Your vehicle loan, home mortgage, account at the appliance or electronics store, and maybe a debt that’s resulted in a judgment lien—these debts with collateral are the ones that grab the most attention during a bankruptcy case. And that includes the attention of the creditors, very interested in “their” collateral.


General unsecured debts, which I talked about in the last two blogs, are pleasantly boring in most bankruptcy cases. In a Chapter 7 case, they are generally discharged (legally written off) without any opposition by the creditors, who usually get nothing. And in a Chapter 13 case, general unsecured debts are often just paid whatever money is left over after the secured and priority debts, and trustee and attorney fees, are paid. Nice and boring. That’s because the creditors don’t have much to fight about.

But with secured debts—debts with collateral—both sides have something to fight about—the collateral. The creditors know that the vehicle or house or other collateral is the only thing backing up the debt you owe to them, so they can get quite pushy about protecting that collateral.

The next few blogs will be about how you use either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 to deal with the most important kinds of secured debts. Today we start with a few basic points that apply to just about all secured debts.

Two Deals in One

It helps to look at any secured debt as two interrelated agreements between you and the creditor. First, the creditor agreed to give you money or credit in return for your promise to repay it on certain terms. Second, you received rights to—and usually title in—the collateral, with you in return agreeing that the creditor can take that collateral if you don’t comply with your first agreement to repay the money.

Generally, bankruptcy will absolve you of that first agreement—your promise to pay—but the creditors’ rights to collateral survive bankruptcy (except in certain rare situations we will highlight later). Your ability to discharge the debt gives you some options, and can sometimes give you a certain amount of leverage. But the creditors’ rights about the collateral give them certain options and leverage, too. You’ll see how this tug-of-war plays out with vehicle and home loans, and few other important secured debts.

Value of Collateral

In that tug-of-war between your power to discharge the debt and a creditor’s rights to the collateral, how much the collateral is worth as compared to the amount of the debt becomes very important. If the collateral is worth a lot more than the amount of the debt, the creditor is said to be well-secured. It has a much better chance of having the debt be paid in full. You’ll really want to pay off the relatively small debt to get the relatively expensive collateral free and clear of that debt. Or if you didn’t make the payments the creditor will get the collateral and sell it for at least as much as the debt.

If the collateral is worth less than the amount of the debt, the creditor is said to be undersecured. It is much less likely to have this debt paid in full. You’ll be less likely to pay a debt only to get collateral worth less than what you’re paying. And if you surrender the collateral the creditor will sell it for less than the debt amount.

Depreciation of Collateral, and Interest

With the value of the collateral being such an important consideration, the loss of value through depreciation is something that creditors care about, a concern which the bankruptcy court respects. Also, in most situations secured creditors are entitled to interest. So, you’ll see that in fights with secured creditors, this issue about the combined amount of monthly depreciation and interest often comes into play.


Virtually every agreement with a secured creditor—certainly those involving vehicles and homes—requires that you carry insurance on the collateral. If the collateral is damaged or destroyed, this insurance usually pays the debt on the collateral before it pays you anything. And, if you fail to get the required insurance—or sometimes even if you simply don’t inform the creditor about having the insurance—the creditor itself is entitled to buy “force-placed” insurance to protect only its interest in the collateral, AND charge you the often outrageously high premium.


With these points in mind, the next blog will tell you your options with your vehicle loan under Chapter 7.

Get the maximum benefit from your bankruptcy against your taxes by following these sophisticated strategies.

Pre-bankruptcy planning to position a debtor in the best way for discharging or for otherwise favorably dealing with tax debts is one of the more complicated tasks handled by a bankruptcy attorney. Do NOT attempt these strategies, including the five mentioned here, without an attorney, indeed frankly without an attorney who focuses his or her law practice on bankruptcy. Elsewhere in this website I make clear that you cannot take anything in this website, including what I write in these blogs, as legal advice. That’s especially true in this very sophisticated area. Also, I could write a chapter in a book on each of these five strategies, so all I’m doing here is introducing you to them, to begin the discussion when you come in to see me.

1st:  Wait out the appropriate legal periods before the filing of your bankruptcy case.

As you may know from elsewhere in these blogs, most (but not all) forms of income tax become dischargeable after the passing of specific periods of time. Much of pre-bankruptcy tax strategy turns on figuring out precisely when each of your tax liabilities will become dischargeable, and then either waiting to file bankruptcy until all those liabilities are dischargeable, or, when under serious time pressure to file, at least when the maximum amount will be discharged as is possible under the circumstances.

2nd:  File past-due returns to start the clock running on those as soon as possible.

If you know you owe taxes for prior years and don’t have the money to pay them, your gut feeling may well be to avoid filing those tax returns in an attempt to “fly under the radar” as long as you can. But irrespective of any other rules, you cannot discharge a tax debt until two years after the pertinent tax return has been filed. Get good advice about how to deal with the IRS or other taxing authority during those two years so that you take appropriate steps to protect yourself and your assets. You deserve a rational basis for getting beyond your understandable fears about this.

3rd:  Try to stay in compliance with the new tax year(s) while you wait to file your bankruptcy case, by designating tax payments to the more recent tax years instead of older ones.

Because recent tax year tax liabilities cannot be discharged in a Chapter 7 case and must be paid in full as a priority debt in a Chapter 13 case, you want to try to stay current on your most recent tax debts. It’s also usually a necessary step in keeping the IRS and its ilk from taking aggressive action against you, thus allowing you to wait longer and discharge more taxes. With the IRS in particular you can and should explicitly designate which tax account any particular tax payments are to be applied to achieve this purpose.

4th:  Avoid tax fraud and evasion, and whenever possible, withholding taxes.

Simply put, you can’t ever discharge any taxes related to fraud, fraudulent tax returns, or tax evasion, so avoid these kinds of illegal behavior. If you have any doubt, talk to a knowledgeable tax accountant or attorney. Unpaid tax withholdings also cannot be discharged, so either try to avoid them from accruing, focus your resources on paying them off, or just recognize that they will either have to be paid after your Chapter 7 case or as a priority debt during your Chapter 13 case.

5th:  Be aware of tax liens.

Tax lien claims have to be paid in full in Chapter 13, with interest, and can survive a Chapter 7 discharge. So try to avoid having the taxing authority record a tax lien against you—admittedly sometimes easier said than done. Or if that is not possible, at least refrain from building up equity in possessions or real estate. That equity, although often exempt from the clutches of the bankruptcy trustee and most creditors, is still subject to a tax lien. So any built up equity just increases what you will have to pay to the taxing authority on debt you might otherwise been able to discharge completely.

You’ve fallen behind with your creditors or are just about to. You’re anxious, trying to avoid thinking about it, angry that life is so tough, trying to build up the courage to face up to the realities. You wonder whether you really have any decent options, how to figure out the best one and make it happen.

 In these blogs I get into all kinds of twists and turns about how bankruptcy works. That’s because life comes with complications, and the law has evolved to address them. But now at the start of the new year, let’s get down to basics.

You’re financially in over your head. You don’t know what to do, or where to get help. To get started, you need 1) some general information and then 2) some personal advice.

1) General Information:

Different people get information differently about something important like what do about their finances. Some are more comfortable scouring through the internet. There is a wealth of information here, at all levels of sophistication. Some prefer to go to the library, or get a how-to manual or book through a bookstore or sources like Some like to talk things over with trusted friends or relatives. Common sense says you have to be very cautious about all sources of information, always considering the reliability and accuracy of the source. And always remember that general rules, even if they are true, can have exceptions or may not apply to your situation for some reason. At this point you are just trying to get broadly informed about your options, and their possible advantages and disadvantages. You’re holding back on making any final judgments about which option is best because you know that the information you’re gathering is incomplete and may or may not match your own unique situation.

People are different about how much information they want to pull together before starting to act on it. Some like to do a bunch of research before going to see an attorney, others are more comfortable skipping that and just going straight to the attorney. As you can guess, I meet with people from one extreme to the other, and everything in between. So just do what feels right to you, because I can accommodate you.

2) Personal Advice:

People considering bankruptcy can be reluctant to talk with an attorney for lots of reasons. Based on my extensive experience, here are some that don’t hold water.

  • “If I see an attorney, he or she will make me file a bankruptcy”:  An attorney is legally and ethically obligated to represent YOU, and to lay out your options honestly, in an understandable way so that YOU can make an informed choice. It’s not my job to make you do anything, certainly not to file bankruptcy. Certainly I’ll tell you if you do not qualify for any particular option. And I’ll advise you why I think certain options look more advantageous than others, and may well make a strong recommendation towards a certain option. But the choice is yours.
  •  “I’m not really ready to see an attorney yet”:  There is virtually no downside to getting advice early in the process and there are many ways to hurt yourself by getting it late.  It is extremely common for people to come in to see me after they have already acted (or failed to act) in ways that were against their best interest. If on the other hand they see me earlier than necessary, they still get good advice on what they should do in the meantime and they start a relationship with me in case they want to or need to work with me later.
  • “I don’t think I can afford an attorney, and I don’t even know if I need one”:  You may be able to file a bankruptcy by yourself, or take some other appropriate action, but wouldn’t it be good to find out whether in your situation you can or should do so? My job is to give you unbiased, straight talk about your options, including what you can do on your own, how much my services would cost if you decide to hire me, and how that could be paid. There may be ways that you can afford my fees that you did not expect. We won’t know until we explore your options.

Paying for the holidays with credit cards, even at a relatively modest amount, can mean that you will have to pay back those purchases if you file a bankruptcy. That could happen even if at the time you made those purchases you fully intended to repay that credit—in other words, even if you weren’t planning to file a bankruptcy.

The Bankruptcy Code contains some very specific rules about the consequences of using credit to buy “luxury goods or services” during the months before filing a bankruptcy.

If you use a credit card—or any other type of consumer credit—to buy at least $500 of consumer “luxury goods or services” through any single creditor within the 90 days before filing bankruptcy, there is a “presumption” that the debt incurred this way is nondischargeable—that it can’t be legally written off.

Don’t be fooled by the word “luxury” in that rule. That means anything not “reasonably necessary.” Arguably anything not used for survival in not “reasonably necessary.” So even modest Christmas and holiday gifts could be considered “luxuries” for this purpose.

Similar rules apply to the use of cash advances, except that the trigger dollar amount is $750 per creditor, and the period of time is within 70 days before filing bankruptcy, with the same “presumption” that the debt would not be dischargeable.

You may be thinking that these rules only create presumptions, which can be defeated. So that you can still discharge these kinds of debts by showing that you in fact you had every intention of paying them at the time you used the credit. Yes, that true, in theory but not likely in practice. First, coming up with that kind of evidence—proving your intent at some point of time in the past– is usually not easy. And second, and more important, the high cost to bring that kind of evidence to court usually makes trying to do so not worthwhile. Usually the amount of attorney fees it costs you to fight the issue is more than the amount being fought about.

What all this means that if during the holidays you use a credit card or other consumer credit exceeding these dollar limits, and then file bankruptcy within the applicable 70-day and 90-day periods, most likely you will still have to pay for whatever credit was incurred during those periods. You can avoid these presumptions by waiting to file the bankruptcy until after those periods of time have expired, but that’s not always possible. At best you’ll delay getting your bankruptcy filed, and so will delay the eventual resolution of your financial problems. And even if you wait, the creditor can still try to show your bad intention. Avoid all this by not using your credit cards and/or lines of credit whenever there is a sensible chance that you’ll have to file a bankruptcy in the near future.

Especially if you’re thinking about filing bankruptcy, resist the urge to rack up a big credit card bill for Christmas and other holiday gifts.  Otherwise you may find your hands tied about what debts you can write off in bankruptcy or even when you can file your case. But before getting to these legal reasons, there are some more basic ones.

When money is tight, your anxiety about paying for gifts and for special meals clouds the holidays. If you have room on your credit cards, and very little disposable income, the temptation to use the credit cards is just about irresistible. We live in a rather materialistic culture, so when we express our love and affection through gifts we tend to let their price carry too much meaning. We feel that an expensive gift shows how close we are to someone. We also let the gifts we give, and their price, define us and our own worth. We’re no good if you can’t give our loved ones nice gifts. That’s especially true with our spouse or that someone special, and with our kids. If we can’t give our sweetheart something really special, if we don’t fill under the Christmas tree for our kids, then we feel like we are not a very good spouse, friend, or parent. We don’t want to disappoint them, and have them be disappointed in us.

This feeling may be especially intense if there is tension in the marriage, or within the household, often the case when there are intense financial pressures. It can be a vicious cycle.

In our hearts we know that the price of gift is not a true measure of the extent of our love, and certainly that gifts don’t buy love. To help you follow your wiser impulses, here are three suggestions.

First, give gifts appropriate to your financial circumstances, no matter how modest those gifts may be.  That is the only responsible way, and in fact shows your love—especially to family members—a lot more than if you gave gifts you could not afford.

Second, put the energy that you would put into fretting about how to pay for a relatively expensive gift instead into creatively thinking about an appropriately priced perfect gift. Come up with something that reflects the connection between the two of you, one that the person will enjoy but also shows that you really put your heart into it.  

Third, whenever possible communicate honestly with your loved ones about your financial constraints. This has to be done the right way, preserving your own dignity, and appropriate for the relationship—different for extended family, spouse, your children. Instead of being negative, it can be a constructive conversation about priorities, honesty, and what love is really all about.

I know, this is lots easier said than done.

To help motivate you, in my next blog I’ll give you some legal reasons why piling holiday charges onto your credit cards can tie your hands in ways you don’t expect.

Many judgments against you don’t matter once you file a bankruptcy. But certain ones are very dangerous. How can you tell the difference?

Letting a creditor get a judgment against you after it has sued you can sometimes result in that debt not being written off (“discharged”) in a later bankruptcy case. Or that debt may instead become much more difficult to discharge, even if eventually it is. But in the meantime it can turn an otherwise straightforward case into one much more complicated. 

So how can certain judgments make a debt not dischargeable? Because of a basic principle of law which says that once one court has decided an issue, another court must respect that decision. The theory is that litigants should only get to use court resources once to resolve a dispute. Once a court decides an issue, it’s been decided (except for the limited exception of appeals to a higher court).

But as I said, most judgments by creditors are NOT a problem in bankruptcy. That’s because most creditor lawsuits are about only one thing: whether the debt is legally owed. A judgment that establishes nothing more than that can generally be discharged in a subsequent bankruptcy.

The judgments that are dangerous are more complicated. They arise in lawsuits in which the creditor is alleging that the person owing the debt incurred it in some fraudulent or inappropriate way. If the judgment clearly establishes that’s what happened, then the bankruptcy court later has to accept that decision. If the wording of the lawsuit and judgment shows that the behavior was of the kind that the bankruptcy laws say results in the debt not being discharged, then without further litigation the bankruptcy court would rule the same way.

These cases can get complicated because often it’s not clear precisely what the previous lawsuit decided, or whether what was decided meshes closely enough with the dischargeablility rules of bankruptcy. There’s also the question whether the matter was “actually litigated” if the person against whom the judgment was entered did not appear to defend the lawsuit or did not have an attorney.  In other words you may or may not be able to get your day in bankruptcy court depending on whether in the eyes of the law you really already had your day in the prior court.

This risk of losing your chance to defend your case in bankruptcy court can be avoided by not waiting until after a judgment has been entered against you to see a bankruptcy attorney. That is especially true if the allegations against you involve any bad behavior other than not repaying the debt. As a general rule, if you get sued by any creditor you should see an attorney, even if you don’t plan on fighting the lawsuit and hiring an attorney for that purpose. That allows you to find out if the lawsuit could lead to a judgment making the debt not be dischargeable in a bankruptcy. And if so, you would then still have to option of filing the bankruptcy to prevent such a harmful judgment from being entered, instead of being stuck with it once you file a bankruptcy later.

Sometimes the timing of your bankruptcy filing hardly matters, but other times it’s huge.  The three examples in this blog should convince you that you want to avoid being rushed to file your case because a creditor sued you earlier and is now garnishing your wages. Instead you want to preserve the ability to file bankruptcy at a time that is tactically the best for you.

1. Choosing between Chapter 7 and 13:  Being able to file a Chapter 7 generally requires you to pass the “means test.” This test largely turns on a very special definition of “income.” For many people, their “income” under that definition can change every month, sometime by quite a lot. This means that you may not qualify to file a Chapter 7 case one month but then do so the next month. Being able to delay filing your case means being able to file when you will pass the “means test,” or at least more likely would do so, and therefore not be forced to file a Chapter 13 case. This means usually finishing your case in three or four months instead of three to five years, and almost always saving many thousands of dollars.

2. Discharging—writing off—debts:  Getting certain debts discharged is harder if those debts were incurred within a certain amount of time before the filing of your bankruptcy case. So being able to delay the filing of your bankruptcy case makes it less likely the creditor on one of these debts would challenge your ability to discharge that debt. Or if such a creditor would still raise such a challenge, defeating it would be easier.  The amount at stake is the amount of that debt, plus often the creditor’s costs and attorney fees, and your own attorney’s fees.  Avoid or reduce the risk of continuing to owe that after your bankruptcy is over by avoiding getting creditor judgments against you.

3. Choosing property exemptions:  The possessions you are allowed to keep in a bankruptcy depend on which state’s exemption laws apply to your case. If you moved to your present state of residence within two years before your bankruptcy is filed, you will not be able to use that state’s exemptions but rather your former state’s. Especially if you are getting close to the two-year mark, having flexibility about when to file would allow you to pick whichever state’s exemptions were better for you. Otherwise, you may either lose an asset in a Chapter 7 case, have to pay the trustee to be able to keep it, or else even be compelled to file a Chapter 13 case to keep it.

You may sensibly ask: if you do get sued, what are you supposed to do to avoid getting a judgment against you, so that you’re not later rushed into filling bankruptcy at an unfavorable time?  The answer: see a bankruptcy attorney as soon as you get sued to figure out how to deal with that law suit and with your entire financial circumstances. The earlier you get advice, the more options you will have.


What you don’t know CAN hurt you, if it’s a judgment against you by a creditor. Judgments can hurt in three big ways. 1) They enable the creditor to use powerful collection mechanisms against you to collect the debt. 2) A judgment can rush you into filing bankruptcy at a legally disadvantageous time. 3) And under some circumstances a judgment can make it harder to write off the debt in your bankruptcy.

I’ll tell you about the first one of these in this blog, and the other two in my next ones.

The vast majority of lawsuits by creditors and collection agencies that are filed to collect their debts end with judgments against the people owing the debts. That’s because the main point of these lawsuits is to establish that the debt is legally owed, which is usually not disputed. Also, much of the time the debtors are at the end of their financial rope and can’t afford to hire an attorney to find out what their options are, much less to defend the lawsuit. So judgments are entered “by default”—meaning the deadline for the debtors to respond passed without any action by them, allowing the creditor to get a judgment. Often debtors are not given any notice that a judgment has been entered against them, so many do not realize that it has, especially when nothing seems to happen for months or even years afterwards. And very few people are fully aware of the possible consequences.

Most people know that a judgment gives a creditor the power to garnish your wages and bank accounts. But preventing garnishments by just keeping your money out of bank accounts and not being paid a regular wage or salary are often not enough to make you “judgment-proof.” For example, a judgment usually becomes a lien against any real estate you own, or will own in the future. That includes not just property under your own name but also your rights to property held jointly with a spouse, parent, or through a trust or estate. An aggressive creditor has a variety of other tools available to it, including getting a judge to order you to go to court to answer questions under oath about what you own. The creditor can get an order to send out a sheriff’s deputy to your home or business to take your possessions to pay the debt. If you are owed money by anyone, that person can be ordered to pay the creditor instead of you. If you own a business, the creditor can force your customers to pay it instead of you, and sometimes can even come to your place of business and take money directly out of the cash register to pay the judgment debt.

I don’t want to give the impression that these kinds of strong-arm collection procedures are used in most cases. But I talk regularly with distressed new clients who have been surprised, and financially hurt, by what a creditor has done to them and their assets.

Beyond the direct damage a creditor with a judgment can do to you before you file your case, such a creditor can cause you very real problems in your subsequent bankruptcy case. I’ll introduce this here and then discuss it more in my next blog.

If you are induced to file bankruptcy quickly to stop an ongoing garnishment or other financially devastating collection activity, you lose one of your most important advantages: the timing of the filing of your bankruptcy case. A lot of what happens in your bankruptcy case turns on precisely when it was filed. Not having the flexibility to pick the best timing can, among other things, turn a hoped-for Chapter 7 case into a Chapter 13 one, can mean a difference of many thousands of dollars, and can generally turn a straightforward case which meets your goals into much more complicated matter.

My entire job can be summarized as helping my clients meet their goals as smoothly and calmly as possible. The lesson here is that, whenever possible, the time to see an attorney—and if you have overall financial problems, specifically a bankruptcy attorney—is right when you get sued. Not after a judgment has been entered and you’ve lost some of your precious power over your own destiny.

One of the worst ways to hurt one of your creditors is by being nice to him, her, or it. Specifically, if, before you file a bankruptcy, you pay a creditor more than you are paying at that time to your other creditors, then that favored creditor may be required to give back that extra money so that it is shared among all the creditors. This is especially true if you are paying one creditor when you are no longer paying anything to anyone else. Your payment to your favored creditor is called a “preference”—you are considered to be paying that creditor in “preference” to your other creditors.  

So your good intentions backfire. Your desire to be nice to that special creditor, who is often a family member or some other kind of sensitive creditor, by paying off that debt and keeping it out of your bankruptcy case results in the opposite. Your favored creditor gets mixed up in the bankruptcy case you may well have been trying to avoid having him or her even know about. He or she has to give up the money you paid—and may have to come up with it somehow after having spent what you paid him or her. The trustee may well sue him or her to get the money back. And afterwards, assuming that you feel a moral or family obligation to make that person whole, you would be paying that debt a second time after your bankruptcy is done.

The good news about this problem is that it can be avoided altogether if you get legal advice from an experienced bankruptcy attorney before you make the “preferential” payment or series of payments to that favored creditor. Or even if you’ve already made that payment or series of payments when you see your attorney for the first time, there are often ways to get around it.

But I caution you that the law about preferences is complicated. Section 547 of the Bankruptcy Code, while by no means the most confusing one in the Code, is still plenty unclear. It’s about 1,318 words long, containing 56 sub-sections and sub-sub-sections. If you look at it, I think you’ll agree that this is NOT a do-it-yourself aspect of bankruptcy law.

So IF there is a chance that you will need to file a bankruptcy, BEFORE you pay anything to a relative or any other kind of special creditor that you feel duty-bound to pay, FIRST talk to an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Do so even if—in fact especially if–you don’t consider the person you’re inclined to pay to be a “real” creditor, because, for example, the debt was never put in writing, or nobody knows about it. And most importantly, if you HAVE made such a payment before you see your attorney, absolutely be sure that you disclose this to the attorney, and do so at the beginning of your first meeting. It may well affect the timing of your bankruptcy filing. Preferences are mostly a problem when they are discovered AFTER the bankruptcy is filed. That’s what you most want to avoid. Avoid that and most likely preferences will not be a problem for you.