The truth is, if you qualify, you can file for either a Chapter 7 bankruptcy or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. While a Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganizes debt into a repayment plan, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, will eliminate all of your debt (with a few exceptions). Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules determine who qualifies, how to file, and what debt is eligible for discharge. To know if you qualify and if all of your debt will be erased, you need to speak with a bankruptcy lawyer in Utah who can help you.
Qualifying for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Income criteria established by bankruptcy law determine which debtors may file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In order to qualify under income guidelines, a filer’s income must be equal to or fall below the median income in the filer’s state. Every state has different income guidelines. A filer that falls within a state’s income criteria may file for Chapter 7.
However, if the filer’s income is above the state’s median, the bankruptcy court will require the filer to take a “means test” in order to establish eligibility for Chapter 7. The means test prevents filers with the ability to repay creditors from discharging debt. The means test assesses the filer’s debt and income from the preceding six months. If the debtor has a certain amount of income leftover every month after paying creditors, the debtor will fail the means test. Although the debtor is ineligible for Chapter 7, Chapter 13 is an option. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows the debtor to repay creditors in a five-year repayment plan.
Who is Ineligible for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Under Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules, a debtor is ineligible under the following circumstances:
- A previous debt was discharged within the past eight years under Chapter 7;
- A previous debt was discharged within the past six years under Chapter 13;
- Their income, expenses and debt would allow for a Chapter 13 filing;
- The debtor attempted to defraud creditors or the bankruptcy court; or
- The debtor failed to attend credit counseling.
How to File for Chapter 7
A debtor must attend credit counseling prior to filing for Chapter 7. Upon completion of credit-counseling with an agency approved by the United States Trustee, the debtor can file for bankruptcy with a local bankruptcy court. There is a cost associated with filing. Check with the Trustee’s Office to learn the exact amount. A debtor is required to provide information about income, debt, expenditures, creditor holdings of secured and unsecured debt, the sale of prior property, and a list of exempt property. Exempt property is property that Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules allow a debtor to keep. Each state has its own guidelines, but exempt property typically includes clothing, furniture, and cars.
The Bankruptcy Automatic Stay
Once a debtor files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy court will issue an automatic stay, or an “Order for Relief.” An automatic stay protects a debtor from a creditor’s attempt to collect on a debt during the bankruptcy process. In effect, all collection activities, including any pending lawsuits, must cease. An automatic stay will prevent wage garnishment, filing of liens, and the seizure of a debtor’s property such as a house, a car, or a bank account. If the bankruptcy court dismisses a case, the automatic stay also terminates and the creditor may commence collection activities.
What Does the Trustee Do?
The bankruptcy court appoints a trustee for each bankruptcy case. The trustee is responsible for overseeing the case to ensure that the debtor files the appropriate documents. The trustee must also determine whether the sale of nonexempt property will produce enough income to pay creditors. If property is unlikely to generate substantial compensation in comparison with the time and effort needed to sell the property, the trustee will likely allow the debtor to keep the nonexempt property.
The 341 First Meeting of Creditors
After a debtor has completed and filed all of the necessary paperwork for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the trustee will schedule a creditors meeting. At the meeting, the trustee will review the paperwork and gather any other necessary information. If a debtor fails to attend the meeting, the trustee may make a motion to dismiss the debtor’s case. Other reasons for dismissal by the trustee may include the debtor’s failure to provide a copy of income tax returns at least seven days before the creditors meeting or the failure to file a current income tax return.
In most cases, this creditors meeting is the only time the debtor will have to go to the courthouse.
If the trustee determines that you are in possession of nonexempt property, you may have to either give up the property or supply the trustee with money in the amount of the property’s value. Sometimes, though, if the property doesn’t have much value or would be too difficult for the trustee to sell, trustees will occasionally “abandon” the property, essentially allowing you to keep it despite the fact that it is nonexempt.
Getting a Discharge of Debt in Chapter 7
A few months after the creditors meeting, the bankruptcy court will hold a discharge hearing. A debtor’s unsecured debt, debt that is unsecured by property, is discharged. Secured debt, such as a car loan or a mortgage, receives different treatment. At the beginning of the bankruptcy process, the debtor selected to do one of the following: pay the creditor for the replacement value of the property, return the property to the creditor, or “reaffirm” or agree to new contract terms with the creditor.
Under Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules, the debtor must repay some debt. The following debt remains after a bankruptcy discharge:
- Child support
- Tax debt, unless a debtor meets the criteria to discharge federal tax debt
- Student loans, unless a bankruptcy court determines that undue hardship exists
- Debt created by fraudulent means
Once a discharge of debt occurs, the creditor can no longer attempt to collect the expunged debt.
Generally speaking, creditors would rather work out a viable payment plan with their debtors than initiate legal action, which not only costs money, but can prolong the collections process. Nevertheless, it is possible to be sued for debt, especially if you fail to communicate with your creditor and miss multiple payments. You may be sued by a creditor even if you have offered to make small payments on your balance, but creditors typically do not sue debtors who are at least making a good faith effort to repay a debt.
What Should you Do If You’ve Been Sued?
Usually, the first indication that you are being sued comes when a constable or a process server hands you a summons and a complaint. The complaint describes the nature and dollar amount of the claims against you for unpaid debt, while the summons is a written notification that you are required to appear in court on a given date if you wish to defend yourself against the claim. If you simply ignore the complaint by not replying with a formal answer, your inaction may result in a default judgment against you.
We always advise people to speak with a lawyer right away and have them review the summons and complaint before you do anything else.
So, if you wish to defend against a creditor’s legal claim against you — even if you agree with the claim, but would rather work out a settlement — you should generally answer the complaint.
You and/or the cosigner of your loan or account will be listed as the defendant(s). The complaint will describe why the creditor is suing and how much money it is seeking in damages (typically the amount owed, plus interest and any applicable penalties). You will have about 20 days to answer the complaint, depending on the state in which the claim was filed. You may have to pay a filing fee to the court when submitting your answer to the complaint, but low income defendants may qualify for a waiver.
Whatever you don, don’t go it alone. It’s like doing brain surgery on yourself. The outcome will not likely be very good.
Your answer typically will include an admission or denial of the claim, any legal defenses, potential counterclaims, and your signature. If you have income that is exempt from garnishment, such as Social Security payments, it may be included in the answer, as well.
Defenses to a Lawsuit
If you plan to defend a claim against you, an attorney can help you decide which defenses make the most sense. Since many consumer contracts include a provision for settling disputes through arbitration, the lawsuit may not even be valid. Also, the claim must be filed within the statute of limitations in your state (usually two or three years, but as long as six years in some states). Additionally, some states have different statutes of limitations for debt-related lawsuits.
A creditor suing you for an unpaid debt also must be able to document ownership of the debt. Creditors frequently sell debts to other entities, which are then considered “debt collectors” for legal purposes. They must be able to produce documentation of the debt in order to sue you, a requirement that does not apply to the original creditor. Therefore, you should request verification of the debt in writing once you are contacted by a debt collector (which may be another financial institution). If it cannot provide written verification, it may not collect from you.
Also, creditors are required by law to attach a copy of the account or written contract to the complaint, or else explain in the complaint why it is not attached. If the creditor or collector cannot produce the proper documentation, you may ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
Free Consultation with Bankruptcy Lawyer
If you have a bankruptcy question, or need to file a bankruptcy case, call Ascent Law now at (801) 676-5506. Attorneys in our office have filed over a thousand cases. We can help you now. Come in or call in for your free initial consultation.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506