Pass the Means Test by Filing Bankruptcy in 2018

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

 

Timing Can Be SO Important

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

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

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

Timing and Income in the Means Test

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

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

The Means Test Definition of Income

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

1) Consider almost all sources of money coming to you in just about any form as income. Included, for example, are disability, workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits; pension, retirement, and annuity payments received; regular contributions for household expenses by anybody, including a spouse or ex-spouse; rental or other business income; interest, dividends, and royalties. Pretty much the only money excluded are those received under the Social Security Act, including retirement, disability (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

2) The period of time that counts for the means test is exactly the 6 full calendar months before your bankruptcy filing date. Included as income is ONLY the money you receive during those specific months. This excludes money received before that 6-month block of time. It also excludes any money received during the calendar month that you file your Chapter 7 case. To clarify this, if you filed a Chapter 7 case this December 15th, your income for the means test would include all money received from exactly June 1 through November 30 of this year. It would exclude money received before June 1 or received from December 1 through the date of filing.

The Effect of this Unusual Definition of Income

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

The Surprising Benefits: Keeping Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 13

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


Lease Assumption under Chapter 7

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

Problems under Chapter 7

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

The Solution under Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

Limited Benefit on Leased Vehicles with Chapter 13

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

The Surprising Benefits: Keeping Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 7

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

 

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

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

“Assuming” Vehicle Lease

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

The “Statement of Intention”

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

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

Consequences of Assuming the Lease

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

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

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

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

When Chapter 13 Helps You Keep Your Leased Vehicle

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

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

 

The Surprising Benefits: Ending Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 13

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

 

Ending a Vehicle Lease in Chapter 7

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

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

Ending a Vehicle Lease in Chapter 13

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

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

Possible Debts from Surrendering a Leased Vehicle

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

Rejecting the Lease under Chapter 13

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

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

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

The Category of “General Unsecured” Debts in Chapter 13

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

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

Often Vehicle Lease Debt Does Not Increase What You Pay

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Surprising Benefits: Rejecting Your Vehicle Lease under Chapter 7

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

 

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

The Option of “Rejecting” the Lease

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

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

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

Giving Notice of Lease Rejection

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

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

Timing of the Statement of Intention

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

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

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

The Lessor’s Reactions

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

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

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

 

The Surprising Benefits: Escape from Your Vehicle Lease in Bankruptcy

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

 

The Temptation of a Vehicle Lease

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

The Hidden Economic Costs

But there are hidden costs.

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

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

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

The Hidden Economic Risks

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

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

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

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

Discharging Lease Debts through Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

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

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

Discharge Early Termination or End-of-Lease Charges

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

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

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

 

The Surprising Benefits: An Example of Vehicle Loan Cramdown

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

 

Cramdown in Chapter 13

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

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

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

The Facts in Our Example

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

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

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

Under Chapter 7 “Straight Bankruptcy”

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

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

Savings through Cramdown

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

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

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

What about the Unsecured Part of the Vehicle Loan?

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

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

0% Chapter 13 Plans

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

Partial Payment Chapter 13 Plans

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

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

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

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

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

Qualifying for Cramdown

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

 

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.