Whether or Not You Can File a Chapter 7 Case Depends on the US Census

It is a little bit easier or a little bit harder to qualify to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” every six months. Whether it’ll be easier or harder for you depends on the state where you reside and on your family size.

The last change happened on March 15, 2013 and was effective for all cases filed after April 1, 2013 and the next change will take place on November 15, 2013. The bankruptcy system looks to the U.S. Census to calculate each state’s median income, as applicable to each size of family. Median income is the amount at which half of the state’s families have incomes higher and half have lower. If your income is below your state’s median income for your size of family, then in almost all situations you can file a Chapter 7 case. But if your income is above that median income amount and you still want to file a Chapter 7 case, then you have to fill out a long and rather complicated form about your allowed expenses to determine whether or not filing a Chapter 7 case would be “abusive.” So if you want to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it’s a lot easier if you’re below the median.

On March 15, 2013, new median income amounts become applicable. Some people were predicting these amounts would be lower because of the faltering economy. But in many states the income figures went up instead of down. For example, among single-person families, 31 of the states’ median incomes went up and only 19 went down. Remember, if the median income goes up, that makes it a little more likely that your income will fall below that median, and you’ll have smoother sailing qualifying for Chapter 7.

So, if your income is close to the applicable median amount, and the median is increasing for your family size in your state on November 1, then you have a better chance at falling under the median if you file on or after that date. But if the applicable median is decreasing, then you have a better chance of falling under the median if you file your bankruptcy before then, by no later than October 31.

I’m about to give you the two lists of median income amounts—the one applicable through October 1, and the other starting November 1. But before you start comparing those annual income amounts to your income, please understand that the meaning of “income” in this context is quite different than conventional meanings of that word. “Income” here is calculated using a six-calendar-month look back period that is doubled and then divided by 12 for an average monthly income. It includes all sources of income from all family members other than social security, not just taxable income.

Because of this and many other sorts of complications, yon truly need to consult with a bankruptcy attorney about whether this November 15 2013 median income changes matter to you, and whether you should try to file before then or instead after that date.

Avoiding Judgments that Can Really Hurt You, and Hurt Your Bankruptcy

Many judgments against you don’t matter once you file a bankruptcy. But certain ones are very dangerous. How can you tell the difference?

Letting a creditor get a judgment against you after it has sued you can sometimes result in that debt not being written off (“discharged”) in a later bankruptcy case. Or that debt may instead become much more difficult to discharge, even if eventually it is. But in the meantime it can turn an otherwise straightforward case into one much more complicated.

So how can certain judgments make a debt not dischargeable? Because of a basic principle of law which says that once one court has decided an issue, another court must respect that decision. The theory is that litigants should only get to use court resources once to resolve a dispute. Once a court decides an issue, it’s been decided (except for the limited exception of appeals to a higher court).

But as I said, most judgments by creditors are NOT a problem in bankruptcy. That’s because most creditor lawsuits are about only one thing: whether the debt is legally owed. A judgment that establishes nothing more than that can generally be discharged in a subsequent bankruptcy.

The judgments that are dangerous are more complicated. They arise in lawsuits in which the creditor is alleging that the person owing the debt incurred it in some fraudulent or inappropriate way. If the judgment clearly establishes that’s what happened, then the bankruptcy court later has to accept that decision. If the wording of the lawsuit and judgment shows that the behavior was of the kind that the bankruptcy laws say results in the debt not being discharged, then without further litigation the bankruptcy court would rule the same way.

These cases can get complicated because often it’s not clear precisely what the previous lawsuit decided, or whether what was decided meshes closely enough with the dischargeablility rules of bankruptcy. There’s also the question whether the matter was “actually litigated” if the person against whom the judgment was entered did not appear to defend the lawsuit or did not have an attorney.  In other words you may or may not be able to get your day in bankruptcy court depending on whether in the eyes of the law you really already had your day in the prior court.

This risk of losing your chance to defend your case in bankruptcy court can be avoided by not waiting until after a judgment has been entered against you to see a bankruptcy attorney. That is especially true if the allegations against you involve any bad behavior other than not repaying the debt. As a general rule, if you get sued by any creditor you should see an attorney, even if you don’t plan on fighting the lawsuit and hiring an attorney for that purpose. That allows you to find out if the lawsuit could lead to a judgment making the debt not be dischargeable in a bankruptcy. And if so, you would then still have to option of filing the bankruptcy to prevent such a harmful judgment from being entered, instead of being stuck with it once you file a bankruptcy later.

“If Only I’d Gone to See My Bankruptcy Attorney Sooner . . . “

Those are the words I hate to hear from a new client.

As bankruptcy attorneys, we are in the business because we truly want to help people. It’s an emotionally tough area of law, dealing all the time with clients who are in financial peril. Usually our clients are also hurting in other ways, related to what caused or contributed to their financial problems—an illness or injury, the end of a marriage or of a business, or the loss of a job. What makes my day—which it does virtually every day—is to give great news to a client, that they will now get relief from their debts, or that there is a feasible plan to save their home, or to deal with their child support arrearage or their income tax debt. Stories of marriages saved, stress lifted and job opportunities discovered after the weight of debt stress is lifted is why we continue in this area of law.

But of course the information we share with clients is not always good news, and the advice We give is not always what my clients want to hear. Tough choices have to be made, and some goals turn out to be unrealistic.

But the most frustrating situations for us and our clients are when we find out that they have self-inflicted some of their own wounds. The easily-preventable-but-now-it’s-too-late bad decisions they’ve made, often just a few months or weeks earlier, without getting legal advice beforehand.  Continue reading

Debtor’s Prison in Washington

I woke up yesterday morning to a discussion on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes billed as “the return of debtor’s prisons”: people in America are actually being sent to prison for failure to pay debts. It seems impossible to imagine, but it’s true, and it can happen right here in Washington state.

If a Washington state citizen is sued for a medical bill or other type of debt and she/he does nothing, the court will enter a default judgment against them. In Washington, many of these lawsuits are served without case numbers, so people assume that the summons and complaint is not a real court document that they have to respond to–surely you yourself have received more than a few highly official-looking mailings that turned out to be BS sales pitches. Unfortunately, these summonses are real, and the creditor or debt collector will enter a default judgment without your knowledge if you don’t respond within twenty days of being served. In some cases, in fact, the debtor is not actually served with the lawsuit at all, and rather is a victim of something we informally call “sewer service”: the process server says he or she served the debtor with the suit but never actually did it–the equivalent of just throwing the summons into the sewer. So a borrower may get a lawsuit default without ever getting sued.

The “debtor’s prison” aspect of the situation comes in when the creditor subpoenas the borrower for a “Supplemental Proceedings” hearing. This hearing is mandatory, and failure to heed the subpoena may lead to a bench warrant (an order for the arrest of an individual who has failed to appear at a legal proceeding). The borrower may never know about the bench warrant until they are pulled over for a traffic violation or are stopped at the U.S. border after a weekend vacation in Vancouver, B.C. Continue reading

Conversion from Chapter 13 to Chapter 7

I often face a question concerning whether to convert a Chapter 13 case or dismiss and re-file. There are several things to consider but in every case, I believe that debtors should should have a resolution that completes their case with some kind of debt relief.

In 2005, Congress changed the code to include the addition of claims against the estate or the debtor that arise after the petition date but before conversion, under Section 348.. Those claims will be allowed and treated as if they occurred prior to the filing of the bankruptcy, which means that you are safe in converting even if you have incurred new debt.

However, there is an additional issue, have you acquired property post-filing or has the value of a house, car, increased or decreased etc.. since the filing date? Have exemptions or other bankruptcy codes changed since the filing date? If any of those things have occurred, it may make sense to dismiss and re-file a new case with your attorney re-evaluating your assets and debts to make sure that you get discharge with a real fresh start.

Preserve Your Ability to File Bankruptcy at the Time You Want

Sometimes the timing of your bankruptcy filing hardly matters, but other times it’s huge.  The three examples in this blog should convince you that you want to avoid being rushed to file your case because a creditor sued you earlier and is now garnishing your wages. Instead you want to preserve the ability to file bankruptcy at a time that is tactically the best for you.

1. Choosing between Chapter 7 and 13:  Being able to file a Chapter 7 generally requires you to pass the “means test.” This test largely turns on a very special definition of “income.” For many people, their “income” under that definition can change every month, sometime by quite a lot. This means that you may not qualify to file a Chapter 7 case one month but then do so the next month. Being able to delay filing your case means being able to file when you will pass the “means test,” or at least more likely would do so, and therefore not be forced to file a Chapter 13 case. This means usually finishing your case in three or four months instead of three to five years, and almost always saving many thousands of dollars. Means Testing

2. Discharging—writing off—debts:  Getting certain debts discharged is harder if those debts were incurred within a certain amount of time before the filing of your bankruptcy case. So being able to delay the filing of your bankruptcy case makes it less likely the creditor on one of these debts would challenge your ability to discharge that debt. Or if such a creditor would still raise such a challenge, defeating it would be easier.  The amount at stake is the amount of that debt, plus often the creditor’s costs and attorney fees, and your own attorney’s fees.  Avoid or reduce the risk of continuing to owe that after your bankruptcy is over by avoiding getting creditor judgments against you.

3. Choosing property exemptions:  The possessions you are allowed to keep in a bankruptcy depend on which state’s exemption laws apply to your case. If you moved to your present state of residence within two years before your bankruptcy is filed, you will not be able to use that state’s exemptions but rather your former state’s. Especially if you are getting close to the two-year mark, having flexibility about when to file would allow you to pick whichever state’s exemptions were better for you. Otherwise, you may either lose an asset in a Chapter 7 case, have to pay the trustee to be able to keep it, or else even be compelled to file a Chapter 13 case to keep it. Bankrutpcy Exemptions

You may sensibly ask: if you do get sued, what are you supposed to do to avoid getting a judgment against you, so that you’re not later rushed into filling bankruptcy at an unfavorable time?  The answer: see a bankruptcy attorney as soon as you get sued to figure out how to deal with that law suit and with your entire financial circumstances. The earlier you get advice, the more options you will have.

Does Filing Bankruptcy Affect a Non-Citizen’s Immigration Status?

Usually not. But in some limited situations the indirect consequences can be huge.

Considering what’s at stake, if you are either a legal or illegal immigrant considering filing bankruptcy, this is definitely an area where you need the advice of both a bankruptcy and an immigration attorney. It’s my job to give my clients advice, but sometimes the most important thing to tell them that they need the additional help of another professional. This is one of those situations.

When you go to meet with each attorney, here are some general principles that can guide your consultation with them:

  1. Just as the bankruptcy documents don’t ask you anything about your citizenship status, your naturalization application will not directly ask anything about filing bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is a legally accepted method for dealing with your debt. In fact it may even help you avoid dealing with your financial circumstances in more desperate ways, ways which could jeopardize your immigration prospects.
  2. To become a lawful permanent resident or citizen, an immigrant must establish “good moral character.” It is conceivable, although not likely, that your bankruptcy filing could be seen as an issue of moral character. Immigration is considered on a case-by-case basis, so you need to talk with an immigration attorney thoroughly familiar with current practices.
  3. If you have been convicted of one of a certain set of crimes, or if you reveal during your bankruptcy proceeding that you committed one of these crimes, these could adversely affect your immigration status. Certain crimes could even result in deportation. Examples include crimes of “moral turpitude” like using credit cards in other people’s names, writing fraudulent checks in more than one state, tax evasion, fraudulent transfers of assets, or providing false information to the federal government (for example, in bankruptcy petitions!).
  4. Your citizenship application will ask if “you have ever failed to file a required federal, state or local tax return,” and whether you owe any overdue taxes. Bankruptcy can legally write off some taxes, but there may well be adverse immigration consequences for doing so. This is especially problematic if you have been working and getting paid “under the table,” and not having taxes withheld.
  5. If you’re not legally in the U.S., you are definitely exposing yourself to the legal system by filing bankruptcy. False social security numbers—either on the bankruptcy documents themselves or even on prior credit applications—would likely lead to huge problems. In some parts of the country, U.S. Attorneys appear at the Meeting of Creditors to ask about these and other immigration related matters. You are under oath and may find yourself in a very sensitive and dangerous situation.

Do Non-Citizen Debtors Get All the Benefits of Filing Bankruptcy?

In my last blog entry I said that non-citizens—legal or not—can file bankruptcy. All they need is appropriate identification. But that raises two questions: 1) Would that non-citizen receive all the benefits from that bankruptcy that a citizen would receive?  2) And would filing the bankruptcy hurt a legal non-citizen’s efforts to become a citizen, or would it increase an illegal immigrant’s risk of deportation?

I’ll address the first of these questions now, and the second one in my next post.

Two benefits of bankruptcy pertain here:

  1. The protection of assets from the bankruptcy trustee (and thus from the creditors) through “exemptions.”
  2. The granting of a discharge of debts.

The rules about what property of a debtor is exempt do not directly change with the debtor’s citizenship status, but there are potentially very important indirect effects.

Bankruptcies filed many states use that state’s own set of exemptions. So the federal bankruptcy court has to interpret that state’s definitions of those exemption definitions. Some of those definitions and the court’s interpretations of them can disqualify some immigrants. For example, Florida has a very generous homestead exemption, but In order to qualify for it, a debtor must be a permanent resident of the state with the intent to make the property in question his permanent residence. This residency requirement can be satisfied by a non-citizen only if he or she has gotten permanent resident status—a “green card”—as of the date of the filing of the bankruptcy. In a recent case, the immigrant was in the process of getting his permanent residency and in fact received that status three months after filing bankruptcy, but he was still deemed not to be a permanent resident at the time of his bankruptcy filing and so was denied a homestead exemption.

Again, the rules about what debts can be discharged and which cannot are the same regardless of citizenship. But some non-citizens have debts which were incurred in another country, leading to the question: Can those debts can be discharged in their U.S. bankruptcy case?

It depends.

First, assuming that the creditor is given appropriate notice of the bankruptcy, and the debtor successfully gets a discharge of his or her debts, that creditor will no longer be able to try to collect that foreign in the U.S.

But second, there is a good chance that the U. S. bankruptcy court’s discharge of this debt does not result in the discharge of the debt under the laws of the original country. If so, then that debt can continue to be collected according to the laws of that country, presumably against the debtor’s assets in that country, and perhaps in other countries outside the U. S. This depends on complicated international issues like treaties between the U.S. and that country, and whether they have “comity”—an agreement to respect each other’s laws—specifically in the area of bankruptcy. Otherwise, if the debtor has property outside the U. S., or intends to return to the other country, even just to visit, these issues should be investigated very closely, likely with both your U. S. bankruptcy attorney and one in the other country. In some situations, it even may be necessary to file the appropriate form of bankruptcy in the other country, assuming that exists and the debtor qualifies to do so.

Stopping the Foreclosure of Your Home Temporarily and Permanently through Bankruptcy

Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 can help you save your home. Which one is better for YOU?

You have almost for sure heard that the filing of a bankruptcy stops a foreclosure. You may have also heard that Chapter 13—the repayment version of bankruptcy—can be a good tool for saving your home in the long run. Both of these are true, but are only the beginning of the story. This blog today tells you more about stopping a foreclosure. My next blog will get into longer term solutions.

The “automatic stay” is the part of the federal bankruptcy law which immediately blocks a foreclosure from happening. The very act of filing your bankruptcy case “operates as a stay,” as a court order stopping “any act to… enforce [any lien] against any property of the debtor…  .”

But what if your bankruptcy case is filed and the mortgage lender or its agent can’t be reached in time so that the foreclosure sale still occurs? Or if there’s some miscommunication between the lender and its agent or attorney, with the same result? Or if the lender just goes ahead and forecloses anyway? Continue reading

Can Non-Citizens File Bankruptcy?

The answer is simple: Yes.

The Bankruptcy Code does not limit who may file based on citizenship status. It states that “only a person that resides or has a domicile, a place of business, or property in the United States… may be a debtor… .”  The “person” is simply defined to include an “individual” (as well as a “partnership and corporation”). The point is that there is no requirement about needing to be a citizen, or even to being legally in the country. So everyone, citizen or non-citizens, legal or illegal, can file bankruptcy.

But the person must meet one of the above categories of who may be a “debtor.”

One often used category is to have a “domicile,” meaning simply being physically present in one location with the intention of making that place the person’s present home. Generally the longer the person has been in one place and the more he or she has put down roots—such as getting a state drivers license—the easier to show intent to establish a domicile.

Having any meaningful amount of property, such as bank or other financial accounts, or a vehicle, would itself likely be sufficient to qualify as a debtor.

Any other requirements? The bankruptcy filing documents ask for a Social Security number, but there is nothing in the Bankruptcy Code which requires that. If the person filing bankruptcy has a legal Social Security number appropriately issued by the Social Security Administration, it should be used. Otherwise, the person should get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (“ITIN”) from the IRS, and use that. The “IRS issues ITINs to foreign nationals and others who have federal tax reporting or filing requirements and do not qualify for SSNs.”

Anything else? In most places, the bankruptcy filer will also need to show proof of identity at the so-called Meeting of Creditors, to allow the bankruptcy to verify that the person present there answering the questions under oath is a real person and the one who filed the bankruptcy documents. This aims to prevent identity scams. Proof of identity generally requires two things: 1) a document showing your SSN or ITIN—such as the original Social Security card it that’s available, or some other paper received from the government or from an employer showing the number; plus 2) some form of photo identification—such as a driver’s license or passport.

So is that it? Well, yes, with these conditions met the non-citizen can file for bankruptcy. But two big questions remain that just can’t get swept under the rug:

  1. Would a non-citizen potentially have problems qualifying for any of the benefits of bankruptcy, such as getting a “discharge” (legal write-off) of the debts, or claiming property exemptions in order to keep the property?
  2. Does filing the bankruptcy harm a legal non-citizen’s efforts to become a citizen, or does it increase an illegal immigrant’s risk of deportation?  

Sorry for keeping you in suspense, but I’ve covered enough for one day and so l’ll address have to these important questions in my next two blogs.