Keeping Your House in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Of all the questions I get asked, “can I keep my house” could be the most frequent.  I have a long article about it on my site, probably too long.  For one thing, the web page covers both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.  For another thing, the article covers the topic of letting the house go as well as keeping it.  Here I’d like to just say a few simple words about keeping your house – the house you are living in – when you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

So here I’m assuming that you are filing a Chapter 7 and you want to keep your house.  If you have any equity in the house, that equity will have to be claimed as exempt in order to keep the bankruptcy trustee from taking the house away from you.  In most cases claiming the house as exempt it  easy.  If the equity doesn’t exceed $10,000 for a single person or $20,000 for a married couple, we can claim the house as exempt under the federal exemptions.  If the equity is more than that, it would be best to use the Minnesota state exemptions which allow for up to $390,000 of equity.

Once we are satisfied that your equity is protected as exempt, the next issue is the mortgages.  We have to list those in the bankruptcy petition like any other debt, and that means that your personal obligation to pay them should eventually be discharged.  I say mortgages in the plural, because most of my clients seem to have two – a first and a second.  Some people I talk with seem to think that if their mortgage obligations are discharged, then the house is free and clear.  That is not the case.  The mortgage liens remain on the house even though the debt or debts themselves are discharged.  Ths means that if you want to keep the house long term after filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you need to plan on continuing to pay the mortgages.

This is a bit of a simplication, and for more detail read my keep my house page.  But what it usually comes down to is being able to claim the equity as exempt and being able to keep making the payments.

Mortgage Modification Amendment Defeated in Senate

I just received an email from NACBA – National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Lawyers. They say that the mortgage modification in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy amendment which NACBA was trying to get passed was defeated today in the Senate. The amendment in question was to be part of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act.

I think that means it’s totally dead for this session of Congress. Had it passed, I was going to have to find a class or seminar to attend to learn what all the bill contained as finally passed. NACBA has it’s convention in Chicago at the end of this month, and I would have had to be sure that I got there. As it is, I can probably wait till next year without missing anything essential.

Don’t Panic!

Just a word or two of warning. I am seeing lots of people who are in a panic. They are in the process of losing their homes or jobs or both. The daily news offers little or no comfort. All the “bailout” talk doesn’t include any concrete help for individuals that I can see. This state of mind increases the probability of being in a serious accident or incident. Or such is my personal observation.

I mentioned this in passing while meeting with clients recently. The next time they came in they greeted me as “Nostradamus” – comparing me to the Sixteenth Century prophet or wizard. The type of thing I was talking about had happened to one of them. Sorry about being vague as to exactly what happened, but I need to not break confidentiality. I expressed the hope that it had not been the power of suggestion – the result of an idea that had been planted by me. They were sure it was not.

I bring this up here because I really want to say that I believe we all need to keep the events of the past year or two in perspective. The Romans had a saying – THIS TOO SHALL PASS. It’s a universal truth, and I’m convinced that it certainly applies to our present economic climate. Panic and anxiety always just makes any problem worse. The harder and more difficult times are, the more important it is to take care or yourself. One of my favorite slogans – prominent in a lot of the self-help literature – is abbreviated as “HALT” – don’t let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. A good concept to keep in mind when going through a bankruptcy or any other crisis.

On several of my web pages I talk about how easy it is go get ahold of me. I wrote most of that a couple of years ago. It has become untrue over the past few months, for which I apologize. Between the clients and the creditors of clients, my voice mail box often fills up. My goal has always been to return my calls within 24 hours. I have of late been unable to be that prompt. If you need me and don’t get me right away, keep trying please. I am around and I do want to talk with you; it’s just that things are really busy right now. I would say that it’s more busy than it was in 2005 right before the new bankruptcy law went into effect.

Short Sales Revisited

For several months I have had a video posted at YouTube entitled “The Trouble with Short Sales.” Of all the videos I have posted, this is the one I get the most flack about – mostly from Realtors who are in the short sale business. My experience of this past week emphasizes how right I am about short sales in Minnesota usually being a really bad deal. If anything, my video understates the case.

A client of mine came to me for help with making a short sale work. I advised that it was likely to be a serious problem, but she wanted to try it anyway. For better mental health and possibly better credit among other reasons, she wanted this house out of her life. A buyer was found, and after a few months the mortgage company indicated – in a rather vague letter of intent – that they were ready to complete the short sale. Getting a real person on the phone from the mortgage company was nearly impossible; and when it was possible to get a real person, it was never anybody who could answer a question or make a decision.

I finally was able to speak with the closer who was going to handle the paperwork for the transaction. She indicated that most of the lenders she dealt with were very clear that they intended to reserve the right to come after the seller for the remaining balance owing on the mortgage, even though the house was being sold. The paperwork for the transaction involving my client did not explicitly say that the lender would be suing my client later, but it didn’t say the lender would not be either. The only release that my client could expect to get would be one that released the house only. There would be no release of personal liability.

This was a situation involving only one mortgage. In those situations in the State of Minnesota, the most common method of foreclosure is “foreclosure by advertisement.” When advertisement is the method, the lender gets the house, but that’s all the lender gets. The home owner is off the hook. That means that my client was presented with the following choice:

  1. Either do a short sale and expect to get sued for the remaining unpaid balance of the mortgage; or
  2. Wait for the lender to foreclose and lose the house without getting sued for anything.

The second choice is obviously better than the first. In both choices the house is lost, but with the second choice at least they don’t come after you for more money afterwards. It would have made a lot of sense for the mortgage lender to provide a personal release of liability so that my client could have completed the short sale. Now it will take the mortgage company another year of so and considerable expense to conduct the foreclosure. The house will probably go down in value during that time too. But in letters and calls to the mortgage company, I never seemed to be able to get any body’s attention with this information.

This aspect of Minnesota foreclosure law is unusual. There are only seven other states as far as I know that have similar laws. The mortgage company does business in all 50 states, and follows a one size fits all policy line for everything. Their policy might make sense in most states, but not in Minnesota. They hurt themselves by being that way, but nobody seems to care.

For a short time this week I was excited because I thought I was seeing some signs that I might be able to make the short sale idea work. What it was going to take, of course, was a release of personal liability. By Thursday afternoon, however, it was quite clear that was not going to happen. It was time to back out of the deal, cancel the purchase agreement, and wait for a “foreclosure by advertisement.”

Creeping Debt and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Debt Limits

Not long ago it seemed that $20,000 of credit card debt was a lot. I would file a bankruptcy for a person who had that without giving it a second thought. Now, however, as things go in my world, that’s not a lot of debt for most people. Unless the debtor is sick, disabled or hopelessly low income, I would be reluctant to file for someone with such a small debt.

What’s happening is that I rarely see anyone who’s not more than $50,000 in debt, and over $100,000 of consumer credit card debt is common. Once the total of the debt tops $100,000 I tend to ignore how much higher it goes, as my software keeps a running tally of the total. The fact is that for me, and I’m afraid for the whole country, the amount of credit card debt that seems normal is creeping steadily upward.

So the other day when I was reading my mail on a bankruptcy lawyer listserve, I had a bit of a start. One of the emails reminded me that for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, there is a limit as to how much debt one is allowed to have. I quickly pulled out the most recent Chapter 13 I had filed and checked the balances of the debts, to make sure we had not exceeded the legal limit. Up until that moment it never occurred to me that one day someone will probably walk into my office with consumer debts in excess of the Chapter 13 limits. All of a sudden, those limits don’t seem as high to me as they used to. A lawyer who files a case where the limits are exceeded is subject to sanctions. If I did that it could cost me thousands of dollars. I must start paying more attention to those limits.

In order to qualify for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the person’s secured debt must not exceed $1,010,650 and the unsecured debt must not exceed $336,900. The way things are going right now, I would not be surprised to meet someone within the next week whose debts are over those limits. From my perspective the current economic downturn has been frightening and unbelievable.

I don’t mean to imply that I have never met a person with debts that high. Back in the early 1980s, during a serious recession we had in those years, I did a Chapter 7 bankruptcy for a real estate developer who had gone out of business and who had millions of dollars in debt. There’s no limit to the amount of debt you can run through a Chapter 7. I have also done Chapter 7 work for small business owners who’s debts would have exeeded the Chapter 13 limits.

But now people I see with consumer debt are actually starting to push those Chapter 13 limits, and that is something I have never seen before.

Bloviating about Short Sales on Youtube

The topic of short sales is hard to understand, and also hard to explain. In this video I spoke without a script, which I think was a mistake. I was trying to be clear, but I don’t think I got close to that goal. If I would have written a script first, it would have read about like what follows.

The term “short sale” can mean that:

1) The mortgage company will accept less than full payment and will release both the property and the debtors from the remaining balance of the debt; or

2)The mortgage company will accept less than full payment of the debt, will release the property from the mortgage, but will NOT release the individual debtors from the remaining unpaid balance of the debt.

I hear from lots of people who are trying to do a short sale, but don’t know which one they are trying to do or which one they want to do. The first kind leaves you in the clear, but the second variety brings you into my office in need of a bankruptcy.Most short sales are of the second variety, and they are worse than just doing nothing and letting the bank foreclose. Worse yet, often the realtors and mortgage companies involved in these transactions seem to purposely keep the sellers/debtors in the dark as to exactly what kind of deal it is.

If you are doing a short sale, you better consult an accountant about the tax consequences. Under certain circumstances, the amount of the debt forgiveness can be taxable income.This video and these comments are for general information purposes only and are not intended to be legal advice. Viewing these materials does not create an attorney-client relationship. I recommend that you consult the attorney of your choice concerning the details of your case.

David J. Kelly
Kelly Law Office
952-544-6356
http://www.mn-bankruptcy.com/

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

I am now receiving calls from people who have done what is called a “short sale” of their home to avoid a foreclosure. The typical situation is one where the value of the house has fallen below what is owed on the mortgage or mortgages, since often there is more than one. Meanwhile, the homeowners are falling behind in their payments. There are many possible reasons why they are behind in paying, but the most common is that one or more of the mortgages is an ARM, and the payments have jumped sky high The assumption may have been at the time of taking out the ARM that by the time the payments went up, they would be able to refinance again with a new and more reasonable mortgage. Now in this market that plan is pretty much out the window.

All the homeowners can think of it that they must avoid foreclosure. So they list the home for sale with a realtor. By and by the realtor finds a buyer, but it’s for a price that’s below the balance owing on the mortgages. This of course is no big surprise and is exactly what the homeowners figured was their best hope. The realtor contacts the mortgage lender or lenders, and the lenders agree to the sale. Specifically they will release their mortgage on the property in exchange for less than full payment. This can be a wise move from the point of view of the lender, because they were going to lose time and money in the event of a foreclosure anyway. The homeowners are relieved, go through with the sale, and move into a rented apartment.

The story does not have a happy ending. They do not live happily ever after. They neglected one thing. That release from the mortgage company just released the property, not them. There is an unpaid balance on the mortgage or mortgages, and the bill collectors start calling and threatening.

The amount they owe is way beyond any ability to pay they might have had; and so they call me about a bankruptcy. In my opinion, they would have been WAY better off to have just let the lenders foreclose. Ordinarily, foreclosure is done in such a way that the mortgage holder only gets the house and doesn’t get a right to go after the former homeowner personally. There may very well have been a possibility of living in the house rent free for a year or so and then walking away with no further debt.

Another possibility may have been that the first mortgage would foreclose and take the house. the second mortgage holder would not foreclose, let the house go, and then go after the former homeowners personally. That’s not such a good result, but it still includes the rent-free year or so.

Yet another possibility is that the release from the lender in the short sale DOES include a personal release. The former homeowners think all is well as they enjoy their new apartment. Then a 1099 arrives from the lender. The debt that was forgiven is reported as income to the IRS, and they may owe a tax on it.

My suggestion is that it is almost always best in the foregoing circumstances to just stay in the house and ride out the foreclosure. Don’t move out until the foreclosure is done, the redemption period has run out, and the lender starts an eviction action. If there is only one mortgage, you may come out of the process rather debt free and not need me. If there is more than one mortgage, you may have debt but at least no 1099. There may be circumstances where a short sale could be a good idea, but it is hard for me to think of one.

The idea that a short sale is the best thing for one’s credit seems to me to be an illusion. By the time the whole scenario is run, the credit report won’t look so good no matter what you do.

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