The Basics of Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Federal bankruptcy laws exist to give debtors an escape from overwhelming debt when they find themselves in an unworkable financial situation. The protections offered by a bankruptcy filing have only rarely been more important than they are in our country's current economic situation. Stock market woes, the burst housing bubble and chronically high unemployment rates have left record numbers of Americans in financial trouble and looking for more information about debt relief options like credit counseling, loan modification, debt consolidation and bankruptcy.

Types of Bankruptcy

There are several different types of bankruptcy filings that a debtor might consider. Eligibility for these programs are based upon an analysis of the debtor's unique financial condition and whether the filer is an individual, a business entity, a farming enterprise, a fishery, a railroad or a municipality.

  • Businesses - depending upon the industry - might be able to file under Chapters 11, 12 or 15 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
  • Municipalities like cities, towns, villages and school districts can seek the protections offered by Chapter 9.
  • Individual debtors, however, have two choices: Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.

What Is Chapter 7?

Consumer bankruptcy is the blanket legal term for a bankruptcy filed by a single individual (or by a married couple) instead of a by a business or other entity. Consumer bankruptcies are covered by Chapters 7 and 13 of the Bankruptcy Code.

Chapter 7 is better known as "liquidation bankruptcy." It involves the literal liquidation (selling) of the debtor's assets in order to raise money that will be used to pay debts. Secured creditors - those whose debts involve a tangible collateral like a house, car or appliance - are given priority, so they are paid first. Any debts not payable through the proceeds of a liquidation are discharged at the end of the proceeding, except for certain debts (student loans, taxes, child support and alimony) that are non-dischargeable. Chapter 7 does include myriad exemptions that will protect various types of property from being liquidated, however, so filers do get to keep the majority of their essential assets.

Because it is more inclusive and involves the discharge of all or most debts, it is more difficult to qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection than it is for Chapter 13. Potential filers must undergo what is known as a "means test" to determine eligibility. Most people who do not qualify to file under Chapter 7 are able to bring a Chapter 13 filing instead.

What is Chapter 13?

Chapter 13 bankruptcy involves the reorganization / consolidation of all the filers debts into one amount that is repaid over a period of three to five years. People filing under Chapter 13 do not have to pass a means test, but they do have to prove to the bankruptcy court that they have an income with which to make regular payments on their debt. Some debts - the like student loans, taxes, child support and alimony mentioned above - cannot be included in the repayment plan and are not subject to discharge.

Chapter 13 is very effective at helping filers get a fresh financial start while being able to keep valuable assets like homes and cars without seeking exemptions. There is not the immediate discharge of debt like there is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but if the debtor fulfills the obligations of the repayment plan, remaining debt is discharged at the end of the agreed-upon time.

Why File a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy?

Most people choose Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings to protect themselves from foreclosure, repossession or wage garnishment. Filing for bankruptcy protection activates something called an "automatic stay." That means that while the filing is pending, creditors cannot pursue lawsuits, garnishments, repossessions or foreclosures. In fact, they cannot even contact the debtor while the automatic stay is in place - all harassing phone calls and threatening letters must stop once the filing process has begun. Past due amounts on mortgage or car payments can be rolled into the consolidated debt and paid back over the life of the repayment plan, so as long as the debtor remains current.

In addition to the protections offered by the automatic stay, Chapter 13 is also a relatively inexpensive way to get a fresh financial start. Yes, filers have to commit to making payments on their debts for a period of time, and the bankruptcy will have a long-lasting impact on their credit rating, but they can also start to rebuild credit not long after filing. Furthermore, the negative impact of a bankruptcy filing is still less significant than that resulting from a foreclosure, repossession or garnishment.

If you want to learn more about filing for Chapter 13 consumer bankruptcy, contact an experienced bankruptcy attorney in your area.