Most debtors who file bankruptcy, and many of their creditors, know very little about the bankruptcy process. The following is designed to assist the general public by providing basic answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.
What is Bankruptcy?
Bankruptcy is a legal process which allows a person (a “Debtor”), who owes more money than he or she can currently repay, to either (1) repay a portion of the money over time under Chapter 11, 12, or 13, or (2) have the entire debt forgiven (“discharged”) under chapter 7. Under chapter 7, a Debtor may be required to surrender assets to a trustee. Bankruptcy is also available to businesses, corporations, and partnerships. Even municipal governments can file bankruptcy (under Chapter 9).
After a Debtor has filed a case (i.e., “petition”), creditors must stop all collection efforts against the Debtor for a period of time, unless they get permission from the bankruptcy court to continue. This protection from collection efforts is referred to as the “automatic stay.”
The Bankruptcy Code and Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure determine which chapter one is eligible to file, which debts can be eliminated, how long repayment must continue, which possessions can be kept, etc. A Debtor must abide by these federal laws and rules.
What happens when a bankruptcy petition is filed?
The commencement of a bankruptcy case creates an “estate.” The estate technically becomes the temporary legal owner of all of the Debtor’s property. The estate consists of all legal or equitable interests of the Debtor in property as of the date the case is filed, including property owned or held by another person if the Debtor has an interest in the property. The “automatic stay” is immediately invoked at the instant of the filing of the bankruptcy case, and it prohibits creditors from taking collection action against the Debtor or the Debtor’s property without Bankruptcy Court approval. The Court issues a notice of commencement advising all interested parties of the filing of the bankruptcy case. This notice provides the case number, trustee, date of the meeting of creditors, deadline to file a proof of claim (if applicable), and deadline to file an objection to the discharge (if applicable).
Do I need an attorney to represent me in my bankruptcy case?
Each Debtor filing an individual bankruptcy has a right to represent him or herself (Pro Se Debtor); however, the use of an attorney is recommended. Ignorance of the law may cost an individual far more than an attorney’s fee. By law, a Corporation is required to have an attorney. Note: Individuals who choose to represent themselves will not be able to obtain legal advice from court personnel or from the trustee appointed to their case.
What is a Pro Se Debtor?
A Pro Se Debtor is one who files bankruptcy without an attorney. A Pro Se Debtor is responsible for all proceedings of his/her case. Failure to comply with the Bankruptcy Code and Rules or with court orders may cause dismissal of the Debtor’s case. It is recommended that all Debtors seek legal advice before filing bankruptcy.
What is the difference between a chapter 7, 13 and 11?
Chapter 7 – In a Chapter 7, Debtors are permitted to retain certain “exempt” property, while the remaining assets are liquidated by the trustee. The trustee will distribute the funds from the liquidation to holders of claims (creditors) in accordance with the provisions of the Bankruptcy Code. Accordingly, potential Debtors should realize that the filing of a petition under chapter 7 might result in the loss of non-exempt property.
Chapter 13 – Chapter 13 is designed for individuals with regular income to repay a portion or all of their debt over an extended period of time. Chapter 13 may be appropriate for Debtors who seek to retain certain assets through a repayment plan.
Chapter 11 – Chapter 11 allows corporations, partnerships, and certain individuals who do not qualify under Chapter 13, to reorganize without having to liquidate all assets. As in a Chapter 13, the Debtor (called the “debtor-in-possession” because a trustee is not normally assigned) is required to present a repayment plan. If the plan is accepted by the creditors and subsequently approved (“confirmed”) by the Court, this allows the Debtor to reorganize his/her/or its personal, financial, or business affairs.
What debts are dischargeable?
Generally, all debts listed on the petition are dischargeable. However, certain types of debt listed in 11 U.S.C. §523 are not dischargeable. The non-dischargeable debts listed in §523 include, but are not limited to:
- Certain taxes and fines;
- Debts arising from certain fraudulent conduct;
- Debts not listed in your bankruptcy petition;
- Alimony, child maintenance or support, and certain other related debts arising out of a divorce decree or separation agreement;
- Debts caused by the Debtor’s willful and malicious injury to another;
- Government guaranteed student loans;
- Debts caused by a death or personal injury related to your operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated; and
- Post-bankruptcy condominium or cooperative owner’s association fees.
This list includes only examples of non-dischargeable debts; see 11 U.S.C. § 523 for a complete list. Under § 523, a creditor or party in interest may also file a complaint to have their debt declared nondischargeable.
In a chapter 13 case, the discharge is broader under 11 U.S.C. § 1328(a).
How long does a bankruptcy filing remain on my credit report?
A maximum of ten years under provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.