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Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Chapter 13, also known as Adjustment of Debts of an Individual with Regular Income, is designed for individuals who have regular sources of income. Chapter 13 is often preferable to chapter 7 because it enables the debtor to keep a valuable asset, such as a house, and it allows the debtor to propose a “plan” to repay creditors over time – usually three to five years. Chapter 13 is also used by consumer debtors who do not qualify for chapter 7 relief under the means test.

Chapter 13 enables individuals with regular income to develop a plan to repay all or part of their debts. If the debtor's current monthly income is less than the applicable state median, the plan will be for three years unless the court approves a longer period "for cause." If the debtor's current monthly income is greater than the applicable state median, the plan generally must be for five years. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years. 11 U.S.C. §1322(d). During this time the law forbids creditors from starting or continuing collection efforts.

Advantages of Chapter 13

Chapter 13 offers individuals a number of advantages over total and complete liquidation under chapter 7. Perhaps most significantly, chapter 13 offers individuals an opportunity to save their homes from foreclosure. By filing under this chapter, individuals can stop foreclosure proceedings and may cure delinquent mortgage payments over time. Nevertheless, they must still make all mortgage payments that come due during the chapter 13 plan on time. Another advantage of chapter 13 is that it allows individuals to reschedule secured debts (other than a mortgage for their primary residence) and extend them over the life of the chapter 13 plan. Doing this may lower the payments. Chapter 13 also has a special provision that protects third parties who are liable with the debtor on "consumer debts." This provision can protect co-signers. Finally, chapter 13 acts like a consolidation loan under which the individual makes the plan payments to a chapter 13 trustee who then distributes payments to creditors. Individuals will have no direct contact with creditors while under chapter 13 protection.

Chapter 13 Eligibility

An individual cannot file under chapter 13 or any other chapter if, during the preceding 180 days, a prior bankruptcy petition was dismissed due to the debtor's willful failure to appear before the court or comply with orders of the court or was voluntarily dismissed after creditors sought relief from the bankruptcy court to recover property upon which they hold liens. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109(g), 362(d) and (e). In addition, no individual may be a debtor under chapter 13 or any chapter of the Bankruptcy Code unless he or she has, within 180 days before filing, received credit counseling from an approved credit counseling agency either in an individual or group briefing. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109, 111. There are exceptions in emergency situations or where the U.S. trustee (or bankruptcy administrator) has determined that there are insufficient approved agencies to provide the required counseling. If a debt management plan is developed during required credit counseling, it must be filed with the court.

The Chapter 13 Plan and Confirmation Hearing

Unless the court grants an extension, the debtor must file a repayment plan with the petition or within 15 days after the petition is filed. A plan should be submitted for court approval and must provide for payments of fixed amounts to the trustee on a regular basis, typically biweekly or monthly. The trustee will then distributes the funds to creditors according to the terms of the plan, which may offer creditors less than full payment on their claims.

At the confirmation hearing, the court either approves or disapproves the debtor’s repayment plan, depending on whether it meets the Bankruptcy Code’s requirements for confirmation. Chapter 13 is very different from chapter 7 since the chapter 13 debtor usually remains in possession of the property of the estate and makes payments to creditors, through the trustee, based on the debtor’s anticipated income over the life of the plan. Unlike chapter 7, the debtor does not receive an immediate discharge of debts. The debtor must complete the payments required under the plan before the complete discharge is received. The debtor is protected from lawsuits, garnishments, and other creditor actions while the plan is in effect. The discharge is also somewhat broader (i.e., more debts are eliminated) under chapter 13 than the discharge under chapter 7.

There are three types of claims: priority, secured, and unsecured. Priority claims are granted special status by the bankruptcy law, such as most taxes and the costs of bankruptcy proceeding. Secured claims are those which the creditor has the right take back certain property (i.e., the collateral) if the debtor does not pay the underlying debt. In contrast to secured claims, unsecured claims are those for which the creditor has no special rights to collect against particular property owned by the debtor.

The plan must pay priority claims in full unless a particular priority creditor agrees to different treatment of the claim or, in the case of a domestic support obligation, unless the debtor contributes all "disposable income" - discussed below - to a five-year plan.11 U.S.C. § 1322(a).

If the debtor wants to keep the collateral securing a particular claim, the plan must provide that the holder of the secured claim receive at least the value of the collateral. If the obligation underlying the secured claim was used the buy the collateral (e.g., a car loan), and the debt was incurred within certain time frames before the bankruptcy filing, the plan must provide for full payment of the debt, not just the value of the collateral (which may be less due to depreciation). Payments to certain secured creditors (i.e., the home mortgage lender), may be made over the original loan repayment schedule (which may be longer than the plan) so long as any arrearage is made up during the plan. The debtor should consult an attorney to determine the proper treatment of secured claims in the plan.

The plan need not pay unsecured claims in full as long it provides that the debtor will pay all projected "disposable income" over an "applicable commitment period," and as long as unsecured creditors receive at least as much under the plan as they would receive if the debtor's assets were liquidated under chapter 7. 11 U.S.C. § 1325.

In chapter 13, "disposable income" is income (other than child support payments received by the debtor) less amounts reasonably necessary for the maintenance or support of the debtor or dependents and less charitable contributions up to 15% of the debtor's gross income. If the debtor operates a business, the definition of disposable income excludes those amounts which are necessary for ordinary operating expenses. 11 U.S.C. § 1325(b)(2)(A) and (B). The "applicable commitment period" depends on the debtor's current monthly income. The applicable commitment period must be three years if current monthly income is less than the state median for a family of the same size - and five years if the current monthly income is greater than a family of the same size. 11 U.S.C. § 1325(d). The plan may be less than the applicable commitment period (three or five years) only if unsecured debt is paid in full over a shorter period.

Within 30 days after filing the bankruptcy case, even if the plan has not yet been approved by the court, the debtor must start making plan payments to the trustee. 11 U.S.C. § 1326(a)(1). If any secured loan payments or lease payments come due before the debtor's plan is confirmed (typically home and automobile payments), the debtor must make adequate protection payments directly to the secured lender or lessor - deducting the amount paid from the amount that would otherwise be paid to the trustee.

No later than 45 days after the meeting of creditors, the bankruptcy judge must hold a confirmation hearing and decide whether the plan is feasible and meets the standards for confirmation set forth in the Bankruptcy Code. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1324, 1325. Creditors will receive 25 days notice of the hearing and may object to confirmation. While a variety of objections may be made, the most frequent ones are that payments offered under the plan are less than what the creditors would receive if the debtor's assets were liquidated or that the debtor's plan does not commit all of the debtor's projected disposable income for the three or five year applicable commitment period.

If the court confirms the plan, the chapter 13 trustee will distribute funds received under the plan "as soon as is practicable." 11 U.S.C. § 1326(a)(2). If the court declines to confirm the plan, the debtor may file a modified plan. 11 U.S.C. § 1323. The debtor may also convert the case to a liquidation case under chapter 7. 11 U.S.C. § 1307(a). If the court declines to confirm the plan or the modified plan and instead dismisses the case, the court may authorize the trustee to keep some funds for costs, but the trustee must return all remaining funds to the debtor (other than funds already disbursed or due to creditors). 11 U.S.C. § 1326(a)(2).

Occasionally, a change in circumstances may compromise the debtor's ability to make plan payments. For example, a creditor may object or threaten to object to a plan, or the debtor may inadvertently have failed to list all creditors. In such instances, the plan may be modified either before or after confirmation. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1323, 1329. Modification after confirmation is not limited to an initiative by the debtor, but may be at the request of the trustee or an unsecured creditor. 11 U.S.C. § 1329(a).

Making the Plan Work

The provisions of a confirmed plan bind the debtor and each creditor. 11 U.S.C. § 1327. Once the court confirms the plan, the debtor must make the plan succeed. The debtor must make regular payments to the trustee either directly or through payroll deduction, which will require adjustment to living on a fixed budget for a prolonged period. Furthermore, while confirmation of the plan entitles the debtor to retain property as long as payments are made, the debtor may not incur new debt without consulting the trustee, because additional debt may compromise the debtor's ability to complete the plan. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1305(c), 1322(a)(1), 1327.

A debtor may make plan payments through payroll deductions. This practice increases the likelihood that payments will be made on time and that the debtor will complete the plan. In any event, if the debtor fails to make the payments due under the confirmed plan, the court may dismiss the case or convert it to a liquidation case under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. 11 U.S.C. § 1307(c). The court may also dismiss or convert the debtor's case if the debtor fails to pay any post-filing domestic support obligations (i.e., child support, alimony), or fails to make required tax filings during the case. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1307(c) and (e), 1308, 521.

The Chapter 13 Discharge

The bankruptcy law regarding the scope of the chapter 13 discharge is complex and has recently undergone major changes. Therefore, debtors should consult competent legal counsel prior to filing regarding the scope of the chapter 13 discharge.

A chapter 13 debtor is entitled to a discharge upon completion of all payments under the chapter 13 plan so long as the debtor: (1) certifies (if applicable) that all domestic support obligations that came due prior to making such certification have been paid; (2) has not received a discharge in a prior case filed within a certain time frame (two years for prior chapter 13 cases and four years for prior chapter 7, 11 and 12 cases); and (3) has completed an approved course in financial management (if the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator for the debtor's district has determined that such courses are available to the debtor). 11 U.S.C. § 1328. The court will not enter the discharge, however, until it determines, after notice and a hearing, that there is no reason to believe there is any pending proceeding that might give rise to a limitation on the debtor's homestead exemption. 11 U.S.C. § 1328(h).

The discharge releases the debtor from all debts provided for by the plan or disallowed (under section 502), with limited exceptions. Creditors provided for in full or in part under the chapter 13 plan may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect the discharged obligations.

As a general rule, the discharge releases the debtor from all debts provided for by the plan or disallowed, with the exception of certain debts referenced in 11 U.S.C. § 1328. Debts not discharged in chapter 13 include certain long term obligations (such as a home mortgage), debts for alimony or child support, certain taxes, debts for most government funded or guaranteed educational loans or benefit overpayments, debts arising from death or personal injury caused by driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, and debts for restitution or a criminal fine included in a sentence on the debtor's conviction of a crime. To the extent that they are not fully paid under the chapter 13 plan, the debtor will still be responsible for these debts after the bankruptcy case has concluded. Debts for money or property obtained by false pretenses, debts for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, and debts for restitution or damages awarded in a civil case for willful or malicious actions by the debtor that cause personal injury or death to a person will be discharged unless a creditor timely files and prevails in an action to have such debts declared non-dischargeable. 11 U.S.C. §§ 1328, 523(c).

The discharge in a chapter 13 case is somewhat broader than in a chapter 7 case. Debts dischargeable in a chapter 13, but not in chapter 7, include debts for willful and malicious injury to property (as opposed to a person), debts incurred to pay non-dischargeable tax obligations, and debts arising from property settlements in divorce or separation proceedings. 11 U.S.C. § 1328(a).

The Chapter 13 Hardship Discharge

After confirmation of a plan, circumstances may arise that prevent the debtor from completing the plan. In such situations, the debtor may ask the court to grant a "hardship discharge." 11 U.S.C. § 1328(b). Generally, such a discharge is available only if: (1) the debtor's failure to complete plan payments is due to circumstances beyond the debtor's control and through no fault of the debtor; (2) creditors have received at least as much as they would have received in a chapter 7 liquidation case; and (3) modification of the plan is not possible. Injury or illness that precludes employment sufficient to fund even a modified plan may serve as the basis for a hardship discharge. The hardship discharge is more limited than the discharge described above and does not apply to any debts that are non-dischargeable in a chapter 7 case. 11 U.S.C. § 523.