Consumer Bankruptcy Up 48% in July

A few weeks ago I bookmarked an article posted on Twin Cities Daily Planet which indicated that bankrupty filings in Minnesota are up almost 30% for May and June of 2008 as compared to May and June of 2007. I thought it has seemed to be pretty busy around here, but I still thought the percentage was surprisingly high. Had someone told me in January of 2006, right after the “reform” legislation had gone into effect that this was going to happen, I don’t think I would have believed it. The standard wisdom at that time was that bankruptcy lawyers might be about out of business. In fact, many lawyers quit practicing bankruptcy law at that time. The new law was called BAPCPA (Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act). In my opinion, the only abuse that was going on was that perpetrated by the credit industry, and the only protection provided was for them and not consumers.

Earlier this week I received a copy of Consumer Bankruptcy News, one of those old fashioned publications that is still printed on paper. In the lower right corner of page 7 was an item stating that nation-wide bankruptcy filings were up 48% in July 2008 as compared to July 2007. There were 94,124 consumer filings in July and 82,770 in June this year. That would be as if everybody in Bloomington, Minnesota and in Duluth Minnesota combined had filed for bankruptcy in June or July. If that keeps up, I would assume that for August it would be as if everybody in Rochester, Minnesota had filed for bankruptcy.

If you should feel a need to come see me to talk bankruptcy, there’s sure no reason to feel alone.

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.”

Shredding Day

I just got back to the office from my “storage facility,” where it took a truck from Shred-N-Go about 15 minutes to chew up 1,204 pounds of old files. Most of that was from the 1990s, although I did throw in a few things from as recent as 2002. OK, maybe even a few things from 2003 that I was sure were not worth saving. About a fourth of it was my own old financial and billing records.

I am feeling some emotions about seeing that stuff go. At the time that I generated those files, they were top priority in my life. I practically sweat blood over some of them. They represented skill, art, valuable lessons; important help provided to many people, whose lives were improved as a result. I believe I practically walked on water in a few of those cases, and perhaps performed a few near miracles. Or so it seemed at the time. And of course in a few of the cases, notwithstanding my best efforts, everything seemed to turn to crap.

I feel a certain sadness about it I suppose. Also relief.

The paper files are not nearly as important as they used to be. The fact is that I still have electronic copies of most of the paper I shredded on a disk or portable hard drive. All bankruptcy documents are available on line going back at least ten years. A summary of what’s in the state court files is available on line too.

Last time I did this was five years ago. That would mean that on average I generate about 240.8 pounds of paperwork per year. I wonder what the cost of the printer ink for all this is. No wonder my office supply cost is so high. In the next life will I meet the angry ghosts of all the trees I am responsible for killing?

Bankruptcy Petition Filed in Bad Faith

Can’t help myself. I have to share this.

I’m on an email list where I get all sorts of updates concerning bankruptcy law. My email this morning brought me news of a North Carolina bankruptcy court decision where the case was dismissed as having been brought in bad faith. What was the bad faith?

It seems that the petitioner, a woman who had just finished a divorce process, was filing the petition in bankruptcy primarily to make her attorney fees for the divorce go away. Through the divorce process she had obtained exempt assets in excess of $250,000 in value; and the lawyer’s bill was about $42,000; but the lawyer had already expressed a willingness to settle for $20,000.

The court appears to have reasoned that as this person went ahead with her contentious divorce, the lawyer had a reasonable expectation to be paid from the “equitable distribution recovery” of assets in the divorce case, and the filing of bankruptcy right after the divorce was in bad faith.

This is an example of what I hear referred to as the “smell test.” There is probably no specific provision in the bankruptcy code that says you can’t list your attorney fee bill in a bankruptcy right after the divorce. But under these particular circumstances, the bankruptcy court judge clearly did not like the way it smelled.

I have had several clients who have listed attorney fees in their bankruptcy petitions. However, that was not the only debt they had and that was not the reason why they filed. In addition, there had been a respectable period of time that had passed since the divorce was final; and it would have been something my client felt bad about and only listed because my advice was that all debts had to be listed.

Typically I find that my clients are very reluctant to list a debt that was for a personal service, where they have a relationship with the provider of the service. They really hate to list their doctor, dentist or plumber. If they need a bankruptcy, however, there’s no choice. All debts must be listed.

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.

Bankruptcy and DWI, Judge Arrested

I have been practicing bankruptcy law and DWI defense for some time now, and it always seems a bit difficult to explain why those two areas of the law seem to mesh for me. So when I saw a story about a bankruptcy judge being arrested for DWI, I woke up and took notice.

Massachusetts bankruptcy judge Robert Somma won’t be returning to his job. Why? He has “agreed” to leave his job to pursue other endeavors. Seems he has been off work since his arrest for DWI in February. When I first read the headline I was surprised, because lots of public officials get DWIs. At least one of the Hennepin County judges currently on the bench has received a DWI while in office. They have to take their punishment, but they are not removed from their jobs.

There were other complications in Judge Somma’s case, however. Seems that when he was arrested, he was wearing a dress. That in itself, while a bit unusual, doesn’t seem to be justification for losing his job either. Apparently he was a good judge and well liked by those who practiced in his courtroom. There’s nothing illegal or unethical about wearing a dress that I know of, although I suppose I have to concede that it could have been inappropriate.

Here’s a link to the Boston Globe story.

Out of the office until May 21st.

I’m am on my way to Hollywood. That’s where the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys is having a big three day seminar. I’ll be gone between May 15th and May 20th. I’ll be back in the office on the morning of Wednesday May 21st.

I wish I could say I was going to be on American Idol, but that’s not it. There are things I can learn at this seminar that would be hard to find anywhere else. What it comes down to is that I can’t afford to not go. The law of bankruptcy has been in a hard to track state of flux since the new legislation became effective in late 2005. It seems that every few days a judicial decision turns up that changes the landscape. I need all the help I can get in keeping up with this stuff.

Of course, I am planning on seeing a few sights as well. I’m allowing one day in the trip just for that. Right now I would say that the beach could be a priority.

So email me or leave me a message. I will probably be checking my email. I no longer travel without my laptop. The wireless Internet for the hotel where I’ll be did get a poor review, but I expect I’ll figure it out. I’ll be returning my calls on Wednesday, May 21st.

Debtor Audits in Bankruptcy Cases Resume Today

My email today brought me a notice that the U.S. Trustee’s office is resuming debtor audits as of today. They stopped in January because Congress didn’t fund it.

An audit in this context involves the U.S. Trustee’s office hiring an outside accounting firm to go over the debtor’s records. Previously the policy was that one in 250 cases would randomly be audited. Now the policy is one in a thousand will be audited. That’s a 400% improvement, but I’m still sad to see this stuff starting again.

Minnesota Bankruptcy: The Income Limits

Since the passage of the “new law” in October of 2005, there have been rules based on level of income about who can file a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. Unless you are at or below the median income for the State of Minnesota based upon your family size, you can only file a Chapter 7 if you pass the so-called means test. The means test is a whole other topic, which I will have to deal with some other time. For now, however, here’s a video I posted recently on Youtube where I discuss the median income levels for Minnesota by household size.

The numbers are subject to change every few months, but I have them posted on my site on my Chapter 7 page under the subheading of “Qualifying for Chapter 7 in Minnesota.”

David J. Kelly, Attorney
Kelly Law Office
1013 Ford Rd.
Minnetonka, MN 55305
952-544-6356
http://www.mn-bankruptcy.com/
http://www.mn-dwi.com/
http://www.kelly-law.com/

Walking with a friend and mentor

Yesterday I got a call from my office-mate and friend Emanuel Serstock. He’s a former Minneapolis Assistant City Attorney, a former Ramsey County Assistant County Attorney, and a former Assistant Hennepin County Public Defender. We call him “Em.”

Em knows that I try to go for a good long walk most days, and that I have my favorite places to do this. In particular, he knows that I like to go to the Westwood Hills Nature Center, which is only about a half mile from our office. After an apparent heart attack last fall, he is under doctor’s orders to walk at least three times a week. When he called, he wanted to know if I would be walking that day and where would I be going. I said that I had been thinking in terms of a swim at my health club, but that I would be honored to walk with him if he was up for it.

An hour later he was at the office in his walking shoes, and we jumped in my Toyota Highlander. I drove the half mile or so to a back door entrance to the Westwood Hills Nature Center. After deciding whether we would take the track in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, we were heading down the trail. I had anticipated that he would have trouble keeping up with me, but the reverse was true. He’s a bit taller than me, so his legs are longer. I had been a bit worried about his health, but I’m not anymore. He was robust, vigorous and hard to keep up with.

We found that the ice is finally out and the water is open on the lake. We saw a loon, who was obviously migrating to somewhere further north. We also saw a colorful adult male turkey, which Em said reminded him of certain people he knows.

Em has been a good resource and mentor, helping me with many of my criminal defense cases. Compared to how much help he has given me, I have felt for some time that I owe him something. Going on this walk was an opportunity for me to show him something he had not known about, which I hope to some extent was a down payment on my repayment of my indebtedness to him.

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