Obligations you owe related to your conviction of a crime cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. End of story? Usually, but not absolutely.

Many of the categories of debt that are generally not discharged (legally cancelled) in bankruptcy leave some wriggle room.  So, income taxes can be discharged under certain conditions. Some student loans can as well. Certain other categories of debts involving alleged fraud or other inappropriate behavior by the debtor are still completely discharged if the creditor simply fails to file an objection to the discharge in time with the bankruptcy court.

But with criminal fines, fees, or restitution it’s pretty clear-cut—NO discharge.

If you’ve heard otherwise you might actually be hearing correctly—especially about restitution—but most likely you’re reading or listening to information that’s now a couple decades outdated. For a long time criminal fines and restitution have not been able to be discharged under Chapter 7, BUT until the early 1990s criminal restitution COULD be discharged under Chapter 13. In fact a 1990 United States Supreme Court opinion, Pennsylvania Dept. of Public Welfare v. Davenport, clearly stated that criminal restitution was dischargeable under Chapter 13, based on the language that Congress had used in the Bankruptcy Code. However, in direct reaction to that Supreme Court opinion, Congress quickly amended Chapter 13 to make clear that criminal restitution could not be discharged. A few years later Congress tightened up the law again, this time to say that criminal fines could not be discharged under Chapter 13 either. So ever since then the law about this has been quite clear.

But still, complications can arise.

Take the situation where the same conduct by a debtor can result in either civil or criminal liability, or both. Examples are an alleged embezzlement, personal injury caused in a bar fight, or even an alleged murder/wrongful death. Everybody’s favorite example of the last one—O.J. Simpson. Remember he was acquitted of murder. on the criminal side, but then was held liable for wrongful death in the civil lawsuit against him. In most cases it’s clear as day whether a case against a person and the liability that results from it is civil or criminal. And so it’s usually clear whether or not the debt is subject to bankruptcy discharge (though in these three examples the debt may still not be dischargeable for other reasons).

But every once in a while, whether an obligation is a criminal fine or instead a civil penalty might not be so clear.  If you own an auto repair shop and the state water quality agency fines you for illegal disposal of waste fluids, that obligation may be a criminal or civil one.

Or in some rare cases under Chapter 13, even some obligations arising directly from a criminal court’s judgment might be considered not to be “restitution, or a criminal fine,” and so can be discharged. That’s because even though Congress tried to “fix” the problem tossed in its lap by the Supreme Court’s Davenport opinion referred to above, it did not use language as broad as it had used under Chapter 7 to make clear that all criminal-related debts aren’t dischargeable. So some very limited kinds of criminal court-based obligations might still be discharged in a Chapter 13 case.  

Here is real life illustration of this—although I must warn that this may or may not be the way our local bankruptcy courts would interpret the law. The case is worth mentioning to show how courts wrestle with—and can disagree about—these kinds of issues.

A guy named Joseph Elliott Ryan was convicted in Alaska of the federal crime of possession of an unregistered firearm. He did nearly 5 years of prison time and paid a $7,500 criminal fine. But his criminal conviction also included obligations to pay $750,000 in restitution and $83,420 for “costs of prosecution.” On appeal, this huge restitution obligation was overturned and eliminated. He then filed a Chapter 13 case in Idaho and included his remaining obligation for the “costs of prosecution.” When his Chapter 13 case was completed, he had paid less than $3,000 of that $83,420 obligation. But he asked the bankruptcy court to order that the remaining $80,000 or so be discharged. The court refused, saying that “costs of prosecution” are a “criminal fine” excluded from discharge under Chapter 13.

But the bankruptcy court was overturned on appeal, and so that $80,000 “costs of prosecution” obligation was discharged.  As described in more detail in this article, the appellate court carefully analyzed the meaning of the term “criminal fine” as used in this context and elsewhere, and concluded that this term does not include “costs of prosecution.” It did not matter to the the appeals court that the “costs of prosecution” had been part of a criminal court’s criminal sentence.  So Mr. Ryan did not have to pay any more or that criminal court obligation, and was completely debt-free.

To be clear, just about all criminal fines, fees, and restitution CANNOT be discharged under either Chapter 7 or 13. But as Mr. Ryan’s unusual case illustrates, there can still be limited exceptions. In his case, for less than 5 cents on the dollar, and as a result of some smart lawyering, he got a bankruptcy discharge of a criminal court obligation.

Every creditor has the right to challenge your ability to write off your debts in bankruptcy. But none of them likely will. Why not?


For most people filing bankruptcy, every debt they intend to discharge (write off) will in fact be discharged.

There are two categories of debts that are not discharged in bankruptcy. The first category includes those special ones that Congress has decided for policy reasons simply should not be subject to a bankruptcy discharge. Among the most common ones are spousal and child support, most student loans, and many tax obligations. Assuming you are represented by a competent bankruptcy attorney, you will know before your case is filed if any of your debts fall into this category.

The second category of debts includes those that are discharged UNLESS the creditor files a formal objection to the discharge. Any creditor can raise an objection. But creditors very seldom do, for these reasons:

1. Although any creditor can challenge your discharge of its debt, it can only win such a challenge if it can prove that you acted inappropriately in certain very specific ways.  In essence, the creditor has to show that you cheated it in how you incurred the debt. I won’t go into the details here of exactly what kind of dishonest behavior qualifies, but just be aware it simply does not apply to most people and their debts.  So a creditor would just be wasting its time to raise a challenge when it had no legal grounds for doing so.

2. It would not just be wasting its time, but also a fair amount of money. The creditor’s objection has to be in the form of a lawsuit filed in bankruptcy court, which means paying a filing fee and at least hundreds of dollars for its attorney fees. Most creditors are sensible enough to not throw the proverbial good money after bad chasing a hopeless cause.

3. On top of that, bankruptcy law discourages creditors from raising challenges in two ways:

a. Debts are presumed to be dischargeable—at least if they do not fit any of the special nondischargeable debts in the first category referred to above. So the creditor has the burden of proving that the debt is not dischargeable, and the debt is discharged if it fails to provide the necessary evidence to meet that burden.

b. The creditor risks being ordered to pay YOUR costs and attorney fees for defending a challenge if you defeat the challenge. This is an added disincentive for a creditor to push a challenge when it has weak facts against you.

So no matter what a bill collector told you to try to get you not to file bankruptcy, creditors will usually not raise challenges because they usually don’t have legal grounds to do so. And even when a creditor believes it has some facts in its favor, the creditor takes significant financial risks in pushing the challenge.

However, creditors sometimes DO genuinely think your behavior in incurring the debt gives them grounds for filing a challenge to the discharge of its debt. Also the law can favor them when it comes to certain actions by you such as incurring credit card debt or cash advances in the months before filing bankruptcy, writing bad checks even inadvertently, and similar actions which might not seem very egregious.

Also, you may have a creditor who is motivated less by economic good sense than by a desire to cause you trouble, say an ex-spouse or former business partner.

The best way to deal with these situations is, first, to be completely honest with your attorney in answering every question he or she asks you, whether during a meeting or when providing information in writing. Be thorough in your responses. And second, if you have ANY concerns along these lines, make a point of voicing your concerns, and do so early in the process. Never hide the ball from your attorney. Particularly, if you wonder whether you’ve acted inappropriately with any of your creditors, or if you have any personal creditors who are carrying a grudge, discuss it with your attorney. Not only will you be much better protected from rude surprises. Often you’ll feel the relief of learning that you have much less to worry about than you had feared.

You’ve heard that no debt in bankruptcy is more untouchable than child support and spousal support. Is that true? Can Chapter 7 or 13 ever help?


Support is Not Dischargeable, IF It’s Really Support

If you owe a debt “in the nature of” child or spousal support, that debt cannot be discharged (legally written-off) in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case. See Bankruptcy Code Sections 101(14A), 523(a)(5), and 1328(a)(2).  

The point of the “in the nature of” language is that an obligation could be called support in a divorce decree or court order, and yet not actually be “in the nature of” support. The bankruptcy court looks beyond the label given to a debt in the separation or divorce documents to what kind of debt it actually is under the unique facts of the case. Practically speaking, if an obligation is labeled as support, most of the time it will indeed be “in the nature of” support. But not always, so it’s worth looking deeper.

So what’s an example of a debt which is called support but is not really “in the nature” of support? This is always in the discretion of the bankruptcy court, but here’s one example which would likely not be “in the nature of support. Imagine a personal loan provided to the two spouses during their marriage by one of the spouse’s parents. In the subsequent divorce, the divorce decree obligated the other spouse to repay that loan by paying making payments of “spousal support” until that loan was paid off. In that obligated spouse’s subsequent bankruptcy case, that obligation for so-called “spousal support” would likely be seen as one not “in the nature of” support. Instead the court could well see that obligation for what it really is: an obligation for one spouse to pay a marital debt, not one actually to pay spousal support.

But this cuts in the other direction, too. An obligation “in the nature of” child or spousal support can be called something else in the separation or divorce documents but would still be treated as a support obligation and not discharged in bankruptcy.

Any Possible Benefit from Chapter 7?

Usually the best thing that a “straight” Chapter 7 can do to help with your support obligations is to discharge your other debts so that you can better afford to pay your support.

Beyond that there is one other relatively rare situation that can help if you owe back support payments—an “asset” Chapter 7 case.

In most Chapter 7 cases, all of the assets that the debtors own are protected by exemptions, so the debtors keep all their assets. Nothing has to be given to the trustee. Since the “bankruptcy estate” contains nothing, it’s a “no asset” case.

But if you do surrender anything to the trustee—usually something you no longer need or that is worth giving up for the benefit of doing a Chapter 7 case—the trustee will pay your creditors out of the sale proceeds of whatever you surrendered. And guess what’s the first thing that gets paid by the trustee out of the “bankruptcy estate”? Support obligations owed at the time your Chapter 7 case is filed are paid ahead of any other creditor (after the trustee’s fees and costs). So if you owe back child or spousal support, some or all of it could be paid this way.

Any Possible Benefit from Chapter 13?

Although a Chapter 13 case does not discharge support obligations any better than a Chapter 7 one, it still gives you a potentially huge advantage: Chapter 13 stops collection activity for back support obligations. Chapter 7 does not. This is significant because support collection can be extremely aggressive, in many states including the potential loss of your driver’s license and even occupational licenses. Then after stopping these, Chapter 13 provides you a handy mechanism to pay off that back support, usually allowing you to pay that debt ahead of most or all other debts. Sometimes you can even reduce how much you must pay to your other creditors by the amount of back support, in effect allowing you to pay your back support “for free.”

Although Chapter 13 does not discharge any obligations “in the nature of” support, unlike Chapter 7 it does discharge other obligations arising from a separation or divorce decree or settlement. So as to those relatively rare obligations discussed above which are labeled as support obligations but in fact are not “in the nature of” support, they would be discharged  under Chapter 13.

What is the “presumption” that certain recent credit card purchases and cash advances will not be discharged in bankruptcy?


In the last couple of blogs I have written about the types of debts that get written-off (“discharged”) and those that don’t. Included on my earlier list of those that might NOT be discharged are those “incurred through fraud or misrepresentation, including recent cash advances and ‘luxury’ purchases.” Today’s blog focuses on this one type of debts.

In fact, this blog just looks at one particular subcategory of these debts—those that the Bankruptcy Code says “are presumed to be nondischargeable.” What is this “presumption,” how does it work, and what should you do about it?

The Fraud/Misrepresentation Exception to Discharge

First of all, the idea behind this exception to discharge is that debtor who cheats the creditor to borrow the money or get the credit should not be able to discharge that debt in bankruptcy. That follows one of the most basic principles of bankruptcy, that you have to be honest to get the benefits of bankruptcy. As the U.S. Supreme Court said 78 years ago, the purpose of bankruptcy is “that it gives to the honest but unfortunate debtor… a new opportunity in life and a clear field for future effort, unhampered by the pressure and discouragement of preexisting debt.” Local Loan Co. v. Hunt, 292 US 234, 244 (1934).

So this exception to discharge says that a creditor can challenge your ability to write off a particular debt “to the extent obtained by… “false pretenses, false representation, or actual fraud… .” Section 523(a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code. In other words, if you got the loan or credit through fraud or misrepresentation, the creditor could make that argument in order to exclude that debt from the discharge of your debts.

The Point of a “Presumption”

Debts which potentially belong to this fraud/misrepresentation category of debts ARE discharged UNLESS the creditor formally objects to the discharge of the debt within a rather quick deadline, usually 60 days after your meeting with the bankruptcy trustee. That objection would be in the form of a lawsuit the creditor files at the bankruptcy court. In that lawsuit the creditor lays out the facts of fraud or misrepresentation that would justify the debt not being discharged.  The creditor would then need to prove those facts with evidence. The debt is still discharged unless the creditor present evidence that leads the bankruptcy judge to decide that the debt was in fact obtained by the debtor’s fraud or misrepresentation.

A presumption in the bankruptcy law that a debt is not dischargeable simply makes it much easier for the creditor to prove that point, in those specific circumstances where the presumption applies. The creditor simply needs to establish that those circumstances apply to the challenged debt. Then that debt is “presumed” not to be discharged. And it will not be discharged unless the debtor can bring contrary evidence showing the lack of fraud or misrepresentation by him or her. In terms that may be familiar, a presumption “shifts the burden of proof” from the creditor to the debtor.

Why is this important? Litigation is expensive. Most cases are settled before going to trial because the amounts at issue are not worth the costs of battling it out in court. Congress has decided in two sets of  circumstances to tip the advantage in favor of the creditors, by giving them the presumption of no discharge.

The “Luxury Goods or Services” Presumption

The first of these circumstances arises if a consumer incurs a debt of more than $500 in “luxury goods or services” in the 90 days before filing the bankruptcy. That debt is presumed not to be dischargeable, meaning that the creditor doesn’t need to bring evidence establishing that the debtor intended to cheat the creditor by not paying the debt. The thought behind this is that either the person making the purchase knew he or she was going to file bankruptcy and was not going to pay the debt, or else at least was quite reckless to be using creditor that close to filing bankruptcy.

So what are “luxury goods or services”? Broader than it sounds. They include anything except those “reasonably necessary for the support or maintenance of the debtor or a dependent of the debtor.” The court decides what fits that definition. It’s up to the debtor to persuade the court that the goods and/or services totaling more than $500 were “reasonably necessary,” or that the debt was incurred with the honest intention, at that time, of paying it.

The Cash Advances Presumption

The second of these circumstances arises if a consumer incurs a debt of more than $750 through a cash advance or advances made in the 70 days before filing the bankruptcy. In the same way as with the “luxury goods” presumption, the creditor does not need to bring evidence establishing that the debtor did not intend to pay the debt. And in the same way, the debtor can try to persuade the court that the cash advance was incurred with the intention of paying it.

A Creditor Does Not Need a Presumption

Just because a “luxury good” was purchased more than 90 days before your bankruptcy case is filed or a cash advance was made more than 70 days before then, these do not necessarily mean that the creditor will not challenge your ability to discharge that debt. In these situations the presumption would not apply. So the creditor would have to show the court convincing evidence that you did not intend to pay the debt. Since that is often not easy to show, creditors are not as likely to challenge purchases and cash advances that were made before the presumption period.

Avoiding These Presumptions

Avoid these presumptions by not using any credit and making cash advances in the few months before filing bankruptcy. But if you did avoid these, can you just wait to file until enough time has passed to get beyond these 70 and 90-day periods? Yes, that is a way to get past the presumption periods, as long as you do not have an urgent need to file your case. But although that may make it less likely that a creditor will raise a challenge, this does not necessarily mean it won’t happen.  If a creditor thinks it has evidence that you incurred a debt that you did not intend to pay, or that you incurred in other circumstances involving fraud or misrepresentation, the creditor may still decide to raise the issue without the benefit of a presumption.

Most of the time your attorney will know which debts will be legally written off in your bankruptcy. But not always, for two reasons.


A couple of blogs ago I made the point that the discharge order entered on your behalf by the bankruptcy judge will write off all of your debts, EXCEPT for those types of debts which are on a list in Section 523 of the Bankruptcy Code. The most common ones on the list include:

a. most but not all taxes

b. debts incurred through fraud or misrepresentation, including recent cash advances and “luxury” purchases

c. debts which were not listed on the bankruptcy schedules on time

d. money owed because of embezzlement, larceny, or through other kinds of theft or fraud in a fiduciary relationship

e. child and spousal support

f. claims against you for intentional injury to another person or property

g. most but not all student loans

h. claims against you for causing injury or death to someone by driving while intoxicated (also applies to boating and flying)

These different types of debts each deserve a closer look, which I will do in upcoming blogs. But let’s go back to the question in today’s title. Most of the time your attorney can reliably tell you whether a particular debt will be discharged in your bankruptcy case. But sometimes he or she will not know because:

1. With some types of debts—the ones described in items b, d, and f of the list above—the debt is discharged unless that creditor raises an objection by a specific deadline (which is usually 60 days after your meeting with the trustee). If you are candid with your attorney about the facts at the beginning of your case, he or she can tell you if there is a risk that a particular creditor will object to the discharge of its debt. Your attorney may even be able to tell you roughly how much of a risk you have, depending on the facts, and sometimes on the reputation of that creditor to object under similar facts. But whether the risk is high or low, with these types of debts neither your attorney nor you will know for sure whether that debt will be discharged until either the creditor objects or the deadline for objection passes without objection.

2. With the other types of debts—the ones described in items a, c, e, g, and h of the list above—at the beginning of the case sometimes either the facts are not sufficiently clear or how the law should be applied to the facts is not clear, or both. You might think that the attorney should get all the necessary facts before filing the case. But sometimes the facts are simply not available, the additional work to get them is not worth the cost, or there is no time to do so because of the need to file the case quickly. Add in the consideration that the bankruptcy statutes often use broad language that can be and is in fact interpreted differently by different judges. As a result, in these situations there is simply no absolute way to know at the start of the case whether a particular debt will be discharged.

Take as an example one of the types of debt listed—a claim against you for causing personal injury to someone by driving while intoxicated. You might think that sounds relatively clear. But not necessarily. What if the accident occurred in a rural area so that the police did not arrive on the scene until well after accident, making unclear whether you were “intoxicated”? What if there wasn’t enough evidence for a criminal conviction but possibly enough for a civil verdict against you? What if the injured driver was also arguably intoxicated? Under these kinds of circumstances, the pertinent facts may not be known until a possible future trial. And even if the facts were clear, the law may not be settled about how to apply those facts to come to a decision. So you can see that in these “gray areas” your attorney may well not be able to tell you in advance whether that particular debt will be discharged.

I need to finish by emphasizing again that most situations are not gray but are black and white, or at least close to it. So usually your attorney CAN tell you with a high degree of confidence whether any particular debts will or will not be discharged. Indeed, in a large percentage of Chapter 7 cases all debts that you want will be discharged. And if you have debts that won’t be discharged—such as support obligations or recent income taxes—that will be quite clear. The point of this blog has been to explain why there are some situations when it is not so clear, when your attorney must make a judgment call based on the likelihood of an objection by a creditor, or based on imprecise facts and/or law.


Here’s the good news/bad news about the discharge of debts in a Chapter 13 payment plan compared to the discharge you get in a straight Chapter 7 case.

Sometimes choosing between Chapter 7 and 13 is easy, but other times it means carefully weighing lots of considerations. Whether the choice is easy or hard, one of those considerations is how these two options compare in their discharge (legal write-off) of your debts.

The good news in favor of Chapter 13 is that it discharges a couple more types of debts than Chapter 7 does. So in the right case this “super discharge” could be reason enough to choose Chapter 13.

The bad news is about timing—the discharge is not effective until the very end of a Chapter 13 case—usually 3 to 5 years after it is filed. That means you have to successfully complete the case to get a discharge of your debts. The fact is that a significant percentage of Chapter 13 cases are not successfully completed, leaving the debts still owed. That’s a risk that needs to be seriously considered before filing a Chapter 13 case.

The Mini “Super Discharge”

In the past, one way that Congress encouraged debtors to file Chapter 13s is by allowing various kinds of debts to be discharged under Chapter 13 that could not be discharged under Chapter 7. Chapter 13 was said to provide a “super discharge.” But over the last quarter-century or so, Congress has whittled away at the list of debts treated more favorably under Chapter 13 until now only two noteworthy ones remain:

1. You can discharge non-support obligations owed to an ex-spouse in a Chapter 13 case (and not in a Chapter 7 one). These obligations usually include those in a divorce decree requiring you to pay off a joint marital debt or to pay the ex-spouse to compensate for you receiving more than your share of the marital property. They are often called the “property settlement” part of your divorce.

2. An obligation arising from a “willful and malicious” injury that you are accused of causing to a person or to property can be discharged in Chapter 13. This refers to allegations that you hurt somebody or their property not merely through your negligence—which would be discharged in Chapter 7—but instead either intentionally or recklessly—the discharge of which could be challenged in a Chapter 7 case.

These are both very delicate areas. What’s a “property settlement” type of divorce obligation instead of a support obligation, and what’s a “willful and malicious” injury instead just of a negligent one—these are often not straightforward distinctions. The decision to use Chapter 13 to undo part of a divorce decree or to escape accusations of “willful and malicious” injury can have a variety of legal, human, and tactical considerations. Weigh these carefully with an experienced bankruptcy attorney before relying on the Chapter 13 super discharge.

No Discharge until the End of the Case

Not getting a discharge until the end of a Chapter 13 case is theoretically no different than under Chapter 7. In Chapter 7 as well you must satisfy a number of conditions before you can successfully complete the case and receive a discharge. But, if you are being guided through the process by an experienced bankruptcy attorney, the Chapter 7 conditions are usually met relatively easily. As a result most of the time within about three months you receive the court order discharging your debts.

In contrast, completing a Chapter 13 case requires you to meet many more conditions, and to do so consistently over the course of years. This includes making monthly “plan payments” to your Chapter 13 trustee for distribution to your creditors, and sometimes also sending payments directly to some creditors (usually vehicle and mortgage lenders). But you also must stay current on spousal and child support obligations, file income tax returns on time, and often meet other special requirements laid out in your plan. Your Chapter 13 case will be designed so that you should be able to meet all the conditions, but sometime circumstances change so that you can’t.

If your circumstances do change, you may well still be able to get a discharge of your debts. Your attorney may be able to adjust your budget and amend your plan to deal with the changes, allowing you to complete the Chapter 13 case and discharge the debts. You may qualify for a “hardship discharge.” Or it may be best to “convert” your Chapter 13 case into a Chapter 7 one, and receive a Chapter 7 discharge.

At the beginning of your Chapter 13 case discuss with your attorney possible future changes in your circumstances, and what options you would have if these happened. And then if any significant changes do happen, inform your attorney right away so that you can get advice about your options. In most cases you can get a discharge of your debts even when your circumstances change if you deal with the situation proactively.


The point of filing bankruptcy is to get relief from your debts. So, when and how DO those debts get “discharged”—legally written off—in a regular Chapter 7 bankruptcy?


Here’s what you need to know:

1.      You WILL receive a discharge of your debts, as long as you play by the rules. Under Section 727 of the Bankruptcy Code, the bankruptcy court “shall grant the debtor a discharge” except in relatively unusual circumstances:

  • If you’re not an individual!  Corporations and other kinds of business entities do not receive a discharge of debts, only human beings do.
  • If you’ve received a discharge in an earlier case too recently. You can’t get a new discharge of your debts in a Chapter 7 case if:
    • you already received a discharge of debts in an earlier Chapter 7 case filed no more than 8 years before your present case was filed, or
    • you already received a discharge of debts in an earlier Chapter 13 case filed no more than 6 years before your present case was filed (except under limited conditions).
  • If you hide or destroy assets, conceal or destroy records about your financial condition.
  • If in connection with your Chapter 7 case you make a false oath, a false claim, or withhold information or records about your property or financial affairs.

2.      ALL your debts will be discharged, UNLESS a particular debt fits one of the specific exceptions. Section 523 of the Code lists those “exceptions to discharge.” I’m not going to discuss those exceptions in detail here, but the main ones include:

  • most but not all taxes
  • debts incurred through fraud or misrepresentation, including recent cash advances and “luxury” purchases
  • debts which were not listed on the bankruptcy schedules on time
  • money owed because of embezzlement, larceny, or through other kinds of theft or fraud in a fiduciary relationship
  • child and spousal support
  • claims against you for intentional injury to another person or property
  • most but not all student loans
  • claims against you for causing injury or death to someone by driving while intoxicated (also applies to boating and flying)                                                                                                                   

3.      A discharge from the bankruptcy court stops a creditor from ever attempting to collect on the debt. Under Section 524, the discharge order acts as a court injunction against the creditor from taking any action—through a court procedure or on its own–to “collect, recover, or offset any such debt.” If a creditor violates this injunction by trying to pursue a discharged debt, the bankruptcy court may hold the creditor in contempt of court and, depending on the seriousness of its illegal behavior, can require the creditor to pay sanctions.

There’s a lot you can do to help make your “straight bankruptcy” Chapter 7 case a straightforward one, but one thing you can’t control is your creditors’ reactions to it. You know that creditors can sometimes try to prevent you from discharging (legally writing off) your debts, so naturally you worry about this. Here’s why you shouldn’t worry.

Let’s first be clear that I’m not talking here about the kinds of debts that simply can’t be discharged, and don’t require any creditor objection for that to happen—for example, back child and spousal support, many taxes, and criminal fines. Instead I’m talking about the right of any creditor to object to the discharge of its debt, under certain limited circumstances.

You might figure that if your creditors have ANY chance to object to the discharge of their debts, it would jump at the chance to do so. Or at least enough of them would object to cause you trouble. But that is NOT what happens. Most Chapter 7 cases go through with NO creditor objections at all. Well, why not?

1. The legal grounds for creditors’ objections are quite narrow. They need to have evidence that the debt was incurred through your fraud or misrepresentation, arose out of a theft or embezzlement, as a result of your intentional injury to a person’s body or property, or was related to other similar bad acts. So creditors don’t object to the discharge of their debts simply because most of the time no such facts exist.

2. Even within such narrow grounds, relatively common situations such as bounced checks or the use of credit not long before filing bankruptcy can be seen as fraudulent, so creditors can object to these kinds of debts. But even in these situations, creditors often do not bother to object because they decide it’s not worth “throwing good money after bad”—spending more money for their staff time and attorney fees in the hopes of first getting a bankruptcy judge to agree with them, AND then still needing to get you to repay the debt.

3. One of the reasons why sensible creditors decide not to object even when they think they might have the legal grounds to do so is that they risk being ordered to pay your attorney’s fees to defend against their objection. That can happen if the judge thinks that “the position of the creditor was not substantially justified.” So creditors risk not only paying for their own costs to object, but also paying for your costs in fighting the objection.

So that’s why most creditors just write off the debt and move on.

But there ARE two exceptions.

1. Leverage: If a creditor thinks it has a decent case against you—such as with a string of bounced checks or a debt incurred shortly before the bankruptcy was filed—it may well object to the discharge of the debt knowing that YOU can’t or don’t want to pay attorney fees in fighting it, EVEN if you have a decent defense. So they’ll raise the issue in the hopes of forcing you to enter into a settlement quickly.

2. Axe to grind: If you have someone you owe money to who is simply very mad at you, so that your bankruptcy filing really aggravated him or her, then this creditor might be looking for an excuse to hurt you back. Ex-spouses and ex-business partners are the most common. Irrational anger by those types, not reined in by the financial realities, probably causes the messiest objections.

To reduce any anxiety you have about any of this, talk it over thoroughly with your attorney. If you have any concern about how you incurred any of your debts, or if someone has threatened you with any trouble if file bankruptcy, lay it all out. Often, your fear will not be justified. And if there are potential problems, being up-front about it may enable your attorney help reduce the risks.

A final bit of good news: creditors have a very limited time to raise objections: generally 60 days after the Meeting of Creditors. So, if whatever assurances given by your attorney still doesn’t stop you from worrying in the meantime, you’ll at least know that you can stop worrying after that date.

Most—but not all—debts are written off, or “discharged,” in a bankruptcy case. Is there a simple way to know what will and what will not be discharged?

As part of getting a fresh start for the new year, I’m covering the most basic concepts about bankruptcy in the first few blogs of the year. And there is nothing more basic than bankruptcy’s main purpose, getting a fresh financial start through the legal discharge of your debts.

Both kinds of consumer bankruptcy 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 “straight bankruptcy” cases are filed for the sole purpose of discharging debts. And in most Chapter 7 cases, all debts that the debtors want to discharge are discharged, and it happens within just three months or so after your case is filed. So I’m focusing in this blog on Chapter 7 discharge of debts.

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

Sorry. Not really.

I can give you a list of the categories of debts that can’t, or might not, be discharged (and will give you that list in a couple paragraphs), but some of those categories don’t have clear boundaries, and some depend on whether a creditor is going to challenge the discharge and how a judge might rule.

But why can’t it be simple? Because in the political tug of war between creditors and debtors over the last few centuries, there have been lots of compromises, leaving us today with a bunch of hair-splitting rules about what debts can and can’t be discharged.  Believe it or not, the original bankruptcy laws in England did not even include ANY discharge of debt, since bankruptcy was originally designed as a procedure to help creditors collect from debtors.

But I’m making it sound a lot worse than it is in practice. Here’s what you need to know:

#1:  All debts are discharged, EXCEPT for those that fit within an exception.

#2:  There ARE a lot of exceptions, BUT if you are thorough and candid with your attorney you will almost always know whether you have any debts that may not be discharged. Surprises are rare.

#3:  Some debts are never discharged, NO MATTER WHAT: for example, child or spousal support, criminal fines and fees, and withholding taxes.

#4:  Some debts are never discharged, but THAT’S ONLY IF the particular debt fits certain conditions: for example, income taxes, depending on conditions like how long ago the taxes were due and the tax return was filed; and student loans, as long as conditions of “undue hardship” are not met.

#5:  Some debts are discharged, UNLESS timely challenged by the creditor and resulting in a ruling by the judge that the debt meets certain conditions involving fraud, misrepresentation, larceny, embezzlement, or intentional injury to person or property.

#6:  A few debts (used to be many more) can’t be discharged in Chapter 7, BUT can be in Chapter 13: for example, divorce debts other than support.

The bad news: as simple as I would like to make it, determining what debts aren’t dischargeable is simply not simple. But there’s more good news than bad. First, for many people all the debts they want to discharge WILL be discharged. Second, an experienced bankruptcy attorney will be able to predict quite reliably whether all of your debts will be discharged. And third, if you have troublesome nondischargeable debts, Chapter 13 is often a decent way to keep those under control. More about that in my next blog about simple Chapter 13.


Even though it’s illegal for creditors to try to collect on a debt that’s been discharged (legally written off) in bankruptcy, once in a while they may try. What makes chasing a discharged debt illegal? And what penalties can get awarded to you if a creditor breaks the law?


In my last blog I wrote about Capital One Bank illegally filing documents in 15,500 bankruptcy cases demanding payment on debts which had already been written off in prior bankruptcies. This extensive pattern of bad behavior was discovered when the U.S. Trustee in Massachusetts learned about one case in which the Bank was trying to get payment from a couple whose $5,500 debt had been discharged in a bankruptcy 14 years earlier. The U. S. Trustee (an office of the U.S. Department of Justice which acts to protect “the integrity of the bankruptcy system”) came to realize that this was not an isolated event for Capital One, and sued the bank because of all of its illegal filings. Nobody—including Capital One–knew how many cases all over the country it had filed claims for money it was not owed. So as part of the settlement of that lawsuit, the bankruptcy court required Capital One “to hire an independent auditor, chosen by the court and paid for by Capital One” to do an audit of about 2.2 million claims that it had filed in bankruptcy cases from the beginning of 2005 through 2010. It is from this audit that Capital One’s 15,500 illegal filings were uncovered.

While the Bankruptcy Code makes it perfectly clear that trying to collect on discharged debt is illegal, it does not clearly say what, if anything, the penalties are for a creditor caught doing so. Section 524(a)(2) of the Code says a discharge of debts in a bankruptcy “operates as an injunction against” any acts to collect debts included in that bankruptcy case. But that section of the Code says nothing about what happens if a creditor violates that injunction. Feel free to read the whole section through the link above. Have fun—Section 524 goes on for pages!

Well, even though no penalties are specified in Section 524, there is a strong consensus among courts all over the country that bankruptcy courts can penalize creditors for violating the discharge injunction through another section of the Bankruptcy Code, Section 105, titled appropriately enough “Power of Court.” The basic idea is that the injunction against pursuing a discharged debt is a court order, and so a creditor violating it is in contempt of court. So the standard penalties for being in civil contempt of court apply.

Depending on the circumstances, the penalties for civil contempt can include “compensatory” damages and “punitive” damages. Compensatory damages are to compensate you for harm you suffered because of the creditor’s violation of the injunction. These potentially include actual damages such as time lost from work or other financial losses, emotional distress caused by the illegal collection, and attorney fees and costs you’ve incurred as a result. Punitive damages are to punish the creditor for its illegal behavior, and so the judge looks at how bad the creditor’s behavior was in determining whether it punitive damages are appropriate and how much to award.

The vast majority of the time creditors in a bankruptcy case write the debts off their books and you never hear about those debts again. But, as the Capital One story illustrates, some creditors don’t keep good records or simply aren’t all that vigorous about following the law. So if, after you receive your bankruptcy discharge, you hear from one of your old creditors trying to collect its discharged debt, contact your attorney right away.  It’s something that you want to nip in the bud. And if the creditor’s behavior is particularly egregious, you and your attorney may want to discuss whether to strike back at the creditor for violating the law. There might possibly even be some money in it for you.