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. 

 

Successfully Completing a Chapter 7 Case

Most bankruptcy cases are completed successfully. But you need to pay attention to a few crucial steps to make that happen. 

 

You’ve filed a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, which stopped all creditor collections actions against you. About a month later you’ve gone through the Meeting of Creditors with the Chapter 7 trustee. Now within two more months you will very likely finish the case and get a discharge of your debts. “Discharge” is the legal and permanent write-off of most or all of your debts. You’re getting close. But now there are 5 things you need to watch out for to get that discharge and finish your Chapter 7 case successfully. We cover the first 3 of these today, and then the other 2 in our next blog post.

1) “Debtor Education”

You completed a “credit counseling” class before filing bankruptcy, usually online but sometimes by phone. Similarly, after filing you must also complete a “debtor education” class. Or as the U.S. Bankruptcy Code calls it, “an instructional course concerning personal financial management.” See Sections 111 and 727(a)(11) of the Bankruptcy Code.

This is also usually done online, by phone or even, rarely, in person). The procedure is similar to the earlier “credit counseling” you did before filing the Chapter 7 case. The information provided in “debtor education” may actually be helpful to you and your financial life going forward. 

No matter whether or not it is helpful, it’s mandatory. The law clearly says that if you don’t complete this requirement the court does not discharge your debts. It’s easy to forget; be sure not to.

2) Keep/Surrender Collateral

If you have any secured debts, you need to deal with the collateral. Your Chapter 7 documents included a Statement of Intention stating what you intended to do with the collateral securing each secured debt. You sign this document under penalty of perjury, and your lawyer sends a copy to every affected creditor. It gives you the following options:

  • surrender the collateral
  • keep it and “reaffirm” the debt,
  • keep it by “redeeming” the collateral
  • retain it some other way

It’s very important that you follow up on these intentions, especially if you want to keep the collateral. By law you have 30 days after the Meeting of Creditors to “perform [your] intentions with respect to such property.” Section 521(a)(2)(B) of the Bankruptcy Code. If that 30 days passes without you “perform[ing your] intentions,” the creditor can repossess or otherwise take back the collateral.

3) Address a “Dischargeability” Complaint

Most debts get discharged as long as they don’t fit some very specific categories. Examples of nondischargeable debts include child and spousal support and criminal debts. Others, such as income taxes and student loans, may get discharged depending on the circumstances. See Section 523 of the Bankruptcy Code for “Exceptions to discharge.”

As for debts that don’t fall within such non-dischargeable categories, creditors can still object to the discharge of the debt. Each creditor has until 60 days after the Meeting of Creditors to do so. Section 523(c)(1). Otherwise it forever loses its right to object.

A creditor objects by filing a formal complaint at the bankruptcy court. These complaints are not very common. That’s because the law allows such creditor complaints only on some relatively narrow grounds. Generally, a creditor must prove that the debt was incurred through your fraud or misrepresentation, or involves your “willful and malicious injury” of a person or property. Subsections 523(a)(2)(4)(6). If the creditor does not file a complaint within the 60-day period, then your debts are usually discharged immediately thereafter.

 

Next time we’ll cover the two other steps you need to be aware of to complete your Chapter 7 case successfully.

 

The Confirmation Hearing in a Chapter 13 Case

The Confirmation Hearing is where the bankruptcy judge approves, or “confirms,” your Chapter 13 payment plan.” You seldom need to attend


The Chapter 13 Plan

As we said last week about the Meeting of Creditors, a Chapter 13 case is all about “the plan.” The plan is your financial roadmap during the 3 to 5 years that you are in the case. It’s put together by you and your bankruptcy lawyer, outlining what debts you’ll pay, how much, and when. (See this Chapter 13 Plan form.)

At the Meeting of Creditors your Chapter 13 trustee discusses the plan with you and your lawyer. Sometimes a creditor or two are also there. The Confirmation Hearing is a month or so later. By that time any concerns or objections raised at the Meeting of Creditors should be resolved. If so, the bankruptcy judge signs an order approving the plan. That plan may be exactly as you and your lawyer first put it together or may have some changes negotiated with the trustee and/or creditors.

You Seldom Go

You must attend the Meeting of Creditors, but almost never go to the Confirmation Hearing. You could go if you wanted. It’s a court hearing that anybody can attend. But there would almost never be anything you’d need to do there other than to observe what happens. In rare circumstances your lawyer will recommend or ask that you be there for some special reason. If you have any doubt be sure to ask.

The Straightforward Confirmation Hearing

The goal of the hearing is to get the judge’s approval of the plan. That’s formalized by the judge signing a document (usually prepared by your lawyer) called the Order Confirming Plan. The trustee often signs off on the plan beforehand. Sometimes that happens verbally at the Hearing, if there have been last minute negotiations or changes. (See this sample Order Confirming Chapter 13 Plan.)

At a straightforward Confirmation Hearing any trustee/creditor objections would have been fully resolved before the Hearing. So the trustee reports to the judge that either there were no objections to the plan or they’ve been resolved. So the judge reviews the plan and approves it, usually signing the Order Confirming Plan. At that point your plan becomes legally effective and in effect becomes the law of your case.  (Note that usually you have already been paying into your plan from when it was filed a couple months earlier.)

The Not-So-Straightforward Confirmation Hearing

For lots of reasons a Chapter 13 plan may not be ready for the judge’s approval at the Confirmation Hearing. For example:

  • The trustee may be objecting to an expense in your budget that you think is necessary and appropriate. The trustee wants to lower or eliminate the amount and increase your monthly plan payment. Your lawyer has tried to resolve this by negotiation but that’s not worked. So the bankruptcy judge needs to rule on it.
  • A secured creditor may be disputing the value of its collateral and so how much you should pay it.
  • A creditor could raise an objection for the first time at the Confirmation Hearing itself, one which cannot immediately be resolved. Creditors almost always raise any objections long before the Hearing, which happens about two months after your case filing. But their final deadline to object to your plan is at the Confirmation Hearing. So there are occasional surprises.

Plan Still Approved at the Hearing

The judge can sometimes make a ruling at the Confirmation Hearing, resolving whatever is preventing plan approval. Then the plan could still get confirmed, right at the hearing. Or sometimes the judge gives one of the parties a certain amount of time to object to a tentative ruling. If there is no renewed objection within that time, the judge would sign an Order Confirming Plan without any further hearing.

Or the judge could schedule an Adjourned Confirmation Hearing. This could happen, for example, after the judge tells an objecting creditor and you to try to settle the matter. If the parties do settle, they can report that to the judge at the Adjourned Confirmation Hearing. The judge could then confirm the Chapter 13 plan, with any agreed amendments, at the Adjourned Confirmation Hearing. Or that Hearing could possibly be cancelled if the parties filed appropriate paperwork at court beforehand.

Cases Requiring Special Adjudication

Sometimes the disputing parties are simply not able to settle their dispute among themselves. It’s too complicated for the judge to rule on it during the few minutes allotted at an Adjourned Confirmation Hearing. So the issue is addressed in a separate proceeding, with both sides making their arguments. This is a Contested Matter, or an Adversary Proceeding if it goes so far as requiring a trial. After the judge’s decision, he or she will either confirm the plan, or in sometimes instead dismiss the Chapter 13 case or change it into a Chapter 7 one.

Most Chapter 13 Plans Get Confirmed

Most Chapter 13 plans do get confirmed, either at the initial Confirmation Hearing or within a few weeks afterwards. You and your lawyer need to prepare the plan carefully. Any objections should be addressed right away instead of waiting until right before the Confirmation Hearing. Of course you as the debtor need to do what your plan says you’ll do. If all these happen, very likely your plan will be confirmed and your case will be on its way.

 

The Meeting of Creditors in a Chapter 13 Case

At the Meeting of Creditors you, your lawyer, & the trustee review your proposed payment plan, and address any creditor & trustee concerns.  

 

The Chapter 13 Payment Plan

The core of your Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case is the payment plan. The plan is a detailed outline of who you will pay, how much, and when. A Chapter 13 plan has to follow many legal requirements. (See Section 1322 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code on the “Content of a plan.”) Sometimes there’s some disagreement about whether your plan follows those requirements. Often there isn’t.

Just about everything in the Chapter 13 process, including the so-called Meeting of Creditors, revolves around the plan. You and your lawyer propose the plan, then the trustee and creditors review and can object to it.  Any such objections usually get resolved through negotiation, but sometimes require a ruling by the bankruptcy judge. Usually the plan, with or without any changes, gets approved, or “confirmed,” by the judge 2 or 3 months after you submit it.

The Meeting of Creditors

So let’s go back to the Meeting of Creditors, which happens about a month after filing your Chapter 13 case. It’s mostly you and your lawyer’s opportunity to meet with the Chapter 13 trustee to discuss your proposed payment plan. (See Section 1302 of the Bankruptcy Code about the Chapter 13 trustee.)

At the Meeting you find out if the trustee approves the terms of your proposed plan. By this time the trustee and his staff have reviewed the plan and its supporting documents. The trustee will ask you a list of standard questions. He or she may also have some questions about the plan.

Your lawyer will prepare you for the questions, most of which will likely be quite straightforward. The questions often are simply intended to confirm or clarify the information you have already provided in writing. Your lawyer will be there right next to you. In fact often a lot of the conversation during the Meeting ends up being between the trustee and your lawyer. That’s especially true when the discussion gets into more technical details of the plan. Your lawyer will advise and inform you before, during, and after the Meeting.

The Creditors

Often none of your creditors will attend the Meeting of Creditors. It can be just between you and your lawyer and the trustee and any assistants.       

Creditors do have a right to attend. But if your case is very straightforward, your plan may well not have anything they can object to.  Even if a creditor does have a concern, its lawyer often contacts your lawyer directly to work it out. Or it files a formal objection and then any unresolved disputes get worked out with and/or by the bankruptcy judge.

Even when a creditor or two does show up at the Meeting of Creditors, it’s usually not a bad thing. It gives you and your lawyer an efficient opportunity to address any concerns of the creditor. That can happen during the Meeting itself or sometimes right after in an informal conversation.

Be Sure You Attend

You are absolutely required to go to the Meeting of Creditors. Otherwise your case will get dismissed (thrown out). That would waste a lot of your time and money, and could restrict your ability to file bankruptcy again.

You will find out the date, time, and location of the Meeting of Creditors soon after filing your case. You might even find out from your lawyer on the day he or she files your case. Otherwise you’ll get a formal notice containing that information within about 10 days of the case filing. As soon as you know the date do everything you need to do to make sure that you will be there.

The Meeting is usually about 10 minutes long. You shouldn’t worry about it. If you have any concerns talk with your lawyer so that you are fully informed. Then go and get over this modest hurdle to a much more peaceful financial life.

 

The Trustee’s Role in any Opposition to a Chapter 7 Discharge

In most Chapter 7 cases nobody opposes your right to a discharge of your debts. But if so it would likely come from the bankruptcy trustee. 

 

Last week we discussed the role of the Chapter 7 trustee in reviewing your assets at the “meeting of creditors.” Today we get into the other main job of the trustee, to, “if advisable, oppose the discharge of the debtor.”  (See Section 704(a)(6) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.)

Discharge of Debts

“Discharge” is the legal and permanent write-off of your debts. It’s the primary purpose of filing bankruptcy, particularly a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.”

You get two main forms of relief when filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy: the “automatic stay,” and the discharge of your debts. The automatic stay is the protection from creditor collections that you get immediately upon filing your bankruptcy case. The discharge you usually receive about 3-4 months after filing. There’s not much point to filing most consumer Chapter 7 cases without the discharge of debts.

Opposing the Discharge

The overwhelming proportion of people who file a Chapter 7 case receive a discharge of their debts. They get no opposition to it by anyone.

The Bankruptcy Code Section on the discharge of debts under Chapter 7 says, the “court shall grant the debtor a discharge,” before listing some exceptions. (See Section 727(a).)  The listed exceptions do not apply to most people.

If there is any opposition it tends to be by a single creditor complaining about the discharge of its debt. This opposition would be based on your alleged inappropriate behavior as to just that specific debt. Such a creditor is not challenging your ability to get a discharge of your debts in general. It just doesn’t think you should avoid paying its one debt. Even these more modest challenges are relatively rare.

Challenges to the overall discharge of debts are based on your alleged wrongdoing about the bankruptcy process itself, not just as to one debt.

Wrongdoing that Causes Potential Opposition to Discharge

The exceptions to overall discharge essentially involve bankruptcy fraud. The bankruptcy system is quite generous about discharging debts, but can be harsh towards those who try to abuse the system.  Fortunately it’s usually not at all hard to avoid engaging in bankruptcy fraud.         

Here are the main types of bankruptcy fraud that could result in losing your ability to get a discharge:

The Chapter 7 Trustee’s Role in This

The bankruptcy trustee is not the only person who could raise objections to your discharge. He or she is just the one who’s probably the most likely to do so.

According to the Bankruptcy Code, “[t]he trustee, a creditor, or the United States trustee may object to the granting of a discharge.” (Section 727(c)(1))

As we said earlier, creditors tend to be more interested in just getting their particular debt excluded from the discharge. It isn’t usually to a creditor’s advantage for ALL the debts to not be discharged. Then that creditor is once again competing with all the creditors to get paid.

The United State trustee is an agency—part of the U.S. Department of Justice—tasked with enforcing bankruptcy laws. So it can and occasionally does raise discharge issues on its own.

But the Chapter 7 trustee is the person who reviews your bankruptcy documents, actually meets with you briefly, and likely spends more time on your case than any other potential adversary. So he or she would be the most likely to see any indication of possible bankruptcy fraud.

At the Meeting of Creditors

The main, and usually only, opportunity for the trustee to meet you and ask questions directly is at the so-called Meeting of Creditors. The trustee presides at this meeting. Often none of your creditors appear. So then it’s just a meeting between the trustee and you and your bankruptcy lawyer. It usually does not last more than 10 minutes.

The trustee, or his or her staff, will have reviewed your bankruptcy documents, and likely some other financial paperwork, beforehand. He or she will have a list of questions for you to answer. Your lawyer will prepare you for these questions and help at the meeting as needed.

The focus of the meeting and of the questions is usually to determine if you have any unprotected assets for the trustee to liquidate. The trustee is often just verifying that you have no such assets.

There are seldom questions relating to anything about bankruptcy fraud. But once in a while the trustee may have seen or heard something that needs clarifying, and will ask you to do so. You will also usually get a broad question asking you to verify that you stand by the accuracy of all of your bankruptcy documents.

You and Your Lawyer

If you do get into any questions that indicate that the trustee believes you may have done something wrong, your lawyer will be there to help you.

Usually there are no surprises, at the Meeting of Creditors or anytime during the case, as long as you have been honest and thorough with your lawyer throughout the process.

Chapter 7 is designed to result in the discharge of all or most of your debts. All you have to do is use the system as it was intended. If you have any doubt about what that means or how to go about it, discuss it with your lawyer. You should feel comfortable that you will get the discharge that you are filing the Chapter 7 case to get. And you will have nothing to be stressed about as long as you share any concerns with your lawyer.