Filing Chapter 13 in 2019 to Write Off More Income Taxes

Chapter 13 is a riskier, longer, and maybe more expensive way to escape a dischargeable income tax debt—but may still be your best option. 


Last week we showed how to permanently write off (“discharge”) more of your tax debts through Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” Today we show how to do this with Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

Why Use Chapter 13 If Chapter 7 is Faster and Cleaner?

Chapter 7 is a very fast way to discharge an income tax debt that qualifies for discharge. You would very likely no longer owe the tax only about 4 months after filing a Chapter 7 case.

But Chapter 13 case could be much better for you than Chapter 7 for other reasons. Those other reasons may outweigh the benefit of discharging your dischargeable tax debt quickly.

You may owe some other income tax debt(s) which do not meet the conditions for discharge. These other taxes that may be too large to pay off reasonably through a monthly payment plan with the IRS/state.  The other taxes may not qualify for an Offer in Compromise or other settlement. You may well save money and avoid significant risks by handling all of your taxes in a Chapter 13 case.

There are also many other reasons that Chapter 13 would be worthwhile for you, reasons not involving income taxes. It may save your home from foreclosure or your vehicle(s) from repossession. Chapter 13 can deal with a child or spousal support arrearage much better than Chapter 7. There are many other situations where Chapter 13 gives you extraordinary and unique powers. So it can be worthwhile overall in spite of its disadvantages in dealing with a dischargeable tax debt.

How Does Chapter 13 Deal with Dischargeable Income Taxes?

Determining whether a particular income tax debt can be discharged in Chapter 13 is the same as in Chapter 7. Please see our last blog post for the conditions of discharge. These conditions mostly involve how long it’s been since the tax return for the tax at issue was due and when the return was actually submitted to the IRS/state. Sometimes there are other pertinent conditions, but usually it’s just a matter of timing.

Because of how the timing works, there are certain points of time in 2019 when a tax that hadn’t earlier qualified for discharge would then qualify. Again, see our last blog post about those crucial times happening this year.

If your tax does meet the conditions for discharge, it can get discharged in your Chapter 13 case. But this works quite differently than under Chapter 7.

One key difference is that under Chapter 13 there’s a good chance that you would pay something on your dischargeable tax debt.

Under Chapter 13 dischargeable income tax debts is treated like the rest of your “general unsecured” debts. Under your payment plan all such debts get paid the same percentage of their total amounts. That percentage may be any amount from 0% to 100% of their amount, depending on your budget and other factors.

Consider two situations: First, if you have a “0% plan” then you’d pay nothing on the dischargeable tax just like in a straightforward Chapter 7 case. Second, even if you do pay some percentage, often that actually doesn’t increase the amount you pay into your payment. We’ll explain these two situations.

A 0% Payment Plan

In some Chapter 13 cases all the money that the debtor can afford to pay goes to special creditors. All the money going into the Chapter 13 payment plan goes either to secured or to “priority” debts. These would include home mortgages, vehicle loans, nondischargeable taxes, child and spousal support, and such. These usually have to be paid in full before the “general unsecured” debts receive anything.  So during the 3-to-5-year payment plan no money goes to the dischargeable income taxes. That’s a 0% Chapter 13 plan.

Assuming the bankruptcy approves the plan, and you successfully complete it, at its conclusion the dischargeable taxes get discharged, without you having to pay any of it.

Payment Plans Which Do Not Increase the Amount You Pay

In many Chapter 13 plans the amount available for the pool of the “general unsecured” debts is a fixed amount. That amount is based on what you can afford to pay over the required length of the plan. (That required length is usually 3 or 5 years.) That fixed amount does not change regardless how much in “general unsecured” debts you owe. The amount just gets distributed to all those debts pro rata. The more you owe in “general unsecured” debts the lower the percent of the debts that fixed amount can pay.

For example, assume you can afford to pay the pool of “general unsecured” debts a total of $2,000 during the course of the payment plan. All the rest of the money you pay into the plan is earmarked for secured and “priority” debts. Assume also that you have $20,000 in unsecured credit card and medical debts and $5,000 of dischargeable income tax. Without the income tax, the $2,000 would be paid towards the $20,000 in “general unsecured” debts, resulting in a 10% plan. ($2,000 is 10% of $20,000.) Now when you add in the $5,000 tax, there’s a total of $25,000 of “general unsecured” debt. $2,000 is 8% of $25,000, resulting in an 8% plan.

You would be paying no more—the fixed amount of $2,000—over the length of your plan. The fact that you owe the $5,000 in dischargeable tax would not increase the amount you would pay. Then at the successful completion of the case all remaining “general unsecured” debts, including whatever was remaining on the dischargeable tax, would be forever discharged.

Conclusion

So you see that Chapter 13 is a slower and somewhat riskier way to discharge an income tax debt. Plus you may have to pay a portion of the tax instead of quickly discharging all of it under Chapter 7. But then again you may not have to pay anything on it, as described above. In any event, the delay and risks may well be worthwhile. Your bankruptcy lawyer will help you weigh all the advantages and disadvantages so that you can make the right choice.

 

Filing Bankruptcy in 2019 to Write Off More Income Taxes

With smart timing you can discharge—legally and permanently write off—more income tax debts, even with a standard Chapter 7 case. 

 

The right timing of the filing of a bankruptcy case can make a tremendous difference. Our last 8 blog posts have all been about smart timing. If you need to use the bankruptcy laws to get relief from your creditors, it’s only sensible to get as much relief as the laws can give you by timing it right.

The discharge of income tax debts is particularly timing sensitive.

How Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Conquer Income Tax Debts

Filing bankruptcy with smart timing in 2019 conquers your income tax debts in two main ways:

  • Discharge (legally write off) more of your tax debts (likely for the 2015 tax year). This applies to both Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”
  • Include any taxes owed for the 2018 tax year in your Chapter 13 payment plan. This gives you huge advantages.

Today we’ll show the first part—how to discharge more income taxes in 2019 with a Chapter 7 case. We’ll cover the Chapter 13 aspects in the next two weeks.

Is Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy” Good Enough?

You may be surprised that income tax debts can be discharged under Chapter 7 just like most other debts. They are discharged just as completely as a medical bill or credit card balance. You just need to time it right. You do also need to meet some other conditions. But much of the time those other conditions are met rather easily.

What’s the easiest way to deal with a tax debt?  You may have heard that the more complicated Chapter 13 is better if you owe income taxes. That’s often true, especially if you owe for multiple years and/or for more recent tax years.

However, under the following circumstances Chapter 7 is likely better:

  • All of the income taxes you owe qualify for discharge
  • Some but not all of your income taxes qualify for discharge, but you can handle the rest either through:

The main advantage with Chapter 7 is speed. An income tax that qualifies will be forever discharged. This will usually happen about 4 months after you file your Chapter 7 case. Your whole case will, in most situations, be fully completed at that point. You can get on with your life. In contrast, a Chapter 13 case usually takes at least 3 years and can stretch as long as 5.

Discharge More Income Tax under Chapter 7

There are two main timing conditions for discharging income taxes through Chapter 7. The day that your bankruptcy lawyer files the case must be both:

1) at least 3 years past when the applicable tax return was due, adding any time for extensions to submit the return (Section 507(a)(8)(A)(i) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

2) at least 2 years past when the tax return was actually submitted to the IRS or state tax agency (Section 523(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code.)

Again, there are other conditions. Some involve timing, such as additional time added if you’ve made an offer in compromise on that tax, or filed a prior bankruptcy. (Section 507(a)(8)(A)(ii).) The other main condition is if you “made a fraudulent return or willfully attempted in any manner to evade or defeat such tax.” (Section 523(a)(1)(C).) A recorded tax lien on the tax would add some additional complications. But these additional conditions often don’t apply. If you ARE concerned that any might apply to you, tell your lawyer early in your first meeting.

Applied to Income Tax Owed for 2015

Let’s apply this to a tax debt for the 2015 tax year.

If you owe income taxes for 2015, when would you meet the first of the two main timing conditions? The 2015 tax return was due April 15, 2016. So you need to file your Chapter 7 case 3 years after that, after April 15, 2019. So then the required 3 years will have passed since that tax return was due.

This assumes you didn’t get a tax return filing extension. What happens if you did? That year the standard extension to October 15, 2016 fell on a Saturday. So the extended deadline would have actually been Monday, October 17, 2016. (As you can see, these kinds of minor-seeming details can be crucial.)  So if you got this extension you’d have to file your Chapter 7 case after October 17, 2019.

How about the second of the above two conditions? When did you submit your 2015 tax return(s) to the IRS/state? You have to make sure at least 2 years have passed since you’d submitted it/them. If submitted by either the regular due date of April 15, 2016 or the extended date of October 17, 2016, then you’ve already met this 2-year condition (as of the writing of this blog post). If you submitted the return(s) any later, you have to make sure that you meet this 2-year condition.

An Example

Assume that you:

  • owed $7,000 to the IRS for 2015 income taxes
  • submitted that tax return to the IRS on or before April 15, 2016 without an extension
  • did not pursue an Offer in Compromise or file an interim bankruptcy case, or if you did the resulting additional time has passed
  • the tax return was not fraudulent and you didn’t “willfully attempt” “to evade or defeat” the tax

If you now file a Chapter 7 case after April 15, 2019, this $7,000 tax debt would almost certainly be completely discharged within 4 months of filing. If you file before then this tax debt would not be discharged. See a competent bankruptcy lawyer as soon as possible to determine what’s best for you regardless.

 

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

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

 

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

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

Filing a Chapter 13 Case in January vs. February 2019

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

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

Financial Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit Record Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

 “Three-Year Plans” that Last Longer

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Our Facts about “Income”

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

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

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

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

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

Our Facts about “Median Family Income”

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

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

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

Filing a Chapter 13 Case in January 2019

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

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

Filing a Chapter 13 Case after January 2019

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

But What If You Need a Chapter 13 Case?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Shorter Chapter 13 Payment Plan

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

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

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

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

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

Income is calculated as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

What’s My Applicable “Median income”?

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

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

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

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

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

 

An Example of a “Preference”

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

 

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

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

Our Holiday Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding this Unhappy Result

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.