Archives for December 2018

Disadvantages of a Badly-Timed 5-Year Chapter 13 Case

Following up on last week’s scenario, here are the financial, credit record, and other disadvantages of a forced 5-year Chapter 13 plan.   

 

Our last two blog posts were about how the last 6 calendar months of income of a person filing a Chapter 13 case can determine whether his or her Chapter 13 payment plan lasts only 3 years or instead a full 5 years. We showed how even relatively small shifts in income can cause this huge difference.

The last blog post gave a scenario illustrating how this would work in a real-life situation. It showed how under certain circumstances one person would have a 3-year payment plan if he or she filed a Chapter 13 case in January but a 5-year plan if filed in February.  Today we look at the financial and other consequences of this difference, and some other practical considerations.

Filing a Chapter 13 Case in January vs. February 2019

Our scenario involved a person receiving an extra $2,500 in income in January 2019 from a temporary holiday job. (That’s in addition to the $3,000 every month from the person’s regular job.) Because of the way income is calculated, that $2,500 would push this person over the median family income threshold, but only IF that income is counted. Filing the Chapter 13 case in January would result in that extra $2,500 NOT being counted. That’s because you count only the last 6 FULL CALENDAR MONTHS’ income (and double that for the annual amount). Those 6 months with a January filing are July through December 2018. You DON’T count the income of the month you’re filing the case—in this situation, January.

When filing the Chapter 13 case in February you DO COUNT the extra $2,500 in determining the plan’s length. That’s because the last 6 full calendar months are then August 2018 through January 2019, including the $2,500.

Financial Consequences

Our scenario assumed that your budget requires you to pay $300 per month into your Chapter 13 plan. If you have to pay that for 5 years instead of 3, that’s 2 more years of payments. 24 months of $300 payments totals $7,200. That’s a lot of extra money to pay just because you happened to file your Chapter 13 case in February instead of January.

That could potentially include filing the case just one day later—February 1 instead of January 31. Again, that’s because when filing on February 1 you must include January’s income—including the extra $2,500. When filing on January 31 you don’t include January’s income, avoiding that very troublesome $2,500.

Of course if your monthly Chapter 13 plan payment would be larger than $300, the extra money you pay will be that much more. For example, a $500 monthly plan payment would mean an extra $6,000 paid during the extra two years.

In addition, the longer your case lasts the more likely that your income would increase during your case. That may well require you to increase your monthly plan payment. That would result in you paying that much more during the final two years.

For example, assume you’re paying $500 per month into your payment plan from the beginning of your case. After 3 years you get a new job or a promotion increasing your income by $300 per month. If you had a 3-year plan (based on your initial income calculation) you’d be finishing your Chapter 13 case then. You’d pay nothing more into the payment plan; you’d get to keep all your income, including the pay increase.

Instead, if you’re in a 5-year plan you’d have two more years to go. You may well have to increase your $500 plan payments by $300 to $800 monthly. $800 per month for the final two years would mean an additional $19,200 paid to your creditors. And this could happen merely by filing your case with unwise timing!

Credit Record Consequences

These financial consequences of a longer case are bad enough. But the intangible consequences could be pretty bad as well.

Having your case last 2 years longer means 2 more years before you can really rebuild your credit. To some extent you may be able to build some positive credit history DURING a Chapter 13 case. That can happen if as part of the case you’re making regular contractual payments on your home or vehicle. But you’re still in the midst of a bankruptcy case, which harms your credit record. The sooner you complete your Chapter 13 case the better for credit purposes.

Two extra years in your case means that much longer before you’re free of the Chapter 13 trustee’s supervision. That likely means two more years that the trustee can take your income tax refunds to benefit your creditors. And, as described above, that’s two more years that increases in income could go, partly or fully, to your creditors.

Also, it’s 2 more years of the risk that you won’t finish your case successfully. To get some of the most important benefits of a Chapter 13 case you must complete it.  The longer a case lasts the more opportunities for things to happen that jeopardize a successful completion.

Lastly, being in a Chapter 13 case can be emotionally challenging. You wouldn’t be in it unless it was providing you significant financial benefits. (For example, saving your home and/or your vehicle(s), paying your income taxes or child support while protected from these creditors.) But you are in a sort of financial limbo. It feels very good to finish it and get it over with. You definitely want to do so in 3 years instead of 5 if you can.

 “Three-Year Plans” that Last Longer

One last thing: a Chapter 13 plan that is allowed to be finished in 3 years may last longer. Your income may allow you to have a 3-year plan but you can chose to have it last longer. The law provides that the bankruptcy “court, for cause,” may approve a length up to 5 years.

Many things that could push your allowed-to-be-3-year plan to be longer. You may want to pay for something—a home mortgage arrearage or priority income taxes, for example—and need more time to do so within a reasonable budget. So your plan may last up to 5 years in order for it to accomplish what you need it to.

IF this applies to you, being required to pay for 5 years because of your income may not be a practical disadvantage. On the other hand, you certainly don’t want to stumble into a 5-year Chapter 13 case simply because you didn’t time it well.

Talk with an experienced and conscientious bankruptcy lawyer to learn where your own unique circumstances puts you in all this.

 

Scenario: Filing Chapter 13 Now Shortens a Case by Two Years

Here’s a scenario showing how the timing of your Chapter 13 filing can shorten your payment plan from 5 years to only 3. 

 

In our last blog post we explained how your last 6 calendar months of income can determine whether your Chapter 13 payment plan lasts 3 years or instead 5 years. We showed how even relatively small shifts in the money you receive can cause this huge difference.

How this can happen will make more sense after reading through the following scenario.

Our Facts about “Income”

Remember from last time that your “income” includes money from just about all sources, except Social Security. Also, the only money that counts is that which you received during the 6 FULL CALENDAR months before filing. This means that money received DURING the calendar month of filing DOESN’T count. For example, if you file your Chapter 13 case on January 31 you count the income from the previous July 1 through December 31. You don’t count any income received in January.

In our scenario assume you worked a second job during the holidays. Your monthly paycheck for December from this job is arriving on January 4, 2019. The anticipated gross income amount is $2,500. This money could also come from just about any other source. For example, your ex-spouse may be able to catching up on some unpaid child support owed because he/she received an annual bonus. It could be from just about any source. The point is that there’s an extra $2,500 arriving in early January.

In addition you receive $3,600 gross income every month from your regular job.

You received no money from any sources other than your regular job from July 1, 2018 through December 31, 2018. You expect to receive no money in January 2019 other than the $3,600 gross income and the additional $2,500.

So, assume that your bankruptcy lawyer files your Chapter 13 case between January 1 and January 31, 2019. The income that counts is what you received during the 6 prior full calendar months. That’s from July 1 through December 31, 2018. That is $3,600 per month times 6 months, or $21,600, or $43,200 for the annualized amount.

Our Facts about “Median Family Income”

Your income, as just discussed, determines whether your minimum payment plan length is 3 vs. 5 years. If your income is less than the designated “median family income,” your minimum plan length is 3 years. If your income is the same as or more than “median family income,” your minimum plan length is 5 years. Section 1322(d) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The “median family income” amounts (Section 39A of the Bankruptcy Code) come from the U.S. Census Bureau. This source data is adjusted annually, and is also adjusted more often to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index. (The CPI comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) The U.S. Trustee conveniently gathers this information at this webpage. From there the most recent median family income amounts (as of this writing) are compiled in this table.

For our scenario assume that you are single and live in Kentucky. According to the above table the median family income for a single person in Kentucky is $44,552. (You can find your own median family income by finding your state and family size in the table.)

Filing a Chapter 13 Case in January 2019

Under the facts outlined above, if you filed a Chapter 13 case during January 2019, your case could last 2 years less than if you filed the case in February, conceivably just a few days later.

Why? Because if you file in January you don’t count the income from that month. That means that you don’t count the $2,500 in income from the holiday job. You only count the $3,600 per month you received July through December from your regular job. As calculated above, that means an annualized income of $43,200. That is less than the applicable median family income amount of $44,552. So you’d be allowed to have a Chapter 13 payment plan that lasts only 3 years, and not be required to pay for 5 years.

Filing a Chapter 13 Case after January 2019

But if you file in February 2019 (or any of the following 5 months) your Chapter 13 plan would be required to last 5 years.

Why? Because if you file in February (or during the next 5 months) you do count the income from that month. That includes the $2,500 in income from the holiday job. When filing in February, for example, you count the income from August 1, 2018 through January 31, 2019. That includes the $3,600 per month from your regular job, plus the $2,500 from the holiday job. Six times $3,600 is $21,600, plus $2,500 equals $24,100. Multiply this by 2 gives you an annualized income of $48,200.

That is more than the applicable median family income amount of $44,552. So you’d be required to pay into your Chapter 13 plan for a full 5 years.

Next week we’ll discuss the financial and other consequences of this, and some other very important considerations.


Filing Chapter 13 in December (or January!) May Greatly Shorten Your Case

Do you need a Chapter 13 case? WHEN you file it can mean the difference between a payment plan that takes 3 years and one that takes 5.  

 

In two blog posts last month (November 12 and 19) we showed how filing bankruptcy by the end of December 31 might allow you to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case instead of being forced into a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” one. You could have your debts discharged (legally written off) within just 3 or 4 months under Chapter 7. Otherwise you may have to go through a 3-to-5-year payment plan under Chapter 13. Besides likely costing much more, you’d only discharge your remaining debts if you successfully completed your payment plan.

But What If You Need a Chapter 13 Case?

The benefits of Chapter 7 won’t matter much to you if you need a Chapter 13 case in the first place.

Yes, Chapter 13 takes so much longer than Chapter 7.

And Chapter 13 is much riskier. Most Chapter 7 cases—especially one in which the debtor has a bankruptcy lawyer—get completed successfully. Chapter 13 comes with longer odds. A lot can happen in the 3 to 5 years that they usually take. Chapter 13 is a flexible tool, one that you can often adjust to changing circumstances. But the truth is that a significant percentage of them do NOT get completed successfully.

Notwithstanding the extra time and risks, Chapter 13 could still be by far the best tool for you.  That’s simply because it can accomplish many things that Chapter 7 can’t. For example, Chapter 13 can:

  • give you time to catch up on home mortgage and/or property taxes
  • buy you time and save you money if you owe lots of income taxes, especially if you owe on more than one tax year
  • give you time to catch up on child or spousal support while protecting your income, assets, and license(s) from suspension while doing so
  • allow you to keep assets that are otherwise not protected in a Chapter 7 case
  • lower your monthly vehicle payments and reduce the total amount on the loan
  • hold off on student loan payments and collection until you qualify for an “undue hardship”

And these are just some of the ways that Chapter 13 can deal with your creditors more powerfully than Chapter 7.

A Shorter Chapter 13 Payment Plan

So, what if you’ve learned that you really need a Chapter 13 case? What if you also learned that filing your Chapter 13 case in December instead of January would allow you to finish your case in 3 years instead of 5 years? Or what if that was true if you filed your case in January instead of February?

Paying into a Chapter 13 payment plan for 2 years less could save you many thousands of dollars. Plus, that would get you out of bankruptcy 2 years sooner. You’d be that much ahead of the game in rebuilding your credit.  You’d have the emotional relief of finishing and getting on with life sooner

Here could filing a Chapter case a month sooner shorten the case so much? Here’s how.

Your Last-6-Full Months of Income Determines How Long Your Chapter 13 Lasts  

Our blog post of November 12 described an unusual way of calculating your income for the Chapter 7 “means test.” (That’s a test to qualify for filing a Chapter 7 case.)   That way of calculating income also determines whether your Chapter 13 plan lasts a minimum of 3 years or 5.

Income is calculated as follows:

1) Consider almost all sources of money coming to you in just about any form as income…. .  Pretty much the only money excluded are those received under the Social Security Act, including retirement, disability (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

2) The period of time that counts for the means test is exactly the 6 full calendar months before your bankruptcy filing date. Included as income is ONLY the money you receive during those specific months. This excludes money received before that 6-month block of time. It also excludes any money received during the calendar month that you file your Chapter 7 case.

The 6-month amount is multiplied by 2 for the annual “income” total to be compared to the “median income” for your state and family size.

When you combine the above two considerations, monthly changes in your “income” can make a big difference.  That’s especially true if your money coming in is more than usual in either December or January.  (That would most often be from more overtime, a seasonal job, a monetary gift from family, and/or an employer’s bonus.)

Because of the way “income” is calculated there’s a higher risk that it would be larger than the “median income” for your state and family size. If it is larger, then you must pay your Chapter 13 case for 5 years instead of 3 years.

What’s My Applicable “Median income”?

The “median income” amounts are adjusted regularly and published by the U.S. Trustee Program of the Department of Justice. Here’s a table showing the “median family income” amounts for cases filed on or after November 1, 2018. It shows the amount for each state, by family size. (The amounts are adjusted about three times a year; see this webpage to see if there has been an update.)

(For the actual steps used in this calculation, see the official form, Chapter 13 Statement of Your Current Monthly Income and Calculation of Commitment Period.)

So if your “income” as calculated above is larger than your applicable “median family income” than your Chapter 13 case gets pushed to 5 years.  If it’s smaller, your case can last as short as 3 years. (That 3 or 5 years is the “commitment period” referred to in the official form in the paragraph above.)

If your “income” is larger because of unusual money you received in December and/or January, it may make sense to file your Chapter 13 case in either December or January so that the income of that month would not count. (Remember, that’s because you only count income of the PRIOR 6 FULL calendar months before the filing date.)

In next week’s blog post we’ll put all this into an example to make better sense of it for you.

 

An Example of a “Preference”

A “preference” makes more sense when you see an example. Here’s one. This also helps explain how to avoid creating one. 

 

Last week we explained why paying a creditor before filing bankruptcy could cause problems during bankruptcy. That’s especially true if the creditor you pay is one that you have personal reasons to favor. We explained the circumstances in which such a payment might possibly be considered a “preference,” or a “preferential payment.”  If so, your favored creditor could well be required to return the money you paid, except not to you but rather to your bankruptcy trustee, for distribution to your creditors in general.

We ended last week saying we’d next give you an example of a preferential payment made during the holidays, and practical ways to avoid it.

Our Holiday Example

Imagine that you owe your sister $3,000 for loaning you this money in 2016 to pay your mortgage (or rent). Nothing was put in writing, and you didn’t have to pay interest. But you and your sister agreed that you had to pay it back. Now she’s unexpectedly getting a divorce and she really needs the money. You’re planning on filing bankruptcy early in 2019. You’ve stopped paying most of your other creditors and are making extra money from a part-time job during the holidays. So you now have the $3,000 to pay her back.  

Here’s what would likely happen if you paid her now and then filed a bankruptcy case within a year of doing so.

A month or two after filing bankruptcy the bankruptcy trustee would very likely demand that your sister pay $3,000 to the trustee.

The $3,000 would likely be considered a preferential payment because it was:

  • made within 365 days before the bankruptcy filing
  • to an “insider,” which includes a “relative” (or within 90 days NOT to an “insider”)
  • while you were “insolvent”—essentially had more debts than assets
  • resulting in the sister getting more than she would in a Chapter 7 distribution of your assets  (usually just meaning more than getting nothing)

Assuming the payment meets these requirements of a preference, if your sister didn’t pay the bankruptcy trustee the demanded $3,000 the trustee would likely sue her to make her pay. Once the trustee got that $3,000, it would be divided among your creditors according to a set of “priority” rules. Your sister may receive nothing from this distribution, or likely only a small portion of the $3,000 you owed. Your effort at helping her would likely have seriously backfired.

Avoiding this Unhappy Result

You can avoid this preferential payment problem simply by not paying your sister anything during the year before filing bankruptcy. (This includes either money or anything else of value.)

Instead talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about how to best protect the $3,000 that you’ve scraped together. And then pay your sister after your bankruptcy case is filed. If you’re filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, that may mean a delay of only a few weeks.  

If you’ve already made the payment to your sister discuss this as soon as possible with your lawyer. If may or may not be possible to undo this payment. If so, that may solve the problem. If not, it may make sense to wait for a year to pass from time of the payment to your filing.  (Or you may need to wait only 90 days if the person you paid does not qualify as an “insider.”)  Either way, in some circumstances it may not make sense to wait. Your lawyer will help you weigh your options.

Finally, what may seem like a preferential payment may in fact not be one. For example, if instead of paying your sister you paid your ex-spouse to catch up on a child support obligation, there’s a good change that would not be a preferential payment.

So again, talk with your lawyer right away if you think you may have made a preferential payment. Or preferably do so before you pay a creditor, in order to prevent doing what may not be in your best interest.