Losing the Automatic Stay in Bankruptcy

When you file a petition in bankruptcy, whether in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, (and if you are not disqualified as a “repeat filer”) you are immediately entitled to the protection of the Automatic Stay. The Automatic Stay is contained in the US Bankruptcy Code, and prohibits creditors from writing, calling, suing or continuing suits or collection action, or taking any other action (outside of the bankruptcy proceeding) to collect a debt. The automatic stay remains in effect until your bankruptcy discharge, with some exceptions. Here are the ways you can lose the protection of the automatic stay.

A Creditor Successfully Asks the Court to Remove the Stay

A creditor can always file a motion the bankruptcy court to lift the automatic stay “for cause”. The most common reasons are a default or arrears in payment. Also, if the lender can show that it is not “adequately protected” by its collateral, that may suffice. The most common circumstance for individual debtors is a failure to maintain insurance on a vehicle or other property where this is required under the loan documents.

If the Court vacates or “lifts’ the automatic stay, the creditor is then free to repossess or foreclose on the property and otherwise protect its interest. However, the creditor is generally not permitted to sue a debtor personally (except as a defendant in a mortgage foreclosure or similar legal action aimed at recovery of collateral). It can only proceed to recover its property.

Filing a Repeat Bankruptcy Within a Year of a Prior Petition

If you had a prior bankruptcy proceeding that was dismissed (other than because of disqualification under the Means Test or “substantial abuse “ provisions of Code section 707(b)) within a year of the current filing the automatic stay only lasts for 30 days. To keep it in place for longer than that, you must file a motion to extend it, and that motion needs to be heard and granted within 30 days. In other words, if you are in this situation, you and your attorney had better work fast.

If you had more than one such case dismissed in the preceding year, or if the dismissal was because you did not comply with a court order or the terms of a confirmed Chapter 13 plan, it is even tougher to get the protection of the automatic stay. First, the stay does not go into effect at all until the court orders it. Furthermore, the burden is on you to show that court that you are now acting in good faith deserve the automatic stay as being in the best interest of creditors. The bankruptcy court may extend the period of the stay under limited conditions, if it determines that the current filing is in good faith.

Missing Deadlines for Filing Statement of Intention

If you have secured debt in the bankruptcy, you must prepare and present to creditors a Statement of Intention, which advises creditors what you plan to do with the collateral. You must file the Statement of Intention within 30 days of filing your bankruptcy petition. If you do not, the automatic stay may be lifted.

The Automatic Stay is one of the most important and fundamental protections that a bankruptcy affords. There are many other situations where it may be at risk. Protecting yourself and the protection of the Automatic Stay requires the advice and representation of a qualified, experienced and diligent attorney.

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

We understand the stress, anxiety and confusion that can be associated with a potential bankruptcy filing. We offer a free initial consultation to every client. For an appointment, call Neuner & Ventura at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

Representing Clients across South Jersey

Avoiding the Means Test in Bankruptcy

When Can You Avoid the Means Test in Bankruptcy?

To qualify to discharge your debts under Chapter 7 today, you must typically submit to the “means test,” a formula designed to determine whether you have the resources to repay your creditors rather than simply ridding yourself of the debt. There are, however, certain conditions where you don’t have to take the means test.

The Business Debt Exemption

Referred to by some as the “business debt loophole,” this provision (set forth in Section 707 (b) of the Bankruptcy Code) states that the means test only applies to debtors with “primarily” consumer debt.

Unfortunately, when Congress enacted the new bankruptcy law in 2005, it did not provide a definition for the term “primarily.” As a practical matter, most courts have simply defined that as a simple majority. Accordingly, if more than 50% of your debts were incurred in a business or for business expenses, you don’t have to qualify under the means test.

Furthermore, the rules are not always crystal clear on what constitutes “consumer debt.” Some obligations, such as your mortgage for a primary home, are almost always considered consumer debt. But other real estate may be for your personal use or it may be considered an investment. Additionally, if a car was used exclusively or even primarily for work, it can be exempted from consumer debt. Credit card debt is customarily viewed as consumer debt, unless you can show that the credit card was used to further a business venture. Many courts hold that taxes are not a consumer debt.

The Disabled Veteran Exemption

You can waive the means test if you are a disabled veteran, under certain conditions. Your disability must be rated at least 30%, you must have suffered the injury in the course of your military duty, and you must have been discharged because of the disability.

The Reserve / National Guard Exemption

If you have been a member of the National Guard, or a reserve soldier in any branch of the U.S. military, and you were called up after September 11, 2001, you may seek an exemption from the means test so long as your debt did not predate the period of your service or arise more than 18 months after it ended.

Needless to say, the Means Test is complex and how it applies to you depends on your circumstances. The above discussion is necessarily general and may not exactly apply to you. Seek qualified legal advice.

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

At Neuner & Ventura, LLP, we provide a free initial consultation to every client. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. To set up an appointment, call our office at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

Addressing Student Loan Debt with a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Restructuring Student Loan Debt in Chapter 13

If you’ve accumulated substantial student loan debt, but don’t have the income to pay it off, you may be considering bankruptcy as a way of managing your obligations. Student loan debt can, in limited circumstances, be discharged in Chapter 7, but the requirements are strict. For more information, see our blog on the hardship discharge of student loans. In most instances, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy can provide partial relief, by holding off collection of student loans in default while these loans get partially paid.

In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you have the opportunity to use a court sanctioned repayment plan over 3 to 5 years. In exchange, for the entire 3 to 5 year period, you get the benefit of the automatic stay, which prohibits creditors from calling, writing, filing legal action or taking any other measures outside of the bankruptcy to collect a debt from you. The automatic stay goes into effect immediately upon filing your petition. It is fully applicable to student loans. It continues as long as you are in bankruptcy, and for Chapter 13, as long as you are making payments according to your approved plan.

While any unpaid balance on such loans will still be due at the end of the plan, you will have hopefully paid down the loans based on your actual ability to pay, and not based on what a student loan debt collector or collection attorney demands of you.

With a Chapter 13 filing, you can get immediate relief from attempts to collect on your student loans. In addition, student loans are considered unsecured debts in a Chapter 13 proceeding, similar to medical expenses or credit card bills. Accordingly, they don’t have priority and do not have to be paid off in full as part of the petition. The amount you will be required to pay monthly will be based on how much income you have left after payments to secured creditors.

The specific benefits of a Chapter 13 when you have unmanageable student loan debt include:

  • The ability to stop aggressive student loan debt collectors for a period of time.
  • The ability to pay on your loans based on your income and ability, while you pay off other obligations, so that, once your bankruptcy is complete, you can better afford to make student loan payments

Contact Our Office

At Neuner & Ventura, LLP, we work hard to alleviate the stress, anxiety and confusion that come with a potential bankruptcy filing. We offer a free initial consultation to every client. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. For an appointment, call us at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

Representing Clients across South Jersey

Heading for bankruptcy? Paying your children’s college expenses could create “clawback” headaches for them and their college

Many parents in financial difficulty still place a priority on helping their children with tuition and other college expenses. While this is entirely understandable, parents who pay colleges for their adult children could be creating problems for both their children and the colleges if they later file for bankruptcy protection.

Recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere have exposed a growing trend: bankruptcy trustees are suing colleges to “claw back” money paid by parents in bankruptcy. This has led the colleges to seek payment from the students, or to withhold transcripts until the money is repaid. It has even spawn a proposed bill in Congress to prevent bankruptcy trustees from filing such suits.

The underlying legal theory for such “claw-back” suits is not that novel. Trustees have the right and indeed the obligation to pursue getting back money or property that a debtor in bankruptcy has “fraudulently” transferred, so the money can be made available to pay creditors (and to pay the trustee and his attorneys). The payment need not have been done with actual intent to defraud creditors. It is sufficient if it was made without the parent/debtor getting “reasonably equivalent value” in return for what is paid, and if the payment was made at a time the parent was insolvent or unable to pay current or anticipated debts.

In essence, the trustees argue, the parents paying the college education expenses of an adult child are making a gift to that child. Gifts are by definition not made for “reasonably equivalent value”. They take away money that could have been used to pay the parent’s creditors.  Love and affection are not considered “reasonably equivalent value”.

If the parent takes out a loan or co-signs a student loan for the child but all the money goes to the child or her college, the effect is the same. It is still an avoidable gift.

Ironically, if the parent making the payment is required to do so under a divorce settlement incorporated into a divorce decree, the problem disappears. Why? Because the parent has a legal duty to pay that is enforceable by the divorcing spouse, and by making the payment the parent is relieved of part of that obligation. This is no different than when one pays a debt that is owed. The corresponding reduction in debt creates reasonable value in exchange.

Generally, in New Jersey, parents do not have a legal obligation (absent a divorce situation) to support their children after they achieve the age of majority or become “emancipated”.

There are ways around this problem for parents in financial difficulty. One option is to file bankruptcy first, then pay the college expenses out of future income or assets that are protected in bankruptcy (such as pensions or profit sharing plans),  after the bankruptcy is over. But for most people in this situation, they and their children need to have a sober and honest discussion about what is practical and in every one’s best interests in the long run.

Careful planning and advice of qualified professionals is a must. These are difficult decisions and should be thought through carefully as part of a broad based plan for getting a “fresh start”. With years of trustee and bankruptcy experience, we have the ability to help distressed parents sort it all out.

Filing Bankruptcy Without Your Spouse

You may have personal financial issues that you brought into a marriage, or that really have little or nothing to do with your spouse. You can file a petition in bankruptcy without including your spouse, but how the two of you will be treated will depend in part on where you live and what property or debt you have together.

Selling Jointly owned property

In New Jersey, Pennsylvania and most states outside the western United States, Florida and Louisiana “community property” between a husband and wife does not apply. This means that unless a divorce has already been filed when the bankruptcy is filed, any property that titled exclusively to you, as well as your rights and interest in jointly owned property becomes part of your bankruptcy estate.

A bankruptcy will generally not remove the claims or interest of your spouse in jointly owned property. However, if the property has enough equity or value that your interest in it cannot fully be protected by exemptions available to you in bankruptcy, it can be subject to sale.

In New Jersey, even property that is held as “tenants by the entireties” (ie as husband and wife) can be sold by a bankruptcy trustee over the spouse’s objection. If that were to occur, the non-debtor spouse has certain rights and protections. First, the trustee has to show the court that the benefit to creditors from a sale outweighs the harm to the non-debtor spouse. If the value is high enough, this will commonly be the case. Secondly, the spouse is entitled to his/her share of the net proceeds after paying costs of sale and any mortgage or valid secured debt. Third, the spouse can outbid the proposed purchaser to buy out the debtor’s interest in the property.

This is a situation that absolutely requires careful consideration and advice from an experienced, knowledgeable bankruptcy attorney.

No Discharge of Joint Debt

If you do file for protection under Chapter 7 without your spouse, any discharge of joint debts will only affect your obligation. Even though your debt is discharged, your spouse will still be required to repay his or her portion.

The flip side of this is that your household income will still have to be used to pay your non-filing spouse’s debts and joint debt. If there is not enough money to do this, a joint bankruptcy filing may be needed.

These are situations that need careful and detailed review by an experienced bankruptcy attorney knowledgeable about both bankruptcy and divorce issues, as well as the process of trustee sales of assets. At Neuner and Ventura LLP, we have that background.

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

To schedule an appointment, call our office at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request. There is no cost or obligation for your first meeting.

Representing Clients across South Jersey

The Income Side of the Means Test

The Income Component of the Bankruptcy Means Test

Man paying billsUnder the “Means Test established by the 2005 revisions to the federal bankruptcy laws, certain people needing bankruptcy protection may be disqualified from a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy must make calculated minimum payments to unsecured creditors over a required five year period. The Means Test was intended to catch people with high income and abnormally high expenses and force them to pay based on the same formula that the IRS uses in calculating repayment plans for those who owe federal taxes.

The Means Test does not apply if one of the following is true:

  1. Your debts are primarily business or business related debts;
  2. You are a disabled veteran and your debts occurred primarily while you were on active duty in the armed forces, or in the armed forces reserves or National Guard or within 540 days after the end of that service
  3. Your “current monthly income” based on the past 6 months is less than the median income in the state where you life, for your size household.

“Current monthly income” under the Means Test is the average monthly gross income for the six month period prior to the filing of your petition. This includes all forms of income (other than Social Security), whether taxed or not, such as:

  • Gross wages, tips and salaries, including bonuses and commissions (before payroll deductions)
  • Gross business or investment income
  • Income from retirement plans
  • Disability payments other than Social Security disability
  • Regular contributions by others to cover household expenses

Generally, the court or the trustee will look at the total gross income for the six month period and divide by six.

Once your current monthly income is calculated, the bankruptcy court or the trustee will compare your average current monthly income with the median in your state, also taking into account your household size. (The median is the number at which half the households earn more and half earn less). If you fall below the median, you automatically pass the means test.

If your income exceeds the median, you may still be able to discharge debts through Chapter 7, but the computation will be far more complex. At that point, a complicated multi-part formula of allowed expenses is applied. If after deducting the allowed expenses, the amount remaining (called “disposable income”) is at or below what is allowed (again based on a multi-part formula), you can still qualify under Chapter 7.

Needless to say, this is an area where experienced and qualified legal advice is essential.

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

At Neuner & Ventura, LLP, we know the personal challenges that come with a potential bankruptcy filing. We offer a free initial consultation to every client. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney.

For an appointment, call Neuner & Ventura at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

Representing Clients across South Jersey

Inherited IRA’s are not part of a bankruptcy estate in New Jersey, Bankruptcy Court holds

In a personal  bankruptcy of an individual, money and assets held in certain qualified trusts  are “excluded” and do not become part of the Debtor’s bankruptcy estate that, if not exempted, becomes available for sale by a trustee to pay creditors. Qualified pensions are a common example. Excluded assets need not be exempted to be retained by the debtor in bankruptcy.

As we previously reported, in 2014 the Supreme Court in Clark v Rameker held that under Wisconsin law, an inherited IRA was not an IRA that would fit into the generous federal exemption for IRA’s. The reason was that unlike normal IRA’s the money in these accounts could be access and used at any time without tax penalty. At the time, we questioned whether this would hold true in New Jersey, which has a statute protecting inherited IRA’s from claims of creditors or a bankruptcy trustee. N.J.S.A. 25:2-1(b).

On February 25, 2015, New Jersey Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan held in In re Andolino,  2015 Bankr. LEXIS 577, that an inherited IRA is excluded from the bankruptcy estate. Clark, he held, did not address this issue. Under New Jersey law, any “qualified trust” is protected, and includes any “trust created, qualified or maintained” under section 408 of the Internal Revenue Code.  Since the IRA which Mr. Andolino inherited was a qualified trust when created, and remains so even after he inherited it from his mother, it cannot be included in a bankruptcy estate.

The opinion has been submitted for publication, so it should become persuasive if not binding on other New Jersey Bankruptcy courts. Since the reasoning and the statutory basis are clear, logical and persuasive, we expect most courts at least in New Jersey will follow it.

Even the big guys are guilty of making matters worse through denial-Detroit’s bankruptcy experience is an object lesson for many others

As you know the City of Detroit filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and after a lengthy and expensive process, is emerging from Chapter 11, ostensibly with its finances in order and its future brighter. A recently reported interview with the now-retired bankruptcy judge who handled the bankruptcy suggests that in the years leading to its bankruptcy, Detroit’s city fathers fell victim to a common malady, namely desperation and denial, and that this led to expensive mistakes.

According reports of an interview given by Judge Steven Rhodes, the city made an expensive and ill-considered deal to try to fend off  the pension default that ultimately was a major impetus to its bankruptcy filing. The suggestion is that the City would have been better off had it simply bit the bullet earlier.

This syndrome of denial and “kicking the can down the road” is, in my experience, all to common, and leads to desperate and ill-considered attempts to stop the inevitable bankruptcy.

A common example is the business owner who borrows money against her home (or from the IRS by not handing over employee withholding trust funds) to keep a failing business alive. To be sure, saving a viable business and carrying it through a temporary rough patch is not a bad thing. The problem is that too often, there has been no effort to find out what is causing the problems, and no effort to deal with those problems.

Another face of this is the refusal to even consider the option of bankruptcy as an alternative until quite late in the game. Sometimes by the time this is considered, the situation has gone from bad but cureable to desperate and incurable.

Our advice to business owners is to always consider all the options, and to do so earlier rather than later. An early bankruptcy might solve critical problems that will only get worse and save the business, whereas later matters have gotten out of hand, and the once-saveable business is doomed.

Individuals are just a guilty of this. I cannot count the number of times I have seen couples  whose solution to mounting credit card debt caused by income that was not enough to cover their spending was to borrow against home equity or emptying retirement accounts.  The underlying problem is still there, and like Detroit, they are just “kicking the can down the road”

The lesson of Detroit is that financial problems do not get solved unless one gets to the source. Short term solutions, such as borrowing more money to meet a cash flow deficit, just delays the inevitable and makes matters worse.

It is never too soon for people or businesses in financial trouble to engage in careful and broad based planning. All choices and options should be considered.

Can Bankruptcy Help You If You Owe Money Because of a Car Accident?

Can You Use Bankruptcy to Discharge a Judgment against You Resulting from an Accident?

Car accidentThough most judgments and settlements in motor vehicle accident cases are paid and defended by insurance companies, it is possible to have personal liabilities that are not covered by insurance. For example, you may not have any insurance coverage, or not enough coverage. In some cases, the insurance company, rather than defending, may “offer the policy limits” to the defendant. If the damages are more than that amount you may end up on the receiving end of a collection action.

Most insurance will not cover suits arising from an assault or other intentional tort, such as a bar fight.

So the first line of defense is making sure you are insured. But if you are not covered, a bankruptcy discharge may provide you the relief you need. But not all such debts are dischargeable.
Debts arising from death or personal injury caused by illegal operation of a motor vehicle boat or aircraft while drunk or under the influence of an illegal drug cannot be discharged in any bankruptcy. If there is insurance, the insurer will still have to pay, but anything the insurance does not pay will still be your liability after your bankruptcy discharge.

If convicted and required to pay restitution or fines as part of a sentence, that amount will be non-dischargeable in either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. Note however that in New Jersey, motor vehicle insurance surcharges, but not criminal fines or penalties, can be discharged either in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.

Debts arising from willful and malicious injury to a person or property may become non-dischargeable in a Chapter 7 case if the injured person files a lawsuit in the bankruptcy case seeking such a ruling. There is a limited time for such suits and if the deadline is missed, the debt is discharged. In a Chapter 13 case, no such requirement exists, and if death or personal injury was caused, the debt is not discharged. However, debts for willful and malicious injury to property (eg. vandalism) can be discharged.

A special caution is in order here. To qualify for Chapter 13, the total unsecured debt in a fixed and determinable amount cannot exceed a dollar limit, currently $383,175.00. Once a jury verdict, settlement or judgment is entered specifying the liability, that liability gets added to this total. Thus it may be critical to file a Chapter 13 case while the injury or criminal case is still pending and before any of this happens.
As always, it is best to avoid these types of situations, but if these issues exist,

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

At Neuner & Ventura, LLP, we provide a free initial consultation to every client. To set up a meeting, call Neuner & Ventura at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

Representing Clients across South Jersey

Chapter 13 to Manage Tax Arrearages

Managing Tax Debt with a Chapter 13 Plan

IRS buldingAs a general rule, a bankruptcy discharge will not remove personal liability for most tax debts. See our previous blog post on that subject. Generally, taxes that are non-dischargeable are also entitled to a priority in payment in Chapter 13, and must be paid in full over time under an approved Chapter 13 plan. Those debts that are not “priority debt” will be discharged with the same right to payment as other “non-priority, unsecured debt” such as credit cards. That debt will be pooled with other similarly situated debt, such as medical expenses and credit card debt, and the amount of payments on those debts depends on a number of factors, including how much income is available after priority and secured debt have been paid. Often, these debts are only partially paid, with any amounts still upon completion of all plan payments being discharged.

Tax Liens may be subject to “cram down”

Taxing authorities such as the IRS and states such as New Jersey will obtain tax liens by various means. For the IRS to have a valid enforceable lien in a New Jersey bankruptcy, it must file a Notice of Tax Lien in the county where you own real estate, or where you reside or where a business has its principal place of business. Unless modified, these liens must either be satisfied or remain undisturbed in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. This would mean that the lien is still attached to real estate or other property when the bankruptcy is over.

However, under a procedure called “cram-down” a tax lien can be reduced to the value of all property to which it attaches, and if that amount is paid, can be removed at the end of a case. For example, if John has $120,000.00 in IRS liens, but the total value of everything he owns, (including profit sharing plans) is only $50,000.00, then he is permitted to pay only $50,000.00 and upon paying that amount to the IRS in his Chapter 13 plan, the lien will be discharged and removed.

Taxes are complex and specialized advice is needed. IRS CIRCULAR 230 DISCLOSURE: Pursuant to Treasury Regulations, any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used or relied upon by you or any other person, for the purpose of (i) avoiding penalties under the Internal Revenue Code, or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any tax advice addressed herein.

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

At Neuner & Ventura, LLP, we know that the bankruptcy process can be intimidating and confusing. We offer a free initial consultation to every client. For an appointment, call our office at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

Representing Clients across South Jersey

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