Bankruptcy law is primarily federal law and varies little from state to state. The United States Constitution grants to Congress the power to establish uniform bankruptcy laws throughout the United States, which ensures uniformity in how bankruptcy proceedings are conducted, encourages interstate commerce, and promotes national economic security. The individual states do, however, retain jurisdiction over certain debtor-creditor issues that are not addressed by or do not conflict with federal bankruptcy law, such as which property remains exempt from creditors’ claims.
Bankruptcy law provides two basic forms of relief: (1) liquidation and (2) rehabilitation, also known as reorganization. Most bankruptcies filed in the United States involve liquidation, which is governed by Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. In a Chapter 7 liquidation case, a bankruptcy trustee collects the debtor’s nonexempt property and converts it into cash. The trustee distributes the resulting fund among the creditors in a particular order of priority described in the Code. Not all creditors will receive the full amount owed through this process, and some may receive nothing. When liquidation and distribution are complete, the bankruptcy court may discharge any remaining debts of an individual debtor. If the debtor is a corporation, it ceases to exist after liquidation and distribution, and there is therefore no real reason for further discharge because the creditors cannot seek payment from an entity that no longer exists.
In a rehabilitation or reorganization, the option courts often prefer, creditors may be provided with a better opportunity to recoup what they are owed. Chapter 11 or Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code governs this type of bankruptcy. Chapter 11 usually applies to individual debtors with excessive or complex debts, or to large commercial entities like corporations. Chapter 13 usually applies to individual consumers with smaller debts. (Farmers and municipalities may seek reorganization through the Code’s special chapters, Chapters 12 and 9, respectively.) Reorganization provides a greater opportunity to retain assets if the debtor agrees to pay off debts according to a plan approved by the bankruptcy court. If the debtor fails to do so, however, the court may order liquidation.
Debtors must meet a means test to determine if they are financially eligible for straight Chapter 7 liquidation. In brief, if a debtor can repay out of his adjusted current monthly income $1000 each month to unsecured creditors, over a span of 60 months, he may not avail himself of Chapter 7 and must go into Chapter 13. In most instances, the bankruptcy case is filed by the debtor, which is considered a voluntary bankruptcy. Once the debtor files the bankruptcy petition, he or she is immediately entitled to relief from creditors through the bankruptcy procedure known as the automatic stay. The automatic stay freezes all debt-collection activity and forces the creditors to allow the bankruptcy proceeding to determine how payment will be made.
Under Chapters 7 and 11, creditors, too, have the option of filing for relief against the debtor, which is known as an involuntary bankruptcy. Involuntary bankruptcies are allowed only when there are a minimum number of creditors and a minimum amount of debt. The debtor has the right to file a response, after which the court determines whether the creditors are entitled to relief. If the court dismisses the involuntary bankruptcy filing, finding that it has no merit, the creditors may have to pay the debtor’s attorneys’ fees, damages for any losses the debtor experienced because of the bankruptcy, and even punitive damages to punish the creditors for the frivolous or abusive filing of a petition.
Lawyers practicing in bankruptcy law can help both debtors and creditors overcome obstacles to the repayment of debt. Their expertise often extends beyond bankruptcy to include debt repayment and collection options that can circumvent the need for a bankruptcy filing. The following are just some of the areas in which bankruptcy lawyers can assist their clients.