Your Debts in Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is about debts. Different categories of debts are treated differently. The categories are secured, priority and general unsecured 


Your debts are the reason you are reading this. You want to know how bankruptcy would deal with your debts.

  • Will bankruptcy write off all your debts?
  • Can you keep paying some of your debts like a vehicle loan or home mortgage to keep that vehicle or home?
  • What happens to special debts that you can’t write off like child support and some income taxes?

To answer these and other similar questions we start by getting to know the 3 legally different categories of debts: 

  • secured
  • priority
  • general unsecured

Your rights and obligations, and those of the creditor, are different with each category of debt.

Secured Debts

Each of your debts is either secured by something you own or it is not. A secured debt is backed up by a lien, a legal interest of the creditor in some kind of property of yours. See Section 101(37) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Usually you know whether a debt is secured. For example, in a vehicle loan the vehicle’s title states that your lender is the lienholder. That lien on the title makes the loan secured by the vehicle. That, together with the security agreement you signed, gives the lender certain rights over your vehicle.

Sometimes you don’t know whether a debt is secured. For example, most purchases on major credit cards create a debt that is not secured by whatever you purchased. But some card purchases—such as on some retail store affiliated cards—do create a secured debt. The paperwork that came with your card (which you’ve likely thrown away!) should tell you. Your bankruptcy lawyer will also likely know, or can find out.

Occasionally, a creditor wanted the debt to be secured but it isn’t because the creditor messed up. It didn’t take the legal steps required to make that happen. This could mean that you don’t have to pay the underlying debt and still get to keep the property at issue.

A debt could also be only partially secured. If you owe $10,000 on a vehicle worth only $6,000, the debt is partially secured. It’s secured as to the $6,000 value of the vehicle and unsecured as to the remaining $4,000 of the debt. (See Section 506 of the Bankruptcy Code.) In the right circumstances you would not need to pay the full $10,000 debt and could still keep the vehicle.

Priority Debts

The law has selected some debts to be treated better than others, each for certain specific reasons. For example, child support payments are given many advantages, both inside and outside bankruptcy, because legislatures have decided that paying child support is an extremely high societal priority.

Priority debts are themselves prioritized within their different types. The higher-priority priority debts are treated better than the lower-priority one. Here’s a list of the most common priority debts for consumers or small business owners in order of priority:

  • child and spousal support
  • certain wages and other compensation owed to a debtor’s employees
  • certain (usually more recent) income taxes, and some other kinds of taxes

Priority debts are important in bankruptcy for a practical reason. Often only certain debts get paid, or get paid more than other debts. So a priority debt may get paid in full while other debts get paid little or nothing. We’ll explore how this works in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 in our upcoming blog posts.

General Unsecured Debts

All debts that are not secured are unsecured debts.  “General” unsecured debts are just unsecured debts that are also not priority debts. So if a debt is not secured and does not fit any of the priority debt types, it’s general unsecured.  

Most people considering bankruptcy have mostly (and sometimes only) general unsecured debts. These include every possible way you can owe a debt. Examples include: most credit cards, just about all medical debts, personal loans without collateral, NSF checks, payday loans without collateral, unpaid rent and utilities, older income taxes, repossessed vehicle balances, most student loans, and other contract or legal claims against you.

Previously secured debts sometimes become general unsecured ones. One example: after a vehicle gets repossessed and sold, any remaining debt is a general unsecured one. Also, previously unsecured debts sometimes get secured. A general unsecured credit card balance can become secured by your home if the creditor sues you, gets a judgment, and records a judgment lien against your home.

 

Starting next week we’ll show how these different categories of debts are treated in bankruptcy.