FRANK D. TAFF, J.D., Attorney at Law
WHAT CAN BANKRUPTCY DO FOR YOU?
What Is Bankruptcy?
Bankruptcy is a legal proceeding in which a person who cannot pay his or her bills can get a fresh financial start. The right to file for bankruptcy is provided by federal law, and all bankruptcy cases are handled in federal court. Filing bankruptcy immediately stops all of your creditors from seeking to collect debts from you, at least until your debts are sorted out according to the law.
Bankruptcy may make it possible for you to:
● Eliminate the legal obligation to pay most or all of your debts. This is called a “discharge” of debts. It is designed to give you a fresh financial start.
● Stop foreclosure on your house or manufactured home and allow you an opportunity to catch up on missed payments. (Bankruptcy does not, however, automatically eliminate mortgages and other liens on your property without payment.)
● Prevent repossession of a car or other property, or force the creditor to return property even after it has been repossessed.
● Stop wage garnishment, debt collection harassment, and similar creditor actions to collect a debt.
● Restore or prevent termination of utility service.
● Allow you to challenge the claims of creditors who have committed fraud or who are otherwise trying to collect more than you really owe.
What Must I Do Before Filing Bankruptcy?
You must receive budget and credit counseling from an approved credit counseling agency within 180 days before your bankruptcy case is filed. The agency will review possible options available to you in credit counseling and assist you in reviewing your budget. Different agencies provide the counseling in-person, by telephone, or over the Internet. If you decide to file bankruptcy, you must have a certificate from the agency showing that you received the counseling before your bankruptcy case was filed.
Most approved agencies charge between $10–$50 for the pre-filing counseling. However, the law requires approved agencies to provide bankruptcy counseling and the necessary certificates without considering an individual’s ability to pay. If you cannot afford the fee, you should ask the agency to provide the counseling free of charge or at a reduced fee.
What Different Types of Bankruptcy Cases Should I Consider?
There are four types of bankruptcy cases provided under the law:
● Chapter 7 is known as “straight” bankruptcy or “liquidation.” It requires an individual to give up property which is not “exempt” under the law, so the property can be sold to pay creditors. Generally, those who file chapter 7 keep all of their property except property which is very valuable or which is subject to a lien which they cannot avoid or afford to pay.
● Chapter 11, known as “reorganization,” is used by businesses and a few individuals whose debts are very large.
● Chapter 12 is reserved for family farmers and fishermen.
● Chapter 13 is a type of “reorganization” used by individuals to pay all or a portion of their debts over a period of years using their current income.
Most people filing bankruptcy will want to file under either chapter 7 or chapter 13. Either type of case may be filed individually or by a married couple filing jointly.
What Bankruptcy Cannot Do.
Bankruptcy cannot, however, cure every financial problem. Nor is it the right step for every individual. In bankruptcy, it is usually not possible to:
● Eliminate certain rights of “secured” creditors. A creditor is “secured” if it has taken a mortgage or other lien on property as collateral for a loan. Common examples are car loans and home mortgages. You can force secured creditors to take payments over time in the bankruptcy process and bankruptcy can eliminate your obligation to pay any additional money on the debt if you decide to give back the property. But you generally cannot keep secured property unless you continue to pay the debt.
● Discharge types of debts singled out by the bankruptcy law for special treatment, such as child support, alimony, most student loans, court restitution orders, criminal fines, and most taxes.
● Discharge debts that arise after bankruptcy has been filed.
● Protect cosigners on your debts. When a relative or friend has cosigned a loan, and the consumer discharges the loan in bankruptcy, the cosigner may still have to repay all or part of the loan. Cosigners on some debts can be protected, however, if a chapter 13 bankruptcy is filed.