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.

 

Fraudulent Transfers Around the Holidays

Giving a gift, including selling for much less than an asset is worth, may be a fraudulent transfer—treated as hiding assets from creditors.

 

Most people filing bankruptcy have neither a need nor the desire to hide anything from their creditors. There’s no need because most people’s assets are already protected through state and federal laws. There’s no desire because most people are honest and want to follow the law.

Yet anybody considering bankruptcy should still have some understanding of the law of “fraudulent transfers.” That’s because it could cause you problems even if you thought you were being honest and fair. As you’ll see this may more likely happen during the gift-giving holiday season.

“Fraudulent Transfers” Explained

A “fraudulent transfer” is essentially a debtor giving away—transferring—an asset to avoiding giving creditors that asset’s value. This can be done with bad intentions, but also without any such intentions.

If you give away something (for example, as a holiday gift), or sell something for much less than it’s worth, then under certain circumstances your creditors could require the recipient to surrender it to the creditors. That would usually not be a good result because you’d prefer that the person be able to keep your gift.

The gift or sale in a “fraudulent transfer” can be challenged in either state courts or bankruptcy court. In a bankruptcy case the bankruptcy trustee would act on behalf of the creditors to “avoid” (undo) the transfer.

The Two Kinds of “Fraudulent Transfers”

There are two kinds of fraudulent transfers.

The one based on “actual fraud” requires the actual intent to harm a creditor or creditors. It occurs when a debtor gives a gift or makes a transfer “with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud” one or more creditors. Section 548(a)(1)(A) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The one based on “constructive fraud” does not require the actual intent to harm a creditor. It occurs when a debtor gives a gift or makes a transfer receiving “less than a reasonably equivalent value in exchange, in which the debtor “was insolvent on the date that such transfer was made.  . .  , or became insolvent as a result of such transfer.” Section 548(a)(1)(B) of the Bankruptcy Code. Although the debtor does not intend to defraud anybody, the transfer can be undone under certain circumstances.

Legal and Practical Considerations

Most people filing bankruptcy will not be accused of a fraudulent transfer for a number of reasons:

1) Most people simply don’t give away their assets leading up to filing bankruptcy.

2) Gifts to charities are largely exempt.

3) The bankruptcy system doesn’t care about minor gifts or transfers.

4) Even in circumstances that a transfer could be challenged, the trustee has to consider the cost and practicality of undoing the transfer.

1) Debtors Don’t Generally Give Away Assets

Most people considering bankruptcy usually need pretty much everything they own. So they aren’t going to be giving it away or selling it for less than it’s worth.

Furthermore, the assets that people own when filing bankruptcy are usually fully protected. So there’s no motivation to transfer them away.  These protections are usually through property “exemptions,” or through the special advantages of the Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

2) Gifts to Charities Are Essentially Exempt

The Bankruptcy Code creates a big exception for transfers made “to a qualified religious or charitable entity or organization.” Charitable contributions are exempt if they do “not exceed 15 percent of the gross annual income of the debtor.” The amount of contributions can total an even higher percentage “if the transfer was consistent with the practices of the debtor.” Section 548(a)(2).  

3) Minor Gifts Are Not a Problem

The bankruptcy system doesn’t worry about relatively minor gifts or transfers. This effectively means a gift or gifts given over the course of two years to any particular person valued at $600 or less. The Bankruptcy Code itself does not refer to that threshold amount. But the Statement of Financial Affairs for Individuals, which is one of the official documents you and your bankruptcy lawyer prepare and file at court does so.

This document includes the following question #13:

Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you give any gifts with a total value of more than $600 per person?

The next question (#14) is very similar:                                            

Within 2 years before you filed for bankruptcy, did you give any gifts or contributions with a total value of more than $600 to any charity?

4) Cost and Practicality of Avoiding the Transfer

Even when a gift or other transfer arguably qualifies as a “fraudulent transfer,” the trustee has to seriously consider the costs in attorney fees and other expenses to try to undo that gift or transfer. At the very least the costs have to be weighed against the amount likely to be gained for the creditors.

This is particularly true when there’s a meaningful risk that the transfer would not qualify as a “fraudulent transfer.” Or the transfer may qualify but the transferee has disappeared or a judgment against him or her is uncollectable.

 

An Example Why Passing the Means Test May Be Easier in 2018

Filing bankruptcy before the end of December may help you qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Here’s an example showing how this could work.  

 

The month of December is the month that people receive more income than any other month of the year. According to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce), for at least the past 9 years (2009 through 2017) U.S. personal income was the highest in December than in any other calendar month.

This may well be true for you personally. You may work a part-time seasonal job this time of year to help make ends meet. You may be getting a few larger paychecks because of more work hours or overtime. Or you may be fortunate enough to get a holiday or year-end bonus.

Last week’s blog post explained how filing bankruptcy during December can be smart if you receive extra income that month. It can help you qualify for Chapter 7, and avoid being forced into a 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 case. Today we lay out an example to show how this would work.

The Example

Let’s assume that the median income amount for your family size in your state is $64,577.

(That’s the current amount for a family of 3 in Kentucky. You can find the median income amount applicable to you on this chart. It’s from the means testing webpage of the U.S. Trustee Program. The chart is current for bankruptcies filed starting November 1, 2018, and is updated about three times a year.)

Assume that your regular family monthly gross income is $5,000, which would give you an annual income of $60,000. That’s less the median income amount of $64,577 provided above. So you’d think that you’d easily pass the means test.

But let’s also assume that you and/or your spouse were to receive an extra $2,500 during December. This money could be from a seasonal job, overtime, a bonus, or just about any other source.

Filing Bankruptcy During December

What would happen here if you filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case during December? The income that would count for the means test would be what you received during the six full calendar months before the date of filing. You don’t count anything received in December; only income during June through November counts.  That would be 6 months of $5,000, or $30,000; multiply that by two for an annual income of $60,000.  

Since $60,000 is less than the $64,577 applicable median family income amount, you’d handily pass the means test. You’d qualify to file a Chapter 7 case.

Waiting to File Bankruptcy After December

If instead you tried to file a Chapter 7 case in January, your income under the means test would be higher. The pertinent 6-month full calendar month period would now be from last July through December.  On top of the usual $5,000 income for 6 months—$30,000—you’d add the extra $2,500 money received in December. So the 6-month total would be $32,500. Multiply that by two for an annual income of $65,000.

Since $65,000 is more than the $64,577 applicable median family income amount you’d not immediately pass the means test. You may not qualify for filing a Chapter 7 case. Instead of likely being able to discharge (legally write off) many or possibly all of your debts within about 4 months you may be forced to pay on them for 3 to 5 years in a Chapter 13 case.

Having Income More Than Median Family Income

Even in this scenario of too much income, there’s a chance you could still pass the means test and qualify for Chapter 7. You’d complete the very complicated 9-page Chapter 7 Means Test Calculation form. Then if your “allowed expense deductions” leave you with too low of “monthly disposable income” you’d still pass the means test. (Whether your “monthly disposable income” is low enough turns on a formula comparing that amount to the amount of your “total nonpriority unsecured debt.”) Or you might also qualify for Chapter 7 by having expenses that qualify under “special circumstances.”

But these alternative ways of trying to qualify for Chapter 7 are much riskier than simply having less income than your applicable median family income amount. Our example above shows how to accomplish this with smart timing. You may be able to do the same by simply filing your case in December, or in whatever month would be most favorable for you.

 

Pass the Means Test by Filing Bankruptcy in 2018

The timing of your bankruptcy filing can determine whether you qualify for quick Chapter 7 vs. paying into a Chapter 13 plan for 3-5 years.

 

Timing Can Be SO Important

There are lots of ways you could greatly benefit from meeting with a bankruptcy lawyer sooner rather than later. You may save yourself lots of money by choosing an option that would not be available to you later. 

There are many situations this could happen. Today we’ll address how filing sooner—say, before the end of 2018—might enable someone to pass the “means test” when that might not be possible later. Passing the means test means you’d likely qualify to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. Otherwise you may be required to file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case.

Chapter 13 can be great in the right circumstances. But you don’t want to be forced into filing one quickly because you’re desperate for immediate relief from your creditors. If you had to file a Chapter 13 case because you didn’t have the flexibility to strategically time your filing, this could easily cost you many thousands of dollars. It could mean that you couldn’t discharge most of your debts in a matter of 3-4 months without paying anything on them vs. paying on those debts for 3 to 5 years.

Timing and Income in the Means Test

The means test requires people who have the “means” to do so, to pay a meaningful amount on their debts. If you don’t pass the means test you’re effectively stuck with filing a Chapter 13 case.

Be aware that a majority of people who need a Chapter 7 case successfully pass the means test. The most direct way to do so is if your income is no larger than the published “median income” amounts designated for your state and family size. What’s crucial here is the highly unusual way the means test defines income. This unusual definition creates potential timing advantages and disadvantages.

The Means Test Definition of Income

When considering income for purposes of the means test, don’t think of income as you normally would. Instead:

1) Consider almost all sources of money coming to you in just about any form as income. Included, for example, are disability, workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits; pension, retirement, and annuity payments received; regular contributions for household expenses by anybody, including a spouse or ex-spouse; rental or other business income; interest, dividends, and royalties. 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. To clarify this, if you filed a Chapter 7 case this December 15th, your income for the means test would include all money received from exactly June 1 through November 30 of this year. It would exclude money received before June 1 or received from December 1 through the date of filing.

The Effect of this Unusual Definition of Income

This timing rule means that your means test income can change depending on what month you file your case. To the extent you have flexibility over when to file, and if there are any shifts in the money you receive over time, you have some control over how much your income is for the means test when you do file your case.

So if you receive an unusual amount of money anytime in December, it doesn’t count if you file a Chapter 7 case by December 31. This unusual amount of money might be an employer’s annual bonus, a contribution from a parent or relative to help you pay expenses, or an unexpected catch-up payment of spousal/child support. Remember, if you file bankruptcy in December, only money received June through November gets counted.

Even relatively small differences in money received can make an unexpectedly big difference. That’s because the six-month income total is doubled to arrive at the annual income amount. So for example let’s say you got an extra $1,500 from whatever source(s) in December. If you file in December that extra doesn’t count, as just discussed above. But if you wait until January to file, December money is counted becasue the pertinent 6-month period is now July 1 through December 31. That extra $1,500 gets doubled, increasing your annual income by $3,000. That could push you above the designated “median income” for your state and family size. If so you’d likely not pass the means test and not qualify for Chapter 7, leaving you with Chapter 13 as your only option.

Conclusion

It is a fact that most people wait way too long before their initial consultation meeting with a bankruptcy lawyer. There are many very understandable reasons for this. But do yourself a favor and be the exception. See a lawyer not because you’re at the very end of your rope and need immediate relief from your creditors. Instead see one because you want to learn about your options. Do this sooner and you may have some significantly money-saving options that you might not have had otherwise. 

 

The Surprising Benefits: Keeping Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 13

You can keep your leased vehicle under Chapter 7 if you’re current. If not, or have other reasons to do a Chapter 13 case, that’s works too.


Lease Assumption under Chapter 7

Our last blog post showed how to keep a leased vehicle by “assuming” the lease in a Chapter 7 case. This means you keep making the lease payments. You also continue being legally bound by all the other terms of the lease contract.

Problems under Chapter 7

But what if you’re behind on your lease payments, and can’t catch up right away? Very likely the lessor would not allow you to assume the lease. And even if you could you’d be in default on the lease immediately and subject to repossession. You could easily end up owing a substantial amount of damages, and still be without a vehicle.

The Solution under Chapter 13

Filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case solves this problem by giving much you more time to catch up on late payments.

A Chapter 13 case revolves around a formal court-approved payment plan that you and your bankruptcy lawyer put together. Your Chapter 13 plan will have a provision stating that you are assuming the unexpired vehicle lease. See Part 6 of the Bankruptcy Court’s official Chapter 13 Plan form. Besides listing the name of the lessor, a short description of the leased vehicle, and the monthly payment, you state the “Amount of arrearage to be paid” and the terms by which it will be paid through the plan. Usually you can catch up on the arrearage under terms that would fit within your budget.  

There is an opportunity for objection to such terms, particularly by the lessor. But usually the lessor is happy that you are choosing to continue being liable on the lease contract. Unless your payment history is terrible, or you’ve violated the lease agreement in other ways (such as not keeping insurance in effect) you’re mostly not going to get any objection. If there’s no objection, or any objection is resolved, the bankruptcy judge will approve or “confirm” the plan. (This assumes that the plan is otherwise ready for confirmation.)

This gives your proposed way of dealing with the lease, including the missed payments, the force of a court order. As long as you comply with those terms you’ll be able to keep your leased vehicle.

Limited Benefit on Leased Vehicles with Chapter 13

Chapter 13 gives you less possible advantages with a vehicle lease than if you had a vehicle loan. There is no opportunity for a Chapter 13 “cramdown” with a lease. A loan cramdown potentially reduces the loan’s monthly payments and the total amount paid to own the vehicle free and clear. Chapter 13 does not enable you to reduce your monthly lease payment. It does not take a penny off what you have to pay over the life of the lease.

Chapter 13 merely allows you to keep a leased vehicle through its lease term. The only real advantage it gives you over Chapter 7 is giving you more time to catch up on any unpaid lease payments. That may be an important advantage if you are desperate to keep the vehicle and are behind.

But be careful. Be aware that if you assume the lease under Chapter 13 you continue being liable on the other terms of the lease. For example, at the end of the lease you could owe money for high mileage or extra wear and tear. You could even lose the vehicle if you didn’t keep up the monthly lease payments. On top of that you could owe additional penalties for early termination of the lease.

Conclusion

Do you need a Chapter 13 case for any of the many other advantages it can give you? Then you will likely also be able to keep your leased vehicle as you’re dealing with those other issues.

Are you behind on your leased vehicle and absolutely want to keep it? Are you fully aware of the possible disadvantages of staying in your lease (partially outlined above)? If so, then Chapter 13 provides a way to keep your leased vehicle by catching up on the missed payments over time while you are protected from repossession.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Keeping Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 7

If you file a Chapter 7 case and write off your other debts, will you want to keep your vehicle lease? You can if you’re current on it now.

 

Our last three blog posts have been about rejecting a vehicle lease and giving the vehicle back to the lessor. You can do this either through Chapter 7 or 13. The result is the same in the end.  Assuming you successfully finish the bankruptcy case, you’ll forever discharge (legally write off) any debt you’d owe afterwards.

But you can also usually keep a leased vehicle. Depending on your circumstances, you can “assume” the lease in either a Chapter 7 or 13 case. Today’s blog post is about how this works in a Chapter 7 case. Next week we get into keeping a leased vehicle in a Chapter 13 one.

“Assuming” Vehicle Lease

When you file bankruptcy you make a formal choice about whether or not you want to “assume” the lease. Assuming an unexpired lease generally allows you to keep the vehicle while continuing to be legally bound by the lease contract. You give up the option to reject the lease and discharge—forever write off—any financial obligations on that contract. (Section 365(a) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

The “Statement of Intention”

To formally assume the lease in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case you say that’s want you want to do in the court documents your bankruptcy lawyer prepares for you. In the “Statement of Intention for Individuals Filing Under Chapter 7” “List Your Unexpired Personal Property Leases” (on page 2). After stating your lessor’s name and the vehicle being leased, there’s a simple question: “Will the lease be assumed?” Check the “Yes” box.  Your bankruptcy lawyer files this Statement of Intention at the Bankruptcy Court (electronically). He or she also delivers a copy of to the lessor. (See Bankruptcy Rule 1007(b)(2).)

You and your lawyer must file this document within 30 days of filing your bankruptcy petition. Often it’s filed with your initial bankruptcy petition and the rest of your documents at the beginning of your case.

Consequences of Assuming the Lease

Be fully aware of the potential consequences before you assume the lease. Filing a Chapter 7 case gives you the opportunity to cancel your lease contract without owing anything. Assuming the lease gives up that opportunity.

If you assume and then in the future you couldn’t make the monthly lease payments, the lessor would take back the vehicle. Then the lessor could sue you for the amount you still owe on the lease contract.

Even if you make all the required monthly payments, you may still owe money at the end of the lease. You could owe substantial charges for excess mileage or damage to the vehicle. You could potentially owe thousands of dollars, and again be sued if you did not pay.

There are situations when it makes sense to keep a leased vehicle by assuming the lease in bankruptcy. But be sure you think about the benefits of getting out of the lease, and understand the risks.

When Chapter 13 Helps You Keep Your Leased Vehicle

In a Chapter 7 case you should generally be current on the monthly payments in order to assume the lease. If you’re not current, be sure that you can immediately get current. If you can’t, the lessor will very likely not allow you to assume the lease.

If you are behind but definitely want to keep the leased vehicle, Chapter 13 may be your better option. It usually gives you much more time to catch up on the missed payments. That’s the topic of our next blog post.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Ending Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 13

Chapter 7 gets you out of a vehicle lease owing nothing. Chapter 13 is more complicated but can give you pretty much the same good result.

 

Ending a Vehicle Lease in Chapter 7

Our last blog post was about how a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” can get you out of a vehicle lease. You can “reject” a financially bad lease, and then discharge (permanently write off) whatever you’d owe after surrendering the vehicle. Otherwise you could owe a lot of money when you get out of the lease.

So if you decide that you don’t want to keep your leased vehicle, and need bankruptcy relief, Chapter 7 is likely the cleanest solution.

Ending a Vehicle Lease in Chapter 13

But what if you have other reasons to file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case instead? Chapter 13 can be a great way to save your home, catch up on child or spousal support, deal with income tax debt, and solve many other big financial problems, much better than under Chapter 7.

So it’s good news that you can surrender your leased vehicle through Chapter 13 just like under Chapter 7. However, discharging any resulting debt from the lease contract is not as straightforward as in a Chapter 7 case. Here’s how it works.

Possible Debts from Surrendering a Leased Vehicle

First be aware that you could owe various kinds of debts when you surrender a leased vehicle. Surrendering before lease end could make you liable for contractual penalties and/or all the remaining unpaid lease payments. Surrendering the vehicle at the end of the lease could make you liable for high mileage, excessive wear and tear, and the difference between the vehicle’s originally anticipated value at the end of the lease and the actual “realized value” then. Either way the amount you would owe could be thousands of dollars.  

Rejecting the Lease under Chapter 13

Under Chapter 13 you have the options of either rejecting the lease and returning the car, or continuing the lease. For today we’re assuming you no longer need or want to keep and pay for the vehicle.

The immediate benefits of rejecting the lease are just like under Chapter 7. You immediately stop paying the monthly lease payments, and then return the vehicle to the lessor after filing the case. If you’re behind on payments, you don’t have to pay them.

But under Chapter 13 there’s a complication. Your lessor can file a “proof of claim” reflecting whatever amount you would owe under the lease contract. The lessor does so in order to try to get paid part of any remaining debt. This debt is then added to the pile of all your other “general unsecured” debts.

The Category of “General Unsecured” Debts in Chapter 13

In a Chapter 13 case, your debts are divided into categories, one being your “general unsecured” debts. These are the debts that are 1) not secured by any of your property or possessions, and are also 2) not a “priority” debt (various specially-treated ones).

Often you have to pay all or most of what you owe on your secured and priority debts. But this is seldom true with general unsecured debts. Often you pay little or even nothing on your general unsecured debts in a Chapter 13 case. Whether or how much you pay depends on a lot of factors. The main factors are the amount of your secured and priority debts, and how much you can afford to pay to all of your creditors after expenses.

Often Vehicle Lease Debt Does Not Increase What You Pay

In most Chapter 13 cases a debt from surrendering your leased vehicle does not increase what pay in your case. That is, adding what you owe on the lease to your other general unsecured debts does not increase the amount that you pay into your pool of general unsecured debts.

There are two circumstances where that happens, one less common and other very common.

First, in some parts of the country you are allowed to pay 0% of your “general unsecured” debts. This happens if all you can afford to pay during your 3-to-5-year payment plan goes to your secured and priority debts. This leaves no money for the general unsecured debts. Paying 0% of the general unsecured debts means paying 0% on any vehicle lease debt.

Second, in most situations you end up paying the pool of general unsecured debts a specific amount of money. That amount is what you can afford to pay through the plan minus what goes to secured and priority debts. That specific amount gets divided up among the general unsecured debts. This amount being paid to the general unsecured debts does not increase if there is more of those debts. Adding the debt from the surrendered leased vehicle just reduces the amount other general unsecured debts receive. It does not increase how much you pay.  

For example, assume that after you pay all your secured and priority debts you have $2,000 left over to pay all your general unsecured debts over the life of your Chapter 13 plan. Your vehicle lessor files a claim saying you owe $3,000 after surrendering the vehicle. You owe $30,000 to all your other general unsecured debts. Adding the $3,000 lease debt to the other $30,000 means you owe a total of $33,000 of general unsecured debts. But you pay only the $2,000 that is available (over the life of the plan) either way. Having the $3,000 lease debt just means that the other general unsecured debts receive that much less.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Rejecting Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 7

Getting out of a vehicle lease in a Chapter 7 case requires simply that you formally state that you “reject” it. Then you owe nothing more.

 

Last week we showed how a vehicle lease can be unexpectedly expensive, and that you can escape through Chapter 7. Today we show you how.

The Option of “Rejecting” the Lease

When you file bankruptcy you get to choose whether or not to keep your leased vehicle. Specifically you choose to either “assume” or “reject” the lease. Assuming the lease means keeping the vehicle and continuing to be legally bound by all the terms of the lease. Rejecting the lease means letting the vehicle go. This allows you to “discharge”—forever write off—all of your financial obligations on the lease. (See Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code generally about the assumption and rejection of unexpired leases. Warning: it’s very complicated and confusing!)

Rejecting a car or truck lease can be a good idea in various situations. As we discussed last week leases come with a number of hidden costs and financial risks.

If you can’t make the lease payments and surrender the vehicle, you will most likely owe a lot of money. Or if you’re nearing the end of your lease and the vehicle has high mileage or unusual wear and tear, you can also owe a lot. Rejecting your vehicle lease in bankruptcy at any point in the lease gets you out of it without having to pay anything more on it.

Giving Notice of Lease Rejection

To reject the lease, you simply state your intention to do so. You do that in the Chapter 7 documents that your bankruptcy lawyer prepares for you. The specific form is appropriately called the “Statement of Intention for Individuals Filing Under Chapter 7.” As you can see on the form itself, on page 2 you “List Your Unexpired Personal Property Leases.” (A vehicle is “personal property.”) So you state your lessor’s name and the vehicle being leased, and whether or not you’re “assuming” the lease. If you are not assuming it you are deemed to be rejecting it.

Your bankruptcy lawyer delivers a copy of the Statement of Intention to the lessor and the trustee. (See Bankruptcy Rule 1007(b)(2).)

Timing of the Statement of Intention

Your lawyer must file/deliver the Statement of Intention within 30 days after the filing of your Chapter 7 case. If your “meeting of creditors” happens to be before then, the deadline to file is the date of that “meeting.”

If you don’t file/deliver this form by this deadline the lessor can then immediately repossess the vehicle. In other words the protection against repossession—called the “automatic stay”—that you imposed by filing your case expires if you don’t file/deliver the Statement of Intention on time. (See Section 362(h)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

Often the Statement of Intention gets filed the day you file all your other documents. But your lawyer may wait until the later deadline to file to give you more time with your vehicle. That’s because the “automatic stay” also expires if you don’t “take timely the action specified in such statement.” (Section 362(h)(1)(B).)

The Lessor’s Reactions

At any point your lessor may file a motion asking for permission to take possession of the vehicle. This is also called a motion for relief from the automatic stay or to lift the automatic stay. The faster the lessor gets possession the faster it can resell it and recoup some of its losses. So sometimes a lessor will file such a motion to make sure it gets possession as fast as the law allows.  

But often a lessor just relies on your Statement of Intent and the expiration of the automatic stay as described above. It doesn’t file a motion but just communicates with your lawyer to arrange for your surrender of the vehicle at a time that is reasonable for both you and the lessor.

So, talk with your bankruptcy lawyer, both about whether you should reject your lease, and how to best do so.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Escape from Your Vehicle Lease in Bankruptcy

Leasing a vehicle is tempting because it seems to be the less expensive way to go. But it’s often MORE expensive. Escape through bankruptcy. 

 

The Temptation of a Vehicle Lease

Leasing can seem like a sensible way to get a new vehicle. You often pay less money down and pay lower monthly payments. So leasing can sometimes be a way to get reliable transportation for less money. At least in the short term.

The Hidden Economic Costs

But there are hidden costs.

First, at the end of your lease term you own nothing. Your payments don’t create any ownership.  They give you nothing more than immediate possession.

At the end of the lease you don’t have a free and clear vehicle as you do after paying off a vehicle loan. You don’t have a vehicle free of monthly payment for a few years after pay-off. Instead of a free and clear vehicle at the end of the contract you’re stuck with figuring out how you can afford another vehicle.

Second, at the end of the lease you have no used vehicle to trade in for your next vehicle. Most likely you haven’t saved up money for a down payment. You haven’t used the lower monthly lease payments to save money for a down payment on your next vehicle. So getting into another leased vehicle may be your only viable option. You end up in a cycle of never really owning a vehicle, trapped into forever making vehicle payments.

The Hidden Economic Risks

Third, you’re hit with big financial penalties if you end up driving the vehicle more than the contract allows. You could also owe money if you have excessive wear and tear on the vehicle’s interior or exterior. You may also be penalized if the vehicle ends up having depreciated more than the leasing company figured it would as of the start of the lease contract.

Fourth, it’s usually harder to get out of a vehicle lease than a vehicle loan. With a loan it’s more likely that you’d build up some equity sooner. So you could sell the vehicle and pay off the loan. In contrast, getting out of a vehicle lease before its term is up is usually expensive. It can cost you thousands of dollars. The amount you would owe would depend on the vehicle’s “realized value.” That’s the relatively low amount the lease company would get from selling the vehicle at an auto auction. That amount isn’t even knowable until you want to get out of the lease so your big exit fee could come as a rude surprise.

As a result of these hidden costs and risks, leasing is usually the most expensive way to have access to a vehicle:

  • you have the car during the period of its greatest depreciation
  • at the end of the lease you have to return it because you’ve not built any ownership in it
  • when you return  it you potentially pay extra to do so
  • then you repeat all this with another lease, continuously making payments
  • so you never to own a vehicle free and clear

Discharging Lease Debts through Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

“Discharge” is the legal write-off of a debt in bankruptcy. (See Section 524 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code about the “Effect of discharge.”) Under Chapter 7 debts get discharged within about four months of when you and your bankruptcy lawyer file your case.

Vehicle lease obligations almost always get discharged in bankruptcy. There are certain other types of debts that are never discharged; others in which a creditor can challenge the discharge. But these exceptions don’t usually apply to vehicle leases.

Discharge Early Termination or End-of-Lease Charges

Chapter 7 bankruptcy allows you to escape the lease early. Your circumstances may have changed so that you can no longer afford the monthly lease payments. Or maybe you’ve already even fallen behind on those payments. Or you may just not longer need or want the vehicle. You may simply need the money for more crucial expenses.

Or, instead of trying to get out of the lease early, you may just be getting towards the end of your lease. Because of high mileage or lots of wear and tear on the vehicle, you expect to owe money then.

So, Chapter 7 lets you get out of your vehicle lease at any point without paying anything more on it.

 

The Surprising Benefits: An Example of Vehicle Loan Cramdown

Vehicle loan cramdown can greatly reduce your monthly payment and the total amount you pay on your loan. Here’s a helpful example.

 

Cramdown in Chapter 13

Last week we introduced cramdown as an extremely helpful tool for reducing the cost of your vehicle loan. Cramdown can often:

  1. Reduce your monthly payments—sometimes significantly.
  2. Reduce the amount you pay on your vehicle contract altogether—often by thousands of dollars.
  3. Excuse you from catching up on any back payments on your vehicle.

Here’s an example to illustrate just how good cramdown can be.

The Facts in Our Example

Assume you are making payments on a 2015 Ford Fusion SE that you bought new more than three years ago. You bought from a dealer for $27,000. After adding the various fees and taxes, and subtracting your modest down payment, you financed $27,000. Because your credit was iffy your loan was at the high interest rate of 8.9% on a 84-month loan.

The monthly payment of $433 has been tough to keep up on. You’re now a month late and your next payment is due in a week. You know that you’re close to getting your vehicle repossessed.

After 34 monthly payments of $433 you’d normally owe about $18,000 but with a bunch of late fees and other charges you owe around $19,000. Your vehicle is currently worth $13,000, with 55,000 miles (average for a 2015 vehicle).

Under Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy”

If you filed a Chapter 7 case you’d basically have a choice between keeping the car with its present loan terms or surrendering it and writing off the loan.

Assuming that you absolutely need the transportation, you’d have to “reaffirm” the loan. That means that you’d have to catch up on the missed payments and agree to keep it current. You’d be stuck with the current monthly payment amount. You’d be stuck with the high interest rate (costing you more than $9,000 over the length of the contract). If you ever failed to keep current and the vehicle got repossessed, you’d likely owe a large “deficiency balance.” And your vehicle would be gone.

Savings through Cramdown

In contrast, under Chapter 13 cramdown both your monthly payment and the total amount paid would be reduced.

In our example, you and your bankruptcy lawyer reduce the monthly payment as follows. The $19,000 balance on the contract gets divided into the secured and unsecured portions.

The secured portion is based on the current value of the vehicle: $13,000. You have 3 to 5 years to pay that amount. Depending on all the circumstances you should be able to reduce the interest rate—assume down to 4%. $13,000 amortized at 4% over the maximum 60 months works out to only about $239 per month.

What about the Unsecured Part of the Vehicle Loan?

What happens to the remaining unsecured portion in the amount of $6,000? (That’s the $19,000 current loan balance minus the above $13,000 secured portion.) It gets lumped into the pool of your other “general unsecured” debts. So what happens to that $6,000 debt?

It depends. In most situations you effectively pay nothing more during your Chapter 13 case as a result of this $6,000 debt. This would happen for two potential reasons.

0% Chapter 13 Plans

First, after paying allowed living expenses and higher priority debt—including the monthly $239 vehicle payments, and also recent income taxes, home mortgage and support arrearage, and such—you may have nothing left over for the general unsecured debts. Under these circumstances you’d be paying 0% on these debts during your Chapter 13 payment plan. Then at the end of the 3-to-5-year plan those general unsecured debts would be discharged—completely written off. This would include the $6,000 unsecured part of the vehicle loan. You’d pay nothing on it (and still keep your vehicle).

Partial Payment Chapter 13 Plans

Second, you may instead have some money during your plan to pay towards your general unsecured debts. But even then, in most Chapter 13 cases the existence of the unsecured part of your vehicle loan does not increase how much you pay into your plan over the life of the plan.

Let’s add a few more facts to our example. Assume that you have $40,000 in other general unsecured debts (credit cards, medical bills, old income taxes, and such). Add the $6,000 unsecured part of your vehicle loan, for a total of $46,000 of general unsecured debts. Assume also that over the course of your Chapter 13 plan you have disposable income (after allowed expenses and higher priority debts) totaling $4,000. You pay that $4,000 over time through your monthly plan payments.

If you didn’t owe the $6,000 unsecured part of your vehicle loan, that $4,000 would result in you paying 10% of your general unsecured debts ($4,000 out of $40,000 owed). When you include the $6,000 unsecured part, the $4,000 paid would result in you paying about 8.7% of your general unsecured debts ($4,000 out of $46,000 owed). But either way you’re paying what you can afford to pay—$4,000 over the life of your case. The existence of the $6,000 unsecured part of the vehicle loan has no effect on how much you pay. What you pay just gets distributed a little differently. The other general unsecured debts get pay a little less so that the $6,000 debt receives a small part of the $4,000.

Most Plans Do Not Pay More Resulting from the Unsecured Part of the Vehicle Loan

This happens in most cases that are not 0% plans (discussed above). The only way that an unsecured part of a vehicle loan would increase the amount you pay in your plan is if you have disposable income larger than your other general unsecured debts. In the example, you’d have to have more than $40,000 of disposable income during your plan. Only then would the addition of the $6,000 unsecured part of your vehicle loan to the general unsecured pool increase what you’d pay. That situation is rare. Most people don’t have disposable income during their case larger than their non-vehicle general unsecured debts.

Qualifying for Cramdown

Remember that cramdown is only available in Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.” Not Chapter 7. Also, to qualify the vehicle loan must be at least 910 days old (about 2 and a half years) when filing the Chapter 13 case.  And finally, cramdown is beneficial for most purposes only when the vehicle is worth less than the balance on the loan. The more it’s worth less, the greater the likely benefit of the cramdown.