Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

A chapter 13 bankruptcy is also called a wage earner’s plan. It enables individuals with regular income to develop a plan to repay all or part of their debts. Under this chapter, debtors propose a repayment plan to make installments to creditors over three to five years. If the debtor’s current monthly income is less than the applicable state median, the plan will be for three years unless the court approves a longer period “for cause.” (1) If the debtor’s current monthly income is greater than the applicable state median, the plan generally must be for five years. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years. During this time the law forbids creditors from starting or continuing collection efforts.

Chapter 13 acts like a consolidation loan under which the individual makes the plan payments to a chapter 13 trustee who then distributes payments to creditors. Individuals will have no direct contact with creditors while under chapter 13 protection.

Advantages of Chapter 13

Chapter 13 offers individuals a number of advantages over liquidation under chapter 7. Perhaps most significantly, chapter 13 offers individuals an opportunity to save their homes from foreclosure. By filing under this chapter, individuals can stop foreclosure proceedings and may cure delinquent mortgage payments over time. Nevertheless, they must still make all mortgage payments that come due during the chapter 13 plan on time. Another advantage of chapter 13 is that it allows individuals to reschedule secured debts (other than a mortgage for their primary residence) and extend them over the life of the chapter 13 plan. Doing this may lower the monthly payments.

Filing the petition under chapter 13 “automatically stays” (stops) most collection actions against the debtor or the debtor’s property. Filing the petition does not, however, stay certain types of actions listed under 11 U.S.C. § 362(b), and the stay may be effective only for a short time in some situations. The stay arises by operation of law and requires no judicial action. As long as the stay is in effect, creditors generally may not initiate or continue lawsuits, wage garnishments, or even make telephone calls demanding payments. The bankruptcy clerk gives notice of the bankruptcy case to all creditors whose names and addresses are provided by the debtor.

Individuals may use a chapter 13 bankruptcy to save their home from foreclosure. The automatic stay stops a foreclosure proceeding as soon as the individual files the chapter 13 petition. The individual may then bring the past-due payments current over a reasonable period of time. Nevertheless, the debtor may still lose the home if the mortgage company completes the foreclosure sale under state law before the debtor files the petition. The debtor may also lose the home if he or she fails to make the regular mortgage payments that come due after the chapter 13 filing.

Chapter 13 Eligibility

Any individual, even if self-employed or operating an unincorporated business, is eligible for chapter 13 relief as long as the individual’s unsecured debts are less than $383,175 and secured debts are less than $1,149,525. These amounts are adjusted periodically to reflect changes in the consumer price index. A corporation or partnership may not be a chapter 13 debtor.

How Chapter 13 Works

A chapter 13 case begins by filing a petition with the bankruptcy court. Unless the court orders otherwise, the debtor must also file with the court: (1) schedules of assets and liabilities; (2) a schedule of current income and expenditures; (3) a schedule of executory contracts and unexpired leases; and (4) a statement of financial affairs. The debtor must also file a certificate of credit counseling and a copy of any debt repayment plan developed through credit counseling; evidence of payment from employers, if any, received 60 days before filing; a statement of monthly net income and any anticipated increase in income or expenses after filing; and a record of any interest the debtor has in federal or state qualified education or tuition accounts. The debtor must provide the chapter 13 case trustee with a copy of the tax return or transcripts for the most recent tax year as well as tax returns filed during the case (including tax returns for prior years that had not been filed when the case began).

A husband and wife may file a joint petition. Married individuals must provide all information about the couple’s financial situation regardless of whether they are filing a joint petition, separate individual petitions, or even if only one spouse is filing. In a situation where only one spouse files, the income and expenses of the non-filing spouse is required so that the court, the trustee and creditors can evaluate the household’s financial position.

When an individual files a chapter 13 petition, a trustee is appointed to administer the case. The chapter 13 trustee both evaluates the case and serves as a disbursing agent, collecting payments from the debtor and making distributions to creditors.

About 45 days after the debtor files a chapter 13 bankruptcy, the chapter 13 trustee will hold a meeting of creditors. During this meeting, the trustee places the debtor under oath, and both the trustee and creditors (if any show up; they usually don’t) may ask questions. The debtor must attend the meeting and answer questions regarding his or her financial affairs and the proposed terms of the plan. If a husband and wife file a joint petition, they both must attend the creditors’ meeting and answer questions. The parties typically resolve problems with the plan either during or shortly after the creditors’ meeting. Generally, the debtor can avoid problems by making sure that the petition and plan are complete and accurate, and by consulting with the trustee prior to the meeting.

After the meeting of creditors, the debtor, the chapter 13 trustee, and those creditors who wish to attend will come to court for a hearing on the debtor’s chapter 13 repayment plan.

The Chapter 13 Plan and Confirmation Hearing

Unless the court grants an extension, the debtor must file a repayment plan with the petition or within 14 days after the petition is filed. A plan must be submitted for court approval and must provide for payments of fixed amounts to the trustee on a regular basis, typically biweekly or monthly. The trustee then distributes the funds to creditors according to the terms of the plan, which may offer creditors less than full payment on their claims.

There are three types of claims: priority, secured, and unsecured. Priority claims are those granted special status by the bankruptcy law, such as most taxes and the costs of bankruptcy proceeding. (3) Secured claims are those for which the creditor has the right take back certain property (i.e., the collateral) if the debtor does not pay the underlying debt. In contrast to secured claims, unsecured claims are generally those for which the creditor has no special rights to collect against particular property owned by the debtor.

The plan must pay priority claims in full unless a particular priority creditor agrees to different treatment of the claim.

If the debtor wants to keep the collateral securing a particular claim, the plan must provide that the holder of the secured claim receive at least the value of the collateral. If the obligation underlying the secured claim was used to buy the collateral (e.g., a car loan), and the debt was incurred within certain time frames before the bankruptcy filing, the plan must provide for full payment of the debt, not just the value of the collateral (which may be less due to depreciation). Payments to certain secured creditors (i.e., the home mortgage lender), may be made over the original loan repayment schedule (which may be longer than the plan) so long as any arrearage is made up during the plan. The debtor should consult an attorney to determine the proper treatment of secured claims in the plan.

The plan need not pay unsecured claims in full as long it provides that the debtor will pay all projected disposable income over certain commitment period (3 or 5 years), and as long as unsecured creditors receive at least as much under the plan as they would receive if the debtor’s assets were liquidated under chapter 7. If the debtor operates a business, the definition of disposable income excludes those amounts which are necessary for ordinary operating expenses.

The plan length of 3 or 5 years depends on the debtor’s current monthly income. The plan may be three years if current monthly income is less than the state median for a family of the same size, but must be nd five years if the current monthly income is greater than a family of the same size. The plan can be short than these periods only if all unsecured debt is paid in full over a shorter period.

Within 30 days after filing the bankruptcy case, even if the plan has not yet been approved by the court, the debtor must start making plan payments to the trustee. If any secured loan payments or lease payments come due before the debtor’s plan is confirmed (typically home and automobile payments), the debtor must make adequate protection payments directly to the secured lender or lessor – deducting the amount paid from the amount that would otherwise be paid to the trustee.

No later than 45 days after the meeting of creditors, the bankruptcy judge must hold a confirmation hearing and decide whether the plan is feasible and meets the standards for confirmation set forth in the Bankruptcy Code. Creditors will receive 28 days’ notice of the hearing and may object to confirmation. While a variety of objections may be made, the most frequent ones are that payments offered under the plan are less than creditors would receive if the debtor’s assets were liquidated or that the debtor’s plan does not commit all of the debtor’s projected disposable income for the three or five year applicable commitment period.

If the court confirms the plan, the chapter 13 trustee will distribute funds received under the plan right away. If the court declines to confirm the plan, the debtor may file a modified plan. The debtor may also convert the case to a liquidation case under chapter 7. If the court declines to confirm the plan or the modified plan and instead dismisses the case, the court may authorize the trustee to keep some funds for costs, but the trustee must return all remaining funds to the debtor (other than funds already disbursed or due to creditors).

Making the Plan Work

The provisions of a confirmed plan bind the debtor and each creditor. Once the court confirms the plan, the debtor must make the plan succeed. The debtor must make regular payments to the trustee either directly or through payroll deduction, which will require adjustment to living on a fixed budget for a prolonged period. Furthermore, while confirmation of the plan entitles the debtor to retain property as long as payments are made, the debtor may not incur new debt without consulting the trustee, because additional debt may compromise the debtor’s ability to complete the plan.

If the debtor fails to make the payments due under the confirmed plan, the court may dismiss the case or convert it to a liquidation case under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. The court may also dismiss or convert the debtor’s case if the debtor fails to pay any post-filing domestic support obligations (i.e., child support, alimony), or fails to make required tax filings during the case.

Plan Modification

Occasionally, a change in circumstances may compromise the debtor’s ability to make plan payments. For example, a creditor may object or threaten to object to a plan, or the debtor may inadvertently have failed to list all creditors. In such instances, the plan may be modified either before or after confirmation.

The Chapter 13 Discharge

A chapter 13 debtor is entitled to a discharge upon completion of all payments under the chapter 13 plan so long as the debtor: (1) certifies that all domestic support obligations that came due prior to making such certification have been paid; (2) has not received a discharge in a prior case filed within a certain time frame (two years for prior chapter 13 cases and four years for prior chapter 7, 11 and 12 cases); and (3) has completed an approved course in financial management (if the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator for the debtor’s district has determined that such courses are available to the debtor).