The Rigid “Means Test” Makes the Timing of Your Bankruptcy Filing Critical

Waiting just one day to file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case can make qualifying for it much easier—or much harder!

How could such a small delay make such a big difference?

One of the main goals behind the huge amendment to the bankruptcy law in 2005 was to force more people to pay a portion of their debts through Chapter 13 payment plans instead of writing them off in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.” And the primary tool that is supposed to accomplish this is the means test. The rationale behind this test was that instead of allowing judges to make judgment calls about who was or was not abusing the bankruptcy system, a rigid financial test would ferret out who had the “means” to pay a meaningful amount to their creditors in a Chapter 13 case.

But in real life rigid rules can have unintended consequences. An experienced and conscientious lawyer will work to turn these consequences to your advantage, and avoid their disadvantages. Here’s an idea how this plays out with the means test.

In my last blog I explained the first part of the means test, which essentially compares the income you received during the six FULL CALENDAR months before filing bankruptcy to a standard median income amount for your state and your family size. If your income is at or under the applicable median income, then you get to file a Chapter 7 case (except in very unusual circumstances, which I’m not going to get into here). If your income is higher than the median amount, you may still be able to file a Chapter 7 case but you have to jump through a whole bunch of extra hoops to do so. And there’s a risk that you will be forced to go through a Chapter 13 payment plan.  So you can see that having income below the median income amount makes your case much simpler and less risky.

But how can filing the case a day earlier or later matter so much? Because of the means test’s fixation on those six prior full calendar months. And because the means test includes ALL income during that precise period (other than social security).  Virtually all money that comes into your hands during that period is counted, not just taxable income. 

So imagine that you received some irregular chunk of money, say an income tax refund, a few catch-up child support payments, or an insurance settlement or reimbursement.  Not a huge amount, say $3,000, received on July 15 of last year. Your only other income is from your job, where make a $42,000 salary, or $3,500 gross per month. Let’s say that the median annual income for your state and family size is $43,000.

So now we’re getting close to the end of January, your Chapter 7 bankruptcy paperwork is ready to file, and you’re anxious to get it filed so that you get protection from your aggressive creditors. BUT, if your case is filed on or before January 31, then the last six full calendar month period will be from July 1 through December 31 of last year, which includes that $3,000 extra money you received in mid-July. Your work income of 6 times $3,500 equals $21,000, plus that $3,000 totals $24,000 received during that 6-month period. Multiply that by 2 to make that an annual amount, and that equals $48,000, higher than the $42,000 median income. So you’d have failed the income portion of the means test.

But if you just wait to file until February 1, then the applicable 6-month period jumps forward by 1 full month to the period from August 1 of last year through January 31 of this year. Now that new period does NOT include the $3,000 you received in mid-July. So now your income during the 6-month period is $21,000, multiplied by 2 is $42,000. So now you’re under the $43,000 median income amount. You’ve passed the income portion of the means test, and you get to skip the awkward and risky expenses part of the means test. So you’re much more likely to breeze through your Chapter 7 case. Hooray!

Last thing: what if that $3,000 chunk of money was not conveniently received almost 6 months ago, but rather only a 2 or 3 months ago, and you’re desperate to file your case? You need to stop a garnishment or foreclosure and simply can’t wait another few months to file. Well if you file now, then you will be over the median income, and will need to go through the expenses part of the means test. You may still be saved there, or there may even be other ways of qualifying for Chapter 7. More about those in my next blog or two. But if you are concerned about this now, please call to set up a consultation with me right away. This blog should make clear that careful pre-bankruptcy planning is critical. The sooner we start, the more likely time will be on your side.