcement agency would be stopped from enforcing the lien, you’d have the length of your case to pay the arrearage, so that by the end of the case you would be current and any lien would be released.

These are the main special powers that Chapter 13 provides to help you keep your home. Often these are used in combination, to fight back at each of the ways your home is being attacked. Whether you just need to use one or two or a bunch of them, these powers make keeping your home much more likely to actually happen.