Changes to the Bankruptcy Means Test as of April 1, 2015

Once again, the means test figures for median income are being changed as of April 1, 2015. In New York, it means that the amount of income that the debtor can have before being forced into a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy is going to increase.

Through March 31, 2015, a single debtor in New York could have $48,840 in income in income and still be able to file Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.  Starting April 1, 2015, that figure has been increased to $49,632.  Similar increases will take place for all family sizes. The comparison of the existing and new income limits is below.

Old Income Limits

FAMILY SIZE

1 EARNER         2 PEOPLE              3 PEOPLE              4 PEOPLE *

$48,840              $60,743                 $71,706               $88,156

New Income Limits

FAMILY SIZE

1 EARNER         2 PEOPLE                3 PEOPLE             4 PEOPLE *

$49,632               $61,728                    $72,869                $89,586

* Add $8,100 for each individual in excess of 4.

While the increases are not large, they are an improvement on the last set of income limits.  The reason for a slight growth in the median income is the slight growth in the earnings of an average American family. Since the economy is struggling to recover,employees wages having been increasing slowly.  As a result, the American median family income has grown only slightly, and means test figures increased only moderately.

It should be noted that even if the debtor’s income exceeds the means test figures, debtor may still qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after all allowable expenses are taken into account.

If you are contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, New York, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Reinstatement of Dismissed Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

In a recent decision, In re Trine, Bk. 13-21520 (W.D.N.Y. 2015), the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York held that once dismissed, a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy case cannot be reopened absent “extraordinary circumstances”. The failure of the debtor and her attorney to respond to the letters from the court and motions does not meet “extraordinary circumstances” standard.

In Trine, the debtor made a motion to reopen a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Case that had been dismissed two months earlier. The reason for the motion was debtor’s failure to make payments pursuant to the terms of the plan.

In  most Rochester Chapter 13 Bankruptcy cases, plan payments are deducted from the debtor’s wages pursuant to the order of the bankruptcy court. A Chapter 13 Bankruptcy debtor is obligated to start plan payments within 30 days of filing the plan whether or not the employer has started to deduct payments from wages. In Rochester, the debtors are typically informed by their attorneys as well as Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee when plan payments must start, and are given specific instructions as to how to make these payment, in what amounts, and where to send them.

For reasons that are unclear, the debtor in Trine did not make any plan payments during the first three months of the case.  Subsequently, the Chapter 13 Trustee sent the debtor and her attorney a letter stating that the plan payments were in default, and requesting that the debtor or attorney respond withing 10 days, that if they failed to respond a motion to dismiss the case would follow, and that if the case was dismissed the creditors would be immediately notified of the dismissal.  The trustee stated he would be willing to accept an arrangement where  the default could be cured over a period of time.

Neither debtor nor her attorney responded to the letter.  Subsequently, the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee brought a motion to dismiss. After several court appearances, the court gave to the debtor an additional three months to bring the plan current. When that time expired and the plan was still in arrears, the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee filed a report that the payments had not been brought current and the court entered an order dismissing the case.

Once the case was dismissed, one of the creditor’s repossessed the debtor’s car. Only after the car was repossessed, the debtor’s attorney made a motion, asking for the dismissal to be vacated and the case reinstated so that the car could be returned to the debtor. The Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee opposed the motion, and the court denied it.

The debtor in this case relied on the ‘catch-all’ grounds of Rule 60(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows relief from a judgment or order for “any other reason that justifies relief.” Case law interpreting Rule 60(b) states that relief will only be granted by the existence of “extraordinary circumstances”. Judge Warren stated in his decision that this provision “does not provide the easy procedural do-over frequently envisioned by litigants appearing before this court”. The court found that since neither the debtor nor the attorney responded to the default letter or the motion to dismiss, and did not appear at the hearings, the debtor did not present any extraordinary circumstances that would justify the reopening of the case.

Once the debtor received the first letter from the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee, she should have immediately contacted her attorney as well as Trustee to find out why the payments were not being made.  Further, if the debtor receives a notice of hearing from the Bankruptcy Court, that notice should not be ignored.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Bankruptcy Fraud and Revocation of Discharge

Once the discharge is granted, can it be revoked? This  question was addressed by the court had to address in In Re Galan, (W.D.N.Y. 2014).

Section 727(d)(2) provides that a bankruptcy judge should revoke the discharge if, the debtor acquired property that is property of the estate, or became entitled to acquire property that would be property of the estate, and knowingly and fraudulently failed to report the acquisition of or entitlement to such property, or to deliver or surrender such property to the trustee.

In Galan, the debtor had failed to report his interest in real property and also had failed to disclose that he was in receipt of insurance proceeds related to the property. Once debtor’s failure to disclose these facts to the bankruptcy court was discovered, both the bankruptcy and the U.S. Trustee moved to revoke his discharge.

The court held that revocation of a debtor’s discharge is permitted pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 727(d)(2), where a debtor “acquired property of the estate, or became entitled to acquire property that would be property of the estate, and knowingly and fraudulently failed to report the acquisition of or entitlement to such property, or to deliver or surrender such property to the trustee.” The provision is triggered when the debtor is in receipt of or becomes entitled to estate property, either before or after discharge. Since the court found that debtor submitted false testimony with regard to his prior dealings with bankruptcy court, the court disregarded his entire testimony as not credible and disregarded his explanations of his actions. After discussing the facts in detail, the court determined that revocation of discharge was warranted.

Galan demonstrates that it is always a bad idea to mislead the bankruptcy court. Also, debtor’s conduct could subject him to criminal prosecution.

Similarly to the above, a material fraud, which would have resulted in the denial of a debtor’s Chapter 7 discharge had it been known at the time of such discharge, can justify subsequent revocation of that discharge under Bankruptcy Code Section 727(d)(1).

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Homestead Exemption and Married Spouses

It is not uncommon for one spouse to seek bankruptcy relief under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code in a situation where title to the real property is held in both parties’ names. Generally, under such circumstances, the debtor typically claims a half interest in the property. Thus, the homestead exemption, under either New York law or federal bankruptcy exemptions, would be used to protect that interest. This creates an interesting legal issue  since under New York’s Real Property Law both spouses hold an undivided interest in the entirety of the property. If so, does the homestead exemption have to protect all of the equity in the property? 

In In re Naples, W.D.N.Y. Bk #14-10264, the bankruptcy trustee made precisely that argument. The trustee argued that since only one of the spouses had filed bankruptcy, and since the property was held by the parties as tenants by the entirety, creating undivided interest in each spouse, the debtor did not have sufficient homestead exemption to protect his equity in the property. The bankruptcy court disagreed. It held that under those circumstances, for purposes of valuing the debtor’s interest in the property, only one half interest needs to be valued and homestead exemption would be applied only to that half interest. The court reasoned that since the way the title is held creates limitations on each spouses to transfer title without consent of the other spouse, for the bankruptcy court’s valuation, only one half interest needs to be valued.

I think that this is a well thought-out result. If both spouses were filing for bankruptcy, each spouse would be able to apply their own exemption to any equity in the property, so if only one spouse files, that spouse should only need to protect that spouse’s half interest.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Bankruptcy and Eviction

If you are behind on the rent and are hoping to buy some time, or wipe out the obligation to the landlord altogether, under appropriate circumstances, Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be a solution. Filing for bankruptcy will usually wipe out the balance due for past due rent as of the date on which the case is filed. Rent for any period after the case is filed won’t be discharged. If the filing of the case is done correctly, you may also be able to buy some more time in the place before you have to move out.

The filing of a bankruptcy petition stops all efforts at collection, including an eviction proceeding. This automatic stay remains in effect until a creditor makes a request to the court and that request is granted, or until the case is closed or dismissed, or when your discharge is granted. Once the Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy case is filed, the eviction action has to stop as soon as the bankruptcy case is filed. Stopping the eviction means the debtor will get some extra time before having to move out.

However, there an exception to the above rule. If there a judgment for possession of the property due to failure to pay rent that was issued before the bankruptcy is filed, it is an exception to the automatic stay. This exception to the automatic stay will not apply if the debtor’s attorney did all of the following:

Specially marked the petition indicating a judgment of possession has been obtained on the rental property;

Provided the name and address of the landlord that obtained the judgment;

Filed with the petition and served on the landlord a certification under penalty of perjury that, under the applicable landlord-tenant law, there are circumstances under which debtor would be permitted to cure the entire monetary default that gave rise to the judgment for possession;

Along with the petition, deposited with the Clerk of the Bankruptcy Court any rent that would become due during the 30-day period after the filing of the bankruptcy petition; and

Within 30 days of the filing of the petition, filed with the bankruptcy court and served on the landlord a further certification (under penalty of perjury) that the entire monetary default has been cured.

If the tenant is being evicted because of a reason aside from failure to pay the rent – for example, conduct causing a health and/or fire risk; use of illegal drugs on property – then there is also an automatic exception from the automatic stay.

This exception applies only to residential property in which  debtor resides, if debtor is “endangering” the property or using, or allowing to be used, illegal controlled substances on the property. In order for this exception to apply, the landlord must file with the court, and serve on debtor’s attorney, a certification under penalty of perjury that such an eviction action has been filed, or that debtor, during the 30-day period preceding the date of the filing of the certification, have endangered property or illegally used or allowed to be used a controlled substance on the property.

If such a certification is filed then debtor is required to file an objection with the court and serve such objection on the landlord within 15 days of the landlord’s certification. The court will hold a hearing, and debtor will have the burden of proving that the landlord is incorrect.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Bankruptcy and Judgments

One of the issues that periodically concerns my clients is the one of removing filed judgments after receiving bankruptcy discharge. Initially, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy won’t remove a judgment that has been already filed. Whether or not the debtor will need to remove it after receiving a discharge in either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy depends on each individual situation.

When a debtor files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, that debtor is trying to remove his or her personal liability for repayment of certain debts. If a creditor sued the debtor and obtained a judgment before the bankruptcy case was filed, then the bankruptcy filing will eliminate that liability, but the judgment is a separate matter. It is a record of an official result of a lawsuit and remains filed with the court or local county clerk’s office. Even when the bankruptcy discharged liability for the debt, the record of the judgment remains in place.

In those situations, debtors have two different options.  Option one is to do nothing. Assuming the underlying debt is has been discharged in your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, the judgment remains nothing more than a piece of paper.
The creditor cannot freeze debtor’s bank account, seize wages, or take any further collection action. However, the judgment may remain on record as a valid lien against any property you owned at the time your Chapter 7 bankruptcy was filed. In New York, the judgment is automatically a lien against real property. The creditor can’t do anything with the lien, but it will need to be paid off in the event that you try to sell the property while the judgment is in place, or removed via a motion under Section 522(f) of the Bankruptcy Code. A judgment does not last forever. Judgments expire in 10 years under  New York laws, but may be extended of an additional 10 year period.

Some debtors prefer to have discharged judgments removed. That brings us to option two. Under New York Debtor and Creditor Law Section 150, once a year has passed since the debtor’s discharge in bankruptcy, the debtor may apply for an order, directing that a discharge or a qualified discharge of record be marked upon the docket of the judgment.  If the debtor fails to take this action, the judgment will remain on record with the New York Supreme Court or New York Civil Court and will remain enforceable.

Given the above, the debtors have options in dealing with any discharged judgments. Each debtor’s financial circumstances and other factors will factor into the decision whether to have any outstanding judgments removed. In my experience, unless the judgment is impairing the debtor’s interest in real property, vast majority of debtors will not seek to remove discharged judgments.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Executory Contracts and Leases in Bankruptcy

In Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy cases, debtors have an opportunity to either continue or terminate any executory contracts or leases. That typically means that debtors will list their executory contracts and unexpired leases on the bankruptcy petition and declare their intention to either to accept or to reject those contracts. If such contracts are not timely assumed, they are deemed rejected, and debtors are released from further performance under those contracts.

An executory contract is an agreement that has not been completed. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties to perform certain specified actions. Once the parties complete all contractual obligations the contract becomes fully executed and the parties to that contract have no further obligation to act under that contract. An example of an executory contract is an agreement to sell property in which the buyer and seller agree to perform certain actions including inspecting the property, making certain repairs, obtaining financing, transferring title, delivering possession and making payment. Until all contractual requirements are met, the contract remains open to be executed. One example of an executory contract that is very common is cell phone contracts.  Cell phone contracts are executory contracts during the typical two-year contract period.  By including the cell phone provider as a creditor in the bankruptcy petition, the contract is automatically terminated, and any early cancellation penalty becomes a dischargeable debt just like any other unsecured debt.

An unexpired lease is a form of contract for the use of certain specified real or personal property that has a specified length of time remaining on the length of the contract. An example of an unexpired lease is a rental agreement for the use of a car or a house where the owner agrees to provide the property to the lessee for a set number of months or years and the lessee agrees to make payments for using that property. For bankruptcy purposes, a timeshare falls into this category.

When a debtor files for bankruptcy, debtor required to list those executory contracts on the bankruptcy schedules because under Section 365 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, the trustee is given the power to assume or reject any executory contract or unexpired lease. In other words, bankruptcy trustee can, if he or she chooses, take over the obligation or let it lapse. If the debtor is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the trustee gets 60 days to accept or reject an executory contract. A failure to do so leads to an automatic rejection. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the trustee may usually assume or reject an executory contract or unexpired lease of residential real property or of personal property at any time before the confirmation of the Chapter 13 Plan.

Bankruptcy code section 11 U.S.C. 365 requires that the debtor assume an executory contract or unexpired lease in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy within 60 days of filing the case; and in all other chapters of bankruptcy before confirmation of a plan. The court may extend the time to assume such agreements for cause. In the case of non-residential real estate agreements, the time to act is extended to 120 days or longer by court order.

Depending on the situation, the debtor may either assume to reject any executory contract. This decision generally depends on the existing financial circumstances.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Upcoming Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Filing Fees Increases

It seems inevitable that bankruptcy filing fees are going up again.  The Judicial Conference which determines the amount of various filing fees associated with bankruptcy cases has approved a fee increase which will be effective on June 1, 2014.

The fees for filing a chapter 7 case will increase from $306.00 to $335.00. The fees for filing a chapter 13 case will increase from $281.00 to $310.00. This is a $29.00 increase in the filing fees for both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcies.

The fees for filing an adversary proceeding will increase as well to $350.00. However, debtors are not charged filing fees for adversary proceedings. Chapter 11 filing fees will increase to $1,717.00.

Unfortunately, it will get more and more expensive for the debtors to achieve any relief from their debts.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.

Creditors’s Responsibilities After Bankruptcy Filing

On the bankruptcy petition is filed, the bankruptcy automatic stay is in effect in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies, and virtually every type of collection activity is called to a halt. The bankruptcy court enters an order under 11 U.S.C §362, which prohibits nearly all creditors from taking any type of collection action.

What happens if the bankruptcy automatic stay is violated? If a creditor violates the automatic stay by accident, it must return the money or stop the collection action as soon as it learns about the bankruptcy. However, if the stay violation is done by the creditor on purpose, and if it is considered a “willful” violation, and substantial penalties can apply. In the event of an intentional violation of the bankruptcy stay, the Bankruptcy Code provides strong remedies for the debtor. After a willful stay violation, the debtor can recover not only the money or property that was wrongfully taken, but may also be entitled to attorney fees and even punitive damages.

Since automatic stay applies to all collection activities, with some very limited exceptions, even collections related to unpaid taxes must stop. A recent case of In re Voll, Case No. 13-31058 (N.D.N.Y. 2013), the bankruptcy court held that the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance committed a willful violation of the automatic stay after it had failed to vacate an income execution on debtor’s employer.

The following facts were undisputed. Prior to commencement of the case, the Department of Taxation served an income execution on debtor’s employer, which resulted in the weekly garnishment of debtor’s wages to satisfy a 2012 tax warrant. Subsequently, on June 7, 2013, debtors tiled Chapter 13 bankruptcy. On that same day, debtors’ counsel sent a letter to the Department of Taxation notifying it of the bankruptcy filing and requesting that the referenced income execution be lifted. Debtors scheduled the Department of Taxation as a creditor in their bankruptcy schedules and referenced the outstanding tax warrant.  The Department of Taxation was properly listed at the address designated by the Department for receipt of all bankruptcy notices. On June 9, 2013, the Bankruptcy Noticing Center sent the Department of Taxation an official notice of commencement of the case, which the Department admits receiving on June 12, 2013.

Six days later, on June 18, 2013, the Department of Taxation mailed its release of the income execution to the debtor at her residence and to her employer at a post office box in Evansville, Indiana. The mailed release was the first and only document provided by the Department to debtor’s employer to cease the garnishment of Debtor’s wages. After mailing the release, the Department of Taxation took no additional actions.

Notwithstanding the Department being on notice of debtors’ June 7 filing and its issuance of the release; the garnishment of debtor’s wages continued from paychecks issued on June 14, June 21, June 28 and July 5, 2013. The Department was not aware of the continuing post-petition garnishment of debtor’s wages on its behalf until debtors tiled their motion seeking to find the Department in willful violation of automatic stay. Upon receipt of the motion, the Department promptly returned the funds improperly deducted from debtor’s post-petition wages.

The bankruptcy court found that the Department’s acts and omissions constituted a willful violation of the automatic stay. The court stated that it is creditor’s duty to ensure that the garnishment ceases, and that the Department, by waiting for six days before mailing the release to debtor’s employer and failing to make sure that the release was received and followed, had violated automatic stay.

The lesson from Voll is that creditors have their responsibilities once the debtors file for bankruptcy.  They have to take affirmative actions to ensure that the automatic stay is not violated and they cannot passively thwart a federal injunction of which one has knowledge by sitting back and allowing acts that are enjoined to continue. When a debtor’s wages are subject to garnishment, the creditor must take immediate action to effectively address its termination.

If you contemplating filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, or are dealing with debt problems in Western New York, including Rochester, Canandaigua, Brighton, Pittsford, Penfield, Perinton, Fairport, Webster, Victor, Farmington, Greece, Gates, Hilton, Parma, Brockport, Spencerport, LeRoy, Chili, Churchville, Monroe County, Ontario County, Wayne County, Orleans County, Livingston County, and being harassed by bill collectors, and would like to know more about how bankruptcy may be able to help you, contact me today by phone or email to schedule a FREE initial consultation with a Rochester, NY, bankruptcy lawyer.