Don’t be Tricked by Misleading Bankruptcy Attorney Fee Advertising

Plan ahead before you sign the marriage license.

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

Your wild card exemption - no joke

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?

Rental property and personal 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.

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

Cheap isn't worth it.

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.

 

 

Bankruptcy Court Says They’ll Stay Open for Ten Business Days

Minneapolis Federal Courthouse, where Hennpin County Bankruptcy cases are filed

Late yesterday I received the following email from the clerk of bankruptcy court in Minneapolis:

“In the event of a government shutdown on October 1, 2013, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota will be open and will maintain normal hours and operations for approximately 10 business days.  All proceedings and deadlines remain in effect as scheduled and CM/ECF will be available for the electronic filing and review of documents.”  
 

This somewhat surprised me because last week I received the following email from the clerk of federal court’s office in Minneapolis:

"JUDICIARY TO REMAIN OPEN IF GOVERNMENT SHUTS DOWN

In the event there is a government shutdown beginning October 1, 2013, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota will continue normal operations Tuesday, October 1, 2013. All cases, including civil and criminal jury trials, will be processed and argued and judgments will be issued and enforced according to usual schedules and priorities. The Clerk’s Office will be fully operational and CM/ECF will continue to be fully functional.”   (CM/ECF means Case Management/Electronic Case Files.)

I always thought of the bankruptcy court as being a branch of the federal judiciary, and the earlier of the two emails seemed to be saying that the federal judiciary would not be shut down at all.   Guess I misunderstood that.  Apparently if the government shutdown continues for more than two weeks, we can expect the bankruptcy court to close.

Either way the news for now is that the Minnesota bankruptcy court is open for business as usual.  Filings are being accepted and nothing is being postponed or rescheduled.  I expect that this is at least in part because there are very stiff filing fees in bankruptcy court.  Right now the filing fee for a Chapter 7 is $306 and  the filing fee for a Chapter 13 is $281.  Late last week I was charged $30 to file an amended document with the court.  I imagine that at any one time there are  enough of these fees in the pipeline to keep the place going for a while.

Nevertheless, I invite all my clients to keep an eye out for emails and phone messages from me concerning possible delay or rescheduling of creditor meetings or other events. The word for today is UNCERTAINTY.

This post is for general information purposes 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.

Marital Status and Bankruptcy – Best to Plan Ahead

Plan ahead before you sign the marriage license.

Marital status can make a big difference in a bankruptcy case.

There’s a certain amount of rejoicing in these parts over the events at the Minnesota legislature yesterday which appear to make legalization of gay marriage a certainty in this state probably by next week. I assume that we will have a lot of people who are now legally single soon becoming legally married.

I find myself thinking about all the times a married person has come in to see me about a bankruptcy and wanted to file individually and not jointly.  I had to explain that for a married person it is usually best to do it jointly.  When a married person insists on filing individually, I will often just refuse to take the case.  I’ve actually done quite a few individual filings for married people, but I usually don’t want that case unless there is a really compelling reason to not file jointly. The probability of something going wrong in such a case is multiplied by a factor of I’m not sure what – but by a substantial factor. I don’t consider “but my wife has such a good credit score” to be a compelling reason.

For anybody thinking about both marriage and bankruptcy, you might want to consult with a competent lawyer concerning whether it would be best to file the bankruptcy before or after the wedding.

What to Bring to the First Meeting at My Offce

For me the starting point for most bankruptcy cases is a call from the prospective client.  If you are reading this that could be you.  Before anything else I like to do a screening over the phone.  This can be done in about fifteen minutes, sometimes maybe a bit longer.  No need to be afraid of me.  I’m easy to talk to.  There’s no fee for the phone conversation.  If the information from the phone conversation indicates that bankruptcy is appropriate, whether that be a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13, the next thing I want to do is meet face to face in my office for a more serious consultation. For this I will charge a small consultation fee, which I will have quoted in the phone conversation.  I will credit the consultation fee against my fee for the case if we decide to go ahead.  If I suggest that you come in for a consultation, it’s because I’m already fairly certain that it is a case I would accept.

There are four batches of information that I would ask you to bring when you come:

  1. Forms.  There are two forms on my web site, the bankruptcy questionnaire and the monthly expense sheet.   Please print these two forms and fill them out in pen and ink.  Pencil is OK too.  Then bring them with you when you come.  Some of the questions, especially on the first form, are hard to answer.  If you can’t figure out the question, leave it blank and we’ll talk about it when you come in.  Complete the expense sheet to the best of your ability, and we’ll go over those numbers when you come in too.  Remember that things you charged on a credit card count as an expense as well as the things you paid for in cash or by means of your checking account.
  2. Tax returns.  I’d like to see your state and federal tax returns for the past two calendar years, along with your W2s and any similar supporting paperwork.  At the time of writing this post, that would be the returns for 2011 and 2012.  If you filed for a Minnesota property tax refund or Minnesota rent credit, I’d like to see that return for the past two calendar years as well.  If you file separate returns for your corporation or LLC, bring them along as well.
  3. Pay stubs and income information for the past seven months.  I need to see the last seven months of pay stubs from your your job and from the job of your spouse.  If you don’t have them, get them from your employer or from your employer’s web site.  By seven months I mean the six previous months plus the month we are in.  If you don’t have pay stubs because you are self employed, I need a spread sheet showing your gross income and your business-related expenses for that same seven month period.  If you don’t have pay stubs because you are unemployed, I need detailed info on what unemployment benefits you are receiving and what taxes are being withheld from your benefits if any.  If you are receiving child support or spousal maintenance, I would want dates and amounts received during that seven month period.  If you are on  Social Security or Social Security Disability, provide me with details of how much you received gross in the past seven months and what if anything was withheld from that.  If there is any kind of income coming in from anywhere, I need to know about it.
  4. Details about your debts.  I want to see every piece of paper you have describing each and every debt.  Include your credit cards, car loans, mortgages, tax debts, student loans and any fines and penalties you owe.  I usually can’t make the student loans go away, but I still need to know all about them.  You probably intend to keep paying your mortgages and car loans, but we need to list them anyway.  Some of your tax debt may be dischargeable, but even if it isn’t we need to list it all.  Be sure to include nasty letters from lawyers and collection agencies.  Eventually we will be checking your credit report, but for the first meeting the information you have handy about your debt will probably be enough.

As you might have gathered by this point, that consultation in my office is usually quite thorough.  I should be able to give you an opinion concerning your situation that will be worth the trip.  Figure on spending an hour and a half – more if we are planning on running a means test.

My Number is on a Billboard in Blaine??!!

Nothing is better than being debt free.

I just received a call from someone who says that my office phone number (952-544-6356) is on a billboard on Central Avenue in Blaine, MN near the intersection with 89th St.  Furthermore this caller indicated that it says the fee for filing bankruptcy is $860, which would be way below my usual fee even for the simplest case.

When I run a Google search for $860 bankruptcy in that neighborhood, I find references to a service which apparently is a paralegal outfit.  Their Google Plus page says they have closed or moved.  So did they put up my phone number so theirs would quit ringing or what?

If anybody else has seen this, I’d sure like confirmation that it’s actually there.  Frankly, I’m not sure what I would do about it if it was.