Chapter 7, plus information about the means test and exempt property
A Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a tool to help individuals start over. Some of the information in this article is specific to cases filed in Arizona, but the majority is bankruptcy law and applies to all Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This basic information should assist you in understanding how bankruptcy works, but please understand that the information on this website is not all you need to know to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Video explaining chapter 7 basics.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy is designed to give an individual a “fresh start”. This includes eliminating or discharging all your unsecured debts after you have liquidated and paid to your creditors all of your non-exempt assets. Certain unsecured debts cannot be discharged in Chapter 7. Chapter 7 bankruptcy has no effect on secured debts. That means if you want to keep your home or car, and there are debts owing on that home or car, you need to keep the payments current.
Who Can File Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in Arizona?
A permanent resident of Arizona can file bankruptcy in the Arizona bankruptcy court. But, you must have lived in Arizona for at least half of the last 180 days (6 months) in order to file in Arizona.
An important concept in both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy is “exemptions” or “exempt property.” When you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the Chapter 7 Trustee takes all of your “non-exempt” property and sells it for the benefit of your unsecured creditors. The Trustee cannot take your exempt property and you may keep all of your exempt property regardless of its value and amount. What property is “exempt” and what property is “non-exempt” depends on the exemption laws of the applicable state. Each state has its own exemptions for bankruptcy purposes. For a link to Arizona exemptions go to the primary menu, Bankruptcy, Arizona Exemptions. There is a download PDF of the exemptions. Only Arizona residents are able to use Arizona exemptions (YouTube video).
Just because you are an Arizona resident when you file for bankruptcy does not mean you are entitled to Arizona exemptions in bankruptcy. Therefore, before you file bankruptcy you and your bankruptcy attorney must determine which state laws will determine your exempt assets. The state exemption law applicable to your bankruptcy is determined by the state in which you have been domiciled for the 730 days (two years) immediately prior to filing your bankruptcy. If you have not been a resident of Arizona for the two-year period before filing your bankruptcy, then your bankruptcy exemptions will be those allowed by the state in which you lived for 180 (6 months) days immediately before the two year period, or the state in which you lived for the longer portion of that 180-day period. Confused yet? I recommend making a diagram of where you lived and when.
For example: a person filing bankruptcy in Arizona today may use the Arizona property exemptions if he or she lived in Arizona for more than two years. But, if that person did not live in Arizona for two full years, then that person will need to look to the exemptions of the state where he or she lived in that last two years. It is possible that the exemptions of the prior state are limited to residents only. Therefore, the person filing for bankruptcy will need to use federal exemptions. In many cases, the state where the person moved from will provide better bankruptcy exemptions than Arizona law.
Consider John. John sells his residence in Georgia for $100,000 and moves to Arizona in January. In March of that year John purchases an Arizona homestead for $100,000; he gets an Arizona drivers license and registers to vote in Arizona. Then, 14 months after moving to Arizona, John loses his job and files bankruptcy. Under the bankruptcy law, Georgia’s relatively limited exemption laws would apply to John’s bankruptcy, and John would not have the benefit of Arizona $150,000 homestead protection.
The means test is a formula established by Congress to determine who may be eligible to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy. People under their state’s median income and people whose debts are primarily not consumer debts are exempt from means test qualification. This means if 51% or greater of the debts are related to business obligations then the potential debtor does not need to worry about the means test.
Secured or Unsecured Debts.
In the bankruptcy documents you list secured debts separately from unsecured debts. Unsecured debts include personal loans and credit cards issued by banks, such as Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover, and other credit cards used to purchase consumable items. Vehicle leases, medical bills, and personal loans are also unsecured debts. Secured debts include those debts where the creditor has a security interest in your property to guarantee payment. Examples of secured debts include mortgages, car loans, loans from finance companies (usually secured by household items), furniture, computers or electronics. If you purchased goods at a store using a store credit card, such as a card from Home Depot, Best Buy, etc., the store probably has a security interest in certain items purchased, which makes the store a secured creditor.
After filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you will have to choose to either reaffirm or redeem secured debts or surrender the secured items to the creditor. You are entitled to keep any secured property as long as you continue to pay the loan for that property in a timely manner. If, however, you elect to surrender secured property, the secured creditor may not sue you for and try to collect any money from you. Some mortgage companies recently have required borrowers to sign cross-collateralizated agreements. This means that the borrower agreed to allow their bank or savings union to seize their bank accounts in order to pay delinquent payments for the vehicle. If you are unsure whether you signed this type of documents, you should review the papers you signed when you purchased your vehicle and/or when you opened your account. You may want to move your money to a new bank before defaulting on a vehicle loan. Do not bank at Wells Fargo — they will freeze your account even if you did not sign a cross-collateralized agreement.
The Bankruptcy Estate
Your bankruptcy estate refers to your non-exempt assets that are subject to administration by the bankruptcy trustee. Exempt assets, such as your homestead and IRA, are not part of your bankruptcy estate.
The creditor, you and your lawyer or judge must file a reaffirmation agreement for all secured personal property you want to retain within 60 days of the first scheduled meeting with the trustee (the meeting of creditors or 341 meeting). If you do not sign the reaffirmation agreement or redeem the property within 60 days, the automatic stay is lifted as to that property and the creditor is permitted to take all legal action allowable under the law to repossess the property, but in most cases they do not. Signing a reaffirmation agreement means that you will be personally liable to pay the debts after your bankruptcy is over.
Your attorney may choose whether or not to sign your reaffirmation agreement.
Issues such as negative disposable income, no concessions by the creditor as to principal or interest or the attorney believes there is a presumption of undue hardship. If your attorney does not “approve” reaffirmation, you must prepare and sign a Reaffirmation Agreement Explanation explaining why you now have the financial ability to pay a reaffirmed debt. The bankruptcy judge will review your explanation and either deny or approve the reaffirmation. The bankruptcy judge will deny reaffirmation if he believes that reaffirmation is not in your best interest for a “fresh start.”
If the reaffirmation is denied you still may be able to keep your property if payments are current, or you could request a hearing with the judge. If the court refuses to approve your reaffirmation many creditors will let you keep your property if maintain current payments. (A creditor usually will not provide a reaffirmation agreement if you are delinquent in your payments.)
The Automatic Stay
The bankruptcy stay is the bankruptcy tool that stops creditors from contacting you in any way after you file bankruptcy. This could be a problem because the lender o your home or car may stop sending monthly statements. It is your responsibility to make sure you pay these debts on time, otherwise the lender may ask the court for permission to take your home or vehicle.
An executory contract is a legal term referring to an agreement between parties and an obligation due by at least one of the parties (such as a car lease or a residential lease). The most common example is a lease agreement for a car or a residence.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy permits the debtor, or the trustee, to assume or reject an executory contract. A debtor has to decide what to do about an executory contract before the court issues a bankruptcy discharge which usually happens about 90 days after filing.
An example of an executory contract is a vehicle lease. If the debtor does not want to keep the leased vehicle then he can surrender the vehicle to the leasing company and has no further liability. If the debtor wants to keep the vehicle then will need to assume the lease and keep the payments current. The debtor and creditor must sign the lease assumption, but it is not necessary for the judge to approve the lease assumption. If the debtor cannot make the lease payments the leasing company can repossess the car, but cannot sue the debtor for any deficiency.
A debtor’s tool in bankruptcy is to “redeem” secured personal property such as furniture, computers, automobiles, or other property purchased on credit. To redeem means to purchase the property from the secured lender at its current fair market value considering its age and condition. If the property is worth less than the secured debt then this may be a good option. The problem is that most redemptions require payment in full at the time the redemption is accepted or approved by the court..
Start with the understanding that student loans will not be discharged in a bankruptcy. But, there are always exceptions to every rule. In some circumstances student loans can be dischargeable if you can show that your loan payments impose “undue hardship.” This issue must be filed as a separate action within the bankruptcy. This separate action is called a adversary. You must appear before the bankruptcy judge with proof of your hardship. Most likely this will be hotly litigated by the student loan creditor. It is wise not to assume you will be one of the very few who receive a partial or full discharge for their student loan. Each bankruptcy judge, in each bankruptcy district, in each federal court has a different opinion what is an “undue hardship”.
Contingent and Disputed Liabilities
Make certain you provide your attorney information about all liabilities, no matter how remote. List any claim that anyone might have against you even if you are certain that claim will never arise. If you are a co-debtor on a note, have personally guaranteed any debt, or are liable on any mortgage, the debt should be listed and explained in the bankruptcy. You also must list debts you dispute. This includes any past obligations to any mortgage companies for a foreclosed home or even a short sale, make sure to include any mortgage insurance company (such as a VA loan). You should also include any obligations that someone promised to pay for you, such as selling your home to someone who promised to pay you, but the sale was done without paying off the entire debt.
The discharge is the legal process that eliminates most of your legal liability to your creditors. Creditors who have been discharged in bankruptcy can never again try to collect debts that you incurred prior to filing bankruptcy. There are certain debts that remain even after the discharge is entered. These debts include child support, alimony, student loans, most taxes, and several other obligations. A good bankruptcy attorney can guide you as to what debts are discharged and what are not. Video explaining the discharge.
By Jon Alper, as edited by Diane L. Drain
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