Chapter 7 Eligibility
Amendments to the Bankruptcy Code enacted in to the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 require the application of a “means test” to determine whether individual consumer debtors qualify for relief under chapter 7. If such a debtor’s income is in excess of certain thresholds, the debtor may not be eligible for chapter 7 relief.
How Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Works
A chapter 7 bankruptcy case begins with the debtor filing a petition with the bankruptcy court serving the area where the individual lives or where the business debtor is organized or has its principal place of business or principal assets. In addition to the petition, the debtor must also file with the court: (1) schedules of assets and liabilities; (2) a schedule of current income and expenditures; (3) a statement of financial affairs; and (4) a schedule of executory contracts and unexpired leases. Debtors must also provide the assigned case trustee with a copy of the tax return or transcripts for the most recent tax year as well as tax returns filed during the case (including tax returns for prior years that had not been filed when the case began). Individual debtors with primarily consumer debts have additional document filing requirements. They must file: a certificate of credit counseling and a copy of any debt repayment plan developed through credit counseling; evidence of payment from employers, if any, received 60 days before filing; a statement of monthly net income and any anticipated increase in income or expenses after filing; and a record of any interest the debtor has in federal or state qualified education or tuition accounts. A husband and wife may file a joint petition or individual petitions. Even if filing jointly, a husband and wife are subject to all the document filing requirements of individual debtors.
In order to complete the Official Bankruptcy Forms that make up the petition, statement of financial affairs, and schedules, the debtor must provide the following information:
- A list of all creditors and the amount and nature of their claims;
- The source, amount, and frequency of the debtor’s income;
- A list of all of the debtor’s property; and
- A detailed list of the debtor’s monthly living expenses, i.e., food, clothing, shelter, utilities, taxes, transportation, medicine, etc.
Married individuals must gather this information for their spouse regardless of whether they are filing a joint petition, separate individual petitions, or even if only one spouse is tiling. In a situation where only one spouse files, the income and expenses of the non-filing spouse is required so that the court, the trustee and creditors can evaluate the household’s financial position.
Filing a petition under chapter 7 “automatically stays” (stops) most collection actions against the debtor or the debtor’s property. But filing the petition does not stay certain types of actions listed under, and the stay may be effective only for a short time in some situations. The stay arises by operation of law and requires no .judicial action. As long as the stay is in effect, creditors generally may not initiate or continue lawsuits, wage garnishments, or even telephone calls demanding payments. The bankruptcy clerk gives notice of the bankruptcy case to all creditors whose names and addresses are provided by the debtor.
Between 20 and 40 days after the petition is filed, the case trustee (described below) will hold a meeting of creditors. If the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator’ schedules the meeting at a place that does not have regular U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator staffing, the meeting may be held no more than 60 days after the order for relief. During this meeting, the trustee puts the debtor under oath, and both the trustee and creditors may ask questions. The debtor must attend the meeting and answer questions regarding the debtor’s financial affairs and property. If a husband and wife have filed a joint petition, they both must attend the creditors’ meeting and answer questions. Within 10 days of the creditors’ meeting, the U.S. trustee will report to the court whether the case should be presumed to be an abuse under the means test.
It is important for the debtor to cooperate with the trustee and to provide any financial records or documents that the trustee requests. The Bankruptcy Code requires the trustee to ask the debtor questions at the meeting of creditors to ensure that the debtor is aware of the potential consequences of seeking a discharge in bankruptcy such as the effect on credit history, the ability to file a petition under a different chapter, the effect of receiving a discharge, and the effect of reaffirming a debt. Some trustees provide written information on these topics at or before the meeting to ensure that the debtor is aware of this information.
The Chapter 7 Discharge
A discharge releases individual debtors from personal liability for most debts and prevents the creditors owed those debts front taking any collection actions against the debtor. Because a chapter 7 discharge is subject to many exceptions, though, debtors should consult competent legal counsel before filing to discuss the scope of the discharge. Generally, excluding cases that are dismissed or converted, individual debtors receive a discharge in more than 99 percent of chapter 7 cases. In most cases, unless a party in interest files a complaint objecting to the discharge or a motion to extend the time to object, the bankruptcy court will issue a discharge order relatively early in the case —generally, 60 to 90 days alter the date first set for the meeting of creditors.
The grounds for denying an individual debtor a discharge in a chapter 7 case are narrow and are construed against the moving party. Among other reasons, the court may deny the debtor a discharge if it finds that the debtor: failed to keep or produce adequate books or financial records; failed to explain satisfactorily any loss of assets; committed a bankruptcy crime such as perjury; failed to obey a lawful order of the bankruptcy court; fraudulently transferred, concealed, or destroyed property that would have become property of the estate; or failed to complete an approved instructional course concerning financial management.
Secured creditors may retain some rights to seize property securing an underlying debt even after a discharge is granted. Depending on individual circumstances, if a debtor wishes to keep certain secured property (such as an automobile), he or she may decide to “reaffirm” the debt. A reaffirmation is an agreement between the debtor and the creditor that the debtor will remain liable and will pay all or a portion of the money owed, even though the debt would otherwise be discharged in the bankruptcy. In return, the creditor promises that it will not repossess or take back the automobile or other property so long as the debtor continues to pay the debt.
If the debtor decides to reaffirm a debt, he or she must do so before the discharge is entered. The debtor must sign a written reaffirmation agreement and file it with the court. The Bankruptcy Code requires that reaffirmation agreements contain an extensive set of disclosures. Among other things, the disclosures must advise the debtor of the amount of the debt being reaffirmed and how it is calculated and that reaffirmation means that the debtor’s personal liability for that debt will not be discharged in the bankruptcy. The disclosures also require the debtor to sign and file a statement of his or her current income and expenses which shows that the balance of income paying expenses is sufficient to pay the reaffirmed debt. If the balance is not enough to pay the debt to be reaffirmed, there is a presumption of undue hardship, and the court may decide not to approve the reaffirmation agreement. Unless the debtor is represented by an attorney, the bankruptcy judge must approve the reaffirmation agreement.
If the debtor was represented by an attorney in connection with the reaffirmation agreement, the attorney must certify in writing that he or she advised the debtor of the legal effect and consequences of the agreement, including a default under the agreement. The attorney must also certify that the debtor was fully informed and voluntarily made the agreement and that reaffirmation of the debt will not create an undue hardship for the debtor or the debtor’s dependents. The Bankruptcy Code requires a reaffirmation hearing if the debtor has not been represented by an attorney during the negotiating of the agreement, or if the court disapproves the reaffirmation agreement. The debtor may repay any debt voluntarily, however, whether or not a reaffirmation agreement exists. An individual receives a discharge for most of his or her debts in a chapter 7 bankruptcy case. A creditor may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect a discharged debt. But not all of- an individual’s debts are discharged in chapter 7. Debts not discharged include debts for alimony and child support, certain taxes, debts for certain educational benefit over payments or loans made or guaranteed by a governmental unit, debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of’ another entity, debts for death or personal injury caused by the debtor’s operation of a motor vehicle while the debtor was intoxicated from alcohol or other substances, and debts for certain criminal restitution orders. The debtor will continue to be liable for these types of debts to the extent that they are not paid in the chapter 7 case. Debts for money or property obtained by false pretenses, debts for fraud or deceit while acting in a fiduciary capacity, and debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity will he discharged unless a creditor timely files and prevails in an action to have such debts declared non dischargeable.
The court may revoke a chapter 7 discharge on the request of the trustee, a creditor, or the U.S. trustee if the discharge was obtained through fraud by the debtor, if the debtor acquired property that is property of the estate and knowingly and fraudulently failed to report the acquisition of such property or to surrender the property to the trustee, or if the debtor (Without a satisfactory explanation) makes a material misstatement or fails to provide documents or other information in connection with an audit of the debtor’s case.
We serve clients in Parsippany, Morristown, Morris Township, Morris Plains, Dover, Rockaway, Roxbury, Chester, Boonton, Chatham, Denville, Hanover, Florham Park, Kinnelon, Mendham, Mount Olive and all of Bergen County, Essex County, Hudson County, Middlesex County, Morris County, Passaic County, Somerset County, and Union County, New Jersey