The Surprising Benefits: Reinstating a Driver’s License

Bankruptcy does more than stop creditors in their tracks and then write off their debts. It can get a suspended driver’s license reinstated.  

 

We’re continuing in this series of blog posts about the powerful but less obvious benefits of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy gives you immediate and long-term relief from your debts. But it can do other very important things you may not know about. Today we get into how bankruptcy can get a suspended driver’s license reinstated.

Reasons for Driver’s License Suspension

Whether your filing of a bankruptcy case can reinstate your suspended driver’s license depends on the reason for the suspension. Two of the most common kinds are suspensions are from:

1) not paying a judgment from a motor vehicle accident while driving uninsured; and

2) failing to pay traffic tickets.

This blog post focuses reinstating your license from the first one of these kinds of suspension. We’ll get to the second one next.

Judgment from a Vehicle Accident While Driving Uninsured

Let’s make clear how your license can get suspended in this situation. A person gets into a car accident while driving uninsured. The accident results in some property damage and/or personal injury for the other driver(s) or for passengers. The other driver or somebody else involved sues the person (usually through their insurance company). The person sued then gets a judgment against him or her from that lawsuit. That judgment legally establishes that the uninsured driver owes damages arising out of the accident. The judgment determines that the driver was at least partially at fault and must pay those damages.

If such a judgment was taken against you, your state’s laws likely gave you a very limited amount of time to pay that judgment. So what happens if you don’t pay it off within that time?

You guessed it:  your driver’s license gets suspended. The idea is that you failed to fulfill your financial responsibilities as a driver. You legally owe a debt from an accident that you were at least partially at fault for. And it’s a debt that you didn’t pay, probably because you didn’t have insurance.

Bankruptcy Wipes Out the Debt, No More Reason for the Suspension

The good news is that by filing bankruptcy you can discharge (legally write off) that debt. As soon as you no longer owe that debt, the reason that your license got suspended is gone. So the license can be reinstated.

State vs. Federal Laws

But wait a minute. Doesn’t your state have the right to make laws about this and have them be respected by federal bankruptcy laws?

Yes, the state has a legitimate interest in keeping its roads safe. It can help do that by requiring drivers to have liability insurance. That way, vehicle accident victims are more likely to be compensated for their property damages and personal injuries. So states can use license suspensions as part of its incentive for drivers to have insurance.

But what if a state’s law specifically says that it can suspend a person’s driver’s license even if the person has discharged that debt in bankruptcy? Doesn’t that conflict with federal bankruptcy law’s granting of a full discharge of that debt? Discharging a debt is of limited benefit if you still can’t get your license back for not paying the debt.

The Supreme Court Has Resolved this in Favor of Debtors

This particular conflict between state and federal law is one that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed and resolved decades ago.  In Perez v. Campbell the Court laid out the issue in one long sentence:  

What is at issue here is the power of a State to include as part of this comprehensive enactment designed to secure compensation for automobile accident victims a section providing that a discharge in bankruptcy of the automobile accident tort judgment shall have no effect on the judgment debtor’s obligation to repay the judgment creditor, at least insofar as such repayment may be enforced by the withholding of driving privileges by the State.

402 U.S. 637, 643 (1971). In other words, can a state require a person to pay a debt from a vehicle accident in order to reinstate the person’s driver’s license, even after that debt was discharged in bankruptcy?

The Court decided this in favor of the debtors. A state cannot require payment of a bankruptcy discharged debt to reinstate a license. The state statute was in conflict with one of the main purposes of bankruptcy: to give debtors “a new opportunity in life and a clear field for future effort, unhampered by the pressure and discouragement of pre-existing debt” [quoting an earlier Supreme Court opinion]. The Court concluded: “There can be no doubt… that Congress intended this ‘new opportunity’ to include freedom from most kinds of pre-existing tort judgments.” (402 U.S. 637, 648.) “We think it clear that [the state statute] is constitutionally invalid.” (At 656.)

Conclusion

If your driver’s license was, or is about to be, suspended because of an unpaid debt arising from an uninsured motor vehicle accident, see a bankruptcy lawyer. There’s a good chance you can reinstate your license—or prevent it from being suspended—through bankruptcy.  

 

The Surprising Benefits: Removing a Judgment Lien on Your Home

Bankruptcy usually does not get rid of liens against your assets. However, in many situations you can “avoid” a judgment lien on your home. 


We’re on a series of blog posts about the powerful but less obvious benefits of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy can do much more than just give you immediate and long-term relief from your debts. Today we get into the extremely helpful way bankruptcy can take judgment liens off the title to your home.

The Problem Begging for a Solution

When a creditor sues you, most often it gets a judgment against you. If you do not respond to the lawsuit, the creditor gets a default judgment. That’s a court determination that you owe the debt. The judgment also usually includes substantial fees related to the lawsuit that you then also legally owe.

Even if you do respond, formally or informally, to the lawsuit and work out some kind of deal with the creditor, that deal often includes the creditor getting a judgment against you.

Either way, the creditor’s judgment against you usually results in a judgment lien against your home. That’s often true whether you owned a home at that time or not. For example, if you bought a home years later, a previously entered judgment lien could attach to it. Or if you are buying a home on a contract with the seller, including a rent-to-own, the judgment could attach to your right to the home. Sometimes a new or old judgment lien could even attach to your rights under a residential lease.

Any such judgment lien is separate from the debt you owe to that creditor. Bankruptcy can usually write off (“discharge”) debts but not liens. For example, if you are making payments on a vehicle, bankruptcy can discharge the debt but does not affect the lien that the creditor has on the vehicle. So unless you surrender the vehicle, you have to pay for the right to keep the vehicle. Similarly, bankruptcy may write off the debt that resulted in the judgment, but that could still leave the judgment lien on your home. This is a significant problem because you would likely have to pay to get rid of the lien when you sell or refinance the home.

Judgment Lien “Avoidance”

However, bankruptcy law does have a solution that works in many situations. As long as you meet certain conditions, you can “avoid”—undo—a judgment lien as part of your bankruptcy case. You may well be able to meet these conditions.

The Conditions for Judgment Liens “Avoidance”

You can take a judgment lien off your home by meeting the following conditions:

  • The judgment lien at issue is attached is your “homestead.” That’s the real estate or other property right that the homestead exemption protects for you under the law.
  • That lien must be a “judicial lien.” That’s defined in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code as “a lien obtained by judgment, levy, sequestration, or other legal or equitable process or proceeding.”
  • This “judicial lien” cannot be for child or spousal support or for a mortgage foreclosure.
  • The judgment lien must “impair” the homestead exemption. This usually means that the lien cuts into the equity protected by the applicable homestead exemption.  

See Section 522(f)(1)(A) of the  Bankruptcy Code.

Example

Assume the following:

  • You were previously sued by a collection agency on a medical debt for $15,000. You didn’t respond because you knew you owed the debt. So the collection agency got a judgment of $15,000 plus another $2,500 for costs and fees, totaling $17,500. Then a judgment lien in that amount was recorded against your home.
  • You file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case. It will discharge—forever write off-the $17,500 debt. But without lien avoidance the judgment lien would survive.
  • You owe a $200,000 mortgage on your home, which is worth $210,000. So you have equity of $10,000. The judgment lien attaches to that $10,000 of equity.
  • In your state you have a $25,000 homestead exemption—protecting the first $25,000 of equity in your home. Since you have less equity than that, the full $10,000 of your equity is protected by your homestead exemption.

The judgment lien “impairs” (or absorbs) the full $10,000 of equity in your home. This equity is all protected by the applicable homestead exemption. Therefore, the judgment lien impairs the homestead exemption.

Because all of the conditions are met in this example, your bankruptcy lawyer could successfully file a motion to “avoid” the judgment lien. You’d permanently be rid of both the $17,500 debt and the judgment lien on your home.

The Surprising Benefits: Resolving the “Preference” Problem through Chapter 13

Avoid the risks or persuading or negotiating with the Chapter 7 trustee by solving your preference problem through Chapter 13. 

 

Our last several blog posts have been about the problem of preference payments:

  • 3 weeks ago we introduced the problem resulting from paying a favored creditor before you file bankruptcy
  • 2 weeks ago we discussed avoiding the problem by delaying filing your case or persuading the trustee to do nothing
  • Last week was about negotiating with the trustee to pay off the preference money yourself

Today we get into how to solve this problem by filing a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case instead of a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” one.

When Filing a Chapter 13 Case May Be Worthwhile

A Chapter 13 case is very, very different from a Chapter 7 one. For starters, instead of taking about 4 months a Chapter 13 case almost always takes 3 to 5 YEARS.  Using it to resolve a preference is almost never a good enough reason to file a Chapter 13 case.

But Chapter 13 CAN be better than Chapter 7 in many situations. It can accomplish a lot that Chapter 7 can’t. So if you already have a good reason or two to consider a Chapter 13 case, using it to solve a preference problem as well may push you in that direction.

Let’s say you have an expensive vehicle loan that you’re a month behind on. Chapter 13 would allow you to cramdown that loan. That would reduce your monthly payments and the total you would pay. Plus you wouldn’t have to catch up on the missed payment. Yet you’re on the fence as you wonder if the disadvantages of Chapter 13 outweigh these savings. So if you have a preference problem that Chapter 13 would deal with, that could push you into deciding on Chapter 13.

When You Really Need to Use Chapter 13

The Chapter 7 solutions don’t always work:

  • You often don’t have the luxury of delaying your bankruptcy filing enough so that more than 90 days has passed after the preferential payment. (Or a full year has passed, if the payment was to an “insider” creditor)
  • The trustee may pursue your previously paid creditor in spite of your bankruptcy lawyer’s efforts to dissuade the trustee.
  • You may not have the ability to pay off the trustee yourself. Or you may owe too much to pay it off fast enough to satisfy the trustee.

So you’re looking to file bankruptcy and your lawyer advises you that none of these three are going to work. Then, if you want to avoid having a Chapter 7 trustee chasing your prior-paid creditor, consider the Chapter 13 solution.

How Does Chapter 13 Fix a Preference Problem?

Chapter 13 solves the preference problem by enabling you to pay the trustee within your payment plan. You pay enough extra money into your Chapter 13 plan to pay what you would have paid a Chapter 7 trustee. But you have significant advantages in doing it this way.

But first an example to show how this works. Assume you paid off a debt of $2,500 to your sister 60 days before filing bankruptcy. You’d gotten a tax refund and she desperately needed the money. You’d put her off for years and then had promised to pay her from the refund. Now you’re about to have your home foreclosed on so you can’t wait to file bankruptcy. If you filed a Chapter 7 case the bankruptcy trustee would force your sister to return the $2,500. She’d get sued if she didn’t. You absolutely don’t want that to happen. So you file a Chapter 13 case—which you be doing anyway to save your home. Your lawyer calculates your Chapter 13 payment plan to pay an extra $2,500 beyond what you would otherwise need to pay. You pay that extra amount over the course of your 3-to-5-year case. This may increase your monthly payment somewhat, or it may extend the length of your case. But your sister would not have to pay back anything. The trustee would have no need to even contact her.

Advantages of Using Chapter 13

1. When you file a Chapter 7 case hoping to persuade the trustee not to pursue your prior payee, you may not know if that’ll work. Or if you hope to negotiate payments to the trustee, you don’t know if that will work. The trustee may want to try to get the money out of your payee after all. Or your trustee may reject your offer in order to get the money faster from your payee. Using Chapter 13 takes away these risks. The system allows you to use your Chapter 13 plan to pay what’s needed.

2. Chapter 13 gives you much more time to pay what you need to pay. A Chapter 7 trustee’s job is liquidation. He or she is under pressure to wrap up your case quickly, and so will pressure you to pay quickly. Ask your lawyer but generally a Chapter 7 trustee won’t give you more than a year to pay up. And he or she may simply require you to pay it all in a lump sum. In contrast, under Chapter 13 you have 3 to 5 years to pay.

3. You have more control over where the money goes, and when. Chapter 13 is often used to pay creditors that you want to or need to pay. For example, if you owe a recent income tax debt or back child support, it’s much better to have those debts paid through a court-ordered Chapter 13 payment plan.

4. You have more control over when debts are paid. If you have a debt or two that needs to be paid quickly, that can often be paid first. For example, if you need to catch up on a car payment (because it doesn’t qualify for cramdown), your plan may front-load money there. The extra money you are paying because of the preference can be put to better use early in your case.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Resolving the “Preference” Problem through Negotiation

Prevent your Chapter 7 trustee from requiring a relative or friend to return your pre-bankruptcy payment by paying the trustee yourself.  

 

Our blog post two weeks ago introduced an uncomfortable problem: preference payments to a friendly creditor. (Please read that blog post before reading this one.) Then last week we discussed two possible solutions to this problem. Today we discuss the first of two other solutions.

The First Two Solutions

One way to avoid this problem is simply to wait long enough so that enough time passes from the time of your payment to your favored creditor to the time you file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. That’s because a payment is considered preferential only if you paid it within a specific time period before your bankruptcy filing. That time period is only 90 days, or one year if the payment was to an “insider.” If you file your case after the pertinent time period has passed, the payment is no longer a preference. You’ve avoided the problem altogether.

The second way to solve the problem is for your bankruptcy lawyer to convince your Chapter 7 trustee not to pursue the preferential payment. That is, there are circumstances when it’s not cost-effective for the trustee to make your payee pay it back. Either the amount at issue is too small or the person you paid can’t be forced to disgorge the money.  

But what if neither of these would work? You couldn’t wait long enough to file your bankruptcy case. Or the trustee definitely intends to pursue your payee for the preferential payment. What other options do you have? Here’s a likely solution.

Offer to Pay the Trustee a Reduced Amount Yourself

A Chapter 7 trustee is required by law to gather whatever the law allows him or her to collect in your case. However, in most consumer Chapter 7 cases the trustee collects nothing—your case is called a “no asset” case. That doesn’t mean you have no assets. It means that all your assets are protected (“exempt”), AND the trustee has no right to anything else. On that second point, most of the time there are no preferential payments for the trustee to pursue.

But we’re assuming here that there IS a preferential payment that the trustee has decided to pursue. Let’s say you very much do not want the trustee to do that. You don’t want the trustee to require the person you paid earlier to now pay that money back to the trustee.

So as we said in the subtitle, you could instead offer to pay the trustee that same amount of money yourself.

Why Would You Want to Pay the Trustee Yourself?

Why in the world would you want to do that? You would if it was the best option for you.

Assume that you have very strong feelings against your prior payee being required to pay back the money you’d paid. Maybe you don’t want that person to even know about your bankruptcy filing. You certainly don’t want the bankruptcy trustee to tell him or her now to give the money you paid back to the trustee. You want to do anything to protect that person.

There’s also a good change that if the trustee did make the person pay the money, you’d have to pay the person again. You may well feel a moral obligation to make the person whole, after the trustee makes him or her to give up what you’d previously paid. If so, then you instead just paying the trustee would cost you the same while avoiding the trustee harassing your prior payee.  

Also, there’s a good chance paying the trustee yourself could save you money. There are costs and risks for the trustee in pursuing a preferential payment. If you pay the trustee yourself that would avoid those costs and risks. So the trustee may well be willing to accept less money—the amount it would have received from your payee minus the avoided costs.

Why Would the Trustee Take Your Money Instead of Your Payee’s?

The trustee doesn’t usually care where he or she gets the money from a preferential payment. Whether it comes from your payee paying the money back, or from you, money is money. The trustee can fulfill his or her responsibilities regardless where the money comes from. So, trustees generally are fine with you paying to avoid the trustee shaking down your payee.

However, that’s not always true. For example, most debtors don’t have the amount of money required payable in a lump sum. Often trustees are willing to let you pay the agreed amount in monthly payments. But the full amount has to be paid off relatively quickly. If the trustee has reason to think that money would come quicker from your payee, the trustee may just decide to get it from him or her instead.

Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer to find out the possibilities under your circumstances.

When Is Paying the Trustee Not a Good Idea?

The whole point of this effort is to protect the person you paid earlier. But there are various situations in which this goal does not apply.

You may not want or need to protect this person. You may not care that the trustee makes him or her pay back the money, for emotional or financial reasons. Frankly, you may have had a falling out with the person. Or, he or she may have plenty of money so that paying back the money may not hurt at all.

You may also not need to protect the person because the law protects him or her already.  He or she may have a valid legal defense to a trustee preference action. Bankruptcy preference law is quite complicated. Your bankruptcy lawyer will ask the appropriate questions to determine whether the person you paid may have a defense.

Your lawyer will also discuss whether the person may not need to pay the trustee for other practical reasons. For example, the amount at issue may simply be too small, or the person may be effectively “judgment-proof.” If so, you’d be wasting your money by paying the trustee yourself.

 

The Surprising Benefits: Solving an Uncomfortable “Preference” Problem

A preferential payment to a relative or friend can turn very uncomfortable. But there are some good solutions. One should work for you.

 

Last week’s blog post introduced an uncomfortable problem: preference payments to a friendly creditor. (If you haven’t already please read that one before reading further here.)

The Solutions

We ended that blog post by listing and giving short descriptions of 4 likely practical solutions. We explain the first two of them today and the other two next week.

1. Wait to File Until after the 1-Year or 90-Day Preference Look-Back Period:

There’s one very simple way to avoid having money you paid to a favored creditor turn into a problematic preference.  Wait to file your bankruptcy case long enough so that enough time passes since that payment. Then it’s no longer a preferential payment that the trustee can cause you problems with.

The preference period is only 90 days with most creditors, but a full year with “insider” creditors. Without getting unnecessarily technical, there’s a good chance that anybody you’d have a personal reason for paying is an insider. See Section 101(31) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code for the statutory definition of insider. But note that this is not a complete list. It says what the term “includes,” but courts have made clear that others not on the list could be insiders. For example, also included could be friends or others who’d you’d have a personal reason to favor over other creditors.

Whether the creditor is an insider or not, the payment you made is not a preference if more than 90 day/1 year has passed when your bankruptcy lawyer files your case. Then your bankruptcy trustee would have no power to require your payee to pay back your payment.

We are well aware that waiting is not a simple solution if you are in a big hurry to file your bankruptcy case.  Waiting even a few days may not be at all easy if your paychecks are being garnished or you’re under other similar collection pressure. Or waiting may even be totally inappropriate if your home would be foreclosed or your vehicle repossessed in the meantime.  

However, there are many situations where you would not be a huge hurry to file your case. Then waiting would be worthwhile. This may especially make sense if you are getting close to 90 day or 1-year mark since your preferential payment. So, at least look into whether you should just wait long enough to avoid the problem altogether.

2. Persuade Trustee Not to Pursue the Preferential Payment:

Just because there was a preferential payment within the look-back period, doesn’t mean it’s worth for the trustee to pursue. There are many circumstances in which you could help convince him or her to let it alone.

First, the simplest situation is if so little money is at issue that it’s not worth the bother. It takes some effort for a trustee to force a preferential payee to pay back the money. There is also a certain amount of paperwork and effort to divvy up the money among your creditors.  If the payment you made is no more than several hundred dollars most likely your trustee will shrug it off. (This is similar to trustees generally not chasing an unprotected (“nonexempt”) asset: if it’s only worth a few hundred dollars it’s usually not worth collecting and distributing.) Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about what that unstated threshold dollar amount would  be in your area.

Caution: IF the trustee is already collecting assets in any form in your case, this threshold amount consideration likely goes out the window. If the trustee already has to liquidate anything and distribute money to creditors, he or she will usually be inclined to add to that amount by chasing down your preferential payee.

Second, there are many circumstances where forcing a preferential payee to repay the money would be difficult for the trustee. Your payee may have very little in assets or income reachable by the trustee, so it would likely take a very long time to collect it. Or the payee may have a valid defense. Especially if the amount at issue is relatively small (although above the above threshold), the trustee may decide such preferential payments are not worth chasing.

Third, there are other circumstances where the trustee simply could not collect from your payee at all. Your payee may have disappeared and can’t be located. Or your payee may be legally “judgment-proof”—have no assets or income reachable by the trustee. Helping the trustee learn the true facts along these lines could induce him or her make a sensible decision to abandon the preferential payment.

 

The Surprising Benefits: A “Preference” Payment to a Relative or Friend

A preferential payment to a favored creditor—a relative or friend—can be a problem, but one which usually has a workable solution. 

 

Our last two blog posts have been about one of the more confusing parts of bankruptcy: the law of preferences. This law says that if a creditor takes or receives money from you within the 90 days before you file your bankruptcy case, the creditor may need to pay it back. A creditor would not pay that money to you but rather to your Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee. The trustee would then pay out that money to creditors based on a priorities schedule in bankruptcy law.

Our last blog post was about how that priority schedule could result in most of that money going to a creditor you need and want to be paid. One example we used was a recent income tax debt. That can’t be discharged (written off) in bankruptcy. So preference law could result in the trustee getting some money back from a creditor you don’t care about to pay the tax debt so you don’t have to.

Preference Payments You DON’T Want Undone

But preference payments don’t just involve creditors you don’t care about. You may well not lose sleep over a trustee forcing a credit card company to return $1,000 it garnished from you on the eve of your bankruptcy filing. But what if you’d paid $1,000 on a personal loan to your brother or grandmother 6 months before filing bankruptcy? You’d promised to pay him or her back as soon as you got your tax refund, for example. So you did pay the $1,000. He or she really needed the money, and you felt huge emotional and ethical pressure to pay it. It was the right thing to do.

But now you hear from your bankruptcy lawyer that a Chapter 7 trustee could force your brother or grandmother to pay back that money. You feel that would be crazy, and wrong. Your brother or grandmother has long ago spent the $1,000 you paid on the loan. It would really be hard on them to now turn around and pay $1,000 to your trustee. In fact maybe one reason you paid off this debt was so that he or she would not be involved in your anticipated bankruptcy case. You may prefer that your relative not find out about you having to file bankruptcy. You can’t think of anything worse than he or she getting a demand from the trustee to pay the $1,000. This prospect may well turn you off about filing bankruptcy altogether.

The Solutions

However, this problem has a number of likely practical solutions. We’ll list them here and give brief explanations. Then next week we’ll expand on them to make sure they make sense.

1. Wait to File Until after the Preference Look-Back Period: With “insiders”—relatives and potentially anybody close to you–the look-back period is a full year before filing. It’s not just 90 days back, as it is with non-insiders. Regardless, especially if you are getting close to a year since your preferential payment, consider waiting long enough to avoid the problem altogether.

2. Persuade Trustee Not to Pursue the Preferential Payment: Your relative or other favored person that you paid may genuinely be unable to pay the $1,000 or whatever you paid. He or she may have no legally reachable income or assets. The trustee won’t want to waste money to pay his or her lawyer to fruitlessly pursue a preferential payment.  

3. Offer to Pay the Trustee a Reduced Amount Yourself: The trustee will usually not care where the preference money comes from—from the relative or other creditor who got your money, or anywhere else. So you could offer to pay that $1,000 or whatever that sum of money yourself. The trustee may even take monthly payments from you. Also, he or she may accept less than the full preference payment amount, subtracting what it would have cost in attorney fees and other costs for him or her to get it from your relative.

4. File a Chapter 13 Case to Prevent Pursuit of the Preferential Payment: Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” often provides a very good solution. It works particularly if 1) you need to do a Chapter 13 anyway, 2) the preferential payment is large, and/or 3) none of the above solutions will work.

Next Time…

We’ll explain these four in our next blog post. The bottom line until then: a preferential payment to a relative and other favored creditor can be a scary problem, but it’s one that usually has a very sensible practical solution.

The Surprising Benefits: Use “Preference” Money to Pay a Favored Debt

When a creditor is forced to pay back recently received money through “preference” law, that money can go to pay a debt you want to be paid. 


Last week we introduced the law of preferences. This law says that if a creditor takes or receives money from you within the 90 days before you file your bankruptcy case, the creditor may need to pay it back. There are some complicated conditions that may apply, but in many situations the creditor does need to pay it back. See Section 547 of the Bankruptcy Code.

We ended last week by asking where this returned money goes. What good does it do you if that money just goes to your Chapter 7 trustee?  After all, this liquidating trustee’s job is to distribute that money among all your other creditors. So how does that help you?

Chapter 7 Trustee’s Collection of Bankruptcy Assets

It’s true that under Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” it’s your bankruptcy trustee who makes a creditor return a “preferential payment.” The Bankruptcy Code says “the trustee may avoid” a preference payment. It’s not you, the debtor, who has that role. Section 547(b). (“Avoid” means requiring the creditor to pay the recently received money back, but to the trustee.)

That returned money then goes into the pool of money the trustee uses to pay your creditors. In most consumer Chapter 7 cases that’s the only money available to the trustee. That’s because everything that most debtors own is protected through property exemptions. Exemptions are categories and maximum amounts of assets that you can keep in bankruptcy under state and/or federal law. So, when a trustee avoids, or undoes a creditor’s preferential payment, that money is all the trustee has to work with.

Whether the trustee only has the preference money or also liquidates an unprotected asset, what happens to the resulting money?

Chapter 7 Trustee’s Distribution of Bankruptcy Assets

Once the trustee has received the preference money (plus any other money from liquidating assets), he or she is required by law to then distribute that money in a very specific way. The law is laid out in the Bankruptcy Code’s Section 726, “Distribution of property of the [bankruptcy] estate.”

The distribution rules say that “priority” debts get paid in full before anything goes to any other debt.  Section 726(a)(1) says the money first goes to debts under Section 507, which are a listing of the priority debts.

When an “Avoided Preference” Directly Benefits You

Simply put, if you want or need to pay a debt that’s a “priority” debt, the trustee will pay it. The trustee will pay it out of the money it got from the creditor by “avoiding” the preference payment. The trustee will pay your favored priority debt before paying any other debt.

For example, an unpaid child support payment or recent income tax debt would be a priority debt. These debts could not be discharged—legally written off—in a bankruptcy case. So you’d have to pay them after your Chapter 7 case was completed. But the trustee would pay such a debt from the preference money. That would either eliminate or reduce what you’d have to pay yourself.

If your priority debt that you’d like to be paid is larger than the amount of money the trustee has from the preference, the trustee would only pay part of that priority debt. If the trustee has more than enough money, he or she would pay off the whole priority debt.

(The trustee also gets paid a fee out of the same money, so you need to take that fee into account. The fee is based on a sliding scale: a maximum of 25% on the first $5,000 distributed, 10% on the next $45,000, etc. See Section 326(a).)

Conclusion

Preference law can make a creditor give up money it took from you shortly before you filed your bankruptcy case. Then this same money can instead go to pay a priority debt which you very much want to get paid.

This is quite a nice benefit of bankruptcy. You can force one of your less important creditors in effect to pay your most important creditor!

Surprising Bankruptcy Benefits: Make Creditors Return Your Money

Bankruptcy doesn’t just stop garnishments and other collections. Sometimes you can make a creditor return money it recently took from you.

 

Bankruptcy’s “automatic stay” is one of the most immediate and powerful benefits of bankruptcy. It immediately stops almost all creditor collection actions against you, your income, and your assets. See Section 362 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.  

But it does not go into effect until the moment you file your bankruptcy case. What if a creditor garnishes or otherwise gets your money right BEFORE you file bankruptcy?

Sometimes the creditor can be forced to give up such recently received money as well.

The Law of Preferences

This happens through the surprising and easily misunderstood law of “preferences.”

This law says that if a creditor takes money (or some other asset) from you within the 90 days before you file your bankruptcy case, the creditor may need to pay it back. It has to do so if keeping that money results in that creditor receiving a greater share of its debt than the rest of your creditors would get out of your bankruptcy case. See Section 547(b) of the Bankruptcy Code.

That second condition would often be met, especially in a consumer Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy case.” So, most money grabbed by an unsecured creditor within 90 days before your bankruptcy filing can be “avoided.” The creditor can be forced to return it.

For example, let’s say an aggressive unsecured medical debt collector garnishes your checking account. You’ve just deposited your paycheck and the creditor grabs $2,000. You owed $5,000 so this creditor just got paid 40% of its debt. Then you file your Chapter 7 case a day after the creditor garnished your money. Assume you owe a total of $75,000 in general unsecured debts. If in that Chapter 7 case—as in most—all your assets were “exempt” (protected), those debts would receive nothing. So, the garnished $2,000 would be a preferential payment that could be reversed. That’s because it happened within 90 days before filing and resulted in the creditor getting 40% instead of nothing.

(There are a number of other conditions and exceptions to a preference, but they often don’t apply to consumer cases. However, preference law can sometimes get quite complicated. You need to talk with your bankruptcy lawyer to find out if you really have an avoidable “preferential payment.”)

The Principles behind Preference Law

Preference law serves two principles important to bankruptcy.

First, bankruptcy law tries to discourage overaggressive creditors. The risk that a creditor would have to return money grabbed just before the debtor files bankruptcy is supposed to be a disincentive for such a money grab.

Second, a lot of bankruptcy law focuses on maintaining fairness among creditors. Similarly situated creditors should be treated the same. No playing favorites unless there is a legally appropriate reason to do so.  (On such reason would be if the debt is secured by collateral).

This fairness means that legally similar creditors need to be treated the same not just during your bankruptcy case but also shortly before the filing of your case. The period of fairness extends a bit before the bankruptcy filing so that overly aggressive creditors aren’t favored. Any available money or assets are spread among all the creditors more evenly and thus more fairly.

A Preference Benefitting You

It’s all well and good to punish a creditor for grabbing money from you shortly before you file bankruptcy. But what good does it do you if that money just goes to your Chapter 7 trustee?  The trustee would just distribute that money among your other creditors, right?

Generally, yes. But in many circumstances this preference money helps you very directly. Next time we’ll show you how.

 

A Dozen Surprising Benefits of Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy can go beyond giving you immediate and long-term relief from your debts. It comes with many other surprising benefits. 

 

The next 12 blog posts will be about some of the most powerful and surprising benefits of bankruptcy.

You’re likely considering bankruptcy because you’re financially overwhelmed and need relief. You need immediate relief from debt collection pressures. You need long-term relief from having to pay debts you can’t handle. Bankruptcy provides that immediate and long-term relief.

But bankruptcy can often also give you some other rather amazing benefits, beyond the basic relief you expect. The next dozen weekly blog posts will give you details about the following benefits:

1. Get Back Money Recently Paid to a Creditor

Through “preference” law you could get back money you’ve recently paid to a creditor—paid either voluntarily or not.  

2. Undo Judgment Liens on Your Home

Through judgment lien “avoidance” you can often permanently remove a judgment lien, a tremendous practical benefit.   

3. Get Back Your Driver’s License after an Unpaid Judgment

Reinstate your license if you lost it by not paying a debt from an uninsured or underinsured motor vehicle accident.

4. Reinstate Your Driver’s License from Failing to Pay Tickets

Reinstate your license if it had been suspended for unpaid traffic infractions.

5. Get Back Your Just-Repossessed Vehicle

Filing bankruptcy not only prevents vehicle repossession; it may be able to get your vehicle back to you after it’s already been repossessed.

6. Get Out of an Unaffordable Payment Plan with the IRS/State

Bankruptcy comes with a surprising array of tools to use against your tax debts, allowing you to prevent or get you out of an onerous monthly payment plan.

7. Prevent Debt Collections from Re-Starting after Being “Stayed”

Bankruptcy doesn’t stop or only temporarily stops certain select debts from being collected—such as child/spousal support arrearage, recent income taxes, student loans, and debts incurred through fraud. But there are tools bankruptcy provides for resolving special debts like these permanently.

8. Prevent an Income Tax Lien Recording and Its Potentially Huge Damage

An income tax lien can turn a debt that could be discharged—permanently written off—into a debt that you must pay in full. A timely bankruptcy filing can prevent this financial hit.            

9. Bankruptcy Can Often Reduce Some or All of a Tax Lien’s Financial Impact

In some situations a tax lien can be made either wholly or partially ineffective. Besides saving you lots of money you get the peace of mind that your home is not at risk.

10. Avoid Paying Your Ex-Spouse Most of Your Property Settlement Debts

Chapter 13 allows you to discharge—write-off—some or all non-support obligations of your divorce.

11. “Cram down” and Change the Payment Terms of Your Vehicle Loan

If your vehicle loan is more than two and a half years old, you can usually reduce your monthly payments and the total amount you pay on the loan.

12. Get Out of Your Vehicle Lease through Bankruptcy

Leasing is often the cheapest way to have a vehicle short term, but is actually usually the most expensive long-term. Bankruptcy can be the best way to get out of this expensive obligation.

 

Fully Complying with Your Chapter 13 Case

Besides fulfilling the terms of your Chapter 13 payment plan, you may need to make other payments and meet other requirements. 

 

The bankruptcy court’s approval of your payment plan (at the Confirmation Hearing) happens about 2-to-4 months after filing your case. At that point your Chapter 13 case is fully on its way. You likely have about 3 to 5 years altogether to finish the case. Having gotten to this crucial point, there are a few other crucial steps you need to fulfill to successfully finish your case.

Last time we got into three of these:

  • Do your “debtor education”
  • Avoid or defeat “nondischargeability complaints”
  • Pay your Chapter 13 plan payments

Today we lay out two other crucial steps.

Pay Any Obligations NOT Within Your Plan Payment

In many Chapter 13 cases you pay nothing to your creditors except the single plan payment each month. The trustee divides that payment among your creditors as laid out in your court-approved plan. You pay nothing else to any creditor.  

But in other cases, you pay one or more creditors directly. This may be referred to paying “outside the plan.”

To be clear, you are not paying these secretly. Your plan clearly refers to these debts and their payments. So the bankruptcy court approves these payments. They’re just not included within the single monthly plan payment, for various possible reasons. (See the explanation in paragraph 3.1 of the official Chapter 13 Plan form.)

Often these are ongoing payments on secured debts such as home mortgages or vehicle loans. Direct payments are more likely used when you’re current and are simply continuing to make the regular payments. In some jurisdictions it’s considered easier for everybody that you continue to pay such straightforward payments directly to the creditor. Paying them through the trustee is seen as causing too much delay and accounting confusion.

Naturally it’s essential that you know whether all of your creditors are being taken care of through the single plan payment, or whether there’s a creditor or two you need to pay directly. Your income and expense schedules should make that clear, as well as the plan itself. But if you have any doubt, be sure to ask your bankruptcy lawyer.

Do Anything Else Required

Two documents combined—your plan and the Order Confirming Plan signed by the judge—are the law of your case. These documents contain requirements beyond making payments. They include some standard ones that apply to just about all consumer debtors. There may also be some special requirements for you.

The standard requirements usually include:

  • providing the trustee with copies of your annual income tax returns (paragraph 2.3 of the official Chapter 13 Plan form)
  • turning over to the trustee “income tax refunds received during the plan term” (paragraph 2.3 of the official Chapter 13 Plan form)
  • avoid using credit without prior Chapter 13 trustee or bankruptcy court permission

Special requirements can include:

  • a specified deadline to sell an asset
  • permission for you to use an income tax refund for a specific expense, such as a vehicle repair
  • a requirement to report when an unemployed spouse gets employed

Notice that these special requirements often relate to anticipated changes to your income, expenses, or assets. These changes can directly affect your future obligations under your Chapter 13 case. They may well require you to adjust the payment terms of your plan in the future.

Conclusion

It does take consistent effort to complete a Chapter 13 case successfully. But that effort is worthwhile because it gains you tremendous benefits. Chapter 13 provides many tools that Chapter 7 cannot. Through those tools you can likely meet some otherwise impossible goals. Once you’ve decided that these goals are worthwhile, usually the effort will be worthwhile as well.