Debts from a Criminal Conviction Can’t Be Written Off in Bankruptcy, But a Bankruptcy Can Still Help

Three ways bankruptcy can help: 1) write off debts to focus on defense costs, 2) pay only the most important debts and expenses, and 3) reduce chance of related civil liability.


As discussed in the last blog, criminal fines, fees and restitution are almost never discharged in any kind of bankruptcy case. And yet if you’re facing a serious criminal charge, or have already been convicted, bankruptcy can still be hugely helpful.

If you’re charged with a crime, you need financial resources to pay for your legal defense. You need to be able to focus financially and emotionally on fighting the criminal charge. And then, if you do not win a complete acquittal, you have to figure out how you will pay whatever criminal fines, restitution, or other court and probation fees that the court orders as part of your criminal sentence. So you have to choose what your highest financial priorities are. Because of the grave potential consequences, that usually means paying for a defense attorney, and then paying whatever the criminal court requires of you.   Bankruptcy can help in this by re-prioritizing your debts and expenses, and protecting you from your creditors.

1. Bankruptcy can help by writing off all or most of your debts so that you can focus both your attention and your finances on the criminal charge(s) or their aftermath.

Right after you’ve been charged with a crime, unless you indigent and financially qualify for a public defender, your highest priority must be to pay for your criminal attorney and any related costs of your defense. That may mean selling assets, and/or surrendering collateral to creditors, like a vehicle with high monthly payments. And you may need to stop paying all your creditors.  Often the cleanest way to reduce your debt load is with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In the right circumstances it provides the financial relief you need.

After your criminal case is resolved, especially if you had to serve a jail sentence, you’ve probably had a gap in your income, or now have a job with lower income. You often have continuing financial obligations to the criminal justice system that you must absolutely pay because your release or probation is conditioned on you doing so. These can include restitution payments, probation/supervision fees, treatment costs, community service fees, and/or chemical and electronic monitoring charges. A bankruptcy can clean up your debts so you can pay these criminal fees and avoid re-incarceration. The last thing you need is some ancient creditor garnishing your wages or bank account so that you can’t meet your criminal obligations.

2. Bankruptcy can help you prioritize your debts and expenses so that you can keep paying the ones most important to the criminal conviction against you.

Sometimes the criminal court imposes other kinds of conditions on you which directly require you to keep current on certain of your debts or expenses, beyond the court and probation fees referred to above. Depending on the nature of your offense, you may be required to keep absolutely current on your child support payments, or file and pay income taxes on time, or always maintain vehicle insurance. A bankruptcy can make all the difference allowing you to fulfill such make-or-break commitments.

Also, your criminal sentence or terms of probation often require you to show up at certain scheduled events—to do your community service, attend probation meetings, or just maintain regular employment. All require reliable transportation. If you cannot make your vehicle payments or pay for vehicle insurance, or at least pay for public transportation, you will not be able to meet these conditions. A Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be the best way for you to be able to pay for these necessities.

3. Alleged criminal behavior often results in the threat of civil liability by the injured party. Filing bankruptcy might, under certain circumstances, dissuade that party from filing a lawsuit against you, or lead to a quicker settlement if a lawsuit has already been filed.

Bankruptcy law does make it difficult for you to discharge debts or claims that you may owe for personal injuries or financial damages resulting from certain kinds of allegedly criminal behavior. But, nevertheless, for the following practical reasons a bankruptcy may still help:

a. In a bankruptcy, you must present your financial circumstances in detail, in writing, under penalty of perjury. You are also questioned under oath about them, at least briefly, and potentially in depth. Although that may not sound like a lot of fun, taking the initiative to show that you have no assets may convince the other party—or may more importantly, his or her attorney—that pursuing you would not be financially worthwhile.

b. The other party has to jump through some relatively difficult hoops to establish that the debt or claim should survive beyond your bankruptcy case. Depending on the situation, this may dissuade him or her from spending lots of attorney fees on a difficult battle.  

c. With certain kinds of alleged damages, the other party has a very short amount of time to decide whether to pursue you or not. Some may simply miss the quick deadline. Or it may encourage a quicker settlement.

Whether a bankruptcy filing will give you an advantage along these lines is a very delicate tactical question that needs to be very carefully discussed with and analyzed by your attorney. But it is certainly worth considering.