Most debts are “discharged”—written off—in bankruptcy. But some may not be. Can we know in advance which will and will not be discharged?



Bankruptcy is about Discharge

The point of bankruptcy is to get you a fresh financial start through the legal discharge of your debts.

Both kinds of consumer bankruptcy—Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts”—can discharge debts. But most Chapter 13s tend to have other purposes as well, and the discharge usually occurs only 3 to 5 years after the case is filed.

In contrast, most Chapter 7 cases are filed for the single, or at least primary, purpose of discharging debts. Furthermore, in most Chapter 7 cases all debts that the debtors want to discharge are in fact discharged, and this happens within just three months or so after the case is filed.

This blog post focuses on Chapter 7 discharge of debts.

What Debts Get Discharged?

Is there a simple way of knowing what debts will and will not be discharged in a Chapter 7 case?

Yes and no.

We CAN give you a list of the categories of debts that can’t, or might not, be discharged (see below). But some of those categories are not always clear which situations they include and which they don’t. Sometimes whether a debt is discharged or not depends on whether the creditor challenges the discharge of the debt, on how hard it fights for this, and then on how a judge might rule.

Why Can’t It Be Simpler?

Laws in general are often not straightforward, both because life can get complicated and because laws are usually compromises between competing interests. Bankruptcy laws, and those about which debts can be discharged, are the result of a constant political tug of war between creditors and debtors over the last few centuries. There have been lots of compromises, which has resulted in a bunch of hair-splitting laws. 

To give some perspective, believe it or not the original bankruptcy laws in England—from which our bankruptcy laws came—did not include ANY discharge of debts. Bankruptcy was originally designed as a procedure to help creditors collect from debtors, not at all as a legal means of protecting debtors from creditors. So there was no perceived need for a discharge of debts—the creditors could just continue chasing their debtors after the bankruptcy procedure was done!

But Let’s Get Practical

The present reality is much more positive, and usually pretty straightforward:

#1:  All debts are discharged, EXCEPT those that fit within a specified exception.

#2:  There are quite a few of exceptions, and they may sound like they exclude many kinds of debts from being discharged. It may also seem like it’s hard to know if you will be able to discharge all your debts. But it’s almost always much easier than all that. As long as you are thorough and candid with your attorney, he or she will almost always be able to tell you whether you have any debts that will not, or may not, be discharged. Most of the time there are no surprises.

#3:  Some types of debts are never discharged. Examples are child or spousal support, criminal fines and fees, and withholding taxes.

#4:  Some other types of debts are never discharged, but only if the debt at issue fits certain conditions. An example is income tax, with the discharge of a particular tax debt depending on conditions like how long ago those taxes were due and when its tax return was received by the taxing authority.

#5:  Some debts are discharged, unless timely challenged by the creditor, followed by a judge’s ruling that the debt met certain conditions involving fraud, misrepresentation, larceny, embezzlement, or intentional injury to person or property.

#6:  A few debts can’t be discharged in Chapter 7, BUT can be in Chapter 13. An example is an obligation arising out of a divorce other than support (which  can never be discharged).

The Bottom Line

#1: For most people the debts they want to discharge WILL be discharged. #2: An experienced bankruptcy attorney will usually be able to predict whether all of your debts will be discharged. #3: If you have debts that can’t be discharged, Chapter 13 is often a decent way to keep those under control. More about that in my next blog post about Chapter 13.


Your car or truck loan may be the most important debt you have. Chapter 7 puts you in the driver seat for dealing with this debt.

As I said in the last blog, when you think about secured debts—those tied to collateral like a vehicle—it helps to look at these kinds of debts as two deals in one. You made a commitment to repay some money lent to you, and then agreed to back up that commitment by giving the creditor certain rights to your collateral.

The first deal—to repay the money—can almost always be discharged (legally erased) in bankruptcy. But the second deal—the rights you gave up in the collateral, here a lien on the vehicle title—is not affected by your bankruptcy. So, you can wipe out the debt, but the creditor remains on the title and can get your vehicle. Your options in Chapter 7, and the creditor’s, are tied to these two realities.

Keep or Surrender?

As long as you file your Chapter 7 case before your vehicle gets repossessed, the ball starts in your court about whether to keep or surrender it.

Surrender the Vehicle

In most situations, if you want to surrender the vehicle, then doing so in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the place to do it. That’s because in the vast majority of vehicle loans, you would still owe part of the debt after the surrender—the so-called “deficiency balance”—often a shockingly large amount. That’s because you usually owe more than the vehicle is worth, but also because the contract allows the creditor to charge you all of its costs of repossession and resale. Surrendering your vehicle during your Chapter 7 case allows you to discharge the entire debt and not be on the hook for any of those costs.

To be thorough, there is a theoretical possibility that the vehicle loan creditor could challenge your discharge of the “deficiency balance,” based on fraud or misrepresentation when you entered into the loan. These are rare, and especially so with vehicle loans.

Keep It

Whether or not you are current on the loan payments does not matter if you are surrendering the vehicle. But if you want to keep it, whether you are current, and if not how far behind you are, can make all the difference.

Keep the Vehicle When Current

As you can guess, it’s simplest if you are current. Then you would just keep making the payments on time, and would usually sign a “reaffirmation agreement” to exclude the vehicle loan from the discharge of debts at the end of your Chapter 7 case.

Most conventional vehicle loan creditors insist on you signing a reaffirmation agreement, at the full balance of the loan—it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If you want to keep the car or truck, you need to “reaffirm” the original debt, even if by this time the debt is larger than the value of the vehicle. This can be dangerous because if you fail to keep up the payments later, you could still end up with a repossession and a hefty remaining balance owed—AFTER having passed up on the opportunity to discharge this debt earlier in your bankruptcy case. So be sure to understand this clearly before reaffirming, especially if the balance is already more than the vehicle is worth.

Some creditors—more likely smaller, local lenders—may be willing to allow you to reaffirm for less than the full balance, so that the creditor avoids taking an even bigger loss if you surrender the vehicle. Talk to your attorney whether this is a possibility in your situation.

Keep the Vehicle When Not Current

If you are not current on the vehicle loan at the time your Chapter 7 case is filed, most of the time you will have to get current quickly to be able to keep the vehicle—usually within a month or two. That’s in part because for a “reaffirmation agreement” to be enforceable, it must be filed at the bankruptcy court before the discharge order is entered. Since that happens usually about three months after the case is filed, the creditor needs to decide quickly whether you will be able to catch up on the payments and reaffirm the debt.

Again, certain vehicle creditors may be more flexible, perhaps letting you skip some earlier missed payments, or giving you more time to cure the arrearage. Your attorney will know whether these may apply to your creditor.

Stronger Medicine through Chapter 13

But what if you are behind on your payments more than you can catch up within a month or two after filing? If you have decided that you really need to keep the car or truck, discuss the Chapter 13 option with your attorney. Depending on various factors, you may not only have more time to pay the arrearage, you may also reduce your monthly payments, the interest rate, and the total amount to be paid on the debt. The next blog will get into this Chapter 13 option.


Your “left-over debts”—those which are neither secured by collateral nor belong to any of the special “priority” categories—often don’t drive the decision about whether to file Chapter 7 or 13. But you still need to know how these “general unsecured debts” are handled under these two options.

Your secured debts often are tied to your most important possessions—home, vehicles, and sometimes business equipment. So it’s understandable that your bankruptcy decisions will focus on how you can hold on to the collateral you need. And your “priority” debts tend to involve your most aggressive creditors and often can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, so these also grab our attention. And yet, in the list of all your creditors you probably owe “general unsecured debt” to more of them than the other two categories combined. So what happens to these “left-over debts”?

I’ll cover this for Chapter 7 today, and then for Chapter 13 in my next blog.

What happens to your “general unsecured debts” in a Chapter 7 case depends on two very different considerations: 1) “dischargeability,” and 2) asset distribution.


This term refers to whether your creditor will dispute your ability to get a discharge–a legal write-off—of that debt. The vast, vast majority of “general unsecured debts” ARE NOT challenged and so they are in fact discharged. In the rare case that your discharge of the debt is challenged, you may have to pay some or all of that particular debt, depending on whether the creditor is able to show that you fit within some rather narrow grounds for “nondischargeability.” That would usually involving allegations of fraud, misrepresentation or other similar bad behavior on your part.

Asset Distribution

If everything you own is exempt, or protected, then your Chapter 7 trustee will not take any of your assets from you. This is commonly referred to as a “no asset” case. But if the trustee DOES take possession of any of your assets for distribution to your creditors—an “asset case”—that does not necessarily mean that your “general unsecured creditors” will receive any of it. The trustee must first pay off any and all of your “priority” debts, AND pay the trustee’s own fees and that of any liquidating agents or other professionals used. Only if any funds remain will the unsecured creditors get to share in these “leftovers.”


To summarize, in most Chapter 7 cases your “general unsecured debts” will all be discharged, preventing those creditors from ever being able to pursue you for them. Also in most cases, this category of creditors will receive nothing from you, as long as all your assets are exempt. Relatively rarely, a creditor may challenge the discharge of its debt. And if you have an “asset case,” the trustee may pay a part or—very rarely—all of the “general unsecured debts.” But these can happen only if the “priority” debts and trustee fees do not exhaust all the funds being distributed by the trustee.


My own professional experience about the dangers of filing bankruptcy without an attorney is validated by carefully analyzed data.

In my work as a bankruptcy attorney, I spend a fair amount of my time attending Chapter 7 “341 hearings” with my clients. That’s the usually straightforward 10-minute or so meeting with the bankruptcy trustee that everyone filing bankruptcy gets to go through a month or so after their case is filed. As I wait for my clients’ turn and listen to other hearings, I see the bad things that happen there to people who file bankruptcy without an attorney. I won’t go through a litany of horror stories here, but let me just say I’ve seen countless examples proving how dangerous it is to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy without an attorney. Besides, I know how complicated bankruptcy laws and procedures are because that’s what I deal with day in and day out. Yet, I’ve always wondered: in actual fact, beyond my own professional knowledge and experience, how much more dangerous is it going without an attorney?

This question is addressed, among many others about the current state of bankruptcy, by a book that was published just a few weeks ago, Broke: How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class. A compilation of articles by respected scholars, one of the chapters focuses on “pro se” filers (those without attorneys). The author of this chapter, Asst. Professor Angela K. Littwin of the University of Texas School of Law, analyzed data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, “the leading [ongoing] national study of consumer bankruptcy for nearly 30 years.” She concluded “that pro se filers were significantly more likely to have their cases dismissed than their represented counterparts.”

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on that book for the statistical details there, but in another closely related study from last year, Prof. Littwin concluded that “17.6 percent of unrepresented debtors had their cases dismissed or converted” to Chapter 13, [while] only 1.9 percent of debtors with lawyers met this fate.”  Even after controlling for other factors such as “education, race and ethnicity, income, age, homeownership, prior bankruptcy, whether the debtor had any nonminimal unencumbered assets at the time of the filing,” “represented debtors were almost ten times more likely to receive a discharge than their pro se counterparts.”

In her carefully understated and scholarly appropriate way, Prof. Littwin concluded that “there may always be additional unobservable factors for which I cannot control… [b]ut this analysis suggests that filing pro se dramatically escalates the chance that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy will not provide a person with debt relief.”

The goal of most Chapter 7 cases is to get in and get out—file the petition, go to a simple 10-minute hearing with your attorney a month later, and two months later get your debts written off. Mission accomplished, end of story. And usually that’s how it goes. So when it doesn’t go that way, why not?

Four main kinds of problems can happen:

1. Income:  Under the “means test,” If you made or received too much money in the 6 full calendar months before your Chapter 7 case is filed, you can be disqualified from Chapter 7. As a result you can be forced instead into a 3-to-5 year Chapter 13 case, or have your case be dismissed altogether—thrown out of court. These results can sometimes be avoided by careful timing of your case filing, or by making changed to your income beforehand, or if necessary by a proactive filing under Chapter 13. Or sometimes it’s worth fighting to stay in Chapter 7 by showing that it is not an “abuse” to do so.

2. Assets:  In Chapter 7, if you have an asset which is not “exempt” (protected), the Chapter 7 trustee will be entitled to take and sell that asset, and pay the proceeds to the creditors. You might be happy to surrender a particular asset you don’t need in return for the discharge of your debts, in particular if the trustee is going use the proceeds in part to pay a debt that you want paid, such as a child support arrearage or an income tax obligation. But instead you may not want to surrender that asset, either because you think it is worth less than the trustee thinks or you believe it fits within an exemption. Or you may simply want to pay off the trustee for the privilege of keeping that asset. In all these “asset” scenarios, there are complications not present in an undisputed “no asset” case.

3. Creditor Challenges to Discharge if a Debt:  Creditors have the limited right to raise objections to the discharge of their individual debts, on grounds such as fraud, misrepresentation, theft, intentional injury to person or property, and similar bad acts. In most circumstances the creditor must raise such objections within about three months of the filing of your Chapter 7 case. So once that deadline passes you no longer need to worry about this, as long as that creditor got appropriate notice of your case.

4. Trustee Challenges to Discharge of Any Debts:  If you do not disclose all your assets or fail to answer other questions accurately, either in writing or orally at the hearing with the trustee, or if you fail to cooperate with the trustee’s investigation of your financial circumstances, you could possibly lose the ability to discharge any of your debts. The bankruptcy system is still largely, believe it or not, an honor system—it relies on the honesty and accuracy of debtors (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of creditors). So the system is quite harsh towards those who abuse the system by trying to hide the ball.

To repeat: most of the time, Chapter 7s are straightforward. No surprises. That’s especially true if you have been completely honest and thorough with your attorney during your meetings and through the information and documents you’ve provided. In Chapter 7 cases for my clients, my job is to have those cases run smoothly. I do that by carefully reviewing my clients’ circumstances to make sure that there is nothing troublesome, and if there is, to address it in advance in the best way possible. That way we will have a smooth case, or at least my clients will know in advance the risks involved. So, be honest and thorough with your attorney, to greatly up the odds of having a simple Chapter 7 case.

What if you are under threat of foreclosure, don’t want to keep your house, but just need a little more time to find another place to live? Or if you just need to finish a pending sale before the scheduled foreclosure happens?

Or maybe you don’t want or need the extra benefits of Chapter 13. Or you just want to put it all behind you in a few months instead of going through a 3-to-5 year Chapter 13 Plan. A Chapter 7 “straight” bankruptcy may give you just the right amount of help.

A Chapter 7 case:

1. Stops a pending foreclosure sale, at least temporarily. Depending on your situation, and the aggressiveness of the mortgage lender, it may buy you an extra few weeks or an extra few months. Chapter 7 does give you much less control over the situation than a Chapter 13, but the extra time it gives you may be enough in your particular situation.

2. It temporarily stops not just foreclosures by your mortgage company, but also by other creditors. This includes foreclosures for unpaid property taxes, homeowner assessments, or judgment lien creditors.

3. Prevents, at least briefly, most kinds of liens from attaching to your house, such as income tax liens, or judgment liens by creditors who have sued you and have not yet gotten a judgment.

So if you have a pending sale of a house which has less equity than your allowed homestead exemption, and need to buy enough time to close the sale before the foreclosure or before a new lien eats into your equity, and need to file some kind of bankruptcy to deal with your debts, filing Chapter 7 may be your best option. Or if you have resigned to losing your house but need to postpone the foreclosure to give you time to save money for rental and moving costs, again Chapter 7 could well be the best tool for you.

Because the amount of time a Chapter 7 will gain for you depends a great deal on the facts of your case, the anticipated actions of your creditors, and sometimes the behavior of your Chapter 7 trustee, be sure to discuss this thoroughly with your bankruptcy attorney. Find out if the comparatively modest help a straight bankruptcy provides is enough help for you.

I had no idea that the recession had such a worse impact on minorities. The gap in median household wealth between whites and each of the two largest minority groups has not only gotten tremendously wide, in fact this gap almost doubled in only four years.

This is according to a report just released on July 26, 2011 by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project.

During the twenty years up through 2004, the wealth of black and Hispanic households compared to the wealth of white households did not change much. But even then, before the recession, the wealth disparity between racial groups was already astounding huge. In 2004 the median white household’s assets were worth about seven times that of the median Hispanic household’s, and about eleven times that of the median black household’s assets.

But then only four years later, by late 2009, after the official end of the recession, these ratios had virtually doubled, with the white household’s assets being worth fifteen times more than the Hispanic household’s, and nineteen times more than the black household’s.


© 2011 Pew Research Center, All Rights Reserved

What is the cause of this massive increase in wealth disparity among these races in such a short time? Simple: depreciated residential housing values. Blacks, and even more so Hispanics, have their wealth disproportionately tied up in their housing.

From 2005 to 2009, the median level of home equity held by Hispanic homeowners declined by half—from $99,983 to $49,145…. A geographic analysis suggests the reason: A disproportionate share of Hispanics live in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which were in the vanguard of the housing real estate market bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s but that have since been among the states experiencing the steepest declines in housing values.

White and black homeowners also saw the median value of their home equity decline during this period, but not by as much as Hispanics. Among white homeowners, the decline was from $115,364 in 2005 to $95,000 in 2009. Among black homeowners, it was from $76,910 in 2005 to $59,000 in 2009.

This Pew Research does not get into what this increased disparity among the races means for our society. I suspect it is part of the broader picture of the overall widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of us. Overall reduced upward mobility strikes at the heart of our national identity. Add to that this racial disparity, and the suddenness with which it has occurred, and we are looking at profound economic shifts with very serious consequences.

Excerpts and graph: © 2011 Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends Project
“Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics”

My goal with our Chapter 7 clients is to provide a smooth path through bankruptcy to a fresh and clean start. The way to get there is to do what it takes to keep your Chapter 7 trustee happy. We keep the trustee happy by making it easy for him or her to do his or her job.

Think about the trustee being the green-yellow-red lights at two intersections in a row. The first intersection is about assets. The second one is about getting a “discharge,” a legal write-off of your debts. In most cases you’re going to get through both intersections—the trustee will claim none of your assets for distribution to your creditors and the trustee will raise no objections to your discharge. But you want to make sure you get through those intersections, and do so without any worry or delay. That’s our goal—two easy green lights.

The trustee can hit you with yellow caution lights or even prolonged red lights if you do not deal responsibly with your case. You may even lose assets that you did not expect to or, in unusual circumstances, lose your right to a discharge of your debts altogether. Here’s how to keep the trustee happy, and turning on those green lights:

1. Be completely honest and thorough with your attorney. If in doubt, tell me about it. Take the weight off your shoulders and tell me if you’re worried about something. I am on your side. That’s my job. I cannot do my job to protect you if I am blindsided by unexpected facts. And you can imagine how much the trustee is going to trust you if he or she sees that you’re not being honest with your own attorney.

2. When you review and sign the bankruptcy documents, don’t forget to take the “review” part of that very seriously. You are signing most of those documents under penalty of perjury. The trustee relies on their accuracy, and will be quite unhappy to later learn that they are incomplete or inaccurate in some material way. If in doubt about anything, ask me or my staff.

3. Provide information or documents we request from you as quickly as possible. Some of those go directly to the trustee. In most cases the trustee gets paid a measly $60 per case out of your filing fee. Helping to make the job easier for the trustee simply by getting the paperwork to him or her on time goes a long way towards having a happy trustee.

4. At the “meeting of creditors” (which is usually just a short hearing with the trustee), again be completely honest in answering the trustee’s questions. If you have any doubt, ask your attorney who will be with you there.

5. Finally, do what the trustee says. And do so by the deadline provided.

Let’s sail through your Chapter 7 case with two green lights!