The “Black Box” of the Means Test

What happens if you make too much money so that you are over “median income,” but you still want to file a Chapter 7 case?  You get to go through the “black box” that is the expenses side of the means test.

In the last couple of blogs I’ve covered the first part of the means test, the income part. That part says that if your income is no more than the medium amount for your state and your size of family, you can skip the rest of the means test and qualify for Chapter 7. But if your income is over the applicable median income amount, then you have to go through the convoluted expenses part of the means test to see whether you can still do a Chapter 7 case.

As much as I want in these blogs to help you understand how bankruptcy works, there is a limit to what can be effectively conveyed within the limitations of a blog. Much of the expenses part of the means test goes over that limit. So in this blog we will avoid that nitty-gritty. But here’s what you should know.

The concept behind the means test is pretty straightforward: debtors who have the means to pay a meaningful amount to their creditors over a reasonable period of time should be required to do so. But putting that concept into law resulted in maddeningly complicated and unclear rules. Not surprisingly, trying to apply those rules to real life has been challenging.

The expense rules got really complicated by trying to be objective. Congress assumed that it couldn’t trust debtors to list their anticipated expenses because they’d just show they had no money left over for their creditors. For a more objective standard, Congress could have picked between either the actual expenses a debtor in fact pays for food, clothing, etc., or else used some standard amount for expenses.

Well, Congress chose…  BOTH—a mix between actual and standard expenses. So now for some expenses we must use standard amounts, based on Internal Revenue Service tables. But this gets complicated quickly because some of those expense standards are national, some vary by state, and some even vary among specific metropolitan areas within a state. Then some other “necessary” expenses can be the actual amounts expected to be spent. And there are even some expenses which are partly standard and partly actual (certain components of transportation expenses). Add in deductions for secured debt payments (vehicle, mortgage) and priority debts (income taxes, accrued child support), and trying to figure out when they can and can’t be claimed, and you get an idea why I’m not going to get any deeper into this “black box.”

I WILL tell you in my next blog what happens at the other end of this “black box” of expenses—what happens if you have some disposable income after deducting expenses.

I’ll close today by emphasizing that the expense rules are not clear how they are to be applied to many common situations. The result is that different courts have interpreted these rules in inconsistent ways, requiring the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve these disputes one at a time.

So this is a prime example of why you want to have an attorney who fully understands these often confounding rules, and is also on top of the pertinent local and national court interpretations of these rules. There’s a lot riding on it—whether or not you qualify for Chapter 7, and how much and how long you have to pay into a Chapter 13 case. In other words, what’s potentially at stake is years of your life, and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars.