Things to Avoid Before Bankruptcy: Item 6 – Paying Ahead on your Mortgage or Car Loan

Sixth in a Series of Bankruptcy Don'ts

By Dave Kelly, Minnesota Bankruptcy Attorney

This is the sixth in a series of posts about the top seven things I recommend you avoid if you are considering a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Paying extra on your mortgage or car loan might ordinarily be a prudent thing to do. You might even have been advised to do so by a financial adviser or guru. But if you are thinking about a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or even a Chapter 13, this is probably a bad idea. You are not sure to have trouble with your case if you have been making some extra payments, but the risk that something might go wrong is probably higher because of this. In the old and clanking gears of my legal mind, I can see three ways you could have a problem with this.

The assumption that I am making in this discussion is that you have a car or a homestead which is going to be exempt in your bankruptcy case, and there has been some action by you which increases the amount of the equity in the exempt car or exempt home.

Intent to Defraud, Hinder or Delay a Creditor

I’m talking here about the provisions of 522(o) of the bankruptcy code. It has an intent element. It only applies to your homestead, not your car; and it only applies if you have put extra money into your homestead with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor. If you are only making a few small extra payments on your mortgage, I would expect it would be very difficult to prove this intent element. But if you are putting a relatively large amount into the house, either by paying the mortgage or by doing a home improvement, you need to have your lawyer screen for a possible problem with this.

To the extent that your trustee can prove that 522(o) applies to a portion of your homestead, that portion is not exempt. That portion will be an asset that the trustee in a Chapter 7 can claim for the creditors. If you can’t figure out any other way, a sale of your home might be required to make this equity available.

Examples I see in the case law include using money from the sale of stock and using money form a large tax refund. Of the various reasons I can see that you might run into trouble for making an extra payment on your mortgage, this is the least likely one on the list. Still I am concerned about the possibility – it’s my job to be concerned.

Fraudulent Transfer – Effort to Hide Assets from Creditors

This is a more likely source of trouble. If you have money or another asset which you take and use to make an extra payment on your mortgage or car loan, a bankruptcy trustee might claim that this is the same as if you gave it to your brother to hold for you so that creditors would not get it. It can be considered hiding money from your creditors. The legal term for this is “fraudulent transfer.”

I have a whole list of questions which I ask potential clients to try and screen for fraudulent transfer problems. There’s a lot more ways this can come up than just extra payments on mortgages or car loans. In Minnesota we have two distinct fraudulent transfer statutes that we have to be concerned about. One provision is in the bankruptcy code itself – this one seems to have no intent element, and the lookback is two years. The other provision is the state fraudulent transfer statute – which looks back six years but at least has an intent element: intent to hinder or delay or defraud creditors.

You are most likely to have a fraudulent transfer problem involving something that happened shortly before the bankruptcy case was filed. Events from more than two years back might not be as much of a problem.

With Homes or Cars that are Upside Down, your Payment could be a “Preference.”

You might want to take a look back at my blog post about item 3 on my list of things to avoid – large payments to unsecured creditors. The bankruptcy code makes some attempt to treat all the unsecured creditors equally, and this involves clawing back large payments which favor one unsecured creditor over another.

So what’s this got to do with a mortgage or car loan? Those are secured, not unsecured. Well if you are upside down on your loan, meaning that you owe more than the security is worth, the loan might be considered unsecured or partially unsecured. In this event the trustee might try to claw back from the creditor ALL the payments made in the 90 days before the bankruptcy is filed. If you’ve been paying extra, it just makes it that much more tempting.

Once the trustee has taken the payments back from the creditor, the creditor will very likely add that amount back in to what you owe. And if you want to keep the car or keep the house, you will eventually probably have to pay it. If this problem arises, you might want to try making a deal with the trustee where you pay in the money so he or she doesn’t go after the creditor.

Conclusion

These are problems that I am always trying to find in advance before filing a case. In many cases I see something that could be a problem, but probably won’t be. Other times it looks pretty serious. If you have been paying extra on your car or home, make sure you give all the details to your lawyer. Your lawyer should be able to advise you how much of a problem it might be.

Disclaimer

This post is for general information purposes and is not legal advice. It does not create an attorney-client relationship. Small details in your case can make a big difference. Consult the attorney of your choice concerning the details of your case. I practice in Minnesota. Laws and practices may be a lot different in your state.

US Households Owe Record Amount – More Than During Recession

Credit Card Debt

The New York Times and the Associated Press have been reporting new statistics just released by the “New York Fed.” I’m sorry, but I talk Minnesotan and “New York Fed” is not something in my vocabulary.  So I looked that up and find that it’s the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  If you can’t believe them, then who can you believe.

The New York Fed says that consumer debt in the US now exceeds the level it was at before the recession.  I will admit that I’ve been wondering a bit, because over the past couple months my phone has been ringing a lot more than it did in 2015 and 2016.  I think the ringing of my phone might be a better barometer of what’s going on than the financial reports in the media.  I remember in 2008 when it started ringing like never before, they were still saying on the financial news networks that there was no sign of a recession.   The media in general wants to downplay economic problems.  So I figure if they are actually reporting a story like this, things are probably worse than they are admitting.

The New York Fed goes on to say, however, not to worry.  The new debt is proportionately more auto loans and student loans than it was in 2008, and besides the people with the debt are more credit worthy now.  In addition, home ownership is down and a higher percentage of mortgage debt is held by people over 65, as if that somehow was good news.  They admit that the student loan debt is getting up there and could be a bit high.  Also it might be that defaults on those auto loans are on the rise.  But a lot of the language in these stories is very soothing, so not to worry.

My opinion, based more on what I see with my own eyes, is this.  I think it is time to worry.  People may be back to work, but their earnings are down.  They still need to drive and the old car can only go so far, so they are getting car loans that they can’t really afford.  If they are not back to work they are back to school, getting student loans that they can’t afford.  Getting credit might be a bit more work than it used to be, but with the help of Credit Karma and other similar sites the lenders can still be manipulated into granting credit to people who really can’t afford it.  Maybe on paper they look more credit worthy, but that could be as much a fiction now as it was in 2008.  In other words, I believe individuals in this country are getting overextended again.  For many, another bubble may be about to burst.

This post is for general information purposes only, is not legal advice and does not create and attorney-client relationship.

 

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.