What Happens to My Bankruptcy Case During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Over the course of the last few weeks, it has become clear that the consequences of the COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) pandemic are far reaching. In order to protect the health and safety of individuals, certain precautionary measures must be implemented.

Federal courts, including bankruptcy courts, have continued to operate subject to significant limitations. So far, here in Western New York, most of the proceedings, primarily motions and conferences, are going to be handled via telephone and/or video conferencing. Since bankruptcy relies on electronic filing, new Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases can still be filed.

Effective immediately, all in-person Chapter 7, 12, and 13 section 341 meetings (meetings of the creditors) scheduled through April 10, 2020, have been continued until a later date to be determined. Section 341 meetings may not proceed during this period except through telephonic or other alternative means not requiring personal appearance by debtors. Appropriate notice will be provided to attorneys and parties in accordance with bankruptcy law and rules for any telephonic meetings scheduled during this period.

I think that the situation is very fluid at this time, and may change depending on the circumstances. I will continue to update this post with new information as it becomes available.

Are Pension or 401k Loans Dischargeable?

A significant percentage of retirement plans, like pensions or 401k plans, allow you to borrow money from individual accounts in case of need. One of the most common situations is debtors borrowing money from their retirement accounts to try to pay back their debts. Unfortunately, if these debtors decide to file bankruptcy, the pension or 401K loans they took out will not be dischargeable in Chapter 7. Further, if a bankruptcy was filed, these retirement accounts could have been protected in their entirety since retirement accounts are fully exempt under either federal or New York exemptions in either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy court views loans from retirement accounts differently than a credit card, a car loan or a mortgage. When you borrow from your retirement account, you are essentially borrowing from yourself, and as result, the loan is not considered dischargeable in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. However, these loans can possibly be included in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy repayment plan, and any amount not repaid at the completion of the 3-5 year plan will typically be discharged. If you have already taken a loan against a pension or 401k account, then Chapter 13 might be the best option, depending on other factors. For many debtors, a pension or 401k account are their biggest assets that should be protected and a bankruptcy filing prior to borrowing money from those accounts would do that.

While borrowing from retirement funds is often seen as a last resort, it should not be. There could be a good reason to borrow against a retirement account in a healthy financial situation, but as a desperate effort to pay bills, borrowing from a pension or 401K will do more harm than good. Realize that if you are considering taking a loan against a retirement account that you have already reached the last straw. Discussing your bankruptcy options should really be the next step.

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.

Determining Chapter 13 Repayment Plan Payment

If debtor does not qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, that debtor is likely to qualify for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. The most important issue for anyone filing Chapter 13 is to know is how much their Chapter 13 Plan payment will be. In my opinion, given the typical 5 year duration of Chapter 13, properly set plan payment is the most important factor in whether the case will be a success.

Determining the amount of the payment can be challenging at the very beginning of the case. Early estimates of plan payment can change significantly as more information becomes available.

Generally, there are four tests applicable to determining the amount of the Chapter 13 Plan payment:

The Chapter 13 Means Test (officially, the “Chapter 13 Statement of Your Current Monthly Income and Calculation of Commitment Period and Calculation of Your Disposable Income”);
The Disposable Income Test;
The Chapter 7 Liquidation Analysis Test; and
The Required Payments Test

The Chapter 13 Means Test was imposed when BAPCPA became law in 2005. The Means Test’s purpose is to determine whether debtor’s Plan would be 3 years or 5 years long, and to have an objective way to determine the amount of the payment. This calculation uses one of the established four methods of determining your Chapter 13 Plan payment.

The Disposable Income Test is the only one of the four tests that is strictly based on debtor’s ability to pay. Initially, debtor’s net household income is calculated and from that figure, debtor’s actual reasonable monthly expenses are subtracted. The resulting number–disposable income–is Chapter 13 Plan payment. That calculation does not include a deduction for the debts that will be paid through the Chapter 13 case, such as mortgage arrears, car loan payments, student loan payments, tax payments, and credit card bills.

In the Chapter 7 Liquidation Analysis Test, bankruptcy attorney looks at how much debtor’s general unsecured creditors (typically credit cards, medical bills and personal loans) would receive in a hypothetical Chapter 7 case. In many cases, they would receive zero, because there are no non-exempt assets with equity, and creditors would get nothing in a Chapter 7 case. The total amount of payments under Chapter 13 plan can’t be less than the amount determined under the Liquidation Analysis Test.

The last test is the Required Payments Test. Usually, priority debt, such as recent taxes and domestic support obligations, must be paid in full during the course of the Chapter 13 case. Mortgage and other secured debt arrears must also be paid in full, along with unpaid attorney fees, trustee commissions and (in most cases) at least a nominal amount to the general unsecured creditors. Add these payments up, and you reach the Required Payments.

After all of the numbers under each test have been calculated, debtor is required pick the highest amount, which becomes the plan payment. At the same time, that figure may change during the case as creditors submit their proofs of claim, as debtor’s income, expenses and assets change. This figure may also change depending on trustee’s view of the debtor’s 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, Henrietta, 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.

Student Loans and Possibility of Discharge

I have previously written about dischargeability of student loans in bankruptcy. For most people filing bankruptcy does not result in a discharge of a student loan under the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (“BAPCPA”) amendments. The code, as amended, does not provide for the discharge of a student loan in a bankruptcy. In order for the student loan to be discharged, the debtor must brings a lawsuit, known as adversarial proceeding, and ask bankruptcy judge to make a determination that the continued existence of the student loan will create an “undue hardship” on the debtor. Under the applicable prior decisions, “undue hardship” is the most difficult part, that is the debtor must convince the bankruptcy court judge that in this case under the circumstances applicable to this debtor, the debtor will not be able to make any significant payments on the student loans owed. The high burden of proof makes these lawsuits extremely difficult.

However, under appropriate circumstances, it may be possible to determine what position the Department of Education may take on student loan dischargeability. The Department of Education recently issued a guidance letter on whether a student loan dischargeability lawsuit will be litigated or whether the Department of Education will recommend agreeing to the discharge.

The Department of Education seems to be focusing on a number of factors such as debtor’s efforts in trying to repay the loans, physical or mental disability leading to inability to work, likelihood of significant future income and factors beyond debtor’s control that led to the filing of bankruptcy.

Private student loan lenders have no such policy and it will be up to the individual creditor/lender to determine if their attorney will defend such a lawsuit vigorously or agree to settlement before a trial or go to trial.

It is never easy to obtain discharge of student loans in bankruptcy and all potential alternatives should be explored. Another option may be Income-Based Repayment (“IBR”). This program was designed to make sure that graduates who aren’t earning a significant income after graduation aren’t spending all their income on repaying their student loans and may result in a significant payment reduction and potential loan cancellation.

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.

Making a Choice Between Bankruptcy and Short Sale

Homeowners who are underwater on their home mortgages (underwater mortgage means that the homeowner owes more than his/her house is worth) often attempt to do a short sale. A short sale occurs when the homeowner sells the home to a third party for less than what is owed on the note, and the mortgage lender accepts the proceeds of the sale in full satisfaction of the note. The mortgage lender must approve the short sale before it can go through. A short sale can be a good option for homeowners who do not want to keep their homes, and are willing to move out almost right away.

However, before going through with a short sale, a homeowner should see if Chapter 7 Bankruptcy would be a better option. In a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, the homeowner’s liability on the note is discharged and the home does not have to be surrendered right away and the homeowner does not have to immediately move out of the house. The homeowner can continue to live in the house without making any payments while the lender goes through the lengthy process of foreclosure. In New York, foreclosures can take years before the mortgage lender can hold a foreclosure sale. Even after the house is sold at foreclosure sale, the new buyer (which is often the mortgage lender itself) has to start eviction proceedings to evict the homeowner from the home. This may give the homeowner time to save up money for a move or a new home. Any shortfall that may result from the sale of the house is eliminated in the bankruptcy, meaning the homeowner owes the mortgage lender nothing when they move.

A final, and highly significant, difference between Chapter 7 Bankruptcy and short sale is tax advantages of a bankruptcy filing. When a mortgage lender accepts a short sale, the homeowner will have to pay taxes on the amount forgiven by the lender. Under the tax code, debt forgiveness is considered income and the mortgage lender will generally send the homeowner IRS Form 1009-C form for it. The homeowner will have to report it as income on his/her tax return. As a result, the amount of forgiven debt will be added to the homeowner’s income as miscellaneous income, and while not subject to self-employment or social security tax, it will be subject to income taxes. If the amount of the forgiven debt is significant, the debtor may face an unexpected tax liability amounting to thousands of dollars. In a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, there is no tax liability for the debt that is eliminated as a result of the filing.

Deed in lieu of foreclosure is similar to a short sale. The main difference is that unlike short sale where the property is transferred to a third party, in deed in lieu of foreclosure, the property is transferred directly to the lender. It has tax consequences identical to those of a short sale.

Short sales and Chapter 7 Bankruptcies are both good options for homeowners who want to walk away for their homes and their mortgages. When your home is underwater and you are considering a short sale, it is important to talk to an experienced bankruptcy lawyer first. That way you can review your options and make an informed decision.

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.

Can Debtor Keep a Credit Card After Filing Bankruptcy

I am often asked if debtor can keep a credit card after the bankruptcy is filed, especially if the credit card does not have a balance. Generally, debtors are always interested in trying to keep a credit card after the bankruptcy is filed whether as a means of having credit for emergencies or renting a car or hotel room.

My answer to these questions as follows.  Initially, the debtor is required to disclose to the bankruptcy court everyone the debtor owes money to. So, if there is money owed to a credit card issuer, this debt would have to be disclosed and listed in the petition, and, ultimately, discharged.

If the card does not have a balance, it does not need to be listed.  However, that card is still going to be closed by the issuer after the bankruptcy is filed, both for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases. Essentially all credit card issuers subscribe to an automatic monitoring service such as AACER or one of AACER’s competitor. Those services will notify the bank even if a particular credit card is not listed in the petition.

In my experience, in nearly every case, all credit cards will be cancelled within days of the bankruptcy filing. Thus, it makes no difference if the card with zero balance is listed, but I usually list it anyway.

Once the debtor completes his or her Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the debtor is likely to be able to obtain new credit cards within 1 to 2 years after receiving the discharge.  At the same time, my advice to the debtors is not to open new credit cards or if a credit card is necessary, to open one with a low credit limit or a secured credit card. There is always a risk that debtor will become overextended once again, and it is prudent to avoid it.

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.

Stripping Second Mortgages in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Handing banks a significant victory, in Bank of America v. Caulkett, the Supreme Court ruled that homeowners who file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy may not expect to have their second mortgage loans canceled, even if they owe more on their homes than the properties are worth.  In a unanimous decision, the court held that second mortgages may not be “stripped off,” or voided, if the property is underwater, or worth less than the mortgage debt. Caulkett decision protects mortgage lenders, which extended second mortgages during the housing boom on homes that are now worth much less than their values when they were purchased.

The ruling, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, came from Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases filed in 2013 by homeowners who sought to strip off their second mortgages. The named plaintiff, David B. Caulkett, owed a first mortgage totaling $183,264 at the time of his bankruptcy filing, but his home was valued at $98,000.

The lender for Mr. Caulkett’s first mortgage could have expected to recover part of the loan by selling the home, since the house was considered collateral for the loan. But his lawyer argued that his home was so far underwater that the $47,855 second mortgage he took out from Bank or America was essentially unsecured, and thus should be stripped off as part of his bankruptcy filing.

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, debtors are typically permitted to cancel unsecured debts like credit cards and personal loans. The question before the Supreme Court was whether a second mortgage could be considered such an unsecured debt because the “security” backing the loan had been wiped out by falling home values. The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sided with Mr. Caulkett, and Bank of America appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled that the second mortgage could not be stripped off simply because the home, the security underlying the debt, was worth less than the mortgage. The Supreme Court ruling will now prevent underwater homeowners from easily discharging home equity loans and other types of second mortgages in Chapter 7 bankruptcies.

The Supreme Court ruling does not completely prevent homeowners from voiding their second mortgages. Homeowner may still seek to strip off second mortgages after filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy case.  In order to do so, the debtor must file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case and what is known as a “Pond” motion.  The motion is named after a decision, In re Pond, 252 F.3d 122 (2nd Cir. 2001). Here is a detailed discussion of Pond motion and the process of stripping a second mortgage.

This decision forces the debtors and their bankruptcy lawyer to engage in a cost benefit analysis in a situation where there is a wholly unsecured second or mortgage.  Assuming the debtors can file either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, the benefits of filing Chapter 7 Bankruptcy and discharging all unsecured debt, should be compared to the benefit of a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy plan payments over 5 years, and a likely discharge of the unsecured second or third mortgage.  Assuming the debtors wish to retain their residence, the comparison of two figures should point them in the right direction.

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.

Changes to the Bankruptcy Means Test as of May 15, 2015

Once again, the means test figures for median income are being changed as of May 15, 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 May 14, 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 May 15, 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.

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.