Why People turn to Chapter 13
In a crisis, Chapter 7 is great at quickly disposing of your unsecured debt like credit cards, medical bills, and personal loans where the bank has no collateral, but it doesn’t stop the trustee from taking your really valuable assets like a house with a small mortgage, or a $7000 car with the loan paid off. For this reason, you need to be very careful about filing a Chapter 7 if you have a house or car loan in trouble.
Even worse, it doesn’t stop a house foreclosure or a car repossession when you’ve fallen behind. When that happens, a rock solid fallback to save your assets is Chapter 13.
But there is a catch: You can save your property in Chapter 13, but you must pay back creditors over a three or five year period.
How it Works
Let’s say you got laid off, you’ve used up your savings, and your credit report lights up like a Christmas tree when you ask for credit. Worse, car repairs mean you’ve fallen behind on your mortgage, three months. Then there’s a knock at the door: It’s the process server with legal papers from your mortgage bank: They have started a foreclosure action against you — you have twenty days to respond to the papers.
You call your attorney, he reviews the papers and tells you the only thing you can do to stop the foreclosure dead in the water is to file a Chapter 13. A Chapter 7 will just delay things a bit – and you might even lose your house if there’s too much value in the house.
So you see an experienced bankruptcy attorney. This is not something you want to do yourself — about 99% of Chapter 13’s carried out without an attorney fail, sometimes resulting in loss of house or car.
The first thing he wants to know is when is the foreclosure — he can file on an emergency basis and often does, but if the house has already been sold at the foreclosure auction you lose it all.
Assume you have time – if you just got served you might have 6-9 months, and much more if he finds a basis for opposition to the foreclosure. Then he will want to calculate the amount that has to be paid over the three or five year plan period.
Example: You have fallen behind about $12 000 in mortgage payments. He knows you have to pay 100% of that over the plan period. Suppose you also have property taxes of $3000. That too must be paid 100%. So he tells you that you must pay about $18000 over a five year plan, or, dividing by 60 months, $300 per month to the plan trustee.
Next he looks to see if your income and expenses make this monthly payment possible.
This is key: You must prove to the Chapter 13 trustee who runs your bankruptcy that this is not a wild goose chase. He does this at a Section 341(a) creditors meeting (see below).
Chapter 13 filings have risen dramatically with the increase in property values, which have made the standard Chapter 7 case too risky to clients’ homes. The only way to get relief is through Chapter 13, which offers complete security of assets in exchange for regular fair payments to creditors, often at rates as low as 10% to unsecured creditors.
First it’s possible for just one of you to file and your spouse or other co-debtor gets protected for the duration of the case on joint debt. There are some rare exceptions to this — be careful of tax and commercial situations.
Second, you can get out at any time. This right of dismissal is very valuable if, let’s say, you decide to sell your house. But re-filing is now a real problem–don’t dismiss lightly.
Third, it can give you valuable breathing room to regroup. Some plans provide for low early payments and perhaps a sale of property within a 6 month period. All creditors get paid, but you get time and an opportunity to sell at best price.
Fourth, this chapter stays on your credit report for less time, and allows you to state that all creditors were paid.
Fifth, it stops interest and penalties on most unsecured debt.–huge in the case of credit card and some tax debt.
Sixth, if creditors don’t file a claim, you don’t pay them anything.
STAGE ONE: FILE THE PETITION
The petition is a 40 page book filled with facts about you and your creditors, your assets, your income, your expenses. It’s a critical document and must be truthfully put together. Lies in the petition can get you jail time, no matter who you are. It’s filed together with a PLAN, that spells out what you will pay to the plan, and how different types of creditors will be treated (Taxes 100%, Mortgage arrears 100%, and the balance to unsecured creditors like credit cards). Note that unsecured creditors must get at least 10%, or more depending on special calculations your attorney will work out.
Once your signed petition is filed (a complex process these days — it’s done online and hard copies must also be delivered for the trustee) all creditor actions against you must stop — creditors can be severely sanctioned for breaking this rule.
STAGE TWO: MEET THE TRUSTEE
The trustee is a hard taskmaster. First thing he wants will be documents showing your income pay stubs, and tax returns. Also, unless you are going to pay all creditors 100% of their claims, he wants appraisals of your house and car.
Next you have to travel to a 341(a) meeting where he will go through your petition, income and expenses in detail. He’ll also give you some idea of any more information he needs.
STAGE THREE: REVIEWING THE CLAIMS FILED
Meanwhile the creditors in a Chapter 13 will not get paid unless they file a claim with the court, known as a proof of claim. Your attorney will pay great attention to these, first because some may be so outrageous that he advises you to file an objection to claim. Be careful about this, as it costs extra usually.
STAGE FOUR: CONFIRMATION
The whole point of all this is to get your case permanently approved by the court, or confirmed. It’s a difficult process, requiring careful scrutiny of the claims filed, and then putting together various documents for the court and trustee, showing which creditors will get what, and showing finally the details of your plan as it has been modified. The reason it often gets modified is that your earlier estimates of claims were too low.
On the appointed day you go up to see the trustee again — usually the judge too.
In many cases your attorney will have sent advance copies of the new documents up so the trustee has a chance to see them and make his own calculations as to whether they comply with the specific rules of the bankruptcy code.
STAGE FIVE: KEEP ON PAYING
Remember that from the first day of your bankruptcy, the clock ticks. You have to continue normal payments to your mortgage or car loan company on the same date as before. If you don’t, the creditor will quickly file a Motion for Relief from Stay so he can go ahead outside of the bankruptcy and repossess or foreclose. This will blow your chapter 13 out of the water, since the trustee insists that you stay current on secured debt.
And if you call on your attorney to help you with an agreement to catch up, its going to cost you. It is also going to cost you from the creditor, who has his legal fees from your late payment.
And if you’re late with the trustee he will file a motion to dismiss your case. Assuming you are current with him, he pays out your money to creditors every quarter.
Sometimes you can file again, but under certain conditions (for example if there’s a Motion for Relief from Stay filed) you may not file for 180 days — that means in many cases that your house will be sold.
It is sometimes possible to modify the plan. And it is almost always possible to dismiss your own case. Finally, after the plan period ends, and all payments made, all debts are discharged, including those unsecured debts which were not filed with the court — perhaps 10 to 25% of creditors are discharged without payment.
Basically Chapter 13 requires that you can make monthly payments of at least $100 on a plan to your creditors, and at the same time you must resume your normal mortgage and car payments. As a simple guideline this means paying 10% or so to your unsecured creditor bills over 60 months – typically $100 per month for 60 months on $60 000 credit card debt.
But if you owe taxes or arrears on your mortgage (if you are stopping a foreclosure, say, to save your house) you have to pay those taxes or arrears in full over 60 months. So if you are $30 000 behind on your mortgage, that will take a minimum of $500 per month over 60 months (or $30 000 total) to save the house.
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