What is Bankruptcy?
Bankruptcy allows individuals, couples, and businesses that cannot meet their financial obligations to be excused from repaying some or all of their debt. Bankruptcy has been in existence since ancient times. In the United States, the rules and procedures for filing bankruptcy are governed by federal law. States are prohibited from legislating in this area of the law.
Generally speaking, there are two types of bankruptcy. In a liquidation bankruptcy, debtors must surrender their property, which is sold, and the proceeds distributed to creditors. In return, all debts are permanently discharged. In a reorganization bankruptcy, debtors are allowed to keep their property. But the debtors must agree to an installment plan to repay creditors a portion of the amount they owe.
Filing for bankruptcy involves submitting a petition and fee to the bankruptcy court. The fee is close to $300 for most personal bankruptcies. The petition will contain sworn statements by the debtors concerning the amount of money they owe, their income and expenses, as well as a complete list of all of their assets. After filing, a court hearing is held to review the information in the petition.
Chapter 7 bankruptcies are by far the most common. These are liquidation bankruptcies in which the debtors must turn over all “non-exempt” property to a supervising officer known as the bankruptcy trustee. Property is exempt if it falls within specific categories of assets that debtors are allowed to keep, such as a certain amount of clothing, household items, tools for work, and in some instances, vehicles and the family home.
The Chapter 7 trustee will take the debtor’s non-exempt property (if there is any), and sell it. The money will be paid to the debtor’s creditors. This may result in creditors receiving a small fraction of their claims. The balance of the debtor’s loans and obligations are forgiven and can never be collected. Creditors who attempt to collect debts that have been discharged face severe penalties under federal law.
Keep Your Property
The fact that a liquidation bankruptcy wipes out debt completely is obviously attractive to anyone who cannot afford to pay their bills. But what about people who have non-exempt property that they do not want to give up? Chapter 13 is a reorganization bankruptcy. It allows debtors to keep their property by agreeing to make monthly payments toward their debt over the course of three to five years.
Chapter 13 bankruptcies offer a number of benefits besides allowing debtors to keep their property. For example, certain types of secured debt, like a car loan, can be restructured by reducing principal to the market value of the collateral, and lowering payments by extending the repayment period to 60 months. Other obligations, like mortgages, student loans, and tax liabilities can be modified as well. Creditors are given no choice in the matter.
Bankruptcy is not available to everyone. Those who have had their debts discharged in a Chapter 7 within the past eight years cannot re-file. For Chapter 13, the waiting period is six years. Too much disposable income is also a problem. Congress has established a “means test” for this purpose. Debtors who make enough money to repay their creditors will be barred from filing a liquidation bankruptcy, though reorganization may be an option.
Businesses that have become insolvent but want to stay in business may be able to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Like a personal reorganization, Chapter 11 allows businesses to obtain protection from their creditors while they put together a repayment plan. Liabilities can be reduced and restructured to give the business another chance at achieving profitability.
Whether a debtor is considering filing under Chapter 7, 11, or 13, they must comply with a vast number of federal laws and regulations. An error at any step of the process can result in the court refusing to discharge the debtor’s liabilities. When the bankruptcy process ends this way, the consequences are disastrous. With so much at stake, hiring a licensed bankruptcy attorney like Brian Zinn at Zinnlaw at the outset is a wise investment.
Brian D. Zinn is a contract attorney who services clients in Fort Myers, Estero, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Naples, FL. His main areas of practice are contract law, construction law, litigation and bankruptcy law.
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