When should I file for bankruptcy?
The decision to file for bankruptcy is often one of the hardest choices that a person has to make in his or her lifetime. Poor planning can often make the process even harder. It goes without saying that filing for bankruptcy should be a last resort, and should only be done when all other methods of satisfying one’s financial obligations have been exhausted. However, if your situation has become so severe that you are in danger of foreclosure, garnished wages or repossessions or are facing debts that you are in no position to pay, putting off the inevitable can have devastating consequences. Procrastination can cost you your car, your wages, and even your home. Filing your case in a timely fashion can spare you these losses.
How will the new bankruptcy laws affect me?
The Bankruptcy Abuse Protection and Consumer Protection Act passed in 2005 puts much stricter guidelines on personal bankruptcy filings. Some of these guidelines include mandatory debt counseling, income limitations on who can and cannot file, and requiring some debtors in higher income brackets to pay off a portion of their debt before allowing them to file. Depending on the amount of money you have, your current income and your personal circumstances, you may not be allowed to file for Chapter 7, which absolves most of your debts. Instead, you may be forced to file for Chapter 13, which requires you to enter into a payment plan. Before filing, it is important that you speak with someone experienced with the bankruptcy laws so that you will have a better idea of what to expect when you file.
Will all of my debts be forgiven if I file for bankruptcy?
Many people mistakenly believe that filing bankruptcy will “wipe the slate clean” and absolve them of all their financial obligations, but that is not necessarily true all of the time. Even if you file for bankruptcy, you will still need to pay you child support, back taxes, federal student loans or debts incurred as a result of fraud or theft (writing bad checks, for example). If you are not clear on which debts will and will not be discharged, speak with an attorney or reputable credit counselor before filing.
What is Chapter 7?
A debtor surrenders his or her non-exempt property to a bankruptcy trustee who then liquidates the property and distributes the proceeds to the debtor’s unsecured creditors. In exchange, the debtor is entitled to a discharge of some debt; however, the debtor will not be granted a discharge if he or she is guilty of certain types of inappropriate behavior (e.g. concealing records relating to financial condition) and certain debts (e.g. spousal and child support, most student loans, some taxes) will not be discharged even though the debtor is generally discharged from his or her debt. Many individuals in financial distress own only exempt property (e.g. clothes, household goods, an older car) and will not have to surrender any property to the trustee. The amount of property that a debtor may exempt varies from state to state. Chapter 7 relief is available only once in any eight-year period. Generally, the rights of secured creditors to their collateral continues even though their debt is discharged. For example, absent some arrangement by a debtor to surrender a car or “reaffirm” a debt, the creditor with a security interest in the debtor’s car may repossess the car even if the debt to the creditor is discharged.
What is Chapter 11?
The debtor retains ownership and control of assets and is re-termed a debtor in possession (DIP). The debtor in possession runs the day to day operations of the business while creditors and the debtor work with the Bankruptcy Court in order to negotiate and complete a plan. Upon meeting certain requirements (e.g. fairness among creditors, priority of certain creditors) creditors are permitted to vote on the proposed plan. If a plan is confirmed the debtor will continue to operate and pay its debts under the terms of the confirmed plan. If a specified majority of creditors do not vote to confirm a plan, additional requirements may be imposed by the court in order to confirm the plan.
What is Chapter 13?
The debtor retains ownership and possession of all of his or her assets, but must devote some portion of his or her future income to repaying creditors, generally over a period of three to five years. The amount of payment and the period of the repayment plan depend upon a variety of factors, including the value of the debtor’s property and the amount of a debtor’s income and expenses. Secured creditors may be entitled to greater payment than unsecured creditors.
Relief under Chapter 13 is available only to individuals with regular income whose debts do not exceed prescribed limits. If you are an individual or a sole proprietor, you are allowed to file for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy to repay all or part of your debts. Under this chapter, you can propose a repayment plan in which to pay your creditors over three to five years. If your monthly income is less than the state’s median income, your plan will be for three years unless the court finds “just cause” to extend the plan for a longer period. If your monthly income is greater than your state’s median income, the plan must generally be for five years. A plan cannot exceed the five-year limitation.
In contrast to Chapter 7, the debtor in Chapter 13 may keep all of his or her property, whether or not exempt. If the plan appears feasible and if the debtor complies with all the other requirements, the bankruptcy court will typically confirm the plan and the debtor and creditors will be bound by its terms. Creditors have no say in the formulation of the plan other than to object to the plan, if appropriate, on the grounds that it does not comply with one of the Code’s statutory requirements. Generally, the payments are made to a trustee who in turn disburses the funds in accordance with the terms of the confirmed plan.
When the debtor completes payments pursuant to the terms of the plan, the court will formally grant the debtor a discharge of the debts provided for in the plan. However, if the debtor fails to make the agreed upon payments or fails to seek or gain court approval of a modified plan, a bankruptcy court will often dismiss the case on the motion of the trustee. Pursuant to the dismissal, creditors will typically resume pursuit of state law remedies to the extent a debt remains unpaid.
Which chapters are often used?
Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 are the efficient bankruptcy chapters often used by most individuals. The chapters which almost always apply to consumer debtors are chapter 7, known as a “straight bankruptcy”, and chapter 13, which involves an affordable plan of repayment. An important feature applicable to all types of bankruptcy filings is the automatic stay. The automatic stay means that the mere request for bankruptcy protection automatically stops and brings to a grinding halt most lawsuits, repossessions, foreclosures, evictions, garnishments, attachments, utility shut-offs, and debt collection activity.
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