Are You Eligible to File a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Case? How About a Chapter 13 One?
Eligibility depends on 1) the kind of debtor, 2) the kinds and amounts of debts, 3) the amount of income and 4) of expenses.
1) The Kind of Debtor
If you are a human person, you may be eligible for either a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” or a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case. You and your spouse may also be eligible to file one or the other of these together in a joint case.
However, if you are the owner or part-owner of a business partnership, corporation, limited liability company or other similar business entity, that business entity could not file its own Chapter 13 case. But it could file a Chapter 7 one. Regardless what your business entity itself could file, you could individually file either a Chapter 7 or 13 case, to address your own personal liabilities (beyond whatever liability for which the business itself would be responsible).
2) The Kinds and Amounts of Debts
If your debts are “primarily consumer debts” (more than 50% by dollar amount), then to be able to file a successful Chapter 7 case you have to pass the “means test.” That’s a test related to your income and expenses (discussed more below.) If 50% or more of your debts are not consumer debts, than you can skip the “means test.”
Chapter 7 does not limit the amount of debt you can have to be eligible to file a case. However, you cannot file a Chapter 13 case if your debts exceed the maximums of $383,175 in unsecured debts and $1,149,525 in secured debts (or if you do file a case it will very likely be “dismissed” (thrown out)).
3) Amount of Income
You can quickly and easily satisfy the “means test” and be eligible for a Chapter 7 case if your income is no more than the regularly adjusted and published “median income” for your family size and state.
To be eligible for Chapter 13 you must have “regular income.” That is defined not very helpfully as income “sufficiently stable and regular” to enable you to “make payments under a [Chapter 13] plan.”
Also for Chapter 13, if your income is less than the “median income” for your family size and state of residence, then the plan generally must last a minimum of three years (but in many situations it can last longer, especially if you need it to, but for no longer than five years). If your income is at or above the applicable “median income” amount, the plan must almost always last five years.
4) The Amount of Expenses
In Chapter 7, if your income is NOT less than “median income” for your family size and state of residence, then you may still pass the “means test” and be eligible for filing a Chapter 7 case IF, after accounting for all your allowed expenses, you don’t have enough money left over to pay a meaningful amount to your creditors.
In Chapter 13, a similar accounting of your allowed expenses determines the amount of your “disposable income,” the amount you must pay into your plan each month.
Once you recognize that you need relief from your creditors, choosing between Chapter 7 and 13 is often not difficult. But because there are many, many differences between them, the choice can sometimes turn into a delicate balancing act between the advantages and disadvantages of those two options. That’s why when you have your initial meeting with your bankruptcy attorney, it’s smart to be aware of and communicate your goals, but also be open-minded about how best to accomplish them.