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Bankruptcy FAQ’s

GeorgetteMillerLaw.com > Bankruptcy FAQ’s

What Should I Bring With Me To My First FREE Bankruptcy Consultation?

  • Last 3 months bank statements
  • Pay stubs for the last 6 months
  • Tax Returns for the last 4 years
  • Latest mortgage statement (if you have a mortgage)
  • Latest car statement (if you are financing a car)
  • Copy of a deed
  • Proof of homeowner’s insurance- current (not expired)
  • Proof of car insurance- current, (not expired)
  • Copy of all your bills
  • Vehicle registration (NY)
  • Vehicle titles (NY)
  • Leases (if you’re renting to a tenant)
  • Life Insurance (whole life)
  • 401(K) statements

What Disclosures Must A Collection Agency Provide A Debtor?

Typically, a collection agency begins its efforts with an introductory letter. This letter usually contains the required legal disclosures, which include:

  • The amount of the debt,
  • The name of the original creditor,
  • The period of time in which the debtor may dispute the validity of the debt (thirty days), and
  • The obligation of the collection agency to send the debtor verification of the debt if its validity is disputed.

In the original correspondence, the collection agency must also inform the debtor that it is attempting to collect a debt and that any information it gathers from the debtor or other sources will be used for that purpose. If this information is not included in the initial contact letter, the collection agency must provide it within five days.

Most lawyers recommend that debtors request verification of the debt because, in that case, a collection agency may not resume collection efforts until the information is confirmed with the original creditor. The collection agency may not, whether by threatening to destroy the debtor’s credit rating or by threatening to sue if payment is not received immediately, make a statement in the initial correspondence that overshadows the debtor’s right to dispute the debt for thirty days.

What Actions Must A Collection Agency Avoid?

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a collection agency may not act in the following ways:

  • Third-party communications. The collection agency cannot contact third parties other than the debtor’s attorney or a credit bureau for any reason other than to locate the debtor. Collection agents who contact third parties must state their names, and may only add that they are confirming or correcting information about the debtor. They cannot give the collection agency’s name unless asked directly. They cannot state that they are calling about a debt. Collection agents may not contact a third party repeatedly unless they believe an earlier response was wrong or incomplete and that the third party has revised information. Further, collection agents cannot communicate with third parties by postcard or by correspondence that uses words or symbols that betray their collection motive.
  • Attorney-represented debtor. A collection agency cannot contact the debtor directly if counsel represents him or her unless the debtor gives the collection agency specific permission to do so.
  • Debtor communications. Collection agents may not contact debtors before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. or at another inconvenient time or place. Collection agents also may not contact a debtor at work if he or she knows that the employer bans receipt of collection calls while on the job.
  • Harassment or abuse. Agents cannot threaten or use violence against the debtor or another person. They cannot use obscene or profane language. They cannot publish a debtor’s name on a blacklist or other public posting. Agents cannot call repeatedly or contact the debtor without identifying themselves as bill collectors.
  • False or misleading statements. Agents may not lie about the debt, their identity, the amount owed, or the consequences for the debtor. They cannot send documents that resemble legal filings or court papers. Agents cannot offer incentives to disclose information.

Unfair practices. Agents may not engage in unfair or shocking methods to collect, including adding interest or fees to the debt, soliciting post-dated checks by threatening criminal prosecution, calling the debtor collect, or threatening to seize property to which the agency has no right.

Are There Any Alternatives To Filing Bankruptcy?

Debtors who have faced obstacles to paying off their debts when due have no doubt received more than their fair share of demanding letters and phone calls, and the thought of getting rid of their debts, and thus the constant demands, through bankruptcy can be quite appealing.

Before making a decision to pursue that route, which can have long-term effects on credit rating and the ability to make large purchases, like a home, debtors should consider other less drastic alternatives. If the debtor’s financial problems are only temporary, he or she may want to ask creditors to accept lower payments or that payments are scheduled over a longer period of time.

Creditors may be receptive to these ideas if the debtor has been a prompt payer in the past, or if the specter of bankruptcy is raised, since creditors know that once a bankruptcy proceeding is initiated they will probably collect only a portion of what is owed. In addition, creditors may wish to avoid the difficulties of a court proceeding to collect on the debt, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

Consumer credit counselors can also help creditors work out a repayment plan. Some of these advisors work for non-profit agencies, so they charge no fees. Many credit-counseling services charge a fee for their guidance, however, and it may not appeal to an already over-stressed debtor to add another debt to the stockpile.

If the debtor’s financial troubles are long-term or if the creditors will not agree to an alternative payment plan informally, bankruptcy may be the best way for the debtor to get out from under an insurmountable debt load. Although it is not without its adverse consequences, bankruptcy can be the right option to enable debtors to make a fresh start.

Are Student Loans Discharged In A Bankruptcy Proceeding?

Educational loans guaranteed by the United States government are generally not discharged by a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. They may be dischargeable; however, if the court finds that paying off the loan will impose an undue hardship on the debtor and his or her dependents.

In order to qualify for a hardship discharge, the debtor must demonstrate that he or she cannot make payments at the time the bankruptcy is filed and will not be able to make payments in the future. The debtor must apply before the discharge of the debtor’s other debts is granted. Application for a hardship discharge is not included in the standard bankruptcy fees, and must be paid for after the case is filed.

The Bankruptcy Code does not specifically define the requirements for granting a hardship discharge of a student loan. Courts have applied different standards, but they often apply a three-part test to determine eligibility: (1) income-if the debtor is forced to pay off the student loan, the debtor will not be able to maintain a minimum standard of living for himself or herself and his or her dependents; (2) duration-the financial circumstances that satisfy the income test in (3) will continue for a significant portion of the repayment period; and (4) good faith-the debtor must have made a good-faith effort to repay the loan prior to the bankruptcy.

What Effect Does A Bankruptcy Filing Have On The Collection Of Alimony And Child Support?

A Chapter 7 filing should have no effect on such collections. Although filing bankruptcy stops, or stays, all efforts to collect debts, the Bankruptcy Code excludes actions to collect child support or spousal maintenance from the stay unless the creditor attempts to collect from the property of the estate.

In a Chapter 7 proceeding, property of the estate includes all possessions, money, and interests the debtor owns at the time he or she files. Money earned after the bankruptcy is filed, however, is not property of the estate. Since most child and spousal support is paid out of the debtor’s current income, the bankruptcy should have little impact.

A debtor under Chapter 13 must pay all domestic support obligations that fall due after the petition is filed. Failure to do so could result in dismissal of the case.

Neither a Chapter 7 nor a Chapter 13 discharge affects future child or spousal support obligations. In other words, even at the conclusion of the bankruptcy proceeding, these on-going obligations remain.

Does A Bankruptcy Discharge Eliminate All Debts?

The rules on which debts are discharged, or eliminated, are different depending on which type of bankruptcy is filed. A Chapter 13 discharge affects only those debts provided for by the plan. Additional exceptions to a Chapter 13 discharge include claims for spousal and child support; educational loans; drunk driving liabilities; criminal fines and restitution obligations; and certain long-term obligations, such as home mortgages, that extend beyond the term of the plan.

In a Chapter 7 proceeding, the following debts are not discharged:

  • Debts or creditors not listed on the schedules filed at the outset of the case;
  • Most student loans, unless repayment would cause the debtor and his or her dependents undue hardship;
  • Recent federal, state, and local taxes;
  • Child support and spousal maintenance (alimony);
  • Government-imposed restitution, fines, or penalties;
  • Court fees;
  • Debts resulting from driving while intoxicated; and
  • Debts not dischargeable in a previous bankruptcy because of the debtor’s fraud.

In addition, the following debts are not discharged if the creditor objects during the case and proves that the debt fits one of these categories:

  • Debts from fraud, including certain debts for luxury goods or services incurred within sixty days before filing and certain cash advances taken within sixty days after filing;
  • Debts from willful and malicious acts;
  • Debts from embezzlement, larceny, or breach of fiduciary duty; and
  • Debts from a divorce settlement agreement or court decree, if the debtor has the ability to pay and the detriment to the recipient would be greater than the benefit to the debtor.

How Much Property Does The Debtor Have To Give Up In A Bankruptcy Proceeding?

Items that the debtor usually has to give up include:

  • Expensive musical instruments, unless the debtor is a professional musician;
  • Collections of stamps, coins, and other valuable items;
  • Family heirlooms;
  • Cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and other investments;
  • A second car or truck; and
  • A second or vacation home.

Certain types of property are exempt, however, which means that the debtor can keep them. Exempt property can include:

  • Motor vehicles, up to a certain value;
  • Reasonably necessary clothing;
  • Reasonably necessary household goods and furnishings;
  • Household appliances;
  • Jewelry, up to a certain value;
  • Pensions;
  • A portion of the equity in the debtor’s home;
  • Tools of the debtor’s trade or profession, up to a certain value;
  • A portion of unpaid but earned wages;
  • Public benefits, including public assistance (welfare), Social Security, and unemployment compensation, accumulated in a bank account; and
  • Damages awarded for personal injury.

Can I Discharge My Traffic Ticket In Bankruptcy?

One of the chief purposes of bankruptcy is to discharge debts that you can’t afford to pay which can provide you with a fresh financial start. Because it is not always in the best interest of the general population to allow the discharge of certain debts, Congress has made some debts non-dischargeable, like child support obligations, most student loans, and some tax debts. Included in this list are criminal fines and court-ordered restitution. Bankruptcy will simply not allow you to escape criminal liability.

Section 523(a)(7) of the bankruptcy code states:

“a discharge under section 727, 1141, 1228(a), or 1328(b) of this title does not discharge an individual from any debt – to the extent such debt is for a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit, and is not compensation for actual pecuniary loss, other than a tax penalty.”

In a Chapter 7 case, government fines are not dischargeable, including fines for criminal wrongdoing. However, a Chapter 13 debtor who completes all plan payments may be able to discharge certain non-criminal government fines. Section 1328(a)(3) of the bankruptcy code states that a Chapter 13 debtor who completes all payments under the Plan receives a discharge “of all debts provided for by the plan or disallowed under section 502 of this title, except any debt – for restitution, or a criminal fine, included in a sentence on the debtor’s conviction of a crime.”

In other words, if your fine is for a criminal act as defined by the state government, it is not dischargeable in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. If the fine is considered a civil penalty, it is not dischargeable in Chapter 7, but is discharged at the conclusion of your Chapter 13 case.

Each state classifies offenses like DUI, traffic violations, and even parking tickets as either “crimes” or “civil infractions.” Civil infractions are often minor offenses like driving a few miles over the speed limit or running a stop sign. Non-criminal fines are categorized with other unsecured creditors in the Chapter 13 plan, and paid whatever the debtor can afford over three to five years. Whatever is not paid during the plan is discharged at the end.

Even if a criminal fine is not dischargeable during bankruptcy, it can be included in the Chapter 13 plan. The creditor (often the state government) is not allowed to collect from the debtor during the bankruptcy. In some cases this can prevent the debtor from having a license revoked or spending time in jail for non-payment of the fine. At the end of the case a non-dischargeable debt survives and the state can collect from you.

If you need to file bankruptcy and have outstanding government fines, speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney and discuss your options. Bankruptcy can provide extra time for paying the fine, or possibly discharge the debt altogether. Get the facts from your specific case from your attorney.

Will A Debtor Lose His Or Her Home By Filing Bankruptcy?

One of the debtor’s major concerns in a consumer bankruptcy is the thought of losing the family home. Although that is possible in some cases, loss of the debtor’s home need not always result from a bankruptcy filing. If the debtor in a Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy is behind on his or her mortgage payments, the home could be lost.

The mortgage lender in such cases usually asks the bankruptcy court to lift the automatic stay so that it can institute foreclosure proceedings, in which case the home will be sold and the proceeds used to pay off the debt. Whether a debtor who is not behind on mortgage payments will lose his or her house depends on how much equity the debtor has in the property and the amount of the state homestead exemption. If the amount of debt owed on the home is less than the home’s market value, the debtor could lose the house unless the homestead exemption entitles the debtor to most of the equity.

In a Chapter 13 proceeding, however, even if the debtor is behind on mortgage payments, if the wage-earner plan includes paying back any missed mortgage payments and current payments are paid when due as well, the debtor should not lose his or her home. If the debtor is current on his or her house payments, the home will not be lost if the debtor continues to make payments when due.

If the debtor is a renter rather than a homeowner, and if the debtor is current in his or her rent payments, it is unlikely that the lessor would even become aware of the bankruptcy proceeding. If the debtor is behind, however, he or she could be evicted. Even after the automatic stay is triggered by the bankruptcy filing, the landlord is likely to ask the court to lift the stay on its behalf, and the court is likely to grant that request.

How Long Are Bankruptcy And Other Credit Information Included On The Debtor’s Credit Report?

A consumer credit report may include Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy information for ten years from the time the case is filed. One major consumer credit reporting agency is said to remove Chapter 13 information after only seven years, but it is not legally required to do so.

Most other credit information can be included in a consumer credit report for seven years. Civil suits, civil judgments, and arrest records, however, can be reported for at least seven years, and longer if the information is relevant for a longer time period. For example, if the civil judgment against the debtor is valid for ten years, it can be reported for credit-rating purposes for the same time period.

These time limits on reporting credit information do not apply to reports for credit transactions that involve or are reasonably expected to involve a principal amount of $150,000 or more, the underwriting of life insurance involving or reasonably expected to involve a face amount of $150,000 or more, or the employment of a person at salary that is or is reasonably expected to be at least $75,000 annually.

Because both the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which controls what a credit-reporting agency may include in a consumer’s credit report, and the Bankruptcy Code are federal law, the same rules apply in all states. There may be some differences, however, in relation to the more-than-seven-year information, since most of the relevant time periods or statutes of limitations are found in the individual states’ laws.

What Happens If The Debtor’s Salary Increases After Filing A Chapter 13 Wage-Earner Plan?

The Bankruptcy Code requires that the debtor contribute his or her projected disposable income toward the plan payments for the duration of the plan. Although the code imposes this requirement only when the trustee or a creditor demands it, in reality the trustee always requires it, at least at the beginning of the plan. Whether changes in salary will change the payment plan depends on a complete consideration of all of the circumstances.

If the debtor’s income changes after the case has been filed but before the court has confirmed the plan, making it binding on the creditors (which can take as much as six months), the trustee will closely scrutinize the debtor’s disposable income to make sure that the payments and the income are consistent and will incorporate any necessary changes into the plan. If the debtor’s income changes during the duration of the repayment plan, changes in income may not necessitate any changes in payments. However, the trustee may ask that payments be adjusted if the debtor’s income increases significantly. The trustee does not closely monitor the debtor’s income, and it may actually be outside the scope of a trustee’s duties to do so.

The trustee will consider not only the salary increase, but also whether there has been a corresponding increase in disposable income, on which the payments are based. Disposable income is the amount of the debtor’s salary that is left after deducting all reasonable living expenses. If the debtor’s salary increases but so do his or her expenses, there may be no increase in disposable income and therefore no change in the payment plan. If there is a significant increase in disposable income, the trustee may ask for an increase in payments. In cases in which the plan extends over more than thirty-six months, the increased payments may actually reduce the length of the plan’s term, so that the debtor has paid off the debts and receives a discharge sooner.

The Bankruptcy Code Uses Such Confusing Terminology. What Is Meant By Such Terms As Preference And Fraudulent Conveyance?

Preferences and fraudulent conveyances are two ways in which a debtor facing the prospect of bankruptcy may attempt to show favoritism to a particular creditor or close family member or associate, or even set aside some property for himself or herself to avoid losing it to the bankruptcy estate.

A preference occurs when a debtor treats one creditor more favorably than a debtor treats the others. If a debtor has only $500, for instance, and owes that same amount to both First County Bank and First State Bank, but the debtor pays all $500 to First County Bank, that bank has received a preference. Bankruptcy law disfavors preferences if they are made for the benefit of a particular creditor and for a debt owed prior to filing bankruptcy, if the debtor is insolvent at the time of the payment, and if payment is made within ninety days before filing (or one year, if made to an insider like a family member or an officer of a corporate debtor). Creditors receiving preferences may be required to return the amount paid to the debtor’s estate, so that it can be added to all the other assets and appropriately divided among all creditors.

Fraudulent conveyances are another vehicle by which debtors may attempt to defraud creditors. The Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (UFTA) was enacted to remove any temptation the debtor may have to hide property before declaring bankruptcy, such as by giving it to a relative. Under the Act, any transfer of the debtor’s assets within ninety days before filing bankruptcy (or two years if the transfer is to a family member, insider, or business associate) is carefully reviewed by the bankruptcy court. If the court concludes that the debtor was attempting to defraud creditors by selling property at a below-market price, for instance, the court can order that the property be turned over to the trustee. Anything sold for fair market value before the bankruptcy filing cannot, however, be recovered by the court under the UFTA.

How Can A Debtor Determine Whether A Debt Is Secured?

The best and perhaps the easiest way to find out whether a debt is a secured debt is to review the documents signed at the time the debt was incurred. If the debt is secured, the documents will say so and will describe the creditor’s security interest, which is usually in the property that is the subject of the financing.

Sometimes, however, the type of debt itself will suggest whether it is secured. The following types of debts are often secured debts, which means that if the debtor does not make payments on the debt when due, the creditor can take back the property that secures the debt, sell it, and apply the proceeds to pay off the debt. (If the sale price is not enough to cover the full amount owed, the debtor may still be liable for the remainder.)

Home mortgages. Companies financing home purchases almost always require a mortgage on the house. If the borrower defaults on the mortgage payments, the lender can force a foreclosure, in which case the house is sold and the proceeds are used to pay of the debt.

Motor-vehicle loans. When a person purchases a car on credit, the lender puts a lien on the car, which allows it to repossess the car if the borrower defaults (i.e., fails to make payments on time).

Store purchases. Although many consumers are unaware of this, when they charge something that they purchase at the local department store, the store may retain a security interest in the item purchased based on the agreement that the consumer signed when he or she first opened the account. As a result, if the purchaser fails to pay according to the credit-card agreement, the store can take back the merchandise.

Finance company loans. When a borrower obtains a loan from a finance company and is asked to list things that he or she owns, it is possible that the finance company will obtain a security interest in the items listed.