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.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Saving Your Vehicle Better through Chapter 13

Chapter 7 is limited in how it can help with your vehicle loan. Chapter 13 can do much more—buy more time and often reduce your payments. 

 

Problems to Solve

Last week we addressed the kind of help Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” provides on your vehicle loan. Mostly it clears the deck of your other debts so that you can afford to keep your vehicle. Hopefully Chapter 7 accomplishes that.

But what if you can’t afford the contractual monthly payments even then? What if your vehicle isn’t worth what you owe on it? What if you’re behind on your payments or insurance and can’t catch up fast enough?

If you can’t or don’t want to keep your vehicle Chapter 7 also gives you the option of surrendering it. The benefit is that it legally write off your obligation to pay the “deficiency balance.” That’s the often surprisingly large remaining debt after a vehicle repossession or surrender. Writing off the debt is better than being saddled with it if you don’t file bankruptcy.

But what if you definitely need to keep your vehicle but can’t do so under Chapter 7? What can Chapter 13 do for you better?

Chapter 13 Buys Time—Often much More Time

If you are late on your vehicle loan payments, filing a Chapter 7 case will prevent an immediate pending repossession. But then virtually always you’ll have to catch up on any arrearage within the next month or two. That’s of course on top of keeping up on ongoing monthly payments.

Chapter 13 usually gives you much more time. Instead of giving you weeks to catch up, usually you’d have many months to do so. Exactly how much time you’d have depends on many factors. But generally you’d start paying your regular payments as they became due, and then chip away at the arrearage over the course of at least several months.

Chapter 13 “Cramdown” May Reduce Monthly Payments—Sometimes Significantly

You don’t always have to pay your regular monthly payments as they come due after filing under Chapter 13. If you qualify for “cramdown” you would likely pay less per month on the vehicle loan—possibly much less.

Cramdown is an informal term for the Chapter 13 procedure for legally re-writing the loan if your vehicle is worth less than you owe. To qualify your vehicle loan must be more than 910 days old at your Chapter 13 filing. (That’s slightly less than two and a half years.)

The loan payments are reduced because the loan is restructured based on the value of the vehicle. You pay that secured portion of the loan through monthly payments. Those payments are usually much less because they are based on the vehicle value instead of the contract balance.

Also, the payments are further reduced under Chapter 13 if the amount to be paid is to be paid out over a period longer than the time left on the contract.

Finally, if your vehicle loan has a relatively high interest rate, you can often also reduce that rate.

Each of these helps reduce the monthly payment on the loan.

You May Not Need to Catch Up on Missed Payments

If you qualify for cramdown you usually don’t have to pay any missed payments after filing a Chapter 13 case. You just pay going forward, at the reduced monthly payment.

Not having to scramble to pay missed payments is a huge benefit. You can concentrate on your most important obligations, such as the crammed down monthly payment.

Catching Up on Lapsed Vehicle Insurance

If you’d fallen behind on your vehicle insurance, that would be an extremely important obligation to focus on. You DO have to reinstate lapsed insurance quickly in order to keep your vehicle—in either Chapter 7 or 13. So the fact with cramdown you may not have to pay any missed payments or else be allowed to catch up more slowly means that you’d have more money available to reinstate your insurance.

Examples, Please

No doubt the benefits listed above sound great. It’s great to have much more time to catch up or to not need to catch up at all. It’s great to have reduced monthly payments, to pay less overall on a vehicle until it’s yours free and clear.

But these benefits would make more sense and be even more impressive if we showed how they work in practice. We’ll do that in our blog post next time.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Saving Your Vehicle Better through Chapter 13

The Surprising Benefits: Saving Your Vehicle through Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy can get you out of the dilemma that a vehicle loan can put you in. Chapter 7 works if you can afford the loan payments afterwards.  


Here’s the Problem

You’re paying on a car or truck. You absolutely need this vehicle for getting to work, and to keep your life going. You can’t do without it.

But you’re having trouble keeping up on the loan payments. You owe lots of other debts, so keeping current on the vehicle loan is a big challenge. It’s a big stressor every month.

On top of that there’s a good chance that you owe more on your vehicle than it is worth. You know that if you somehow found other reliable transportation and surrendered your present vehicle—or if it was repossessed—you could easily still owe thousands of dollars of “deficiency balance.” That’s the amount you would owe on the loan after the surrender or repossession.

The amount you’d owe would very likely be much more than you expect. That’s because repossessed vehicles are usually sold at auto auctions, resulting in less credit to your account than you’d expect. Plus the costs of repossession/surrender and sale, and late charges and such would all be added to the balance. So giving up the vehicle doesn’t seem to make any sense.

As a result you feel stuck. You really need the vehicle but you can’t afford pay for it. And even if you could somehow do without it, you’d likely still owe thousands of dollars from letting it go.

Chapter 7 Regular Bankruptcy Gives Limited Help

Chapter 7 bankruptcy accomplishes two things regarding your vehicle loan. First, if you want to keep the vehicle, Chapter 7 would likely get rid of most of your other debts. Maybe then you could afford the vehicle payments. Or second, if you surrendered the vehicle, Chapter 7 would likely discharge (legally write off) the deficiency balance. If you had a way to get another reliable vehicle, or could do without, this might solve your problem.

What Chapter 7 doesn’t do is give you the power to change the terms of your vehicle loan. It’s “take it or leave it.” If you want to keep your vehicle, you’re virtually always stuck with the contract terms. That includes the monthly payment amount, the interest rate, etc.

Plus, you’re almost always required to “reaffirm” the debt. This legally excludes the vehicle loan from the discharge of your debts. You continue to owe it in full in exchange for keeping the vehicle.

This is economically risky. You’re paying for something that isn’t worth what you’re paying. And if you later surrender the vehicle or it’s repossessed, you would owe a deficiency balance. You’d owe it in spite of your prior Chapter 7 case because you reaffirmed the debt.

If You’re Behind on Your Vehicle Loan, or on Insurance

It’s worse if you aren’t current on your loan payments at the time of your Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Almost always your vehicle lender would require you to quickly catch up—within a month or two of filing. This would be on top of keeping current on the ongoing monthly payments. Or else you’d lose the vehicle in spite of filing bankruptcy.

If you’ve also let your insurance lapse, it’s even more problematic.  Your lender knows how dangerous lack of insurance is for itself, so it would “force-place” insurance on your vehicle. Your contract almost certainly allows it to do this. Force-placed insurance tends to be very expensive while at the same time provides you very little coverage. Under Chapter 7 you would likely have to pay for any such insurance, plus reinstate your own insurance. And you’d likely have to do this very quickly, not long after filing your Chapter 7 case.  

Chapter 13 Can Solve These Problems

Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” can solve these problems that Chapter 7 can’t.

First, Chapter 13 can buy you much more time. A Chapter 13 payment plan would likely give you much more time to catch up on any missed loan payments. It would also likely give you lots more time to pay for any force-placed insurance.

Second, if you qualify for “cramdown” you would likely pay less on the vehicle loan—possibly much less. Cramdown is an informal term for the Chapter 13 procedure for legally re-writing the loan in situations in which the vehicle is worth less than you owe. With cramdown you could both pay less monthly and pay less overall before the vehicle became yours free and clear. And if you’re behind on loan payments, you would not need to catch up at all on any of those missed payments.

Next week we’ll tell you how Chapter 13 could both buy you time and save you money on your vehicle loan(s).

 

The Surprising Benefits: Chapter 13 Potentially Discharges Divorce Property Settlement Debts

Chapter 13 can write off some or all of the non-support debts included in your divorce. But it comes with some potential disadvantages. 


Last week we explained how Chapter 7 cannot write off non-support divorce debts, but Chapter 13 can. We said if you owe a significant debt created by your divorce decree (for other than child or spousal support) you should talk with a bankruptcy lawyer. Don’t necessarily think that Chapter 13 is your best option with this kind of debt. Chapter 13 has advantages and disadvantages. We get into these now so you can start to see which option is best for you.

Non-Support Divorce Debts

Support debts are not discharged (written off) under either Chapter 7 or 13. Only non-support debts can be discharged under Chapter 13 (and not Chapter 7). So we need a quick, practical reminder what we mean by non-support debts.

We said last week:

Most non-support debts are those obligations in your divorce decree related to the division of property and the division of debts between you and your ex-spouse.

The Division of Property

… often in a divorce one ex-spouse receives less assets than the other. For example, you may receive a vehicle worth much more than your ex-spouse. Or you may get the family home. So you’re required to pay your ex-spouse half of the equity in the home to make up the difference. Whatever specific amount you’re required to pay in these kinds of situations is a non-support divorce debt.

The Division of Debts

Also, for whatever reason your divorce decree may have required you to pay a debt arising from the marriage. This debt may be a jointly-owed one, one that you owe individually, or even one that only your ex-spouse owes. The decree orders that your ex-spouse no longer has to pay that marital debt. You have to pay it by yourself.

… . This obligation by you to your ex-spouse to pay the debt is a non-support divorce debt.

Disadvantages of Chapter 13

The main advantage of Chapter 13 for this kind of debt is that you could avoid paying most or even all of it. Also, Chapter 13 has many other potential advantages over Chapter 7, some of which may well apply to your situation. These are beyond the scope of today’s blog post.

Let’s focus instead on three main potential disadvantages of Chapter 13 for this kind of debt. These are: 1) delay in discharge, 2) risk of no discharge, and 3) likely partial payment of the nonsupport divorce debt.

Delay in Discharge

A Chapter 13 case takes a lot, lot longer than a Chapter 7 one. It takes years instead of months. That is, a Chapter 13 case usually doesn’t finish for 3 full years, and often goes as long as 5 years. Contrast that with a Chapter 7 case, which usually takes less than 4 months from filing date until completion.

And you don’t get a discharge of your debts—including the non-support divorce debt(s)—until the end of the case.  Again, that’s 3 to 5 years.

Usually your ex-spouse can’t do anything to collect on that debt in the meantime. So the delay may not be much of a practical problem. But you’re still living in a sort of limbo in the meantime.

If you have other reasons to be in a Chapter 13 case the delay may well be worthwhile. Or if the amount of you non-support divorce debt is very large that alone may make the delay worthwhile. Just be aware of this downside.

Risk of No Discharge

Almost all Chapter 7 cases, especially those in which the person is represented by a lawyer, get successfully completed. But Chapter 13s are riskier. That’s because they involve a monthly payment plan that you and your lawyer put together, it gets court-approved, and then you pay on it for 3-to-5 years. In the right situations a Chapter 13 case can accomplish much more than Chapter 7. But there are more things that can go wrong.

As we said above, you don’t get the discharge of debts until the end of the case. So you have to get to the end successfully to discharge the non-support divorce debt. There’s a risk that you would not get to the discharge.           

Likely Partial Payment of the Non-Support Divorce Debt

The Chapter 13 payment plan referred to above very seldom results in all debts being paid in full. In fact, in some cases you’d pay certain debts nothing before they get permanently discharged. In the majority of cases a non-support divorce debt would get paid in part, but often only a small percentage.

Non-support debts would be treated like all your other “general unsecured” debts. These are all debts that are not secured by collateral and are not “priority” debts (such as recent income taxes) which must be paid in full. All of your “general unsecured” debts are put together into a single pool of debt. The extent to which you’d pay that pool of debt would be based on a bunch of factors, such as:

  • how much you can afford to pay all your creditors per month throughout the length of the case
  • the length of your Chapter 13 plan, generally 3 years or 5, determined by your income
  • the amount of your priority debts, which you paid in full before the “general unsecured” debts get paid anything
  • how much your plan must pay in administrative expenses—the Chapter 13 trustee fees and the attorney fees you did not pay before your case was filed—all paid before paying any of the “general unsecured” debts

As a result sometimes the “general unsecured debts, including your non-support divorce debts, get paid nothing at all. All of your available money is exhausted elsewhere. (This assumes your local bankruptcy court allows such “0% plans”). On the other hand, in rare cases the “general unsecured” debts get paid in full. This is more common when you have little or no priority debts and the general unsecured debts are relatively small. Most of the time your non-support divorce debts get paid a relatively small portion of the total you owe. It depends on all these factors.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Discharge Divorce Property Settlement Debts

Chapter 13 enables you to discharge—legally write off—some or all of any non-support debts included in your divorce. Chapter 7 does not do this.

                               

“Discharging” a Debt or Legal Obligation

When you successfully complete a consumer bankruptcy, you get a discharge of some or all of your debts. When a debt is discharged the creditor is legally forbidden to take any action “to collect, recover or offset any such debt.” See Section 524 (a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code. The debt has become legally uncollectible. So, one of your main goals in bankruptcy is to discharge all your debts, or as many debts as the law allows.

Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13 Discharge

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” discharges most debts. But there are exceptions.

Some debts you may want to continue paying and don’t want to discharge. One reason may be because you want to keep the collateral securing that debt. So, for example, you might legally agree to continue paying your vehicle loan in order to keep that vehicle.

Certain other debts the law does not allow to be discharged. Examples include child and spousal support, many student loans, and recent income taxes.

The kinds of debts that a Chapter 13 case does not discharge are mostly the same kinds as under Chapter 7.  These include the kinds mentioned above. You can voluntarily pay a vehicle loan under a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case. (Plus you may well get some extra advantages).  And Chapter 13 does not discharge child and spousal support, many student loans, and recent income taxes. (Again, you may well get some major advantages under Chapter 13 in dealing with these special debts.)

However, there IS a significant kind of debt which Chapter 7 does not discharge but Chapter 13 does. These are non-support divorce debts. As a result you should consider Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7 if you have this kind of debt. This is especially true if you owe a significant amount of non-support divorce debt. Chapter 13 would likely enable you to pay little or even none of your non-support divorce debts. If you either didn’t file bankruptcy or filed under Chapter 7 you’d be required to pay them in full.

What Are Non-Support Divorce Debts?

What we’re calling divorce debts are those financial legal obligations that arose out of your marital divorce. These can also come through separation decrees and other family court proceedings.

Non-support divorce debts are simply divorce debts not involving the payment of spousal or child support.

Most non-support debts are those obligations in your divorce decree related to the division of property and the division of debts between you and your ex-spouse.

The Division of Property

Your divorce decree may divide the marital assets in a very straightforward way. At the end of the divorce both of you could be in possession of what you’ve been awarded—all done.

But often in a divorce one ex-spouse receives less assets than the other. For example, you may receive a vehicle worth much more than your ex-spouse. Or you may get the family home. So you’re required to pay your ex-spouse half of the equity in the home to make up the difference. Whatever specific amount you’re required to pay in these kinds of situations is a non-support marital debt.

The Division of Debts

Also, for whatever reason your divorce decree may have required you to pay a debt arising from the marriage. This debt may be a jointly-owed one, one that you owe individually, or even one that only your ex-spouse owes. The decree orders that your ex-spouse no longer has to pay that marital debt. You have to pay it by yourself.

This provision in the decree creates a new and separate obligation by you to your ex-spouse to pay that debt. This is over and beyond whatever obligation you may have had (or not had) already directly to the creditor.

This obligation to your ex-spouse to pay the debt is a non-support marital debt.

Discharged Only Under Chapter 13

Chapter 7 case simply does not discharge these non-support debts.

You’d continue to owe any obligation to pay your ex-spouse money for division of marital property. You would continue to owe any obligation stated in the divorce decree to pay a marital debt. This would be true even if you could discharge the debt to the direct creditor.

However, both division-of-property and division-of-debts obligations to your ex-spouse (and any other non-support divorce debts) could be discharged in a Chapter 13 case. So, again, if you owe non-support divorce debts you should look into Chapter 13 with your bankruptcy lawyer.

But Chapter 13 isn’t necessarily your best option if you have a non-support divorce debt. Chapter 13 has disadvantages, both of itself and in how it treats non-support obligations in particular. We’ll get into these next week. Then you’ll begin to see whether Chapter 13 really is the better solution for you.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Chapter 13 Handles an Income Tax Lien on a Tax that Can’t Be Discharged

Chapter 13 can be the best way to deal with a nondischargeable tax debt with a recorded lien: it buys more time, protection, and flexibility.

Last week we discussed how Chapter 7 handles a recorded tax lien on a tax that bankruptcy CAN’T discharge. The tax debt already can’t be discharged (legally written off in bankruptcy). So you can’t get out of paying it. The prior recording of a tax lien just adds another reason you have to pay the tax. If you fail to pay the IRS/state can take your assets that are subject to the recorded tax lien.

Filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case can be a better way to handle such a tax debt than a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” one.

Buys Time  

Whether you file under Chapter 13 or Chapter 7 does not affect whether you must pay this tax. But filing a Chapter 13 case can often buy you more time.

After completing a Chapter 7 case you must pay the not-dischargeable tax as fast as the IRS/state demands. Otherwise all the powerful tax collection tools can be used against you. With a recorded tax lien already on your real and/or personal property, the IRS/state has even more leverage against you.

What if you can’t pay the tax as fast as demanded? Among other things the IRS/state could garnish your wages and/or bank accounts, and seize your property.

Chapter 13 could prevent all of that because you’d be given as much as 5 years to pay the tax. You and your bankruptcy lawyer would incorporate that tax debt into your Chapter 13 payment plan. You’d pay the IRS/state along with any other special debts that you must pay. Often, you’d pay only a small portion of your remaining debts. Sometimes you’d pay nothing on such debts. As a result you can focus your financial energies for 5 years on your tax debt.

Buys Protection

During that 5 years (which can be as short as 3 years), your paycheck, your checking/savings and other financial accounts, and your property are protected. Bankruptcy’s valuable “automatic stay” protection from collection lasts only 3-4 months in a Chapter 7 case. But this protection lasts the full 3-to-5 years of your Chapter 13 case. The peace of mind that comes from this extended protection is often invaluable.

Buys Flexibility

Sometimes what you need more than time is flexibility in how you pay a tax debt.

You may have some other even higher-priority debt that your financial future depends on. If you’re behind on a vehicle loan you may need to catch up so you’ll have transportation to your job. Or, if you’re late on child support catching up may be crucial to avoiding wage garnishment. Chapter 13 can let you pay some debts ahead of taxes, even nondischargeable taxes with a recorded tax lien.

Or if you can’t pay the taxes until some event in the future, Chapter 13 can buy you that flexibility. The event can even be a few years into the future. For example, if you plan on selling your house and moving away in two years, say, after a child graduates from high school, you may well be able to delay paying all or most of the tax debt until that house sale.

Conclusion

Chapter 13 can be a much better way to deal with a nondischargeable tax debt with a recorded lien. It often gives you more time to pay it, protects you many times longer than Chapter 7, and gives you flexibility that could be crucial in your unique circumstances.

 

The Surprising Benefits: An Income Tax Lien on a Tax that Can’t Be Discharged

A recorded tax lien on a tax that already doesn’t qualify to be discharged makes you all the more want to pay that tax. Chapter 7 might help. 

 

We’ve been talking about the effect of a tax lien on an income tax that bankruptcy CAN discharge. A tax lien can turn that tax from one you don’t have to pay into one you have to pay in full. That’s because a tax lien recording turns an unsecured debt that bankruptcy can write off into a secured one. The tax becomes secured by your real estate, or your personal property, or both. So, if you want to keep what you own, you must pay the tax.

But what about a tax lien on a tax that bankruptcy CAN’T discharge? The tax already doesn’t qualify for being written off. What difference does the recording of a tax lien make on such a tax? And how can bankruptcy help in these situations?

A Tax Lien on a Non-Dischargeable Tax

It’s likely somewhat less common for a tax lien to be recorded on a nondischargeable tax. Broadly speaking, an income tax does not qualify for discharge because it’s not old enough. Often, by the time the IRS/state records a tax lien, the tax at issues has meet the conditions for discharge.

But that certainly isn’t always true. There are many circumstances when a tax has not qualified for bankruptcy discharge and the IRS/state records a tax lien. The taxing authority may be relatively quick on recording a tax lien because of the amount at issue. Or a prior history of unpaid taxes could encourage the same reaction. Also, if you owe more than one year of taxes, a tax lien would often apply to all taxes owed. Some of those taxes may be old enough to qualify for discharge while others may not.

So what’s the practical effect of a tax lien recording on a tax that already doesn’t qualify for discharge? The effect is much less than it would be on a dischargeable tax—making you pay a tax you could have avoided paying. In both situations the tax lien turns an unsecured tax into a secured one. With a nondischargeable tax this simply means that you have one more reason to pay a tax which you already had to pay after a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Besides their usual collection tools, the IRS/state can now take your assets if you don’t pay.

Chapter 7’s Effect

Filing Chapter 7 only makes sense when you have a recorded tax lien secured by assets you own and want to keep (worth at least  the amount of the tax) if you are prepared to pay the tax. That’s true if the tax at issue is dischargeable or not dischargeable. With a nondischargeable tax that’s all the more true—the lien just gives you more reason to pay the tax. It gives you more reason to pay it more quickly.

There are concrete ways that a recorded tax lien gives the IRS/state that much more leverage to make you pay. The lien increases the ways the IRS/state can directly hurt you, through the seizure of your assets. In the case of a tax lien on a home, it can prevent you from refinancing your mortgage. It could even jeopardize the sale of a home. The lien is also a black mark on your credit record.

You don’t have to be prepared to pay it in full. But you need to have the cash flow—after discharging your other debts—to make appropriate monthly payments. Or, in special circumstances, you need to have strong confidence that you can successfully reduce or eliminate the tax through an offer in compromise.

What If You Can’t Pay, or Not Fast Enough?

Chapter 13 is a better option if you can’t pay the tax at issue fast enough to satisfy the IRS/state. We’ll tell you about this next week.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Chapter 13 AFTER the Recording of an Income Tax Lien

Chapter 13 protects you from a recorded tax lien in crucial ways, and can reduce how much you pay on the underlying dischargeable tax debt. 

 

Last week’s blog post was about dealing with a recorded tax lien by filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case.  Usually the IRS’ or state’s recording of a tax lien against you effectively requires you to pay the underlying tax. That’s true even if that tax otherwise qualifies for total discharge—legal write-off in bankruptcy. That’s because a recorded tax lien converts that tax debt from being unsecured to being fully secured by your property and possessions. You pay the tax—sooner or later—to avoid losing what you own.

When Chapter 7 Might Help

Last week we outlined some circumstances in which Chapter 7 might satisfactorily deal with a recorded tax lien. Those circumstances were when the tax lien either failed to apply to any assets you own or the assets were worth much less than the tax debt at issue. For example, the IRS/state may record a lien on your home which in the process of getting foreclosed. If you’re letting the house go then that tax lien has no leverage over you. Your Chapter 7 case would discharge the income tax debt and the subsequent home foreclosure would undo the tax lien.

But these situations are quite rare. Usually a recorded tax lien (or more than one) covers everything you own. Usually the value of your assets encumbered by the lien(s) well exceeds the amount of the tax at issue. Or even if your assets’ value is less than the tax(es) owed, you don’t want to lose those assets. So you have no choice but to pay the tax owed. That’s true even if that tax otherwise qualified to be fully discharged.

However, if filing a Chapter 7 case takes care of all your other debts, maybe that’s okay. It would have been better to file before the tax lien’s recording so you could have just discharged the tax. But if it’s too late for that, clearing the deck of all or most of your other debts so you can concentrate on the tax debt afterwards may be your best option.

When Chapter 13 Could Be Much Better

The last paragraph assumes you could afford to pay the tax covered by the tax lien. But what if after finishing your Chapter 7 case you still didn’t have enough money each month? The protection from creditor collections (the “automatic stay”) you get from filing bankruptcy disappears when the case is over. That’s only about 3-4 months after your bankruptcy lawyer files your Chapter 7 case. With the tax lien putting your assets at risk you’d have tremendous pressure on you to pay the tax. So if you couldn’t afford to pay as fast as the IRS/state would demand you’d have a serious problem.

Filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case could significantly help.

First, the automatic stay protection against the IRS/state usually lasts the 3 to 5 years that a Chapter 13 case takes to complete. That alone greatly reduces the constant tension of being at the mercy of the tax authorities. During the Chapter 13 case your assets that are encumbered by the lien are protected from seizure. And your income and other assets are protected from any other tax collection efforts.

Second, you usually have much more flexibility in your payoff of the underlying tax. You have much more control over the amount and timing of payments on the tax debt. Your monthly Chapter 13 plan payments are based on your realistic budget. In earmarking where the money from those payments goes you can often pay other even more urgent debts (such as catching up on a home mortgage or child suport) ahead of the tax debt. You can sometimes delay paying the tax until some future event, like the sale of your home or other asset.

When Chapter 13 Is Even Better

When the assets covered by the tax lien have no present value, Chapter 13 is particularly powerful.

Consider a tax lien on a home with no present equity beyond the prior liens. After a Chapter 7 case the IRS/state could just sit on that recorded tax lien until you built up equity in the home. You’d pay down the obligations and the property would rise in value until there was equity to cover the tax lien. The IRS/state would have huge leverage over you. But under Chapter 13 the bankruptcy judge would declare that there’s no present equity secured by the tax lien. The tax would effectively be unsecured—as if there was no tax lien. You’d lump that tax debt in with your general unsecured creditors. You would likely pay only a small portion of that tax debt. Often you would actually pay no more into your Chapter 13 payment plan as a result of that tax.

For example, assume you owed $10,000 in dischargeable income tax.  The IRS recently recorded a tax lien on your home for that tax. Your home is worth $250,000, has $5,000 in property taxes, $210,000 on a first mortgage and $40,000 on a second mortgage. Owing $255,000 you have no equity in the home. But as you pay down the property taxes and the mortgage, and assuming the property value increases, there’d soon be equity securing the tax lien. But Chapter 13 allows you to freeze the present equity situation. The tax lien presently does not cover any equity in your home, the tax debt is thus unsecured, and would be treated just like the rest of your unsecured debt. Adding the tax debt to your other unsecured debt would usually result in you paying no more than you would have otherwise.