When Chapter 7s Are Not So Simple
The goal of most Chapter 7 cases is to get in and get out—file the petition, go to a simple 10-minute hearing with your attorney a month later, and two months later get your debts written off. Mission accomplished, end of story. And usually that’s how it goes. So when it doesn’t go that way, why not?
Four main kinds of problems can happen:
1. Income: Under the “means test,” If you made or received too much money in the 6 full calendar months before your Chapter 7 case is filed, you can be disqualified from Chapter 7. As a result you can be forced instead into a 3-to-5 year Chapter 13 case, or have your case be dismissed altogether—thrown out of court. These results can sometimes be avoided by careful timing of your case filing, or by making changed to your income beforehand, or if necessary by a proactive filing under Chapter 13. Or sometimes it’s worth fighting to stay in Chapter 7 by showing that it is not an “abuse” to do so.
2. Assets: In Chapter 7, if you have an asset which is not “exempt” (protected), the Chapter 7 trustee will be entitled to take and sell that asset, and pay the proceeds to the creditors. You might be happy to surrender a particular asset you don’t need in return for the discharge of your debts, in particular if the trustee is going use the proceeds in part to pay a debt that you want paid, such as a child support arrearage or an income tax obligation. But instead you may not want to surrender that asset, either because you think it is worth less than the trustee thinks or you believe it fits within an exemption. Or you may simply want to pay off the trustee for the privilege of keeping that asset. In all these “asset” scenarios, there are complications not present in an undisputed “no asset” case.
3. Creditor Challenges to Discharge if a Debt: Creditors have the limited right to raise objections to the discharge of their individual debts, on grounds such as fraud, misrepresentation, theft, intentional injury to person or property, and similar bad acts. In most circumstances the creditor must raise such objections within about three months of the filing of your Chapter 7 case. So once that deadline passes you no longer need to worry about this, as long as that creditor got appropriate notice of your case.
4. Trustee Challenges to Discharge of Any Debts: If you do not disclose all your assets or fail to answer other questions accurately, either in writing or orally at the hearing with the trustee, or if you fail to cooperate with the trustee’s investigation of your financial circumstances, you could possibly lose the ability to discharge any of your debts. The bankruptcy system is still largely, believe it or not, an honor system—it relies on the honesty and accuracy of debtors (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of creditors). So the system is quite harsh towards those who abuse the system by trying to hide the ball.
To repeat: most of the time, Chapter 7s are straightforward. No surprises. That’s especially true if you have been completely honest and thorough with your attorney during your meetings and through the information and documents you’ve provided. In Chapter 7 cases for my clients, my job is to have those cases run smoothly. I do that by carefully reviewing my clients’ circumstances to make sure that there is nothing troublesome, and if there is, to address it in advance in the best way possible. That way we will have a smooth case, or at least my clients will know in advance the risks involved. So, be honest and thorough with your attorney, to greatly up the odds of having a simple Chapter 7 case.