Lawsuits, Bankruptcy and the Automatic Stay

A bankruptcy filing automatically stays (or temporarily stops) all collection activity against the debtor or property of the debtor; and that includes virtually all lawsuits involving the debtor. That is the easy answer. Yes, a bankruptcy filing will stop that lawsuit against you! It just isn’t always the whole answer.

Most of the time when people call they are asking about a simple collection case – an old credit card, medical bills, maybe the balance due after a repossession. In those cases a bankruptcy filing stays the lawsuit; and when the discharge is entered a few months later, the lawsuit is stopped for good. That answer is accurate for the vast majority of callers. So, if you are worried about a simple collection case, a Bankruptcy will fix it.

The problem comes when whomever answers the phone in the law office doesn’t ask enough questions. If the lawsuit isn’t a simple collection case, for instance, if the person calling is being sued by a former employer for stealing or embezzling money. If the lawsuit is alleging any type of fraud. If the lawsuit is alleging intentional and willful injury to property. If the lawsuit is a paternity action or an attempt to collect past due child support or alimony. Those lawsuits won’t just go away, although the Bankruptcy filing will slow them down some. The worst scenario, though, is a case that looks look like a simple breach of contract case or maybe simple negligence, it may be between former business partners or friends; but the case has gotten emotional and angry and it has become more about a pound of flesh than recovering specific economic damages. In other words, the worst case scenario is a lawsuit that has started to look more like a divorce than normal litigation.

In those cases the answer is still correct that a Bankruptcy filing will stay the lawsuit – it just might not end it, and it really might not stop the fight.

The Bankruptcy Code includes a list of things that are excepted from the Debtor’s discharge. That means that even though the Automatic Stay might stay the problem, when the stay is replaced by the discharge, this type of problem will still be there – waiting. The most common of these are debts incurred shortly before the bankruptcy was filed (presumably with the intention of filing bankruptcy and not paying it), student loans, recent taxes, child support or alimony.

Some of these require that something called an Adversary Proceeding be filed within the bankruptcy. Some of them don’t; and some times the creditor may just cause other problems within the bankruptcy. Stay tuned for more on this subject. I will tag these posts as “persistent creditors” to make them easy to find.

Elaine

Categories: Bankruptcy, Litigation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grace, Debt and Forgiveness

I’m a bankruptcy lawyer, and I practice in the Bible belt. That isn’t really a fair statement. Practicing law isn’t really what I do. It is who I am. In the words of Micah I am called to seek justice.  Although, I can’t tell you how many times I have been grateful that I’m called to “seek” justice – not necessarily to find it.

Still, when Rachel Held Evans sent out a call for volunteers to help launch her latest book, Searching for Sunday, I volunteered. Rachel’s books are about finding grace in the midst of condemnation and hope flying in the face of everything you thought you knew – and my clients need that.

He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in. Nothing could prevent the eunuch from being baptized, for the mountains of obstruction had been plowed down, the rocky hills had been made smooth, and God had cleared a path. There was holy water everywhere.  Searching for Sunday.

My clients need to be reminded that bankruptcy was God’s invention. If you don’t believe me, try reading Leviticus. Then, over the course of a Testament and a millennium or so (give or take) he refined this concept of forgiveness until it became a concept called grace. The sad thing is that the clients who most need to hear this are the very clients who wind up in my office because they insisted on taking care of their children instead of paying their credit cards – or, to quote Rachel:

I became a stranger to the busy, avuncular God who arranged parking spaces for my friends and took prayer requests for weather and election outcomes while leaving thirty thousand children to die each day from preventable disease.  Searching for Sunday. 

I spent a long time trying to come up with a way to elegantly tie a post about this book with my usual law office centric kind of stuff. I gave up. If you are here reading this, you need to hear about acceptance and grace and questions and doubt and love and belonging and grace and forgiveness.

An African American man in a wheelchair followed and brought the house down when he approached the mic, waited a moment, and declared, “I’m black. I’m disabled. I’m gay. And I live in Mississippi. What was God thinking?”  Searching for Sunday. 

Rachel Held Evans has documented her journey from an evangelical, I’ve got all the answers, unquestioning faith to what I consider to be a more mature faith. This book is the second half of that journey, and in this book, she is trying to get her head around the concept of sacraments and at the same time find a church community that resonates with the answers she is looking for.

The church is God saying: “I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”  Searching for Sunday.

Her answers aren’t my answers, and they won’t be your answers. The questions and the journey, though, are universal.

All we have is this church—this lousy, screwed-up, glorious church—which, by God’s grace, is enough.  Searching for Sunday. 

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, by Rachel held Evans.  (That is an Amazon link, but it is not an affiliate link.  I was given an advance copy of the book for review purposes.)

Elaine

Categories: Bankruptcy | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Afraid to File Your Taxes?

Trust me. I get it. Lots of us are afraid to file our tax returns – well, ok, afraid to prepare them may be closer to the truth; but, trust me, I get it.

– and it just got worse.

Not filing your taxes has always been bad. Filing late has always had some consequences, but most of them were manageable. Now, there is a new one.

In the last week of 2014 the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion agreeing with an earlier decision from the 5th Circuit. So far, they are the only two circuits to hear this particular issue; and they agree. This is not good.

Here is the problem. Generally, speaking income taxes are dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding provided that they meet certain requirements. Like with anything involving either the Bankruptcy Code or the Tax Code (let alone both), there are more rules, limitations and exceptions to the basic rules than holes in Swiss cheese. Still, generally speaking, if the taxes meet certain age tests they are dischargeable in a bankruptcy filing – any chapter. Well, the 10th Circuit, following the 5th, has added a new wrinkle.

According to these Courts if the returns were filed so much as a day after they are due, the taxes on those returns are never dischargeable in a Bankrutpcy. Of course, if they are filed before the expiration of a properly granted extension, they are not late. If they are filed after the extension expires, however, or if no extension is granted; then, we have a whole new problem.

I have a case right now where a client has filed a bankruptcy, and taxes are a major part of the debt. I just went through every one of her tax transcripts. One of those returns was filed late. Anywhere inside the 5th or 10th Circuits the taxes on that return are not only not dischargeable in this Bankruptcy – they will never be eligible for a discharge. Oh, and the date on that return? Filed less than two weeks after April 15, and no request for extension was filed.

This seriously sucks.

Elaine

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Your Bankruptcy Trustee Can Pay Your Taxes For You

Occasionally, I run into a situation where a client needs to file for bankruptcy, maybe even needs to file NOW; but – they have non-exempt assets. Now, in Oklahoma we have pretty generous exemptions, and most people who file for Bankruptcy lose nothing but a bunch of debt. Occasionally, though, I run into someone with mineral interests, a significant amount of jewelry (our wearing apparel exemption is generous, but a $35,000 ring that isn’t your wedding or engagement ring is going to be a problem); and they still need to file. This is a problem.

Usually, given a little time we can find a solution that the client is happy with. This is what is called pre-bankruptcy planning, and it is tricky. There are plenty of things that you can do with an asset right before a bankruptcy filing that your Trustee can just undo. There are other things you can do that will get you into real trouble – losing your discharge, going to jail. This is not an area to mess around with if you don’t know what you are doing. Still, generally, given time, there are things that can be done to protect a non-exempt asset.

So, what happens when you don’t have time? Sometimes you need to file NOW. In those cases you file the case knowing that the Trustee is going to administer whatever the asset is. Several years ago, I filed a Chapter 7, and first thing the next morning was emailing the freshly appointed Trustee (who didn’t even know she was the trustee yet) wanting to know when would be convenient for my client to deliver approximately $50,000 in jewelry to her office. She was a little taken aback. In this particular case the client didn’t want the jewelry and had made some efforts to sell it but had not been successful.

Consequently, he was thrilled when I asked him if he would like to have the Trustee pay his taxes with the proceeds from the jewelry he didn’t want and hadn’t been able to sell.

Here is the scoop. We filed for what is called a short tax year. It is perfectly legitimate, although it is very rarely done. Basically, my client filed two tax returns for the year in which he filed for Bankruptcy. He filed one return for the calendar year up to the day he filed for bankruptcy, and he filed a second return for the remainder of the calendar year. We did this, because he had made no estimated quarterly payments prior to filing for bankruptcy; and his income for that period had been substantial.

By doing this we converted his tax liability for that first, short-year, return into a liability of his Bankruptcy estate that was entitled to priority – meaning it got paid first. He still had to pay the tax liability for the rest of the year, but that was only about a quarter of the year’s total tax liability. So, he got his Bankruptcy Trustee to liquidate stuff he didn’t want and use the proceeds to pay three quarters of his taxes for the year. Now, that is pretty sweet.

Elaine

Categories: Bankruptcy, Taxes | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What If I Didn’t List Something. . . .

First of all, there is a huge difference between failing to list an asset, like that mineral interest you inherited from your Grandparents, and failing to list a debt, like a car loan. Either one is perjury, if the omission was intentional; and either one can be grounds for a finding of bankruptcy fraud or even a denial of discharge if the facts are right. So, you really do need to put some time and effort into making sure that your Schedules include all of your assets and all of your debts.

So, what happens if you missed something? Assets are a whole different issue, I will touch on another time. Let’s talk about not listing a debt. It can be easy to forget an old medical bill or there can be debts you don’t even know about. Let’s say you had a car repossessed a few months before the bankruptcy filing. You scheduled the repossession on your Statement of Financial Affairs, but you didn’t list the Creditor; because you didn’t realize that you were still going to owe them money.

The creditor doesn’t get notice of the bankruptcy, and a year or two later the creditor sues you for the difference between what you owed at the time the car was repossessed and the amount they got for the car (after subtracting repo fees, sale fees, reconditioning fees, etc, etc., etc.). So, a year or two after your bankruptcy you are being sued for thousands of dollars. Now what?

That depends. The first issue is which chapter you filed under. This assumes that you filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The analysis for a Chapter 13 is quite different. The second issue is whether or not your Bankruptcy was an asset case or a no-asset case. In other words, whether or not your Trustee managed to distribute any money out to your creditors. Most Chapter 7 Bankruptcies are no-asset cases. The biggest variable, believe it or not, is where you filed your Bankruptcy.

If you filed your Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in Oklahoma (and this blog is always restricted to Oklahoma issues, since that is the only State in which I am licensed to practice), and it was a no-asset case; you’re almost home free. As long as the failure to list the debt was truly unintentional and in good faith, your liability for that debt was included in your discharge. That does not mean, however, that you can sit back and do nothing. The creditor has incurred collection costs as the result of your failure to give them notice. So, you need to take action ASAP to let them know about the Bankruptcy. The best way to do this is to contact your Bankruptcy attorney and have them send a letter to the creditor’s collection attorney explaining the facts, providing information about the bankruptcy filing and providing information on the law in Oklahoma as to the inclusion of omitted debts in a no-asset discharge. You can expect to pay for that service, but in my opinion it is money well spent. The last thing that you want to do is wind up facing a wage garnishment that could have been avoided or find that you may have waived some rights by allowing the creditor to continue acting out of ignorance of your bankruptcy filing. Remember, you have a duty to give notice of the bankruptcy filing to everyone you owe money to. Failing to do so does not necessarily leave you at the creditor’s mercy; but that does not mean it is completely without ramifications.

Elaine

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Loan Delinquencies — Times Are Changing

I was just reading an article about loan delinquencies.  These are national numbers released by the New York Federal Reserve.  Delinquency rates are loans that are at least 90 days past due, and the real surprise to me was the rate for student loans.

Nationally, 3.1% of mortgage loans are delinquent;

3.5% of auto loans are delinquent; and

11.3% of student loans are delinquent.

Really?  More than 1 in ten student loans is at least 90 days past due?  Washington, I think we have a problem.

Elaine

Categories: Consumer Credit, Student loans | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

What If the Tax Refund Doesn’t Catch You Up?

Like most businesses, mine has patterns. One of those patterns is that someone will call me about this time of year and we will talk for a bit about a possible bankruptcy filing. Then, I won’t hear anything back from them for several months. What happens is that shortly after talking to me, the caller discovers that he is going to be getting a substantial tax refund – enough to get caught up. Of course, in some cases they are right; and I never hear back from them; and that is a good thing.

Then, there are the people who are calling back in May or June. They got a $3,000 or $4,000 tax refund. They threw it all at the problem bills. Those payments paid a ton of interest. A few months later, they realized that they are still in trouble. Their tax refund bought them a little bit of time and not much more. So much of it went to interest that it didn’t really reduce their principal balances much. They still can’t pay the debt. They still can’t save for retirement. They still can’t help their kids save for college. They still need dental work they can’t afford. They still have cars that desperately need new tires. Oh, and they have $0 saved to pay for a bankruptcy filing.

If you think you will, “get caught up” with your tax refund; do a lot of math first. How much of your payments will actually reduce the principal. What interest rates are you paying and how long will it take that rate to increase your balances more than your refund reduced them? How long will it be before you can start doing the things you need to do – like plan for retirement, college costs, oh, and just how long will those tires last, anyway?

I don’t actually mean to be this depressing, and if your tax refund will get you out of trouble; more power to you. If all it will do is buy you some time, then maybe it is time to take a deep breath and consider where your real responsibilities lie – Visa, Master Card or your family’s future? Personally, I like to think that Visa and Master Card are big enough to take care of themselves.

Ok, so you still really want to pay this. Great. Pay it. But wouldn’t paying it without interest be a better solution than what you are currently fighting? There is a way to do that. It isn’t fun, it isn’t quick and easy; oh, and it isn’t cheap. It is called a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy. Yes, it is a bankruptcy; but it is a bankruptcy that lets you take five years to pay as much of your unsecured debt as you can – with NO interest.

Do the math, and do it before you throw yet another tax refund at 28% interest charges.

Elaine

Categories: Bankruptcy, Consumer Credit | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What do You Do When You Can’t Pay Your Bills

Most of the people who call me have always paid their bills. They have never been in the kind of position that leads them to call a Bankruptcy lawyer before, and they are scared and don’t know what to do.

The first thing that I tell them is to just breathe. Calm down. Stop the racing mind. Just breathe.
Now, prioritize. Pay the utilities, the car payments, the house or rent, the groceries first. Second, if at all possible keep a small cash reserve. Did you hear me say pay the credit cards? Sure, if you can, you should always pay your bills; but if you can do that, you aren’t reading this. If you are reading this you have lost a job or your income has dropped dramatically, you’ve had major health problems, or even worse, your child has had major health problems. Even good insurance won’t necessarily insulate you from major financial ramifications.

Seriously, I have had people on the phone hyper-ventilating at the thought of not paying their credit cards. I ask them what they think will happen, and they can’t tell me; but it is clearly TERRIFYING. We’re talking asteroid slamming into the Earth, wiping out all life kind of terrifying – which may explain what happened to the dinosaurs. They missed a payment on their Master Card. Ok, so, I’m teasing a bit.

Here is what is likely to happen if you stop paying your credit cards. First of all, they are going to start calling – a lot. This is why God invented caller ID. Then, they are going to shut down your charging privileges – probably not a bad thing. About the same time, they will start reporting you delinquent to the credit reporting agencies. Sometime thereafter, you will get a letter that they are referring your file to a LAWYER for further action. The word lawyer is in all caps, because the only reason for this letter is to be scary. They can send your file to anyone they want to for “further action” or whatever other scary (and generally vague) terms they want to use, and they don’t have to send you a letter telling you they are doing it. When that file lands in the lawyer’s office, his office will also send you a letter telling you that they have it. Notice, that no lawsuit has been filed yet? It is easier and cheaper to try and scare you with letters than it is to sue you. That doesn’t mean you won’t be sued, you probably will be – eventually; but in the meantime you still have a bit more time to try to find your feet.

You will know you have been sued when you are served. The actual rules for service of process are complicated, but if you wind up with a copy of something called a Summons and a Petition or Complaint – odds are pretty good that you have been sued. How do you know that is what these things are? Well, they have the name of the court at the top, then the names of the parties beneath that on the left, with a case number on the right, then a bunch of paragraphs explaining who you are, who is suing you, and why you are supposed to owe them money. Letters start, “Dear so and so”. Court pleadings don’t.

Once you have been sued, you will be given a certain amount of time in which to file an Answer or otherwise appear and dispute the case. If you don’t do that, then a default judgment can be taken against you. Once a judgment has been taken against you, then (at least in Oklahoma) the creditor can attempt to garnish your wages, levy on bank accounts or otherwise force you to pay them money – and it will hurt. A wage garnishment can take up to 25% of your gross wages – not take home – gross. Of course, you will still pay taxes on the pre-garnishment amount,, so your net will be substantially reduced. Most people can’t afford that.

Everyone in financial trouble is different. Some people will decide to contact a lawyer earlier in this process than others. One thing that is almost universally common is that most people who have accounts in collection want to pay them. They frequently put off calling a lawyer hoping that they will be able to pay them. Where this becomes tragic is when they wait too long hoping against hope that something will save them from drowning. Then, their employer is served with a wage garnishment; and they have no money to pay attorneys fees or filing fees. They don’t have the paperwork started to get a bankruptcy filed; and they can’t afford to pay really basic living expenses if they are having their wages garnished. At that point these people are starting to be out of options. So, once you are sued, it is probably time to call a lawyer if you haven’t already and get things started. The collection process takes long enough and filing a lawsuit increases the collection costs enough that if you haven’t found a way to get the account paid by then; you probably aren’t going to.

Once a lawsuit is filed, time is no longer on your side.

Elaine

Categories: Bankruptcy, Consumer Credit, Litigation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medical Debt and Credit Reports

The reporting of medical debt on credit reports has gotten quite a lot of press lately.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recently done a fairly extensive report that includes a number of findings.  One of these is that 1 in 5 Americans has outstanding medical debt on their credit reports.  Another is that slightly more than half of all debt in collections is medical debt.

The CFPB makes the point that part of the problem with medical debt appearing on credit reports is rooted in the complexities of the health insurance billing process.  No dispute there.  The CFPB also wants to enact regulations to change the way that medical debt is reported on credit reports.  The goal is to make medical debt less detrimental to a credit score (at least as it is currently calculated) than other kinds of debt.  I have a problem with that.

WHAT!?!  I’m supposed to be all pro-consumer.  How can I have a problem with that?  Simple.  First of all, there is no such thing as a single credit score.  We all have many of them, and they change constantly.  Establish rules for how credit scores are to be calculated, and the credit reporting agencies will simply change the way they package the information.  Why?  Because they exist to serve their clients’ needs, and their clients are people who lend money and collect money.

But, but, but, classifying medical debt on credit reports differently from other (presumably less noble debt) only makes sense!  If you do that, than anyone looking at a credit report can tell that this person always pays for his car, he just can’t pay that horrendous hospital bill that his insurance company refused to pay.  So, a car lender ought to be able to glance at a credit report and score and tell that this person makes his car payments, so it would be good business to make him a car loan.  Right?

Not so fast.  If someone applying for a car loan owes $30,000 to the local hospital the fact that he has always made his car payments before is not going to stop the hospital from suing him and garnishing his wages.  If the local hospital is taking 25% of the gross off of just about anyone’s pay check (Oklahoma law, only), that could change whether or not he is still able to make his car payment.

Despite popular opinion, credit reports (and credit scores) don’t measure how good a person you are; and the idea of reporting medical debt differently seems to buy into that fiction.  An outstanding liability that remains legally enforceable — whether it be medical, taxes, child support or credit cards — is always going to be a threat to someone’s ability to repay a new obligation.  Wage garnishments, bank levies or any other form of enforcement action that is available to the creditor will impact on someone’s ability to make future payments.  Changing how something is reported or how it is factored into a magic number won’t change that.

The ways to make meaningful changes in your ability to access credit remain the same.  First, if your insurance company denies a claim — appeal it.  Complain to the State insurance commissioner.  Do everything you can to get the claim paid.  Second, police your credit report.  If something shouldn’t be there, get it removed.  If debt has been re-aged or is otherwise no longer enforceable — dispute it.  If you owe the money and it really is legally enforceable, then you either need to find a way to wait it out (and hope that they don’t sue you just before the Statute of Limitations runs) or consider a bankruptcy filing.  Even if a chapter 7 isn’t the answer, a chapter 13 might be.

Oh, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; and don’t be embarrassed.  No one who knows enough about credit reports or the collection industry to be of any use will confuse anything on your credit report with your value as a human being.

Elaine

Categories: Bankruptcy, Consumer Credit, Credit Reports | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What If Something Bad Happens During a Chapter 13 Plan?

The answer to the question, what if something bad happens during a Chapter 13 Plan is – call your lawyer. Please notice, I did not say, call the Trustee. Even if you haven’t talked to your lawyer since your case confirmed, at least in the Western District of Oklahoma, your lawyer is still your lawyer until the case concludes, you fire him or the Court allows him to withdraw for some reason. The Trustee does not work for you, your lawyer does. Call your lawyer.

Now, for the rest of the story. Clients come to see me and are nervous about filing a five-year plan. What if something happens? Well, something will happen. It is called life. The problem with answering that question is that the answer is always going to be – that depends. The answer depends on exactly what happens, when it happens, what has or has not been paid in the Chapter 13, where you are in the plan, whether the case is confirmed or not. It just depends.

Losing a job in the last year of a plan is very different from losing one in the first year. Having a house burn down might change how hard you want to fight to save it. (Yes, I have had that happen to a Chapter 13 debtor.) The death of a spouse is just hard – all the way around, and being in a Bankruptcy at the time doesn’t make it easier. Totaling a car means having to get a new one. Divorce complicates a Chapter 13 in ways very few other things do. Regardless, you will have options; and only your lawyer can talk to you about them.

Still, there are some generalities. If you lose a job during a chapter 13, you will want to discuss with your lawyer whether your plan payment can be reduced, whether you should consider converting the case to a Chapter 7, whether you should consider seeking a loan modification on your mortgage, maybe you want to talk about whether or not you can sell the house. Maybe you should dismiss the chapter 13 with an eye towards refiling when you have found new employment. Maybe staying in with the smallest possible plan payment makes more sense. Maybe the best answer is some combination of the above.

Dealing with a Chapter 13 that has gotten into trouble is relatively easy when there is some flexibility in the plan. The worst cases are the ones where the Debtor was a year behind on his mortgage when the case was filed. The plan is all about saving the house. There is virtually nothing besides the house and the car getting paid in the plan, the plan payment was a real reach for the debtor before he lost his job, he is already at a full 60 months – and he loses his job. Well, you can’t extend that plan term. You can’t reduce the payment without giving up either the house or the car, because there is nothing else there. You can get the debtor a little bit of time to find a new job, but every plan payment he misses is going to increase the remaining payments – which were a stretch to begin with, before he lost his job. So, after three or four months the Debtor finds a new job that pays less than the old one, he is now three or four months behind on his plan payment. The remaining payments will have to go up to cover that, and he can’t do it. In that case, sometimes the best option is to dismiss and refile.

I want you to notice, though, that even with the facts above; there was still an option. Dismissing and refiling may not sound too fun after three or four years in a plan. The last thing you really want to do is start over, but at least in this case it means starting over with a much smaller mortgage arrearage than you had to deal with in the first place, and you get a whole new 60 months to cure it. It isn’t a great solution, but it can make the difference between saving a house and losing it.

So, if life hands you more than you can handle during your plan term. Call your lawyer. You will have options. They may not be wonderful, but you will have some. Oh, and don’t be surprised if your lawyer’s first suggestion is that you try to sit tight until you find a new job. You will always have more and better options employed than not.

Elaine

Categories: Bankruptcy, Divorce, Mortgages and Foreclosure | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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