Qualifying for Chapter 13
Chapter 13 sometimes gives you huge advantages over Chapter 7. So how do you qualify for those advantages?
You can file a Chapter 13 case if:
- the amount of your debts does not exceed the legal debt limits
- you are “an individual with regular income”
Under Chapter 7 there is no limit how much debt you can have. But under Chapter 13 there are maximums for both secured and unsecured debts.
Debt limits were imposed back in the late 1970s when the modern Chapter 13 procedure was created. Congress wanted to restrict this new, relatively streamlined option to simpler situations. With a very large debt amount, the more elaborate Chapter 11 was instead considered appropriate.
The original debt limits were $350,000 of secured debts and $100,000 of unsecured debts. In the mid-1990s these limits were raised to $750,000 and $250,000 respectively, with automatic inflation adjustments to be made every 3 years thereafter. The most recent of these adjustments applied to cases filed starting April 1, 2013, with a secured debt limit of $1,149,525 and unsecured debt limit of $383,175. These limits apply whether the Chapter 13 case is filed by an individual or a married couple—they are NOT doubled or increased for a married couple. Reaching EITHER of the two limits disqualifies you from Chapter 13.
These limits may sound high, and indeed do not get in the way of most people who want to file a Chapter 13 case. But they can cause problems unexpectedly. As just one example, a serious medical emergency or medical condition that is either uninsured or exceeds insurance coverage can climb to a few hundred thousand dollars of debt shockingly fast.
“Individual with Regular Income”
First, only “individuals”—human beings, not corporations or partnerships—can file a Chapter 13 case.
Second, an “individual with regular income” is defined in the Bankruptcy Code as one “whose income is sufficiently stable and regular to enable such individual to make payments under a plan under Chapter 13.”
If that doesn’t sound very helpful to you, you’re not alone. How “stable and regular” does a debtor’s income need to be before it is “sufficiently” so, in that it enables the debtor to make plan payments? How is a bankruptcy judge going to make that determination at the beginning of the Chapter 13 case, especially if there hadn’t yet been any history of income from its intended source?
Having such a ambiguous definition gives bankruptcy judges a great deal of leeway about how they read this qualification. Most are pretty flexible at least at the beginning of the case, giving debtors a chance to make the plan payments, thereby proving by action that their income is “stable and regular” enough. But if your income has been inconsistent, you may need to persuade the judge that your income is steady enough to qualify. A good attorney, especially one who has experience with your judge, can present your circumstances in the best light and get you over this hurdle.