It’s often the combination of tools that come with Chapter 13 that allows you to keep your home. Because Chapter 7 has only some of these tools, sometimes it can’t do nearly as much for your home as Chapter 13 can.


Please read my last blog. There I laid out an example to illustrate how much a Chapter 13 case can do—on multiple fronts—to enable you to keep your home. That example also shows why sometimes Chapter 7 is not effective for that purpose. Today I explain how Chapter 13 can pull it off.

To summarize, here is a list of this hypothetical person’s debts:

  • first mortgage arrears: $5,000
  • first mortgage balance: $230,000
  • second mortgage arrears: $3,000
  • second mortgage balance: $50,000
  • past-due real estate taxes: $2,000
  • judgment lien from unpaid medical debt: $8,000
  • 2009 income tax with tax lien recorded against the home: $3,000
  • 2010 and 2011 income tax: $5,000 (no tax lien, yet)
  • credit cards: $18,000

A Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” would discharge (write-off) all or most of the credit card balances, as well as the medical bill that turned into the judgment, and likely even get rid of that judgment’s lien on your home title. That would save you about $26,000, and take away the threat to your home from the judgment lien.

But that still leaves both mortgage arrears, the past due real estate taxes, and many thousands of dollars of income tax debts, one holding a tax lien on the home. This debtor can afford to pay a total of $1,500 per month to all creditors, but with a $1,000 first mortgage and $300 second mortgage regular payment, that leaves only a measly $200 per month for the mortgage arrearages and all the taxes. Looks quite hopeless.

And yet, here is how Chapter 13 could be the solution:

1. Stripping second mortgage: In this example the home is now worth $225,000, less than the $230,000 balance on the first mortgage. So there is no equity in the home securing that second mortgage. Under these conditions, Chapter 13 can legally turn that second mortgage balance into an unsecured debt. (This cannot be done under Chapter 7). As a result, the debtor no longer pays the $300 monthly mortgage payment, freeing up that amount to pay other more important creditors. So instead of $200, there’s now $500 per month available to pay the remaining creditors.

2. Plan payment of $500 per month: Paying this $500 per month into a 36-month Chapter 13 payment plan results in a total of $18,000 paid ($500 X 36 = $18,000), or a total of $30,000 in a 60-month plan ($500 X 60 = $30,000). The length of a plan depends on a number of factors. But in this case let’s assume that the plan will run only as long as it takes to pay all secured and priority creditors—here, the first mortgage arrears and all the property and income taxes. That’s $5,000 of arrears, $2,000 of property tax, $8,000 for all the income taxes, or a total of $15,000. Interest needs to be paid on the property tax and on the portion of the income taxes with the tax lien, but Chapter 13 often allows those debts to be paid faster to lessen the amount of interest. The plan payments also need to pay the Chapter 13 trustee– usually a percentage of the amount flowing through the plan–plus whatever portion of the debtor’s own attorney’s fees not paid before the filing of the case. To simplify the calculations, let’s estimate that the total amount that the debtor would need to pay into the plan would be $20,000. At $500 per month, that would amount to 40 months of payments. (In some situations, the unsecured creditors would also need to be paid a certain amount of money or a certain percentage of their debt. In that situation, the $500 payments would need to be paid into the plan that much longer.)

3. Continuous protection from the creditors by the “automatic stay’: During the entire length of the Chapter 13 case—this estimated 40 months–the “automatic stay” would be in effect, preventing any of the creditors—the mortgage lenders, the property tax creditor, or the IRS—from taking any action against the debtor or the debtor’s home. So the first mortgage lender would not be able to start or continue a foreclosure because the monthly payments or the property taxes weren’t current. The property tax creditor itself could not conduct a tax foreclosure. And the IRS could not enforce its tax lien nor could it record a new one for the more recent tax debts.

4. Debt-free: At the end of the 40 months or so, the first mortgage and property taxes would be paid current, all of the income taxes would be paid in full, the tax lien would be released, and all the (remaining) unsecured debts would be discharged, leaving the debtor debt-free.  

A mere list of the many ways that Chapter 13 can help save a home can start sounding dry. So here’s a powerful example that shows off some of its extraordinary advantages.


Let’s start by setting the scene. Say you lost your job in early 2010 and, except for temporary, part-time work, you did not find new full-time employment until 3 months ago. It pays less than your old job.

  • While you weren’t working full-time, you used up your savings and then borrowed on your credit cards to try to pay the house payments. That seemed to make sense at the time because you kept getting promising job leads, none of which panned out until you finally got hired for your present job. So you owe $18,000 on the credit cards, with minimum payments totaling $550 per month.
  • After your savings and available credit ran out, you still fell $5,000 behind on your first mortgage and $3,000 behind on your second. They are both starting to send papers sounding like they are going to start foreclosing.
  • Because there wasn’t enough money in your property tax escrow account with your first mortgage lender to pay the recently due annual $2,000 property tax bill, the lender is demanding that you pay that right away. It is threatening to foreclose for this separate reason if you don’t.
  • You had some medical problems soon after losing your earlier job, while you had no medical insurance, resulting in a $7,500 medical bill. That went to a collection agency, turned into a lawsuit, and then recently into an $8,000 judgment lien against your home.
  • Money had been tight even back before you’d lost your job because of cutbacks in hours, so you cut your tax withholding way back, so that you owed $2,000 to the IRS for 2009 income taxes. You couldn’t make the agreed monthly installment payments, and have just found out that that a tax lien has been recorded against your home in the amount of $3,000, after adding in all the accrued penalties and interest.
  • While you were working temporary jobs during 2010 and 2011, you were desperate for every dollar you could bring home, and so didn’t have any taxes withheld. As a result you owe the IRS another $2,500 for each year, or a total of another $5,000 that you have not even filed tax returns for yet.  You’re afraid to because you have no money to pay it and are afraid of more tax liens against your home.
  • Your home was worth $300,000 in 2008, but has lost about 25% of its value by now, so is worth $225,000. You owe $230,000 on the first mortgage, with monthly payments of $1,000, and owe $50,000 on the second mortgage, with monthly payments of $300.
  • With your current reliable income, after paying modest but reasonable living expenses, you have $1,500 available monthly for all creditors, including the two mortgages. That’s only $200 per month beyond the two mortgage payments, a drop in the bucket considering this mountain of debt:
    • credit cards: $18,000
    • first mortgage arrears: $5,000
    • second mortgage arrears: $3,000
    • property tax arrears: $2,000
    • judgment lien: $8,000
    • 2009 income tax with tax lien: $3,000
    • 2010 and 2011 income tax: $5,000

That’s a total debt of $44,000, besides the $230,000 first mortgage and $50,000 second mortgage.

  • Last fact: your two school-age kids live with you, they’ve lived in this home their whole lives, and have gone to the good local public schools for years, with their friends who live in the neighborhood. So more than anything you want to maintain this home and the stability it brings to their lives (and yours!). But it sure seems hopeless.

A Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” would help by discharging (writing off) tens of thousands of dollars, but NOT likely help nearly enough for you to be able to keep the home. A Chapter 7 case would likely discharge all or most of the credit card balances, as well as the medical bill that turned into the judgment, and likely even get rid of that judgment’s lien on your home title. That would save you about $26,000, and take away one threat to your home. But with only $200 to spare after paying the current first and second mortgage payments, that $200 is just way too small to even begin to satisfy the mortgage lenders or the IRS, much less both.

So after your Chapter 7 case would be completed, the IRS would attempt to collect the 2009 debt through garnishments of your bank account or wages, and sooner or later you’d have to deal with the 2010 and 2011 taxes, possibly resulting in them at some point turning into tax liens. And sooner or later your home would be foreclosed because you would have no way to catch up on the mortgage arrears.

However, if INSTEAD you filed a Chapter 13 case, under these circumstances you very likely you WOULD be able to keep your home, cure the mortgage arrears, and pay off all the taxes. And all this would happen while you and your home was protected from collection efforts by any of your creditors. How could that possibly be? I’ll show you in my very next blog. Sorry to keep you hanging, but today’s blog is way too long already.

Although Chapter 13 is often the go-to prescription for hanging onto a home in financial distress, like most strong medicine it comes with side-effects. The simpler Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” may be the better solution for both short-term relief and long-term financial health.


Chapter 13, the three-to-five year version of consumer bankruptcy, arms you with a remarkable set of tools for dealing with your mortgage lender and with other creditors related to your home. I’ll talk about them in upcoming blogs.

But you should absolutely not enter into a Chapter 13 case without understanding it thoroughly and considering it very practically. The fact is that a large percentage of them do not make it all the way to completion, often wasting the debtors’ money and delaying for years their final relief from creditors. Chapter 13 is awesome medicine, but only for the right patients in the right circumstances.

So in what circumstances should you very seriously consider Chapter 7 instead of Chapter 13?

1. If you are behind on your mortgage payments, but could realistically catch up on that arrearage within about a year—after writing off the rest of your debts in Chapter 7, and being very disciplined during that one year:  Depending on your lender, your payment history, and similar factors, most mortgage lenders will allow you to enter into a “forbearance agreement” after you file a Chapter 7 case. That agreement allows you to stay in your home and to catch up on your mortgage arrearage by paying a certain amount extra per month. Given the cost savings of a Chapter 7 over a 13, and the benefit of getting to your fresh start in a year instead of three to five years, you should very seriously consider with your attorney whether that one year of extra effort would 1) be doable, and 2) be worth the effort and risk.

2. If your chances of keeping your house through a Chapter 13 case are unrealistic: As powerful as Chapter 13 is, it certainly has its limitations. Think long and hard about whether you will be able to consistently meet the terms of your proposed payment plan. Consider your deeper motivations and fears, and you may find better ways of meeting your and your family’s true needs. With the helpf of your attorney try to ground yourself with brutal honesty about what is realistic in the short term and also two or three years out. Although “desperate times call for desperate measures,” a desperate mind doesn’t tend to make wise choices. Chapter 13 should almost never be a “Hail Mary pass,” a last-ditch long-shot. Be very clear about the consequences of that long-shot not panning out, and you may well realize it’s not worth it.  

So, aim towards a Chapter 7 instead of a Chapter 13 case if you really don’t need the extra length of time and other benefits that Chapter 13 provides. And the same thing if you are trying to hang onto a house that you very likely can’t hang on to even with all the help that Chapter 13 provides.

Under new rules coming on line, HARP is now available for refinances no matter how far your home is underwater. The 125% loan-to-value cap is no more.

The purpose of the Home Affordable Refinance Program has been to enable homeowners who could not otherwise qualify for a refinance do so, thereby getting a lower interest rate and lower monthly payment, making more likely that they could afford to stay in their homes. 

Until this revamped version of HARP, homeowners could not qualify if their existing mortgage was more than 125% of the value of their home. In the new improved version announced way back in October, this condition was eliminated. But it has taken until a few weeks ago for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to release their formal guidelines, update their approval software, and start getting lenders on board.

In this blog I will give you a short list of the main conditions for HARP 2.0 eligibility, and then provide a few good sources for more detailed information.  


1. Your mortgage loan must be owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Why? Because these entities were effectively taken over by the government near the beginning of the real estate market crash, and so the federal government can require them to follow new refinancing rules. HARP operates through Fannie and Freddie, and so loans owned by private lenders aren’t in the program. However, a large majority of home mortgages are held by Fannie or Freddie, so there’s a good chance yours is as well. You can find out by checking these two websites:  or (If you instead you have a VA, FHA, or USDA home loan, they each have their own refinancing programs.)

2. Your loan must have been sold to Fannie or Freddie on or before May 31, 2009.

3. Your loan was not refinanced through HARP previously. No second bites at this apple. One small exception—if you happened to refinance your Fannie Mae mortgage from March through May of 2009. Also, prior non-HARP refinances are not a problem.

4. Your current loan-to-value must be greater than 80%. Although HARP is not limited to underwater loans, you can’t have more than 20% equity. Presumably, homes with an equity cushion are either more likely to be refinanced on the private market, and any event their owners will be motivated to preserve their equity. The point of HARP is to enable refinances which could not otherwise happen, and to give help and motivation to homeowners who have little or no equity.

5. Must be current on the mortgage—no late payments in the last 6 months, maximum of 1 in the last 12 months. Given that this program will leave the homeowner with a loan with little or no equity, and often with serious negative equity, the borrower must show a very clean recent payment history. However, many other requirements have been loosened, for example automated appraisals will be permitted instead of needing on-site ones (since the home value is not important here), and income verification will be less often required, making self-employed people more likely eligible.

CAUTION: Lenders have a fair amount of discretion to alter these rules, so refer to your lender for the details, and it may well be worth shopping for eligibility and better refinance terms.

Resources for More Information

1.  A good general new story about the HARP changes, from the website edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

2. The best detailed description I could find of the new program, in a website called

3. Some experts’ opinions about the impact of HARP 2.0 in a Wall Street Journal blog.

4. A HARP 2.0 eligibility calculator on

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.

Powerful Chapter 13 gives you tools to solve your mortgage problems from a number of different angles.  Plus it gives you other tools to deal with tax, support, and judgment liens on your home.

In my last blog I showed how a straight Chapter 7 bankruptcy case can sometimes help you enough to save your home. Or at least it can help you hold onto your home for as long as you need to.  But Chapter 7 can only give limited help, sufficient only in limited circumstances. Chapter 13, on the other hand, provides you a much more powerful and flexible package, with a range of tools for addressing just about all debt issues involving your home.

Here are the first five of ten distinct and significant ways that Chapter 13 can save your home. I’ll give you the other five in my next blog.

A Chapter 13 case enables you:

1. … to stretch out the amount of time you get for catching up on missed mortgage payments, giving you as long as 5 years to do so. A longer repayment period means that you can pay less each month, making it more likely that you will actually be able to catch up and keep your home. Throughout this catch-up period, you are protected from foreclosure as long as you stay with the payment program, one that you propose.

2. … to slash your other debt obligations so that you can afford your mortgage payments. The mortgage debt—especially your first mortgage—is highly favored within Chapter 13. So you are usually allowed—indeed required—to pay most of your mortgage payments in full, while being allowed to pay only as much as you have left over towards your “general unsecured” debts—those without any collateral, such as most credit cards, medical debts, and many other types of debts.

3. … to permanently prevent income tax liens, child and spousal support liens, and judgment liens from attaching to your home. This stops these special creditors from gaining dangerous leverage over you and your home.

4. … to have the time to pay debts that cannot be discharged (legally written off) in bankruptcy, all the while being protected from those creditors messing with your home. That applies when the tax, support or other lien was not filed before the Chapter 13 is filed—the example immediately above. But this also applies if the lien is already in place, giving you the opportunity to pay the debt while under the protection of the bankruptcy laws, undercutting most of the leverage of those liens against your home. And at the end of your case, the debts are paid and those liens are gone.

5. … to discharge debts owed to creditors which could otherwise attack your home.
For example, certain income tax debts are discharged, leaving you owing nothing. But if instead you had not filed the Chapter 13 case, or delayed doing so, a tax lien could have been recorded on that tax debt. That would have required you to pay some or all of the balance to free your home from that lien. Even most conventional debts can turn into judgment liens against your house after a lawsuit is filed. And certain judgment liens may or may not be able to be taken care of in bankruptcy.  If instead you file a Chapter 13 case to prevent these liens from happening, at the end of your case the debt is gone, and no such liens ever attach to your home.

Again, see my next blog for the other five house-saving tools of Chapter 13.

When does filing a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case help you enough so that you don’t need a 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 case?

If you are behind on your mortgage payments but want to keep your home, you have likely heard that a Chapter 13 “payment plan” is what you need. And that IS a powerful package, with an impressive set of tools to deal with a wide variety of home-related problems—everything from the mortgages themselves to property taxes, income tax liens, and judgment liens.

But what if you need to discharge other debts to get a fresh financial start, and have managed to fall only a couple of months behind on your mortgage? Or what if you are not keeping the house, but just need a little more time to find another place to live?

Then you may well not need a Chapter 13 case, and can maybe avoid the disadvantages it comes with—mostly, that it takes so much longer and generally costs lots more than Chapter 7. This extra time and cost can be well worthwhile when you need the great advantages of Chapter 13, but let’s look at ways that Chapter 7 can do enough for your home:

In a Chapter 7 case:

1. The “automatic stay”—the bankruptcy provision that stops virtually all actions by creditors against you or your property—applies to Chapter 7 just as it does to Chapter 13. So the filing of a Chapter 7 case STOPS a foreclosure in its tracks, just as quickly as a Chapter 13 filing. But if you are just trying to buy time to save money for a rental, the tough question is HOW LONG that break in the mortgage company’s foreclosure efforts will last, and how much extra time it’ll buy you. An aggressive creditor could quickly ask the court for “relief from the stay”—permission to resume the foreclosure process—thus potentially getting you only a few extra weeks. Or on the other extreme, a mortgage creditor could just do nothing for the 3 months or so until your Chapter 7 case runs its course and the “automatic stay” expires with the completion of your case. So, Chapter 7 often does not come with much predictability about how much time you’d gain. On the other hand, your bankruptcy attorney may well have experience in how fast certain mortgage lenders tend to ask for “relief from stay” under facts similar to yours.

2. Chapter 7 stops—at least briefly—not only mortgage foreclosures, but also prevents other potential liens from being placed against your house, including the IRS’s tax liens and judgment liens. But why would the few weeks or months that Chapter 7 gains make any difference with these kinds of creditors? In the right set of facts, it can make many thousands of dollars of difference.

• A timely filing of a Chapter 7 case can prevent you from having to pay a debt that would otherwise have become a lien against your house. For example, let’s say you have an older IRS debt that meets the necessary conditions for discharge, and you also have a little equity in your home but not more than your homestead exemption allows. If you waited until after the IRS recorded a tax lien for that debt against your house, that lien would continue being attached to your house even if you filed a bankruptcy and would eventually have to be paid. However, if your Chapter 7 filing happened before the IRS recorded a tax lien, the “automatic stay” would prevent that tax lien from being filed, the tax debt would be discharged forever, and your home’s equity would be preserved.

• Or if instead let’s say you have a debt that is NOT going to be discharged in bankruptcy—say a more recent tax debt—but you also had some assets that you were going to have to surrender to the Chapter 7 trustee, what we call an “asset case.” If again you filed the bankruptcy case before the recording of the tax lien, your Chapter 7 trustee could well pay those taxes as a “priority” debt in front of any of your other debts, potentially leaving you with no tax debt at the completion of your case.

3. Chapter 7 allows you to concentrate on your house payments by getting rid of your other debts. If you’ve managed to keep current on those mortgage payments, but don’t know how long you will be able to do so, the relief you get from discharging your other debts greatly improves your odds of staying current on your home long term. Or if you have missed only a few mortgage payments, AND can reliably make future ones, PLUS enough to catch up on your arrearage within year or less, then Chapter 7 would like very likely do enough for you. Most mortgage creditors will let you enter into an agreement –often called a “forbearance agreement”—to catch up the missed payments by paying a sufficient specific amount extra each month until you’re caught up, again, as long as that period of catch-up time is relatively short. Otherwise, you may well need a Chapter 13.


The bankruptcy world played a quiet but significant role in bringing about this controversial $26 billion settlement. So, fittingly, the settlement terms require the banks to make significant changes in their behavior in bankruptcy court.

Before leaving my current series of blogs on this mortgage settlement, I had to tell you about its bankruptcy angles.

The bankruptcy courts are where some of the earliest signs of bank misconduct appeared. For many years before the “robo-signing” scandal broke in the fall of 20010, mortgage lenders had been making a bad name for themselves in bankruptcy court with shoddy accounting and loose paperwork. Unlike most foreclosures—judicial or non-judicial—in which homeowners do not have attorneys representing them, the majority of homeowners in bankruptcy do have attorneys. So when, for example, mortgage lenders try to get “relief from stay”–permission to foreclose on a home under bankruptcy protection—the homeowner has both a convenient forum—the bankruptcy court—and an advocate who can point out to the court that the lender has not credited all the payments, that it has misplaced payments in some “suspense account,” and/or that it hasn’t even provided its own attorney with accurate accounting information or documentation.  

The bankruptcy system also had another player with a major role, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder highlighted when he announced the settlement last month:

The U.S. Trustees Program, which serves as the watchdog of all bankruptcy court operations, was one of the first federal agencies to investigate mortgage servicer abuse of homeowners in financial distress.  As part of their investigation, Trustees reviewed more than 37,000 documents filed by major mortgage servicers in federal bankruptcy court – and took discovery in more than 175 cases across the country. 

Accordingly, the Complaint filed against the banks as part of this settlement documentation includes a major section on “The Banks’ Bankruptcy-Related Misconduct,” listing 15 distinct types of misconduct. (See pages 34-38 of the Complaint.)

And each bank’s Consent Judgment contains a series of requirements related to their bankruptcy procedures. (See the Ally Financial/GMAC Mortgage/Residential Capital ”Consent Judgment” here, along with its exhibits, totaling more than 300 pages. The other banks’ Consent Judgments can be found here.)

Here is an example of some of the requirements, as applicable to the banks’ filing of proofs of claim (“POC”) in bankruptcy court, which they file to establish the nature and amount of a debt:

The lender “shall ensure that each POC is documented by attaching:

a. The original or a duplicate of the note, including all indorsements; a copy of any mortgage or deed of trust securing the notes (including, if applicable, evidence of recordation in the applicable land records); and copies of any assignments of mortgage or deed of trust required to demonstrate the right to foreclose on the borrower’s note under applicable state law  … .


f. The POC shall be signed (either by hand or by appropriate electronic signature) by the responsible person under penalty of perjury after reasonable investigation, stating that the information set forth in the POC is true and correct to the best of such responsible person’s knowledge, information, and reasonable belief, and clearly identify the responsible person’s employer and position or title with the employer.”

These requirements strike at the rampant problems with insufficient documentation and authorization, including assignments and recordings.  There are similar rules applicable to motions for relief from stay, about fees charged by lenders during Chapter 13 cases, and their loss mitigation behavior during bankruptcy.

Remember that this national mortgage settlement does NOT settle or waive any “claims and defenses asserted by third parties, including individual mortgage loan borrowers on an individual or class basis.” (See the Federal Release, Exhibit F, p. 42, and the State Release, Exhibit G, p. 10, in the Ally Financial “Consent Judgment,” by way of example.) In effect that means that debtors in bankruptcy are not limited by the settlement from pursuing mortgage lenders for their violations of bankruptcy law, including those laws referred to in this settlement. These lenders simply also have their feet to the fire for the next three and a half years while the settlement is in effect and they are being monitored for compliance with its requirements.

The settlement announced on Feb. 9 has been publicly released so far only in a broad outline of its terms. Any day now the actual agreement will be finalized and filed at court. In the meantime here are some tantalizing tidbits.

More than a month has passed since the announcement of the long-awaited mortgage settlement by the state attorneys general and the federal government with the five largest mortgage loan servicers. A special website, set up by the Attorneys General on the Executive Committee that negotiated the settlement, provides a 4-page “Settlement Fact Sheet” and also a “Settlement Executive Summary” of similar length. This website also provides some other possibly helpful information like the phone numbers for the loan servicers involved and the address, phone number and website of each state’s attorney general. But none of that is going to get you very far in any practical way because in fact the details of the settlement are still being put into writing. The “National Mortgage Settlement” has in fact not quite been settled, at least not in detail. As the website says, it’s still “coming soon.”

It’s worth reading the relatively short “Fact Sheet” and the “Executive Summary,” and to look through the rest of the website. Here are some aspects of the deal from those sources that may surprise you:

  • Although 5 loan servicers are involved in this settlement, one stands out, Bank of America, because it is obligated to pay more than twice as much as any of the others. It’s expected to pay (through a combination of cash payments, mortgage write-downs, and refinances) about $12 billion. Much of B of A’s financial exposure comes from its ownership of a huge portfolio of former Countrywide mortgages.
  • The largest portion of the settlement funds—about $10 billion—will go towards reducing the principal balance of mortgages. The banks have been extremely resistant to principal reductions, and this settlement requires the largest reductions ever. However, the amount is still very small compared to the total amount of negative equity among these banks’ homeowners.
  • In an effort to beef up the enforcement side of the settlement, an independent Monitor has been named who will have what at least sounds like significant powers to enforce a detailed set of new mortgage servicing standards. Penalties for violations will be up to $1 million per violation, and up to $5 million for some repeat violations.
  • The mortgage servicers will receive credit for different efforts they make to help their homeowners. The banks will get credit for mortgage write-downs, but also partial credit for write-downs by investors on mortgages that the banks do not own but merely service, as well as for helpful actions banks are already taking like approving short-sales. The compromise was to provide as much benefit as possible to homeowners while giving banks some flexibility in earning credit for their efforts.

The effectiveness of this settlement will depend on how strongly the written agreement is drafted. I’ll provide practical information about this written agreement just as soon as it is filed at court, so please check back here again.

The long-awaited joint federal-state settlement with the major banks for their alleged fraudulent documentation and processing of mortgages and foreclosures was announced on Thursday, February 9. Will it help you, and if so, how?

I interrupt my ongoing series on small business bankruptcy to answer your most immediate questions about this huge settlement.

1. Who is included in this settlement?

  • Only five big banks are currently signed on: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Ally Financial and Citigroup.  Only mortgages owned and held by them are directly affected.  Negotiations continue with nine other mortgage servicers, which if successful could bring the total amount of money involved to $30 billion.
  • 49 states joined in the settlement; only Oklahoma did not.
  • Mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—consisting of the majority of U.S. mortgages—are NOT covered.

2. What does this settlement resolve and what is open for further negotiation and litigation? In other words, what liabilities are the banks escaping from for their $26 billion?

  • The claims against the banks that are released in this settlement are limited to mortgage servicing and foreclosure claims. Claims for a variety of other alleged wrongdoing are not covered and so remain open to being pursued by the federal and state regulators, investors, and homeowners. Claims that are NOT covered include those related to the securitization of mortgage-backed securities that were at the heart of the financial crisis, and those against or involving MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems).
  • Individuals’ rights to bring their own lawsuits or to be part of a class action against any banks for any claims are not affected by this settlement.
  • The settlement does not limit any potential criminal liability for any individuals or financial institutions; it provides no immunity from prosecution whatsoever.

3. How does the settlement help you if your mortgage is held by one of these five banks?

  • If you need a mortgage loan modification, these servicers will (finally!) be required to offer principal reductions, for first and second mortgages, to a value of up to $17 billion. This is where the bulk of the settlement funds are earmarked.
  • If you’re current on your mortgage but your home is worth less than the mortgage, $3 billion of the settlement is to provide refinancing relief.
  • If your home has already been foreclosed, $1.5 billion will be paid out by the banks as a penalty against them–around  $2,000 per homeowner–without you needing to show any damages or releasing any claims against the bank.

4. Where do you go for more information and to find out whether you will be helped in any of these ways?

  • Go to the new settlement website for current and upcoming information about it: