A Chapter 13 Bankruptcy is basically a modified payment plan where you can restructure certain kinds of secured debt, get current on secured debt on which you have fallen behind (like a house or a car) and pay some percentage of your general, unsecured debt (like medical bills and credit cards).
Let me begin by saying that SOME percentage of your unsecured debt means just that – SOME. I say that to clients in my office, and they almost universally translate the word some to mean all. They are not synonyms. The actual percentage paid by most Chapter 13 debtors is closer to zero percent than it is to 100%, and most of us can afford to pay 0%.
So, what does that actually mean?
There are two primary factors that determine how much money you will have to pay to make a Chapter 13 plan work. The first is determined by what is generally known as the Means Test. The Means Test is basically a worksheet where you start with your income and deduct your reasonable and necessary living expenses until you come up with an amount left over. If that figure is positive, then you will have to pay that amount each month for probably 60 months to your general unsecured creditors (the credit cards, medical bills, personal loans, that kind of debt). In other words, if you have $112 a month left over, you will have to pay $112 each month for (probably) 60 months plus 10% as a trustee fee, so $123 a month, over the life of your plan for the benefit of the general unsecured creditors. Most of my clients are paying a lot more than that on this kind of debt when they come to see me. So, for most people flunking the Means Test and having to pay something to their general, unsecured creditors is actually an improvement!
The other factor is the kind of debt that you have. If you want to keep the house and the car and you owe money on them, you are going to have to keep paying for them. This really shouldn’t be a surprise. The car, in the Western District of Oklahoma, will have to be paid through the plan; meaning that the plan payment you pay to the Trustee every month will include enough for him to make your car payment for you. If you are behind on the car at the time that you file the case, you can expect that you will catch up on it (and probably pay it off) over the life of the Chapter 13 plan.
Your house is a little different. If you are current on the house at the time that you file for bankruptcy (in this district), you may continue to pay the mortgage payment directly. However, that means completely current. So, if your mortgage payment is due on the first, and late on the 15th, That means it is due on the 1st. So, if you file bankruptcy on the 2nd, that payment had better already have been made. If you are behind on your mortgage payment, then it will be paid through the plan and the plan will include enough money to get you caught up an d current on it over the life of the plan.
If you owe other secured debt, debt that is secured by a lien on a specific piece of property, and you wish to keep the property, then that debt will have to be paid during the life of the plan. Debts that are given certain priority for payment in the Bankruptcy Code must be paid in full over the life of the plan. For most people that means recent taxes, and past due child support or alimony, these are things that have to be paid over the life of the plan. What most people expect to see listed here but isn’t is student loans. Student loans are a whole different problem in a Chapter 13 that will be addressed separately.
So, what this means is that most Chapter 13 plans pay for the house, the cars, the taxes, the child support (if any), fees to support the Trustee’s office and the Debtor’s attorneys fees. Then, there will be some amount added to be shared amongst the general, unsecured creditors who are usually everybody else. That amount is determined by the Means Test, and in many cases it is less than my clients have been paying on that debt before they filed.
Now, I don’t mean to kid you. A Chapter 13 plan is not a walk in the park. There are good reasons why only about 30% of all cases filed successfully complete. It isn’t, however, nearly as bad as clients expect it to be.
Often when clients come to see me their mortgage company is wanting a year of missed payments made up in six months or less. They are facing a wage garnishment that will take 25% of their gross income. The IRS is threatening to levy on their bank accounts. There is a repo guy out looking for their car, and the lender wants all the missed payments plus late fees, plus interest plus the repo guy’s fees by Tuesday. A Chapter 13 plan, even if it is expensive, can be a huge relief after the financial pressures most of my clients find themselves facing.
So don’t be afraid to investigate a possible Chapter 13 filing. It can do things for you that you can’t get done anywhere else, and, although, it won’t be cheap, it may be more affordable than any of your other options.