What’s the Difference between a Debt and a Lien in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy?

I recently had a conversation with a person who had just received a discharge in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.  He had also received what he thought was a very weird item from his mortgage company. The mortgage company had sent him a form for his signature which would give them permission to start sending monthly statements again even though the mortgage debt had been discharged. In the fine print on the back of the discharge there is a court order requiring all creditors – including the mortgage company – to make no attempt of any kind to collect the debt.   This includes mortgages, even if the homeowners want to keep the house.   But most homeowners who have mortgages want to continue paying the mortgage so they can keep their home.  Having a monthly mortgage statement helps a lot in keeping  track of that, but without permission to start sending statements again, the mortgage companies tend to be afraid to do so.

The permission to restart monthly statements form DOES look a little weird.  It usually will start off by saying something like: “Well, we know you’ve been discharged in a bankruptcy and you don’t owe this personally anymore, so don’t take this as attempt to collect a debt.  We were just wondering if maybe, not that you actually owe this anymore, you might still like updates on the status of the mortgage, for information purposes only, in case you might still want to make some payments on a strictly voluntary basis – not that we would really want the money or anything like that.”

This odd language is the result of there being two seemingly contradictory facts for a homeowner with a mortgage following a Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge.  The first fact is that the personal obligation to pay the debt no longer exists.  The second fact is that the lender still has a mortgage lien on the house, and if you don’t pay the mortgage that lender will foreclose.

In the phone conversation I felt a bit put on the spot.  I was asked repeatedly to explain if the debt has been discharged, how can there still be a lien on the house that carries with it a right to foreclose.  I tired to explain that a mortgage lien is actually a property right  – a form of partial ownership – which the lender has.  The bankruptcy discharge takes away the personal obligation to pay the debt, but it does nothing to the ownership interest.  The discharge only affects personal obligations, not property interests.

So the bottom line is that when it comes to Chapter 7 bankruptcy, if you want to keep your house you better keep paying your mortgage or mortgages.

This was confirmed within the past few days by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court issued on June 1, 2015.  In the case of Bank of America v. Caulkett, the court ruled that mortgage liens cannot be stripped off in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.  Under certain limited circumstances, the situation can be different in a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy.  More about that in my page about keeping your house.

This post is for general information purposes only and is not legal advice.  Interactions here do not create an attorney-client relationship.  Consult your own attorney concerning the details of your case.  I am a debt relief agency, helping people file for relief under the federal bankruptcy code.

“Thank you” Recently Received from Client after Bankruptcy Discharge

During the holidays several of my clients received their bankruptcy discharge.  The discharge is a court order which states that the Debtor is no longer legally obligated to repay most if not all of  his or her debts.  In most cases the only debts that are not discharged are student loans and taxes.  Sometimes even taxes can be discharged, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

When that discharge comes out,  many of my clients thank me profusely.  For some reason I often have a hard time accepting thanks.  When I was growing up I think it was part of the culture to assume that when somebody was just doing their job, there was no need to thank  them.  And if somebody thanked me I tended to say “no need to thank me” or “it was nothing” or other similar words which more or less blew it off.  Later in life I learned that such responses diminish the importance of the gratitude being expressed and the person expressing it, and a simple “you’re welcome” is a much better way to respond.

Gratitude is one of the most noble of feelings and it should always be acknowledged – still it remains hard for me to do.  Even so, with the client’s permission I’d like to share with you the following somewhat poetic excerpt from an email I received from one of the clients who recently got that discharge:

“This is the best holiday present ever!
That difficult experience of the past few years can now finally be a ghost….So many sleepless nights.
Thank you David for helping us to straighten out our lives..
We still have a hard road a head to try to prepare for being too old to be employed…
It would have been impossible with the mess we were in and it is still a long shot but we do have better odds now.
You were our guiding light and we will always be grateful.
Many many thanks to you David, …….”

I tend to get a little emotional around the holidays anyway, but this email really touched me.

Don’t be Tricked by Misleading Bankruptcy Attorney Fee Advertising

A lot of the advertising about attorney fees for bankruptcy is misleading – even tricky. Today I checked on a Google ad and the web page it leads to which says a certain law firm will file a bankruptcy after a payment toward the attorney fee of only $99.  I found this to be not exactly accurate.

The web page says that $99 toward the attorney fee, along with the court filing fee and counseling program fees, would be all one would have to pay prior to filing.  It was a slick web page, obviously done at considerable expense, where I found the following statement:

“You only have to pay the court filing fee of $335 and the credit report / credit course fees of $65 and an attorney fee of $99 to file.”  It also said:  “Only $99 Down, No Co-Signer Needed, File Now/Pay over Time, Affordable Payment Plans” in big blue letters.

I wondered how can these people can be doing this. I could never cover my office rent, malpractice insurance, phone and internet bills and office supplies if I didn’t charge a lot more than that.   So I went to the bankruptcy court web site and ran a search for actual cases they had filed.  This is not free, so I didn’t look very far.  All I did was check the last two cases this law firm filed to see what the attorney fee had been.  Attorney fees have to be disclosed on the bankruptcy petition.  What I found was that for the last two cases they filed, both Chapter 7s, their fee was $990. And the court filings also said they had received all of the $990 before filing the case.   That’s lower than what I would usually charge, but it’s a lot more than $99.

Now one thing you should understand about attorney fees in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is this. If the attorney does not collect his or her fee prior to filing, any part of the fee that is still owing is just another debt in the bankruptcy case. The attorney is just another creditor.  The attorney, like all the other creditors, is under an immediate court order requiring that he or she do nothing to try to collect.  It is illegal and unethical for the attorney to collect anything from the client once the case is filed.  That’s why you may see references to a co-signer in some advertising.  The lawyer can still try to collect the fee from a co-signer as long as the co-signer is not his bankruptcy client.  This of course puts the bankruptcy lawyer in the position of being a bill collector. I don’t EVER want to be a bill collector.

I went back to the web page thinking it must be referring to Chapter 13 bankruptcy only. When it comes to paying attorney fees after the case is filed, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a very different animal from a Chapter 7. If you file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy it is possible to pay part of the attorney fee through the Chapter 13 payment plan.  I hit Control F to search the page and typed “13” into the search box.  No mention of “13” or “Chapter 13” appears anywhere on the page.  The page seems to be talking about Chapter 7.  The only filing fee the page mentions is $335, which is the Chapter 7  court filing fee. The court filing fee for a Chapter 13 is slightly lower.

When I look at their web page I can see that it is very slick, and at the bottom is the name of a web development company that designed the page.  I can remember a few years back when I hired a person to redesign my page.  The person I hired started adding all sorts of new key words and content, which was submitted to me for review.  There was a whole lot of it, and it was hard to keep up with what the designer was doing.  Is it possible that the web designer wrote up this stuff while the law firm was not paying attention?  It could happen.  I’m now back to doing all my own web design work. I found that having my web page in the hands of a professional design and marketing person was scary.

So maybe they just have a busy marketing person who they can’t keep up with.   Maybe it’s not entirely the law firm’s fault.  But I do want to suggest to you that you should be very wary when you see something like this and don’t be taken in by it. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

This posting is for general information purposes only and is not legal advice. It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  I am a debt relief agency. I help people file for relief under the federal bankruptcy code.

Dave Kelly, Kelly Law Office, Minnetonka, MN 952-544-6356

Avoid Having your Bank Accounts Seized when you File Bankruptcy in MN

I don’t know what banks and credit unions are doing in other parts of the country.  I speak here only of what I have seen and heard about here locally in Minnesota, and specifically just the Twin Cities area. Here in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities area, there is a substantial danger that your savings and checking accounts will be seized or frozen by your bank or credit union when you file a personal bankruptcy.  I have always believed it to be a despicable thing to do.  Some banks and credit unions are worse than others at doing this.  When you choose a lawyer to handle your bankruptcy case, you might want to make sure that he or she is a person with enough experience to be aware of this problem and how to head it off before it happens.

The problem is this.  If the bank or credit union is one or your creditors, you can expect that institution to seize your accounts as soon as they are notified of the bankruptcy.  If this is not planned for it can result in quite a surprise – checks bouncing, a debit card that has stopped working, and the evaporation of money you thought you had.  There are some banks that are worse than others  when it comes to this problem.  They might freeze your account even if they are not a creditor, especially if your account has a fairly large sum of money – something in excess of $3,000.  I don’t want to mention them bank by name here, but I believe I did mention one in this video.

You should expect your bankruptcy attorney to coach and advise you as to how this is to be avoided. What I tell my clients is that if they have an account with a bank or credit union which they owe money to, that account should be closed well in advance of the filing of the bankruptcy case – whether it’s a Chapter 7 bankruptcy or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. If you don’t close that account, the bank or credit union will claim a right of setoff against your money in the account, which is a fancy way of saying that they will seize the money.  There are certain banks where all accounts should be closed if at all possible, whether you owe them money or not. Once they seize the money you won’t get it back – or at least usually won’t.

So the thing to do is to close all such accounts before you file your bankruptcy case.  It takes planning of course. I’m not saying you should try to live without a checking account.  What you need to do is open an account at a bank which is NOT one of your creditors, and get all your automatic deposits and automatic withdrawals up and running with the new account before we file your bankruptcy case.  I believe that the best banks to use for this purpose are the small neighborhood banks – for example a bank with a name that starts with “State Bank of …” or “Citizens Bank of …” The process of getting the new account set up and getting the auto deposits and auto payments moved over to and set up at the new bank may take a few weeks, but I consider this to be part of the normal planning and preparation that goes into making your case as painless as possible.

Using the Federal Wild Card Bankruptcy Exemption in Minnesota

In either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy in Minnesota, once it’s established that you qualify to use the federal exemptions, the most important exemption of all is probably the one they call the “wild card” exemption. It is also sometimes called the “catch all,” and is provided for in 11 USC 522 (d)(5).   You might hear me call it “the d 5.” Here’s a video I posted recently on the subject.

Yes, sorry the lighting and sound are terrible on this video, but I’ve leaving it up because the content is valuable.

The exemption has a minimum of $1,225 and a  maximum of $12,725.  Most of my clients qualify for the maximum.  It’s called the wild card or catch all because it can be applied to any asset.  Unlike all other exemptions, the asset does not have to fit into a particular category before it an be exempted under the wild card.  The best thing about it probably is that it can be used in combination with another exemption.

For example, say you have a car that has equity of $4,675.  It has a KBB private party value of $9,675, but there’s a car loan with a balance of $5,000.  First I would claim the federal automobile exemption which is $3,675.  Then I would apply $1,000 of the wild card to take up the slack.   Now the car is 100% exempt.  My client gets to keep the car.  The trustee can’t have it.  And my client still has $11,725 of wild card to apply to other assets.

In a joint filing by a married couple, each party has their own wild card exemption of up to $12,725.  If all the assets were joint, that would have the effect of doubling the wild card for them.  However, I’ve never seen a couple yet that owed everything jointly.  Most couples have a hodgepodge of assets – some his, some hers and and some theirs.  This would be worse yet if Minnesota were a community property state, but we’re not.  I often find that I have to take out a pad of paper and make columns listing his wild card items and her wild card items separately, so I can make sure that neither column exceeds the $12,725.  It’s quite unusual to see a situation where those limits are exceeded, but I have seen it happen.  Using a note pad is a pretty low tech way to figure it out, but my soft ware doesn’t do that job for me.

Getting the exemptions right is quite tricky. Be sure you have a lawyer who knows what he or she is doing, and don’t even think of trying to do the case yourself. Failure to properly exempt assets is one of the most common mistakes made by people who try to represent themselves in the bankruptcy court.

This is for general information only, is not legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship.  I am a debt relief agency.  I help people file for relief under the federal bankruptcy code.

No Inflation in Housing, Home Furnishings or Car Costs Since 2012?

Every two years as long as I can remember the Minnesota exemptions were increased.  But guess what, this year – 2014 – the Minnesota Department of Commerce has announced that there will be no increase in the Minnesota State exemptions.  Here’s a video I recently posted about this.  Some day I’ll get the lighting right when I do these videos.

This is based on some statistics that they have showing that apparently there has not been enough inflation to trigger any increases. This would indicate that the cost of buying a car has not increased, the cost of buying a home has not increased, and the cost of household goods and furnishings and appliances has not gone up.

I am inviting your comments and feedback. Has there really been no increase in the cost of buying a house, the cost of buying a car or the cost of buying home furnishings and appliances during the past two years? If those costs have gone up in other parts of the county, have they not also increased in Minnesota?

Do you think the MN Department of Commerce is right, or have you experienced some price increases in the past two years?

This is for general information purposes only and is not legal advice.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  I am a debt relief agency.  I help people file for relief under the federal bankruptcy code.

 

What if You Have a Rental Property and Need to File Bankruptcy?

Here’s a video I posted at YouTube where I comment about how rental properties should be dealt with in a personal bankruptcy.  I talk primarily about Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy, but I also get into Chapter 13 bankruptcy to some extent.  Unless it is properly handled, the filing of a bankruptcy may result in the property being taken away from you. It’s complicated and you would be well advised to find and consult a good lawyer about the exact situation you have with your rental property.   The video is only three and a half minutes long, and only scratches the surface if it even does that.

These days it has become common for families to have a former home that they could not sell. Maybe they outgrew the old house, or maybe they had to move because of their employment. Not being able to sell the old place, the best they could do was to rent it out. It seems as if most of the time these places have a negative cash flow, although not always.

When the time comes to look into filing a personal Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the rental property can become quite a problem. Typically the trustee will not find it acceptable to say on your budget sheet that you intend to continue to pay the expenses of a property that is losing money.

Even if the place has a positive cash flow, trying to keep it in a bankruptcy situation tends to be more trouble than it’s worth. The extra income might be just enough to disqualify you from filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, especially if you have stopped paying the mortgage on the property.

The best way to hang on to a rental property, if that is something that you really want to do, may be to do a Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead of a Chapter 7. For that to work you would need to have the equity in the property not amount to much and to have it producing a positive cash flow.

Unless it is properly handled, the filing of a bankruptcy may result in the property being taken away from you. It’s complicated and you would be well advised to find and consult a good lawyer about the exact situation you have with your rental property.

This is for information purposes only and is not legal advice. Neither the video nor these comments create an attorney-client relationship. Please consult the attorney of your choice concerning the details of your case.  I am a debt relief agency. I help people file for relief under the federal bankruptcy code.

Hope you like the New Look of my Web Site

Well, it took about three weeks to complete, but I think I now have all the pages on my web site converted to the new design.  I have tried to make the pages look brighter and more optimistic in color scheme and tone, and easier to read.  In particular, I’ve tried to make the pages more friendly to mobile devices. A little over two years since I hired a gentleman to redesign my entire site.  I must have liked the design he chose, because I said yes to it.  But it certainly did not grow on me over time.  The longer I looked at it the less I liked it.  I started to feel that it was too dark and foreboding, almost Gothic, with it’s almost black background image and dark brown graphics.  It seems to me that people with financial problems are probably already depressed enough without looking at something that gloomy.  The other thing was that I was having trouble making changes and updating content.

There were many things about my own site that I could not figure out when it came to editing. I went back to the website creation software I had been using before I hired the expert – Microsoft Expression Web.  I checked for updates and found that there were none.  In fact Microsoft has discontinued the program and is now giving it away for free.  I found a template that looked as if it could accommodate what I had in mind, and then went to work rebuilding the entire site one page at a time.  It can be very tedious, but I started to enjoy it after while.

As I went along I updated all the content that needed updating, and added a bit more content here and there.  I found errors in the HTML code that needed to be corrected, and did that. Then I tested the pages in Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome.  For reasons I can’t understand things would look straight in one browser, and be not lined up right in another.  I also tested the pages on my Samsung Galaxy and my Kindle Fire.  Finally I started to launch the pages and the new images one item at a time.

Looks to me as if I have it all now. But if you see something that  looks goofy, I wish you would let me know.

Who Owns and who gets to keep the Tax Refunds in a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy?

Well, tax season is finally over or at least winding down.  Most of my clients have already received their 2013 state and federal income tax refunds.  The Minnesota property tax refund and Minnesota rent credit refund won’t be sent, however, until later in the year.   Who owns the tax refunds is always a big issue in any kind of personal bankruptcy, whether it’s Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.  This is because refunds not yet received are considered an asset, even the tax refunds for this year that won’t be received until next year.  Most people don’t ordinarily think of these as assets, because they may be way out of reach at least for now.  But the Chapter 7 and the Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustees definitely count them as assets.

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy the starting point in answering the above question is that the bankruptcy  trustee owns the refunds. This can be said because upon the filing of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, ownership of everything – all the Debtor’s assets right down to his or her socks – is transferred to the trustee.  My job as a lawyer representing the Debtor is to keep the trustee from being able to keep as much of the assets as possible by claiming those assets as exempt.  Anything that’s exempt can’t be kept by the trustee.  When you see the term “no assets case,” that means it’s a case where all of the assets were exempt so that the trustee was not able to keep anything.  Most of the Chapter 7 cases I file fall into this category.  The ownership only passes to the trustee in theory, and then it comes right back to my client.  A relatively painless process.

In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy there is no passage of ownership to the trustee, but the trustee takes the assets into account when determining what the payments are to be in the Chapter 13 Plan.  If there are any non-exempt assets, the payment plan must provide enough so that the unsecured creditors receive an amount equal to at least the amount of the non-exempt assets.  This is referred to as the “best interests of the creditors rule.” When we know there are going to be non-exempt assets, sometimes a Chapter 13 can be preferable.  This is because it is usually easier to keep an asset and make some monthly payments than it is to give up the entire asset.

When it comes to tax refunds as you can see, the key to happiness in a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy is to be able to claim them as exempt.  This can often be easier said than done.  First of all, if you are claiming the Minnesota State exemptions, there is no exemption for tax refunds.  There just was a case where the Debtor was claiming that the property tax refund was “relief based on need” and therefore exempt under the Minnesota state exemptions, but the court said no; so there remains no exemption under the Minnesota state exemptions for any kind of tax refunds, at least not that I know of.

Luckily most of my clients qualify to use the Federal exemptions.  Under the federal exemptions, each Debtor has what we call a wild card exemption under which up to $12,725 of anything can be claimed as exempt.  When the parties are married and filing a joint case, each of them has a wild card  (also called the catch all) exemption of up to $12,725.  It is often said that a married couple claiming the federal exemptions gets to double their wild card.  This is absolutely not true, and you really have to be careful about that kind of thinking.

When a married couple file a joint Chapter 7 or 13 case and claim the federal exemptions, the Debtor has a wild card exemption and the Co-Debtor has a wild card exemption – but that exemption  does not double.  I often find myself pulling out a note pad and making a “his” and “her” column to try to keep track of this.  Assets owned by “him” and claimed as exempt under the wild card go in one column and assets owned by “her” and claimed as exempt under the wild card go in the other.  Joint assets can be equally divided between the columns.  Neither column can total over $12,725.  And beware:  a lot of stuff you may think of as joint may be looked upon differently by the trustee.

When the assets include tax refunds, the question arises as to which of the two columns the tax refunds belong in.  Years ago I assumed that if the tax return was joint, then the refund should be split evenly between the spouses for purposes of claiming it as exempt.  Turns out this is not how the 8th Circuit Bankruptcy Appeals Panel sees it.  In the case of In re Carlson decided in 2008, they decided that the tax refunds have to be prorated between the spouses based on the each spouse’s income.  So if one spouse earned 80% of the income, then 80% of the refunds gets attributable to that spouse.    If one of the spouses is not working, then all the refunds belong to the spouse who works.  This can obviously be a problem if allocating it that way runs one spouse’s wild card exemption  above the magic $12,725 level.

It’s complicated.  Not properly claiming the exemptions for the tax refunds is one of the most common mistakes made by people who file their own case without a lawyer.  Most of the time I can manage to claim all of the tax refunds as exempt so my clients can keep them, but sometimes I just can’t get it all.  For one thing, there are always other assets in addition to the refunds for which the wild card exemption is needed.

This post  is for general information purposes only and does not create an attorney-client relationship.  It is not legal advice. Please consult the attorney of your choice concerning the details of your case.

 

 

A few tips about Tax Refunds in Chapter 13 Plans

It’s tax time – again.  For many, including myself, it can be a time of fear and loathing.  Given a choice between having a colonoscopy or going to see my accountant to prepare my annual taxes, I would probably choose the former.  I’m relieved to be able to say that mine are done and filed.  So glad to have that over with.  Since I’m self employed, I almost always have to pay in.

For my Chapter 13 clients tax time has another layer of complexity, trickiness might be a better word.  Most Chapter 13 plans in Minnesota are required to have a provision that says the Debtors are to provide copies of all annual state and federal income tax returns to the Trustee’s office as soon as the returns are filed.  If they are to receive a refund, the provision usually allows married debtors filing jointly to keep the first $2,000 of the refunds, and allows individual filers to keep the first $1,200 of the refunds.  After those allowances, the balance of the refunds is to be paid into the Chapter 13 Plan as an additional contribution.  This contribution benefits the creditors, but usually has no particular effect on the monthly payment plan for the Debtors.  After making this extra contribution, in most cases the monthly payments under the Plan continue unchanged and on the same schedule.

The preferred method of sending the tax returns to the Trustee is now to make the return into a PDF and email it to an email address that the Trustee’s office has designated for that purpose.  After that the Debtors should wait for a letter from the Trustee’s office which will tell them how much of the refund should be mailed in.  The letter is usually sent promptly, although it comes by snail mail.  Since I tend to be copied with both the emails and the snail mail, I have had quite of bit of this correspondence arriving on my desk over the past few days.  So far this year there has been only one case where I disagreed with the way the Trustee’s office was calculating how much my clients were to send in.  When that happens, I have always been able to straighten things out with a of series of email exchanges with the staff person who did the calculations.

Here’s a few important things to know about how they calculate exactly how much the extra contribution from the tax refunds is supposed to be.  First of all, if you get a refund from one level of government – for example the feds – and have to pay in to the other level of government – for example the state, usually you can expect the amount you had to pay in to be deducted from the amount of the refund.  If you paid to have an accountant or other preparer to do your returns, be sure to send the bill for the tax preparation in to the Trustee’s office along with the tax returns.  At least this year I have been seeing the Trustee’s office allow a credit for the cost of tax preparation.  In one letter that just arrived on my desk, they allowed a credit for a $96 processing fee from TurboTax.  

If you find your refund to be a whole lot more than the part you are allowed to keep, I’ve never seen anybody get in trouble for adjusting their wage withholding so that next time the refund won’t be so large.  Such adjustments can involve a lot of trial and error, however, and you might find it pretty hard to get it just right.  It’s easy to overshoot the goal and wind up having to pay in to the IRS and Department of Revenue.  Like Garrison Keillor says, be careful.

Keep in mind that everything I say here only applies to Minnesota cases.  I would expect that practices vary quite a bit around the country concerning this topic.  And as I always say, this post is for general information purposes only.  It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Please consult the attorney of your choice concerning the details of your case.

 

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