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How do I make sure my Chapter 13 plan works?

Making the Plan Work

The provisions of a confirmed plan bind the debtor and each creditor. Once the court confirms the plan, the debtor must make the plan succeed. The debtor must make regular payments to the trustee either directly or through payroll deduction, which will require adjustment to living on a fixed budget for a prolonged period. Furthermore, while confirmation of the plan entitles the debtor to retain property as long as payments are made, the debtor may not incur new debt without consulting the trustee, because additional debt may compromise the debtor’s ability to complete the plan.

A debtor may make plan payments through payroll deductions. This practice increases the likelihood that payments will be made on time and that the debtor will complete the plan. In any event, if the debtor fails to make the payments due under the confirmed plan, the court may dismiss the case or convert it to a liquidation case under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. The court may also dismiss or convert the debtor’s case if the debtor fails to pay any post-filing domestic support obligations (i.e., child support, alimony), or fails to make required tax filings during the case.

How does Chapter 13 work?

A chapter 13 bankruptcy is also called a wage earner’s plan. It enables individuals with regular income to develop a plan to repay all or part of their debts. Under this chapter, debtors propose a repayment plan to make installments to creditors over three to five years. If the debtor’s current monthly income is less than the applicable state median, the plan will be for three years unless the court approves a longer period “for cause.” If the debtor’s current monthly income is greater than the applicable state median, the plan generally must be for five years. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years. During this time the law forbids creditors from starting or continuing collection efforts.

A chapter 13 case begins by filing a petition with the bankruptcy court serving the area where the debtor has a domicile or residence. Unless the court orders otherwise, the debtor must also file with the court: (1) schedules of assets and liabilities; (2) a schedule of current income and expenditures; (3) a schedule of executory contracts and unexpired leases; and (4) a statement of financial affairs. The debtor must also file a certificate of credit counseling and a copy of any debt repayment plan developed through credit counseling; evidence of payment from employers, if any, received 60 days before filing; a statement of monthly net income and any anticipated increase in income or expenses after filing; and a record of any interest the debtor has in federal or state qualified education or tuition accounts.  The debtor must provide the chapter 13 case trustee with a copy of the tax return or transcripts for the most recent tax year as well as tax returns filed during the case (including tax returns for prior years that had not been filed when the case began). Id. A husband and wife may file a joint petition or individual petitions. (The Official Forms may be downloaded from www.uscourts.gov/bkforms/index.html. They are not available from the courthouse.)

The courts must charge a $235 case filing fee and a $39 miscellaneous administrative fee. Normally the fees must be paid to the clerk of the court upon filing. With the court’s permission, however, they may be paid in installments.  The number of installments is limited to four, and the debtor must make the final installment no later than 120 days after filing the petition. For cause shown, the court may extend the time of any installment, as long as the last installment is paid no later than 180 days after filing the petition.  The debtor may also pay the $39 administrative fee in installments. If a joint petition is filed, only one filing fee and one administrative fee are charged. Debtors should be aware that failure to pay these fees may result in dismissal of the case.

In order to complete the Official Bankruptcy Forms that make up the petition, statement of financial affairs, and schedules, the debtor must compile the following information:

1. A list of all creditors and the amounts and nature of their claims;
2. The source, amount, and frequency of the debtor’s income;
3. A list of all of the debtor’s property; and
4. A detailed list of the debtor’s monthly living expenses, i.e., food, clothing, shelter, utilities, taxes, transportation, medicine, etc.

Married individuals must gather this information for their spouse regardless of whether they are filing a joint petition, separate individual petitions, or even if only one spouse is filing. In a situation where only one spouse files, the income and expenses of the non-filing spouse is required so that the court, the trustee and creditors can evaluate the household’s financial position.

When an individual files a chapter 13 petition, an impartial trustee is appointed to administer the case. In some districts, the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator appoints a standing trustee to serve in all chapter 13 cases. The chapter 13 trustee both evaluates the case and serves as a disbursing agent, collecting payments from the debtor and making distributions to creditors.

Filing the petition under chapter 13 “automatically stays” (stops) most collection actions against the debtor or the debtor’s property. Filing the petition does not, however, stay certain types of actions, and the stay may be effective only for a short time in some situations. The stay arises by operation of law and requires no judicial action. As long as the stay is in effect, creditors generally may not initiate or continue lawsuits, wage garnishments, or even make telephone calls demanding payments. The bankruptcy clerk gives notice of the bankruptcy case to all creditors whose names and addresses are provided by the debtor.

Chapter 13 also contains a special automatic stay provision that protects co-debtors. Unless the bankruptcy court authorizes otherwise, a creditor may not seek to collect a “consumer debt” from any individual who is liable along with the debtor.  Consumer debts are those incurred by an individual primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose.

Individuals may use a chapter 13 proceeding to save their home from foreclosure. The automatic stay stops the foreclosure proceeding as soon as the individual files the chapter 13 petition. The individual may then bring the past-due payments current over a reasonable period of time. Nevertheless, the debtor may still lose the home if the mortgage company completes the foreclosure sale under state law before the debtor files the petition. The debtor may also lose the home if he or she fails to make the regular mortgage payments that come due after the chapter 13 filing.

Between 21 and 50 days after the debtor files the chapter 13 petition, the chapter 13 trustee will hold a meeting of creditors. If the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator schedules the meeting at a place that does not have regular U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator staffing, the meeting may be held no more than 60 days after the debtor files. During this meeting, the trustee places the debtor under oath, and both the trustee and creditors may ask questions. The debtor must attend the meeting and answer questions regarding his or her financial affairs and the proposed terms of the plan. If a husband and wife file a joint petition, they both must attend the creditors’ meeting and answer questions. In order to preserve their independent judgment, bankruptcy judges are prohibited from attending the creditors’ meeting.  The parties typically resolve problems with the plan either during or shortly after the creditors’ meeting. Generally, the debtor can avoid problems by making sure that the petition and plan are complete and accurate, and by consulting with the trustee prior to the meeting.

In a chapter 13 case, to participate in distributions from the bankruptcy estate, unsecured creditors must file their claims with the court within 90 days after the first date set for the meeting of creditors.  A governmental unit, however, has 180 days from the date the case is filed file a proof of claim.

After the meeting of creditors, the debtor, the chapter 13 trustee, and those creditors who wish to attend will come to court for a hearing on the debtor’s chapter 13 repayment plan.

What are the advantages to Chapter 13?

Chapter 13 offers individuals a number of advantages over liquidation under chapter 7. Perhaps most significantly, chapter 13 offers individuals an opportunity to save their homes from foreclosure. By filing under this chapter, individuals can stop foreclosure proceedings and may cure delinquent mortgage payments over time. Nevertheless, they must still make all mortgage payments that come due during the chapter 13 plan on time. Another advantage of chapter 13 is that it allows individuals to reschedule secured debts (other than a mortgage for their primary residence) and extend them over the life of the chapter 13 plan. Doing this may lower the payments. Chapter 13 also has a special provision that protects third parties who are liable with the debtor on “consumer debts.” This provision may protect co-signers. Finally, chapter 13 acts like a consolidation loan under which the individual makes the plan payments to a chapter 13 trustee who then distributes payments to creditors. Individuals will have no direct contact with creditors while under chapter 13 protection.

A chapter 13 bankruptcy is also called a wage earner’s plan. It enables individuals with regular income to develop a plan to repay all or part of their debts. Under this chapter, debtors propose a repayment plan to make installments to creditors over three to five years. If the debtor’s current monthly income is less than the applicable state median, the plan will be for three years unless the court approves a longer period “for cause.” (1) If the debtor’s current monthly income is greater than the applicable state median, the plan generally must be for five years. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years. 11 U.S.C. §1322(d). During this time the law forbids creditors from starting or continuing collection efforts.

What does the Chapter 7 Trustee do?

Role of the Case Trustee

When a chapter 7 petition is filed in Alabama, the bankruptcy court appoints an impartial case trustee to administer the case and liquidate the debtor’s nonexempt assets. If all the debtor’s assets are exempt or subject to valid liens, the trustee will normally file a “no asset” report with the court, and there will be no distribution to unsecured creditors. Most chapter 7 cases involving individual debtors are no asset cases. But if the case appears to be an “asset” case at the outset, unsecured creditorsmust file their claims with the court within 90 days after the first date set for the meeting of creditors. A governmental unit, however, has 180 days from the date the case is filed to file a claim.  In the typical no asset chapter 7 case, there is no need for creditors to file proofs of claim because there will be no distribution. If the trustee later recovers assets for distribution to unsecured creditors, the Bankruptcy Court will provide notice to creditors and will allow additional time to file proofs of claim. Although a secured creditor does not need to file a proof of claim in a chapter 7 case to preserve its security interest or lien, there may be other reasons to file a claim. A creditor in a chapter 7 case who has a lien on the debtor’s property should consult an attorney for advice.

Commencement of a bankruptcy case creates an “estate.” The estate technically becomes the temporary legal owner of all the debtor’s property. It consists of all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case, including property owned or held by another person if the debtor has an interest in the property. Generally speaking, the debtor’s creditors are paid from nonexempt property of the estate.

The primary role of a chapter 7 trustee in an asset case is to liquidate the debtor’s nonexempt assets in a manner that maximizes the return to the debtor’s unsecured creditors. The trustee accomplishes this by selling the debtor’s property if it is free and clear of liens (as long as the property is not exempt) or if it is worth more than any security interest or lien attached to the property and any exemption that the debtor holds in the property. The trustee may also attempt to recover money or property under the trustee’s “avoiding powers.” The trustee’s avoiding powers include the power to: set aside preferential transfers made to creditors within 90 days before the petition; undo security interests and other prepetition transfers of property that were not properly perfected under nonbankruptcy law at the time of the petition; and pursue nonbankruptcy claims such as fraudulent conveyance and bulk transfer remedies available under state law. In addition, if the debtor is a business, the bankruptcy court may authorize the trustee to operate the business for a limited period of time, if such operation will benefit creditors and enhance the liquidation of the estate.

Section 726 of the Bankruptcy Code governs the distribution of the property of the estate. Under § 726, there are six classes of claims; and each class must be paid in full before the next lower class is paid anything. The debtor is only paid if all other classes of claims have been paid in full. Accordingly, the debtor is not particularly interested in the trustee’s disposition of the estate assets, except with respect to the payment of those debts which for some reason are not dischargeable in the bankruptcy case. The individual debtor’s primary concerns in a chapter 7 case are to retain exempt property and to receive a discharge that covers as many debts as possible.

What is a Chapter 7 “discharge”?

A discharge releases individual debtors from personal liability for most debts and prevents the creditors owed those debts from taking any collection actions against the debtor. Because a chapter 7 discharge is subject to many exceptions, though, debtors should consult competent legal counsel before filing to discuss the scope of the discharge. Generally, excluding cases that are dismissed or converted, individual debtors receive a discharge in more than 99 percent of chapter 7 cases. In most cases, unless a party in interest files a complaint objecting to the discharge or a motion to extend the time to object, the bankruptcy court will issue a discharge order relatively early in the case – generally, 60 to 90 days after the date first set for the meeting of creditors.

The grounds for denying an individual debtor a discharge in a chapter 7 case are narrow and are construed against the moving party. Among other reasons, the court may deny the debtor a discharge if it finds that the debtor: failed to keep or produce adequate books or financial records; failed to explain satisfactorily any loss of assets; committed a bankruptcy crime such as perjury; failed to obey a lawful order of the bankruptcy court; fraudulently transferred, concealed, or destroyed property that would have become property of the estate; or failed to complete an approved instructional course concerning financial management.

Secured creditors may retain some rights to seize property securing an underlying debt even after a discharge is granted. Depending on individual circumstances, if a debtor wishes to keep certain secured property (such as an automobile), he or she may decide to “reaffirm” the debt. A reaffirmation is an agreement between the debtor and the creditor that the debtor will remain liable and will pay all or a portion of the money owed, even though the debt would otherwise be discharged in the bankruptcy. In return, the creditor promises that it will not repossess or take back the automobile or other property so long as the debtor continues to pay the debt.

If the debtor decides to reaffirm a debt, he or she must do so before the discharge is entered. The debtor must sign a written reaffirmation agreement and file it with the court. The Bankruptcy Code requires that reaffirmation agreements contain an extensive set of disclosures. Among other things, the disclosures must advise the debtor of the amount of the debt being reaffirmed and how it is calculated and that reaffirmation means that the debtor’s personal liability for that debt will not be discharged in the bankruptcy. The disclosures also require the debtor to sign and file a statement of his or her current income and expenses which shows that the balance of income paying expenses is sufficient to pay the reaffirmed debt. If the balance is not enough to pay the debt to be reaffirmed, there is a presumption of undue hardship, and the court may decide not to approve the reaffirmation agreement. Unless the debtor is represented by an attorney, the bankruptcy judge must approve the reaffirmation agreement.

If the debtor was represented by an attorney in connection with the reaffirmation agreement, the attorney must certify in writing that he or she advised the debtor of the legal effect and consequences of the agreement, including a default under the agreement. The attorney must also certify that the debtor was fully informed and voluntarily made the agreement and that reaffirmation of the debt will not create an undue hardship for the debtor or the debtor’s dependants. The Bankruptcy Code requires a reaffirmation hearing if the debtor has not been represented by an attorney during the negotiating of the agreement, or if the court disapproves the reaffirmation agreement. The debtor may repay any debt voluntarily, however, whether or not a reaffirmation agreement exists.

An individual receives a discharge for most of his or her debts in a chapter 7 bankruptcy case. A creditor may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect a discharged debt. But not all of an individual’s debts are discharged in chapter 7. Debts not discharged include debts for alimony and child support, certain taxes, debts for certain educational benefit overpayments or loans made or guaranteed by a governmental unit, debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity, debts for death or personal injury caused by the debtor’s operation of a motor vehicle while the debtor was intoxicated from alcohol or other substances, and debts for certain criminal restitution orders. The debtor will continue to be liable for these types of debts to the extent that they are not paid in the chapter 7 case. Debts for money or property obtained by false pretenses, debts for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, and debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity will be discharged unless a creditor timely files and prevails in an action to have such debts declared nondischargeable.

The court may revoke a chapter 7 discharge on the request of the trustee, a creditor, or the U.S. trustee if the discharge was obtained through fraud by the debtor, if the debtor acquired property that is property of the estate and knowingly and fraudulently failed to report the acquisition of such property or to surrender the property to the trustee, or if the debtor (without a satisfactory explanation) makes a material misstatement or fails to provide documents or other information in connection with an audit of the debtor’s case.