Tag Archives: Chapter 13

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Safer in Bankruptcy Part 3 — The Confirmation Order

Confirmation orders are only entered in reorganization chapters (for consumers most normally a Chapter 13), but when they are entered, they constitute a new contract between all parties to the order (which includes the debtor and all of the creditors in the case).  This new contract requires, among other things, that the debtor be treated as current.  It limits the creditors’ ability to get paid only as provided for in the plan.  It limits a creditor’s ability to charge late fees or to apply payments in ways other than as specified in the plan.  Now, some of the protections of the Confirmation Order require that the debtor successfully complete the plan and receive a discharge; but it remains a potent form of protection for a debtor in a chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Another thing that makes a Confirmation Order particularly valuable during uncertain times is that it can be modified by Motion and Order.  That means that if bad things happen during a multi-year plan of reorganization, the Debtor can ask the Court to modify the Confirmation Order to allow the debtor room to cope with the unexpected.  The ability to request a modification means that if something bad happens during a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the Debtor is almost always going to have time to address it, and if a little time isn’t enough the tools to change payment terms or sometimes even to extend the repayment term.

One of the surprising aspects of the CARES act (one of the principal pandemic assistance statutes) is the ability to extend a chapter 13 repayment plan from 5 years to 7 years.  Now, this only applies to cases that were confirmed before March 27, 2020, and the provision will sunset on March 27, 2021.  Still, for people experiencing a decrease in income for an extended period of time, this provides a unique tool for curing arrears on secured debt.

The incredible protections of a confirmation order are one of the reasons I am recommending Chapter 13 filings during this time of great uncertainty.  It can be difficult to explain, but being in a chapter 13 can be one of the safest places to be during times as scary as the ones we are currently living through.

Elaine

Safer in Bankruptcy – Part 1

One of the things I am working on this weekend is a demand letter to the attorney for a local credit union.  You see, someone at the credit union seems to have thought that taking advantage of an elderly man with early stage dementia was a profitable idea.  I will concede that under ordinary circumstances what they did might qualify as greedy and morally questionable; it should, however, be legal.

Not so fast.

In this case the elderly customer just happened to be in an active Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, and the Credit Union knew this.  They got checks from the Chapter 13 Trustee on this man’s loan accounts up until the events I am upset about happened.

It would be inappropriate and unnecessary to go into what actually happened or why I think it happened.  What is relevant is that when someone is in an active bankruptcy, they are under the protection of the Bankruptcy Court.  That means that there are orders in place that are designed to protect them from their creditors.  The credit union in the case I am currently working on appears to have violated several of those.

Over the next few days I am going to talk about what those orders are and how they can be used to keep you safer inside a bankruptcy than outside — particularly in uncertain times.

Elaine

The Paycheck Protection Program and Bankruptcy

The SBA has a really amazing Corona virus relief program, the Paycheck Protection Program.   It is called a loan program, but it appears to be intended as grants.  Basically, the SBA will give small businesses money to make payroll for two months.  It looks pretty sweet.

There is one problem.  One of the questions on the application is:

Is the Applicant or an owner of the Applicant presently suspended, debarred, proposed for debarment, declared ineligible, voluntarily excluded from participation in this transaction by any Federal department or agency, or presently involved in any bankruptcy?  (Emphasis added).

Ignoring the obvious, which is what the heck does most of this even mean?  Declared ineligible by whom?  Disbarment?  I mean, a lot of lawyers are applying for this; but not that many.  Suspended by a Federal department or agency?  Suspended from what? I’m sorry, but nothing about this question really makes sense.  So, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see this bankruptcy language tacked on to the end.

So, what the heck does “presently involved in any bankruptcy” mean, anyway?  I have no clue.  None.

Taken literally, this would exclude every business who is listed as a creditor in anybody’s bankruptcy.  Somehow, I don’t think that is what it means.  If you check the Statute this may mean that the debtor cannot be a debtor in possession in a bankruptcy.  For all intents and purposes that means the Debtor cannot be in a Chapter 11 reorganization, but the question on the loan application is broader than that.  Oh, and the application says on its face, that answering yes to this question means that your loan will not be approved.  So, getting comfortable with what you think it means might be important.

Regardless of what the statute is supposed to say, or what it means or what the question means; the consensus among lawyers I have discussed this with is that if the business, or the owner of the business, is a debtor in any chapter of bankruptcy at the time a PPP application is completed, odds are very good that the application will be denied out of hand.

So, now what?

An applicant who is a debtor in a chapter 7 or chapter 11 is probably out of luck.  There is no right to dismiss a chapter 7, and if you are in a chapter 11, dismissing it so that you can get two months payroll out of the SBA is almost certainly not a good idea.

The real issue is if the applicant (or the owner of the applicant) is a debtor in a chapter 13 bankruptcy.  In that case it should be possible to dismiss the chapter 13, collect the PPP, spend the PPP on approved expenses, apply for forgiveness of the amount spent on appropriate expenses, and then refile a new Chapter 13 in order to finish out your plan of reorganization.  How much time this will take depends in large part on the local rules for your court.  However, if the money is worth it to you, talk to your lawyer.  You may be able to get a dismissal in a few days.

Elaine

Mortgage Payments and Coronavirus

Before you call your mortgage company to find out what they can, or will, do to help you through this current mess we all find ourselves in, there are a couple of things you should know.

First, your mortgage company is going to have lots of options, and the first person you talk to may – or may not – know all of them.

Second, what your mortgage company can do for you will depend in large part on one thing — do they own your mortgage or are they merely the servicer.  You probably have no idea, but it doesn’t hurt to ask when you call.  If you write your mortgage check to Bank of America, they may actually own your loan — which is kind of what you expect.  On the other hand, your loan might be owned by a securitized trust that hires Bank of America to accept and process payments, make sure the taxes and insurance get paid that sort of thing, i.e., service the loan.  If your mortgage company is just the servicer and not actually the owner (or holder) of your note and mortgage, what they can do for you will be determined by their contract with the actual owner (sometimes referred to as the investors, although, that is not technically accurate).

Third, if your mortgage loan is insured by a U.S. Government program, that will also control, at least in part, what options your mortgage lender has.  That means that if you have an FHA insured loan or a VA insured loan or Fannie or Freddie, you can expect there to be regulations from FHA or VA or Fannie or Freddie or USDA Rural housing or whomever that will tell your mortgage company what they can and can’t do and what they should and shouldn’t do.

I know it is confusing, but knowing enough to ask your servicer for specifics can take some of the frustration out of the process.  You may read a news article about things that your mortgage company says it will do for home owners, only to call and be told that what you read in the news doesn’t apply to you.  Ask why it doesn’t apply to you, and then make sure it is right.  Mortgage companies really do make mistakes — often.

The next thing you need to know is to ask follow up questions.  You call your mortgage company, you are out of work until your employer reopens, what can they do for you.   They say they can agree to a 3 month deferment on your mortgage payments.  No payment necessary for three whole months!  Not so fast.  Your next question should be — and then what?  What happens to those three missing mortgage payments?  I can promise you that they won’t just go away.  There are a number of possibilities (including the one that I’m not thinking of, so please don’t assume this is a complete list).

One answer to this that I am already hearing is that after the three month deferment the missing mortgage payments are all due at once — along with the next month’s payment too.  So, the mortgage company won’t expect you to make payments for three months, but it will then expect you to bring those missing payments current at the end of the deferment period.  That is probably not a great option.

Another answer is that the missing payments will be added to the end of your mortgage loan.   That is a better option, but it is also not a great option.  Here is why.  Let’s say that your mortgage payment is $1000 a month on a 30-year-loan (360 months) with interest at 6%, and you are in month 99 (almost through with year 9).  Those three mortgage payments will defer to the end — with interest accruing for the next 21 years.  Now, I was an English major, and someone else should always check my math; but according to my calculations that means when you complete the 30 years of your original mortgage term, you will still owe over $10,000 — all because of those three missed payments.  So, if you are going to do this put yourself on a schedule to pay extra every month.  Then, at least once a year check your payoff against an amortization schedule to make sure you are getting those missing payments paid before the interest gets out of hand.  Oh, also ask how the escrow payments (taxes and insurance) will be handled.  If the lender advances the escrow portion of those payments you could wind up with a significant payment increase in the next year after your next escrow account analysis.

The next option is that you may be eligible for a loan modification at the end of the three months.  If you are, certainly apply for whatever you are eligible for.  Again, I will caution you to read the terms of the proposed modification carefully.  Historically, principal reductions have been rare on mortgage mods.

Probably the best option is for the mortgage company to put you on a schedule after the deferment period to cure the missed payments over a reasonable period of time.  If you can get it done in no more than a year, that is probably your best option.

Ultimately, however, if you and your mortgage lender can’t come to an agreement that you think is in your best interests, you might want to consider what a chapter 13 bankruptcy can do for you.  Chapter 13 is designed to give home owners an affordable means to cure a an arrearage or default on their mortgage.  In a chapter 13 you can take up to 5 years to cure a default, and deal with whatever other debt you have accrued along the way as well.

Elaine

Afraid to File Your Taxes?

Trust me. I get it. Lots of us are afraid to file our tax returns – well, ok, afraid to prepare them may be closer to the truth; but, trust me, I get it.

– and it just got worse.

Not filing your taxes has always been bad. Filing late has always had some consequences, but most of them were manageable. Now, there is a new one.

In the last week of 2014 the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion agreeing with an earlier decision from the 5th Circuit. So far, they are the only two circuits to hear this particular issue; and they agree. This is not good.

Here is the problem. Generally, speaking income taxes are dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding provided that they meet certain requirements. Like with anything involving either the Bankruptcy Code or the Tax Code (let alone both), there are more rules, limitations and exceptions to the basic rules than holes in Swiss cheese. Still, generally speaking, if the taxes meet certain age tests they are dischargeable in a bankruptcy filing – any chapter. Well, the 10th Circuit, following the 5th, has added a new wrinkle.

According to these Courts if the returns were filed so much as a day after they are due, the taxes on those returns are never dischargeable in a Bankrutpcy. Of course, if they are filed before the expiration of a properly granted extension, they are not late. If they are filed after the extension expires, however, or if no extension is granted; then, we have a whole new problem.

I have a case right now where a client has filed a bankruptcy, and taxes are a major part of the debt. I just went through every one of her tax transcripts. One of those returns was filed late. Anywhere inside the 5th or 10th Circuits the taxes on that return are not only not dischargeable in this Bankruptcy – they will never be eligible for a discharge. Oh, and the date on that return? Filed less than two weeks after April 15, and no request for extension was filed.

This seriously sucks.

Elaine

What If the Tax Refund Doesn’t Catch You Up?

Like most businesses, mine has patterns. One of those patterns is that someone will call me about this time of year and we will talk for a bit about a possible bankruptcy filing. Then, I won’t hear anything back from them for several months. What happens is that shortly after talking to me, the caller discovers that he is going to be getting a substantial tax refund – enough to get caught up. Of course, in some cases they are right; and I never hear back from them; and that is a good thing.

Then, there are the people who are calling back in May or June. They got a $3,000 or $4,000 tax refund. They threw it all at the problem bills. Those payments paid a ton of interest. A few months later, they realized that they are still in trouble. Their tax refund bought them a little bit of time and not much more. So much of it went to interest that it didn’t really reduce their principal balances much. They still can’t pay the debt. They still can’t save for retirement. They still can’t help their kids save for college. They still need dental work they can’t afford. They still have cars that desperately need new tires. Oh, and they have $0 saved to pay for a bankruptcy filing.

If you think you will, “get caught up” with your tax refund; do a lot of math first. How much of your payments will actually reduce the principal. What interest rates are you paying and how long will it take that rate to increase your balances more than your refund reduced them? How long will it be before you can start doing the things you need to do – like plan for retirement, college costs, oh, and just how long will those tires last, anyway?

I don’t actually mean to be this depressing, and if your tax refund will get you out of trouble; more power to you. If all it will do is buy you some time, then maybe it is time to take a deep breath and consider where your real responsibilities lie – Visa, Master Card or your family’s future? Personally, I like to think that Visa and Master Card are big enough to take care of themselves.

Ok, so you still really want to pay this. Great. Pay it. But wouldn’t paying it without interest be a better solution than what you are currently fighting? There is a way to do that. It isn’t fun, it isn’t quick and easy; oh, and it isn’t cheap. It is called a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy. Yes, it is a bankruptcy; but it is a bankruptcy that lets you take five years to pay as much of your unsecured debt as you can – with NO interest.

Do the math, and do it before you throw yet another tax refund at 28% interest charges.

Elaine

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.

Elaine

What Will I Have to Pay in a Chapter 13?

A Chapter 13 Bankruptcy is basically a modified payment plan where you can restructure certain kinds of secured debt, get current on secured debt on which you have fallen behind (like a house or a car) and pay some percentage of your general, unsecured debt (like medical bills and credit cards).

Let me begin by saying that SOME percentage of your unsecured debt means just that – SOME. I say that to clients in my office, and they almost universally translate the word some to mean all. They are not synonyms. The actual percentage paid by most Chapter 13 debtors is closer to zero percent than it is to 100%, and most of us can afford to pay 0%.

So, what does that actually mean?

There are two primary factors that determine how much money you will have to pay to make a Chapter 13 plan work. The first is determined by what is generally known as the Means Test. The Means Test is basically a worksheet where you start with your income and deduct your reasonable and necessary living expenses until you come up with an amount left over. If that figure is positive, then you will have to pay that amount each month for probably 60 months to your general unsecured creditors (the credit cards, medical bills, personal loans, that kind of debt). In other words, if you have $112 a month left over, you will have to pay $112 each month for (probably) 60 months plus 10% as a trustee fee, so $123 a month, over the life of your plan for the benefit of the general unsecured creditors. Most of my clients are paying a lot more than that on this kind of debt when they come to see me. So, for most people flunking the Means Test and having to pay something to their general, unsecured creditors is actually an improvement!

The other factor is the kind of debt that you have. If you want to keep the house and the car and you owe money on them, you are going to have to keep paying for them. This really shouldn’t be a surprise. The car, in the Western District of Oklahoma, will have to be paid through the plan; meaning that the plan payment you pay to the Trustee every month will include enough for him to make your car payment for you. If you are behind on the car at the time that you file the case, you can expect that you will catch up on it (and probably pay it off) over the life of the Chapter 13 plan.

Your house is a little different. If you are current on the house at the time that you file for bankruptcy (in this district), you may continue to pay the mortgage payment directly. However, that means completely current. So, if your mortgage payment is due on the first, and late on the 15th, That means it is due on the 1st. So, if you file bankruptcy on the 2nd, that payment had better already have been made. If you are behind on your mortgage payment, then it will be paid through the plan and the plan will include enough money to get you caught up an d current on it over the life of the plan.

If you owe other secured debt, debt that is secured by a lien on a specific piece of property, and you wish to keep the property, then that debt will have to be paid during the life of the plan. Debts that are given certain priority for payment in the Bankruptcy Code must be paid in full over the life of the plan. For most people that means recent taxes, and past due child support or alimony, these are things that have to be paid over the life of the plan. What most people expect to see listed here but isn’t is student loans. Student loans are a whole different problem in a Chapter 13 that will be addressed separately.

So, what this means is that most Chapter 13 plans pay for the house, the cars, the taxes, the child support (if any), fees to support the Trustee’s office and the Debtor’s attorneys fees. Then, there will be some amount added to be shared amongst the general, unsecured creditors who are usually everybody else. That amount is determined by the Means Test, and in many cases it is less than my clients have been paying on that debt before they filed.

Now, I don’t mean to kid you. A Chapter 13 plan is not a walk in the park. There are good reasons why only about 30% of all cases filed successfully complete. It isn’t, however, nearly as bad as clients expect it to be.

Often when clients come to see me their mortgage company is wanting a year of missed payments made up in six months or less. They are facing a wage garnishment that will take 25% of their gross income. The IRS is threatening to levy on their bank accounts. There is a repo guy out looking for their car, and the lender wants all the missed payments plus late fees, plus interest plus the repo guy’s fees by Tuesday. A Chapter 13 plan, even if it is expensive, can be a huge relief after the financial pressures most of my clients find themselves facing.

So don’t be afraid to investigate a possible Chapter 13 filing. It can do things for you that you can’t get done anywhere else, and, although, it won’t be cheap, it may be more affordable than any of your other options.

Elaine

Filing Fees – and They Say There is No Inflation

There are three things that you have to pay for when you file for bankruptcy. They are: the attorneys fee, the filing fee and the credit counseling fee. The attorneys fee is pretty self-explanatory. The filing fee is paid to the Court at the time that the case is filed. It will probably look like you are paying this to your attorney; because you will pay it by handing your lawyer the money; but your lawyer will then pay the Court when he files your case. The credit counseling fee is ultimately paid to the pre-petition credit counseling company that you use to do your mandatory pre-petition credit counseling course. This you may pay directly, and you may pay it to your lawyer so that your lawyer can pass it on. Regardless, ultimately, you are the one paying for these things.

What brought this subject to mind this week is that the Administrator of the Courts just announced an increase in filing fees. A bankruptcy filing fee is generally divided between the Court for services provided by the Court and its clerk and the Trustee for services provided in administering your case. This increase is all going to the Courts.

The two most common filing fees for consumer debtors both went up $29 apiece, which is a substantial jump. What makes this a bit of a shocker is that fees just went up in November, 2011. Here is how fees have changed over just the last few years.

………………..  3/2006                Pre 11/2011                          2011 – 5/31/2014                      6/1/2014
Ch. 7                   $209                         $299                                         $306                                          $335
Ch. 13                 $194                          $274                                        $281                                           $310

There are all kinds of reasons and explanations for the increases, but the bottom line remains that it is becoming more and more expensive to file for Bankruptcy. I’ve practiced in many areas of law during the last 24 years, and I remain very proud of the Bankruptcy bar’s dedication to keeping attorneys fees as low as possible. When you file a Bankruptcy, you are filing a highly specialized, Federal Court case; and in most cases it will be substantially cheaper than any other significant legal event you have ever been a party to.

Bankruptcy attorneys were the first to really embrace automation. We have gotten very good at efficiently explaining complex legal concepts to our clients. That is not to say that Bankruptcy attorney fees haven’t gone up. The 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act pretty well doubled the amount of work required to file a Bankruptcy and sent the lawyer’s liability soaring. Needless, to say – fees went up. Although I will say that they haven’t gone up in this office since then.

Elaine

 

Repeat Bankruptcy Filings

Most people have heard something about only being able to file a Bankruptcy every so many years.  I generally hear seven (which is the Biblical time period (Deut. 15:1).  Although, what most people are thinking of  is the time between Chapter 7 filings, and that is currently eight years.

The truth, like with most things, is more complicated.  I like to refer to the 2-4-6-8 rule.  This assumes, by the way, that every case filed ends in a discharge.  So, it is two years between a 13 followed by another 13 filing (although, you aren’t supposed to be able to complete a 13 plan in less than three years — hey, nobody every said the 2005 reform act made sense); four years between a 7 followed by a 13; six years between a 13 followed by a 7; and 8 years between two chapter 7’s.

So, I got a phone call this week from a man who has filed six Bankruptcies in the last 16 years.  That doesn’t compute.  First of all, only two of them were Chapter 7 cases.  Second, to date, none of the 13 filings have completed and resulted in a discharge — so, they never triggered the relevant waiting periods.

What causes that kind of repeat filing?  Despite what most people will assume, this kind of pattern generally includes a chronic health problem and at least a couple of periods of unemployment.  Those two things manage to cause the accumulation of medical debt, and periods of missed mortgage payments either during illness or following  a job loss.  The four incomplete Chapter 13 filings will almost always be caused by job losses, because you can’t make plan payments without regular income.

So, what does this tell me when I pick up the phone and encounter a would-be client who clearly has a history with the Bankruptcy Court?  The first thing I want to do is pull up his case history on the Court’s web site.  I want to see what was filed, when, and what happened to it.  Is he eligible for another filing, why did prior filings fail, have those problems been addressed, is there a compelling reason to try again?  These are the questions I begin with.

For the would be client there are a number of concerns.  First, is he eligible to refile?  Even if he meets the 2-4-6-8 rule above, if his most recent case was dismissed with a bar against refiling for 180 days (sometimes improperly referred to as a dismissal with prejudice); then, he has to wait out that 180 day period even if he has an aggressive creditor snapping at his heels.

Second, if he has been a debtor in at least one bankruptcy case in the last year, then the automatic stay will only last for 30 days when the case is filed unless the Judge agrees to extend it.  That requires notice to all creditors, an affidavit from the Debtor explaining why he should be given another chance; and possibly a hearing on the issue.  If the would be client has been a debtor in two bankruptcy cases pending in the last year, then there will be no automatic stay at all unless the Judge agrees to impose one.

Third, the would be client is going to have to convince me that he is worth taking on as a client; and he can expect that I will require considerably more cash up front than I would otherwise.  Of course, he may also have to convince the Court of his good faith if any annoyed creditor were to complain.

So, successive filings may be possible.  Oh, and you are always eligible to file a Chapter 13, you just may not be eligible for a discharge at the end.  The time periods above assume that the Debtor will need a discharge at the end of the case.  Without it, the Debtor will need to find a way to pay 100% of his debt in the Chapter 13.  That can be very useful, and a Chapter 7 filed with the intention of following it immediately with a Chapter 13 can be a very useful strategy for dealing with certain kinds of problems.  Oh, that is called a Chapter 20, by the way; and I will blog about it another day.

Elaine