With nearly 3 million homes lost to foreclosure and an expected additional 10 million homes in the near future, what is a troubled homeowner to do?

In February 2012, the National Consumer Law Center published its fourth report on foreclosure mediation .

They found that:

  • Foreclosure mediation programs and conferences provide substantial community benefits at little or no cost. Mediation fees average from none to less than $1,000. Yet, investors lost an average $145,000 per home foreclosure in 2008, and foreclosures just in California have resulted in nearly $500 billion in aggregate costs.


  • Effective mediation programs do not prolong foreclosures.


  • Foreclosure mediation programs should connect borrowers with housing counselors. Borrowers who receive housing counseling are much more likely to avoid foreclosure, and obtain affordable as well as sustainable loan modifications.


  • Not all foreclosure mediation programs are equal. All states should adopt foreclosure mediation programs with enforceable standards and robust outreach as permanent features of state foreclosure laws as quickly as possible.


  • Mediation programs must ensure that the FHFA’s new servicing guidelines do not lead to unnecessary foreclosures.


  • Strong foreclosure mediation programs can work hand-in-hand with other tools to rebuild the nation’s broken mortgage market and should be used to maximize HAMP modifications. The modified loans’ default rate over 1 year dropped from 56.2% in 2008 to 25.7% in 2010. HAMP loan modifications were the most sustainable of all with a 17.3% (2011) redefault rate after 1 year.


  • Policymakers can use mediation programs to help preserve minority homeownership; gains made over the last decade are vanishing.


Borrowers in mediation must receive accurate information about an increasingly unaffordable rental market. Renters, especially those who are low-income, are more than twice as likely as homeowners to spend more than 50% of income for housing. Mediation programs should refer all homeowners to housing counselors to evaluate the costs of renting before giving up on saving a home.

Chapter 13 gives you more flexibility about what you can do with your current income tax refund. But unlike Chapter 7 which doesn’t care about your future years’ refunds, Chapter 13 does.

As I said in my last blog, if you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy after the beginning of the year, at a time when you’re still due a tax refund on the year that just passed, your trustee is going to be very interested in that refund. It’s your money that the government is simply holding for you until you claim it.  That’s true even if you haven’t yet filed your tax return, or don’t even know the amount of the refund. Whatever the amount, it’s still your money—you just haven’t yet claimed it or calculated the amount by filing the tax return. So unless that refund fits within an exemption, or is small enough to not be worth the trustee’s bother, the trustee is going to get that refund.

Chapter 13 comes with some good news and some bad news on tax refunds.

The good news comes from Chapter 13’s flexibility when it comes to assets that are not exempt. In a Chapter 7 case, non-exempt assets simply go to the trustee to be distributed to creditors according to a very rigid formula.  In Chapter 13, in contrast, you may be able to use that refund in two very beneficial ways.

First, you may be able to get permission to use the refund, or a part of it, for a necessary, one-time expense. A standard example is a critical vehicle repair, needed to be able to commute to work. The expense usually needs to be an extraordinary one, over and beyond what would be included in your standard monthly budget.

Second, to the extent that you are required to pay the refund over to the trustee, in a Chapter 13 case you usually have somewhat greater control over where that money will go. Your attorney might be able to explicitly earmark, through a specific provision in your Chapter 13 plan, where the trustee pay some or all of that refund. More likely, in certain cases, with careful wording of your plan, your attorney may be able to nudge that money in a particular direction that may be more favorable to you. For example, a vehicle that you need to keep could be paid off faster than otherwise, thus taking away from that creditor any grounds for objecting.    

Now the not-so-good news. One positive aspect of Chapter 7 is that it’s fixated on what assets you have a right to as of the moment your case is filed.  But Chapter 13 is by its very nature also interested in your future income during the three to five years that you are expecting to be in the case. And for most purposes future tax refunds are considered future income. So your Chapter 13 plan has to account for the tax refunds that you would be receiving during the years that you are in the case. In most cases that means that you must turn over your tax refunds to the trustee to be paid out according to the terms of your plan.

The truth is that this is not necessarily bad:

  • If you usually get large tax refunds, your withholdings should likely be adjusted so that you can put that money to use during the year for your regular living expenses. This is especially helpful if your budget is tight. Doing so would reduce the size of the refunds going to the trustee, minimizing this problem.
  • In some situations, a year or two into a case you may be able to get permission to use that year’s tax refund for a new special expense, such as ,again, for a new vehicle repair.
  •  Even if the refunds do just go to the trustee during the course of your case, sometimes that extra money flowing into your Chapter 13 plan finishes your case faster, in other cases it may result in important creditors being paid more quickly, and finally sometimes the refunds may enable you to pay off the plan within the mandatory maximum deadline.

Can you keep your tax refund if you file a Chapter 7 case? It’s mostly a matter of timing.


Here are the bullet points:

  • Everything you own at the time your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case is filed becomes your “bankruptcy estate.” Usually, most or all of that “estate” stays in your possession and you get to keep because it’s “exempt,” or protected.
  • That “estate” includes not only your tangible, physical possessions, but also intangible ones—assets you own that you can’t physically touch—such as money owed and not yet paid to you.
  • Depending on the timing, a tax refund can be an intangible asset that becomes part of your bankruptcy estate. Then whether you can keep it or not depends on whether it is exempt.
  • Because an income tax refund usually consists of the overpayment of payroll withholdings, the full amount of that refund has accrued by the time of your last payroll withholding of that tax year. So even though nobody knows the amount of your refund until your tax return is prepared a few weeks or months later, for bankruptcy purposes it is all yours as of the very beginning of the next year.
  • So if you file a Chapter 7 case after the beginning of the following year and before you have received your tax refund, it is part of your bankruptcy estate and the trustee can keep it if it is not exempt, or can keep as much of it as it not exempt. That’s also true if you have received the refund and not done anything with it.
  • You can avoid this by filing your tax return and receiving and appropriately spending the refund before your Chapter 7 case is filed. DO NOT do this without very specific advice from your attorney. The bankruptcy system is very interested in what money you receive and precisely how you spend it before filing bankruptcy, and you can very easily get into trouble if this is not all done very carefully.
  • If the bankruptcy is filed so that the refund is an asset of the bankruptcy estate, whether or not it is exempt depends on how large it is and how much of an exemption is allowed in your state. In some cases, using all or part of an exemption for the tax refund may reduce the availability of the exemption for other assets.
  • Some states have specific exemptions applicable to certain parts of the tax refund, or laws that exclude them from the bankruptcy estate altogether, particularly regarding the Child Tax Credit or the Earned Income Tax Credit. These likely do not exist in a majority of the states, but it’s worth checking.  
  • Even if the refund, or a portion of it, is not exempt, the Chapter 7 trustee may still NOT claim it if he or she determines the amount is not enough to open an “asset case.” That is, the amount of refund to be collected is so small that the benefit of distributing it to the creditors is outweighed by the administrative cost involved. You might hear a phrase similar to the amount being “insufficient for a meaningful distribution to the creditors.” This threshold amount can vary from one court to another, indeed from one trustee to another, so be sure to discuss this with your attorney. But note that if the trustee is collecting any other assets, then most likely he or she will want every dollar of tax refunds that are not exempt.
  • There is a risk that you will not be able to claim an exemption if you don’t list the tax refund to which the exemption applies. So be sure to always list any tax refund to which you may be entitled.
  • Although I’m focusing on this issue now because we are in tax season, the same principles apply year-round. Frankly, it can be a little harder to wrap your brain around this as applied to, say, filing a bankruptcy in the middle of the year. As of July 1, you’ve had a half-year of tax withholdings deducted from your paychecks and forwarded by your employer to the taxing authorities. So, assuming the same amounts were withheld throughout the year, if you end up getting a substantial refund the following spring, for bankruptcy purposes about half of that had accrued by mid-year. So a bankruptcy filed on July 1, needs to take that into account. Some Chapter 7 trustees don’t push this issue much until the last quarter of the year, when that much more of the refunds have accrued. But regardless, tell your attorney about income tax refunds anticipated the following year, particularly if you have a history of relatively large tax refunds.


Bankruptcy helps both sides of your balance sheet. Getting a financial fresh start means not just getting relieved of your debts, but also protecting your essential assets. You can preserve this crucial benefit of bankruptcy by not selling, using up, or borrowing against your protected assets BEFORE the filing of your bankruptcy case.

It is much more difficult to get your financial footing if you have nothing to stand on—if you don’t have at least basic housing, household goods, clothing, transportation, and, where appropriate, tools of trade, unemployment or disability benefits, and retirement savings.  

Bankruptcy usually protects most or all of your assets. On the one hand, Chapter 7 protects all “exempt” assets, so that a very high percentage of people who file under Chapter 7 lose nothing. And if you have assets which are worth more than the applicable exemptions, Chapter 13 usually protects those additional or higher-value assets as well.

But bankruptcy cannot protect what you’ve already squandered. It saddens me when just about every day new clients tell me how in the months or year or two before coming in to file bankruptcy they depleted their assets in a desperate attempt at avoiding bankruptcy. Most of the time, the assets they sold, spent, or borrowed against would have been completely protected had they filed bankruptcy while they still had them.

I recognize that it’s easy being a Monday morning quarterback—to say, after a client comes in needing to file bankruptcy, that they should not have used up assets in an effort to avoid filing. After all there undoubtedly are some people who were able avoid bankruptcy by selling their assets, and I don’t see them because they don’t need my services.

But I challenge you—if you are considering spending, selling, or borrowing against any of your assets, do you know whether that asset is one which would be protected in bankruptcy?

What concerns me are decisions with serious long-term consequences made without any legal advice about the alternatives. If a person in her 50s cashes in a substantial amount of a 401(k) retirement plan to pay creditors who would be written off, that can significantly harm the quality of her retirement lifetime.  Or if a husband and wife sell a free-and-clear vehicle that’s in good condition on the assumption that they’ll lose it once they file bankruptcy, only to be left with a single older vehicle that cannot reliably get them to work, that decision would lead to anything but a fresh start.

For a bunch of reasons, people tend to get legal advice when at the absolute end of their rope, well after these kinds of dangerous decisions have been made.  Let me help you avoid that. You have the capacity to get a better fresh start by getting the necessary advice on time in order to to preserve your assets.