Archives for December 2017

Student Loans in Bankruptcy

Student loans can sometime be written off in bankruptcy, but it can be quite hard to meet the necessary conditions to do so.

 

The Discharge of Student Loans

Student loans are NOT among those debts that can NEVER be “discharged”—legally, permanently written off on bankruptcy. Bankruptcy law does totally exclude certain kinds of debts from being discharged–one example is unpaid child support.

Instead student loans are among those debts that are discharged IF they meet certain conditions. They are somewhat like income taxes, which can definitely get discharged. With income taxes there is a list of conditions; with student loans there is only one to meet. Yet, discharging a student loan can be much more difficult than discharging an income tax debt. That’s because the conditions for discharging income taxes are mostly straightforward, compared to the much vaguer condition for student loans.

The Vague Condition of “Undue Hardship”

Bankruptcy law allows a student loan to be discharged if “excepting such debt from discharge… would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.” Section 523 (a)(8) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. So if you can show that your student loans are causing “undue hardship,” you can discharge those loans.

What’s “Undue Hardship”?

The problem is in figuring out what that phrase means.

In practical terms what does the statute consider a “hardship”? And what more does it take for a “hardship” to rise to the required level of an “undue” hardship?

The phrase “undue hardship” did not originate in Congress. It came from a Commission on the Bankruptcy Laws created by Congress way back in the early 1970s to help guide a total overhaul of our bankruptcy laws.

When Congress used that term in the statute on student loan discharge quoted above, it did not define it. Many other important terms used in the Bankruptcy Code are directly defined within the Bankruptcy Code. See Section 101 on “Definitions.” But not this one.

A Practical Standard for “Undue Hardship”

Congress left it to bankruptcy judges and courts of appeals to apply this term to people’s circumstances. They’ve focused on coming up with practical conditions required to have a hardship that is serious enough to be considered to be “undue.”

Over the decades most of the bankruptcy courts in the country have largely settled on three hurdles to jump for undue hardship:

1. To make the required payments on the student loan under your current income and expenses would leave you unable to maintain even a minimal standard of living.

2. This current situation of being unable to maintain a minimal standard of living is expected to continue over all or most of the repayment period of the student loan.

3. You’ve made a real effort at paying the student loan and/or qualifying for programs to address the debt responsibly.

Important Considerations

  • You must ask for a hardship discharge during your bankruptcy case or you’ll continue to owe your student loan(s). This is done through what is essentially a lawsuit in the bankruptcy court. You must convince the bankruptcy judge that you’ve jumped the above three hurdles to get a decision in your favor. 
  • The timing of your request can make all the difference. You may not qualify for undue hardship now, but you may do so in the future. An example would be if you have a worsening chronic medical condition. Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about reopening your bankruptcy case later when you better qualify for undue hardship.
  • Consider filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debt” bankruptcy now if you may not qualify now but will in the next few years. You could likely not make any student loan payments for a few years. Then later in your 3-to-5-year case, or as soon as you’d qualify, you’d ask the court for an undue hardship determination, while your Chapter 13 case is still open.

Conclusion

It’s often not easy to meet all three conditions of the undue hardship standard. It can be a rather lengthy and expensive legal process. But an increasing number of people have large student loans as a major portion of their debts. If that’s you, get legal advice from an experienced and conscientious bankruptcy lawyer. The bigger your student loans, the bigger their impact on your future, and all the more important to understand your rights and options.

 

The Chapter 7 and 13 Trustees, and the U.S. Trustee

The Chapter 7 trustee decides whether to liquidate anything, the Chapter 13 oversees your case, and the U.S. Trustee is the enforcer. 

 

When you hear the term “trustee,” that could refer to various people or roles.

Some are not directly related to the bankruptcy process. For example, in many states the “trustee sale” is the final event of a home foreclosure. A trustee legally conducts the foreclosure instead of your lender.

More broadly, a trustee is a person given certain powers to administer property or to fulfill some other tasks on behalf of others.

In bankruptcy, a trustee gets assigned to your case when you file a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case. You and your bankruptcy lawyer will meet with that trustee briefly. Sometimes you’ll have more contact with the trustee, especially in a Chapter 13 case.  Generally speaking these trustees have certain powers over you and your property, and act on behalf of your creditors.

There is also the U.S. Trustee. He or she usually works behind the scene; in most consumer cases you’ll never meet this person.

The Chapter 7 Trustee

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” is a liquidation procedure, although in consumer cases usually no liquidation takes place. (Nothing of yours gets liquidated and sold to pay your creditors if everything you have is “exempt,” or protected.) The Chapter 7 trustee is the person who determines whether or not you have any assets to liquidate. In those cases in which the trustee sells debtor assets, he or she is also responsible to distribute the proceeds to the creditors as required by law.  

The Chapter 7 trustee presides at the so-called “meeting of creditors.” That’s usually the only time you’ll see him or her. This 10 minute or so meeting takes place within about a month after you and your bankruptcy lawyer file your case. At this short meeting the trustee will ask you some (usually quite simple) questions about your bankruptcy documents. Your lawyer will prepare you for them and help at the hearing as needed.  

The trustee is assigned to your case from a “panel” of potential trustees. Generally your lawyer can’t predict or influence who will be your trustee. 

See Section 704 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about the duties of a Chapter 7 trustee.

The Chapter 13 Trustee

Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” is a procedure involving the court approval and the implementation of a payment plan. The Chapter 13 trustee administers and oversees the process.

This trustee has a number of roles. The primary one is to enforce your obligations under Chapter 13 law. For example, the trustee tries to ensure that you pay your creditors what they are entitled to. The trustee

  • reviews your proposed payment plan and other court-filed documents,
  • presides at your so-called “meeting of creditors”
  • can raise objections to your plan with the bankruptcy court as appropriate
  • after court approval of your plan, receives your plan payments and distributes them to the creditors as specified under the terms of the plan
  • files motions with the bankruptcy court if you are not complying with the plan
  • at the end of your case tells the court when you have successfully completed your plan obligations

Unlike the Chapter 7 trustees, there is usually a single “standing Chapter 13 trustee” assigned to all the Chapter 13 cases filed in a particular area. Since most handle a large volume of cases most of them have a staff of assistants. Your lawyer will very likely have a long-standing working relationship with the trustee and staff. You’ll know in advance who will be your Chapter 13 trustee.

See Section 1302 of the Bankruptcy Code about the duties of the Chapter 13 trustee.

The United States Trustee

The U.S. Trustee is the enforcer within the bankruptcy system—the watchdog over the bankruptcy process.” You generally hope to avoid hearing from the U.S. Trustee—it’s often not good news.

As described on its website:

The United States Trustee Program is a component of the Department of Justice that seeks to promote the efficiency and protect the integrity of the Federal bankruptcy system.  To further the public interest in the just, speedy and economical resolution of cases filed under the Bankruptcy Code, the Program monitors the conduct of bankruptcy parties and private estate trustees, oversees related administrative functions, and acts to ensure compliance with applicable laws and procedures.  It also identifies and helps investigate bankruptcy fraud and abuse in coordination with United States Attorneys, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other law enforcement agencies.

The main responsibilities of the local U.S. Trustee in consumer cases is to:

  • appoint and supervise Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 trustees
  • take legal action to prevent fraud and abuse of the bankruptcy system
  • investigate and refer matters to the appropriate enforcement authorities (as mentioned above) for criminal prosecution

See 28 U.S. Code Section 586 for the duties of the U.S. Trustee.

 

The Bankruptcy Clerk and the Bankruptcy Judge

Usually you have little or no interaction with the bankruptcy clerk or the bankruptcy judge, but they are both important in your case. 

 

Last week we told you about the debtor and different kinds of creditors in bankruptcy. Today we get into the bankruptcy court and bankruptcy judge. Again, it’s much easier to be comfortable with the process if you know who the main players are and what each one does.

Bankruptcy Clerk

The clerk is the person who, together with his or her staff, handles the clerical tasks of the bankruptcy court. Some of these tasks are quite important, affecting your interests and that of your creditors. It may seem to be “just paperwork,” but is still crucial for the smooth running of your case.

The clerk:

  • processes the paperwork that your lawyer files electronically at the start of your case and thereafter
  • maintains your bankruptcy file at court securely
  • mails out the official notices providing deadlines and certain hearings for you, creditors, the bankruptcy trustee
  • follows the many bankruptcy laws and official procedures in the processing of your case

Your bankruptcy lawyer interacts with the clerk and his or her staff to make sure that everything proceeds as it should. In most cases you will not have anything directly to do with them. 

Bankruptcy Judge

The bankruptcy judge is the person who ultimately has authority over your case. Every case is assigned to one judge. 

You are not likely to meet your judge in any straightforward Chapter 7 or 13 case. If you do it would usually be for a very specific purpose. For example, in a Chapter 7 case you might need to attend a short “reaffirmation” hearing. In a Chapter 13 case you might need to attend a payment plan “confirmation” hearing. But again, in most cases you’ll never see your judge. The most you usually see of him or her is a signature on official documents.

These judges are officers of the federal court system, but they are not full federal judges. Technically they are “judicial officers of the United States district court.” There are between 1 and 4 federal “districts” in each state, to which bankruptcy judges are assigned. Most federal districts have multiple bankruptcy judges, although some with smaller populations have only 1. Unlike regular federal judges who are appointed for life, bankruptcy judges are appointed to terms of 14 years. See 28 U.S. Code Section 152.

If there is any dispute in your case, the judge resolves such disputes. In Chapter 7 cases he or she decides whether a debt should be discharged (legally written off) or not if that is in dispute. In Chapter 13 cases the judge decides on the terms of your Chapter 13 plan, if you and the Chapter 13 trustee or a creditor disagree. 

The decision of the bankruptcy judge can be appealed, either to a local federal district judge or sometimes to a regional 3-judge Bankruptcy Appellate Panel. That very seldom happens because of the time and expense involved.

 

Who Does What in Your Bankruptcy Case?

The key players in bankruptcy are the debtor, creditors, the bankruptcy clerk and judge, and the bankruptcy trustee and the U.S. Trustee. 

 

Bankruptcy can be confusing. It helps to know the main players and what each does. We’ll cover the first two listed above today. Next time we’ll cover the rest.

Debtor

The debtor is the person or business entity filing the bankruptcy case.

The debtor has to qualify to file bankruptcy. Sometimes qualifying is easy, sometimes it’s harder. The qualifications are different for Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” than they are for Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.” The “means test” is most important in Chapter 7, while in Chapter 13 having “regular income” and not too much debt.

A debtor has a number of “duties.” These mostly involve honestly completing some forms for the bankruptcy court and attending a so-called “meeting of creditors.” You’re also required to “cooperate as necessary” with the bankruptcy trustee and the U. S. Trustee. (We’ll get into this more coming up when we tell you about the different trustees).

The debtor’s most important job is to be honest and responsive. You need to do this first with your bankruptcy lawyer, so that the lawyer can advise and protect you. Then, through the lawyer’s guidance, do the same with the bankruptcy court and the other players in the process.

See these Sections of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code: Section 109 on “Who may be a debtor,” and Section 521 on “Debtor’s duties.”      

Creditors

The creditors are of course the businesses and individuals to which the debtor owes debts.

Creditors participate in your bankruptcy case, or often don’t participate, mostly based on the kind of debt owed.

Creditor’s debts are either secured or unsecured. “Secured” means that the debt is legally tied to something you own. That gives the creditor the right to take that something from you if you don’t pay the debt. A debt can be secured by something you bought at the time you created the debt, like a vehicle loan. It can be secured by something you owned beforehand, like a personal loan secured by your possessions. Or it can be secured by operation of the law, like an income tax or judgment lien. A creditor has more leverage over you if its debt is secured and you want to keep that “security.” See Section 506 of the Bankruptcy Code on “Determination of secured status.”

Unsecured debts can be “priority” or “general unsecured.” “Priority” debts are legally favored for various reasons. The main examples among consumer debts are recent income tax debts and any child or spousal support. “Priority” debts generally get paid in full before anything gets paid on “general unsecured” debts under various bankruptcy procedures. See Section 507 on “Priorities.”

For most people most of their creditors have “general unsecured” debts. Those are all debts that are either not secured or not “priority.” They include most credit card balances, medical bills, personal loans, bounced checks, utility bills, vehicle loan deficiency balances, unsecured personal loans, and countless other kinds of unsecured obligations.

Creditors Getting Involved

Creditors can theoretically be involved in the bankruptcy process in a lot of ways. However, they tend to be less involved than you expect. They often decide that getting involved is not worth their cost or effort. Secured creditors do tend to get involved so that you make appropriate arrangements depending on whether you want to keep their “security.”

Sometimes other creditors have grounds to challenge your ability to “discharge”—legally write off their debts.  Your lawyer will inform you if there seem to be any such grounds. Be sure to tell him or her if you have any creditors who may have an emotional stake in your financial life (such as ex-spouses or ex-business partners.) These sometimes get involved in your case, whether doing so would financially benefit them or not.