The Far Limits of the Means Test

Very few people who want to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy need to take the means test all the way to its limit. But if you do, you better have some iron-clad “special circumstances” to defeat your “presumption of abuse.”

The means test triggers whether or not your case is presumed to be an abuse of Chapter 7. Each step of the means test gives you a way to avoid this presumption of abuse. So, you avoid the presumption IF ANY of the following apply to you:

1. your income is no more than the median family income for your state and your size of family;

2. your income is more than the applicable median family income, but, after subtracting a list of allowable expenses, your remaining monthly disposable income is less than $117 per month; or

3. your income is more that the applicable median family income, your remaining monthly disposable income is between $117 and $197 per month, AND when you multiply your specific monthly disposable income amount by 60, this total is less than 25% of your “non-priority unsecured debts” (debts not secured by collateral, excluding special “priority debts”—certain taxes, support payments, etc.).

(See my last few blogs about these earlier parts of the means test.)

A large percentage of people who want to file Chapter 7 avoid the presumption of abuse on the first step—having sufficiently low income. Many others do so because their monthly disposable income is low enough at the second step, or their monthly disposable income is low enough in comparison to the amount of their debt.

BUT, if after all this you still have a presumption of abuse, your case will either be dismissed (thrown out) or else changed into a Chapter 13 case (requiring payments to your creditors). Your last chance to avoid this is if you can show “special circumstances.” The Bankruptcy Code lays out this law as follows:

[T]he presumption of abuse may only be rebutted by demonstrating special circumstances, such as a serious medical condition or a call or order to active duty in the Armed Forces, to the extent such special circumstances… justify additional expenses or adjustments of current monthly income for which there is no reasonable alternative.

So when pushed to the limit, a test that is supposed to be an objective way to decide who qualifies to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy comes down to a very subjective question about whether any “special circumstances” apply.

To be fair, much of the means test IS objective, in the sense that it involves a whole lot of number-crunching to see if you can escape that dreaded “presumption of abuse.” But when a lot of those numbers—such as the allowed expense amounts, or the above-mentioned $117 and $195 amounts—appear arbitrary or do not accurately reflect your honest reality, then that “objectivity” has gotten away from the purpose for which it was supposedly intended.

Regardless, if you want to file a Chapter 7 case and, after going through all the steps of the means test, you are among that small minority of people still with a presumption of abuse, how likely are you going to be saved by the remaining subjective step in the process? Will you be able to persuade the judge that your “special circumstances” defeat the presumption of abuse?

This is a prime example of when you want a very experienced and conscientious bankruptcy attorney at your side. Why? Because the ambiguousness of the law, as you saw in the excerpt above, means that your attorney will need to 1) know how the local bankruptcy judges are interpreting this law, 2) carefully apply that to the details of your case when advising you about your options before filing your case, and then 3) if necessary be persuasive in making your case for “special circumstances” in court.