Category Archives: Divorce

What If Something Bad Happens During a Chapter 13 Plan?

The answer to the question, what if something bad happens during a Chapter 13 Plan is – call your lawyer. Please notice, I did not say, call the Trustee. Even if you haven’t talked to your lawyer since your case confirmed, at least in the Western District of Oklahoma, your lawyer is still your lawyer until the case concludes, you fire him or the Court allows him to withdraw for some reason. The Trustee does not work for you, your lawyer does. Call your lawyer.

Now, for the rest of the story. Clients come to see me and are nervous about filing a five-year plan. What if something happens? Well, something will happen. It is called life. The problem with answering that question is that the answer is always going to be – that depends. The answer depends on exactly what happens, when it happens, what has or has not been paid in the Chapter 13, where you are in the plan, whether the case is confirmed or not. It just depends.

Losing a job in the last year of a plan is very different from losing one in the first year. Having a house burn down might change how hard you want to fight to save it. (Yes, I have had that happen to a Chapter 13 debtor.) The death of a spouse is just hard – all the way around, and being in a Bankruptcy at the time doesn’t make it easier. Totaling a car means having to get a new one. Divorce complicates a Chapter 13 in ways very few other things do. Regardless, you will have options; and only your lawyer can talk to you about them.

Still, there are some generalities. If you lose a job during a chapter 13, you will want to discuss with your lawyer whether your plan payment can be reduced, whether you should consider converting the case to a Chapter 7, whether you should consider seeking a loan modification on your mortgage, maybe you want to talk about whether or not you can sell the house. Maybe you should dismiss the chapter 13 with an eye towards refiling when you have found new employment. Maybe staying in with the smallest possible plan payment makes more sense. Maybe the best answer is some combination of the above.

Dealing with a Chapter 13 that has gotten into trouble is relatively easy when there is some flexibility in the plan. The worst cases are the ones where the Debtor was a year behind on his mortgage when the case was filed. The plan is all about saving the house. There is virtually nothing besides the house and the car getting paid in the plan, the plan payment was a real reach for the debtor before he lost his job, he is already at a full 60 months – and he loses his job. Well, you can’t extend that plan term. You can’t reduce the payment without giving up either the house or the car, because there is nothing else there. You can get the debtor a little bit of time to find a new job, but every plan payment he misses is going to increase the remaining payments – which were a stretch to begin with, before he lost his job. So, after three or four months the Debtor finds a new job that pays less than the old one, he is now three or four months behind on his plan payment. The remaining payments will have to go up to cover that, and he can’t do it. In that case, sometimes the best option is to dismiss and refile.

I want you to notice, though, that even with the facts above; there was still an option. Dismissing and refiling may not sound too fun after three or four years in a plan. The last thing you really want to do is start over, but at least in this case it means starting over with a much smaller mortgage arrearage than you had to deal with in the first place, and you get a whole new 60 months to cure it. It isn’t a great solution, but it can make the difference between saving a house and losing it.

So, if life hands you more than you can handle during your plan term. Call your lawyer. You will have options. They may not be wonderful, but you will have some. Oh, and don’t be surprised if your lawyer’s first suggestion is that you try to sit tight until you find a new job. You will always have more and better options employed than not.


They Said I Can’t Bankrupt That

I get told this a lot. Someone calls and they have talked to a loan company, a debt collector, or the guy on the next bar stool at a local dive. What I hear is, “They said I can’t bankrupt that.” Well, of course not. Bankrupt is an adjective. To Bankrupt is not a verbal – of any kind. You can be described as bankrupt, but there is no such action as to bankrupt. The moral of this story is, of course, don’t take legal advice from anyone who speaks English this poorly. In fact, don’t take legal advise from non-lawyers – especially when they are trying to get you to pay them for a debt or if you aren’t sure just how many drinks they have already had.

Now, are there debts that cannot be discharged in a Bankruptcy? Sure, and some of them you will kind of know, and there are a few that will probably surprise you.  For instance, most people are pretty comfortable with the idea that you can’t discharge child support in a Bankruptcy.

However, most people probably don’t know that you can’t discharge a debt for willfully or recklessly failing to maintain the capital of a Federally insured financial institution. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what that means, it almost certainly doesn’t apply to you.

I will concede to being a bit silly (or snarky, your call) with that last example, but the fact is that there is a section of the Bankruptcy Code (11 U.S.C. §523) that lists all of the debts you cannot discharge (or get out of) in a Bankruptcy. In the copy of the Code I keep handy, that section is five pages long, and very little of those five pages apply to the vast majority of  people with more debt than they can pay.

In fact, no matter what you have heard about the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act there is no general exception from discharge for credit card debt. That’s right. Despite what that debt collector told you, absent certain general restrictions, a Bankruptcy filing will still discharge most, if not all, of your credit card debt – and your medical debt – and pay day loans – and even in many cases old income taxes. Really.

The exceptions to discharge that apply most commonly  are:

  • Child support;
  • Alimony;
  • Property division or other divorce related debt (in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy);
  • Student loans;
  • Debt incurred by fraud or shortly before a Bankruptcy filing; and
  • Recent taxes (rules are complicated).

Embezzlement? Well, that is a problem. Lying on a loan application or borrowing money with someone else’s identity, forging loan documents, taking the vacation of your lifetime in Paris paid for by Visa with the intention of filing for Bankruptcy before those bills come due?  These are all at least as non-dischargeable as you should think they are.

All silliness aside, here is what you need to remember. Most people who file for bankruptcy can discharge all, or virtually all, of their debt. There is a five-page laundry list of debts that cannot be discharged in a Bankruptcy, and for the most part, none of them are simple; and most of them are not all that common. The odds are very good that no one other than an experienced bankruptcy attorney can discuss any of them with you in any detail. Most people know just enough to be dangerous about Section 523, and that includes a large number of lawyers who don’t practice bankruptcy law on a regular basis.

If you have any questions about whether or not a debt is dischargeable, ask a lawyer who practices in the Bankruptcy Courts regularly. If anyone else tells you that something is not dischargeable, take that advice with a large helping of salt – especially if they think Bankrupt is a verb.



US Trustee Audits — They’re BACK!

One of the things lobbyists convinced Congress absolutely had to be added to the Bankruptcy system in 2005 were Debtor audits.  Well, this concept has come and gone a few times since then, generally due to budget fluctuations.  However, it is being reported that the US Trustee has found more money; and random audits are once again a fact of life.

Now, before you get too excited, I have not seen figures for the frequency of audits at this point.  One in every 250 cases being selected is pretty much the historical standard, but I have no idea how much funding the US Trustee has available at this point in time.

The purpose of the audits is to find “material” misstatements in the Debtors’ petition and schedules.  Now, you would think that material would mean material for purposes of the Bankruptcy process and to people who understand how the system works.  No, material at this point seems to mean material to the independent CPA’s from large CPA firms that the U.S. Trustee’s office contracts with to do these audits.  These guys aren’t accustomed to preferential transfers and median income calculations.  These are the same people who audit corporate financial statements.  (If you aren’t rolling your eyes by now, you haven’t been reading my blog long enough.)

Anyway, if your case is selected for an audit, you will have to begin by producing certain documents to the auditors.  The last list of documents I have seen for an audit is from 2008, but I don’t think it has changed much.  Here it is:

  • Payment advices or other evidence of payment from an employer for the six full calendar months preceding the date of the bankruptcy petition, plus those received in the calendar month in which the bankruptcy was filed, from the debtor(s), or from an individual debtor and the individual debtor’s non-filing spouse unless the debtor has checked Box 2.b on Form B22A (Chapter 7 cases only).
  • Federal income tax returns, including all schedules and all W-2, 1099, and K-1 forms, for the two most recent taxable periods prior to the date of the bankruptcy petition.  If either of the returns has not been filed, provide copies of the two most recently filed federal income tax returns.  (If joint case and debtors filed separate returns, provide both returns.)
  • Account statements for the six months preceding the date of the bankruptcy petition for all depository and investment accounts in which the debtor(s) had an interest in any of the six months, including statements (even if received post petition) that reflect activity in the month in which the petition was filed; along with sufficient documentation to explain the source of every deposit or credit over $500.  (Include information for checking, savings, money market, mutual fund, and brokerage accounts.  Examples of documentation for deposit transactions include check registers and annotations on or attached to the account statements.)  Audit firms may request that you provide additional documentation to sufficiently explain the source or purpose of an account statement entry or entries.
  • If the debtor(s) is divorced, (a) the divorce decree, (b) any orders regarding property settlements entered within the last three years, and (c) any alimony or child support orders currently in effect and amendments thereto.
  • If the debtor(s) is self-employed, then for each business owned by debtor or from which debtor derives self-employment income, (a) business tax returns for the two most recent taxable periods prior to the date of the bankruptcy petition, (b) most recent accounts receivable ledger and aging schedule/report, (c) most recent balance sheet prior to the date of bankruptcy petition, (d) income statement for the most recent period ended prior to the date of the bankruptcy petition, (e) quarterly sales tax return for the most recent period ended prior to the date of the bankruptcy  petition, if any, (f) account statements for business depository account(s) for the six months preceding the date of the bankruptcy petition, and the month in which the petition was filed, along with sufficient documentation to explain the source of every deposit or credit, and the purpose of every check, withdrawal, or debit, and (g) most recent business asset listing and depreciation schedule, if any.

My favorite requirement is that last one.  Accounts receivable ledgers, balance sheets, income statements, depreciation schedules — from a self-employed debtor?  Who are they kidding?  Anyone who has that sophisticated an accounting system isn’t self-employed.  They may operate a wholly owned professional corporation, but they aren’t self-employed.  Your self-employed debtors are lawncare people, electricians, oil field contractors, remodeling contractors, plumbers, oh and the next-door neighbor’s cousin who cleans your house. All of whom are, of course, famous for their detailed, double-entry accounting systems.

Yet another example of the 2005 Bankruptcy reform act and its ongoing quest for an abuse in need of a remedy.


When a Collector Threatens You With Jail

There are two scenarios that I have seen where purported debt collectors have threatened people with jail.  One of them is an out and out scam.  The other is just illegal.  The scam is the most common so let’s start there.

  • Collector calls and tells you that if you don’t pay a certain bill immediately, the Sheriff is going to come to your house and arrest you.  You have to pay this today.  You are going to be arrested tomorrow.  The only way you can pay this is by electronic funds transfer from your checking account over the phone RIGHT NOW.  You cannot mail in a check — even a certified check sent next day delivery.  Nope.  It must be over the phone, straight from your checking account RIGHT NOW.

When was the last time a legitimate debt collector wouldn’t take a cashier’s check by mail?  They are so interested in keeping you out of jail that they would rather not get their money?  Really?  Does this sound like any legitimate debt collector you have ever spoken with?  Any debt collector who won’t give you a mailing address and who won’t take a cashier’s check is not really a debt collector.  A colleague of mine traced one of these calls.  It was a voice over IP call, and somehow he was able to track the IP address of the originating computer.  It was in Pakistan.

The second scenario is just an overly aggressive collector who gets carried away.  My favorite example of this is the debt collector who told a woman that if she didn’t pay her credit card account, he was going to call DHS and have them take her children away, because she was obviously an unfit Mother.  That is what is known as a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Act.  It also violates a number of State laws.  That debt collector was sued by a friend of mine for that call, and the case settled for a not insubstantial amount of money.

These scenarios work, because the collector gets the debtor scared enough to stop thinking rationally.  Consider carefully, how many children would we have in foster care in this Country if not paying your credit cards made you an unfit parent?  Not only am I not sure I can count that high, but how many news stories about this would it take before the tax payers told our legislatures to find better ways to spend our tax dollars?  Have you ever seen a television news story about this?  If it happened, don’t you think you would?  What better television than a poor, weeping, hysterical woman who has lost her children because the ex didn’t pay child support, and she has been too ill to work?  Do you really think the local news stations have too much class to air this?

Now, here is where this whole issue gets sticky.  It is easy to say that you can’t go to jail for debt in this Country, and technically that is true.  You can, however, go to jail for violating a court order; and if that order is to pay a debt — most commonly child support, and you don’t do it, well, you can go to jail for willfully disobeying the Court’s order.  The standards for that are going to vary from State to State, but even though technically this is punishment for disobeying the Court, it is effectively imprisoning someone for not paying a debt.  It is very effective at getting recalcitrant parents to pay their child support, by the way.

Another variant on this is that if you are ordered to appear for a Hearing on Assets by a creditor who has a judgment against you, and you don’t appear; well, a bench warrant can issue for your arrest.  Again, the warrant is for disobeying an order of the court to appear and provide information; but it can be an effective collection tool nonetheless.

One thing to notice about both of these scenarios, they involve judgments, court orders and lawyers.  They don’t involve telephone calls, and before you can violate a court order, you have to have been given notice of that order.  That means you have to have been a party to a lawsuit.  Ask the guy who is calling you, threatening to put you in jail, for the case number of the lawsuit.  Odds are he will tell you that he didn’t have to sue you.  Those laws don’t apply to him.  Well, maybe they don’t — in Pakistan.

I will say, though, that these calls are only effective if the person receiving the call has problems with debt.  So, if this happens to you.  Don’t get so scared that you lose your grasp on reality.  After all, you don’t know ANYONE who has gone to jail for not paying a credit card.  Ask for a mailing address.  Real debt collectors will always take a cashier’s check by mail.  They really just want their money.  Ask what order you have violated, in what court case and ask for the case number.  Then hang up.

Oh, and after you hang up — call a lawyer.  If you are getting calls like that, and they are elevating your heart rate so much as one beat per minute; it is time to call for help.


A Debtor By Any Other Name

I used to think I was being facetious when I told my clients that one of the more challenging things about the whole Bankruptcy process was being asked their name at the First Meeting of Creditors.  You know, strange place, strange people, crowded room, being placed under oath and then being asked QUESTIONS – beginning with, “Would you please state your full name for the record?”  Tough, huh?

Of course, as with many things that seem silly when one is young and foolish I have gained some real respect for the difficulty of this question.  Despite the fact that this sounds like the setup for a punch line, periodically I really do encounter someone who isn’t completely sure what his name is – or isn’t – or used to be.

This issue hit the popular press during last Fall’s elections when a number of States had new voter ID laws go into effect.  A number of people, including quite entertainingly a number of fairly high profile politicians, had difficulty voting because their name wasn’t exactly the same across a number of different documents.

Here are a few scenarios:

  • Woman gets married.  She begins using her Husband’s surname, but she doesn’t change her driver’s license, her Social Security records, and she continues to use her maiden name on her tax returns, because otherwise, her tax return wouldn’t match her Social Security records.
  • Man has a son.  Man names his son after himself.  Son is now John Doe, Jr.  So, Dad starts calling himself, John Doe, Sr.  Really?  Having a child changes your legal identity?
  • Woman gets divorced.  In Oklahoma divorce decrees usually include a provision restoring the woman to her maiden name, or another former legal name, if she has requested that.  So, when the decree is entered, there is an order from a Court signed by a Judge determining that the woman’s name is now legally her former name.  Except that changing your name can be such a hassle.  So, sometimes the divorce is finalized, but months later the woman is still using her married name and just hasn’t quite gotten around to changing anything yet.

It wasn’t that long ago when names were about personal identities and not legal concepts.   This change has been happening for a long time.  Regardless of what we may or may not think or like about that idea, once 9/11 happened there was no going back.

So, if you are thinking you might need to file for bankruptcy, get a passport or vote; it might be time to consider whether or not you know who you are, and whether or not your available documentation supports that opinion.


Between a Divorce and a Hard Place

There are some phone calls I really hate getting.

One of my least favorites goes like this:  I need to file for bankruptcy, because I was ordered to pay my ex’s lawyer in our divorce; and I can’t pay $xx,xxx by Monday.

There are three problems with that sentence.  First, the waiting until the week before (or day before) a court hearing to call a lawyer is just a bad idea.  Almost without exception lawyers are going to want a whole week or maybe even two to handle almost any kind of problem for you.

Second, debt included in a divorce decree is bad news, and a Bankruptcy will probably not do what you want it to do.  In fact, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy will do almost nothing with respect to debt you were ordered to pay in a divorce decree.  There are exceptions, so do check before jumping to conclusions.  For instance, you can discharge a debt to Chase Visa, but you cannot discharge an obligation to protect your ex-spouse from Chase Visa.  So, if Chase goes after the ex-spouse, a Chapter 7 discharge won’t do much for you, although the automatic stay will buy you a few months of peace.  This is complicated, and there are almost always exceptions, so make the call, anyway.  There is always a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy which does have more ability to deal with divorce related debt, and it gives you another chance to take control of the fight.

The third problem is, of course, a five-digit attorney fee award.  You and your ex need to control your divorce — not the lawyers.  Pick your fights, and no matter who is paying your ex’s fees (and in this case, the prospective client was going to be), nobody wants to pay five digits to a divorce lawyer just because the fight is so much fun.  Find another way.  I’ve sometimes wondered if a weekly session of laser tag wouldn’t do wonders for divorce clients.  Beat the snot out of each other for an hour for $60 and you don’t have to talk to each other.  I think it is a great idea.  The divorce bar remains unconvinced.

Ok, rant off.

Sometimes, the best solution for someone with divorce debt is to file a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, assume that most, if not all, of the divorce debt is going to have to be paid, take a full five years to get it paid and at least stop the interest, the threats, the court dates, the fee escalation and the fear.  For some callers the result is better.  For others, it isn’t.  For some callers what I can offer is enough.  For some callers there is a better solution, but more often than not, my answer won’t be what the caller wants to hear.  So, I really hate those calls.