A 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 case is often the right tool if you are behind on mortgage payments. But sometimes the simpler Chapter 7 is enough.
Chapter 13 Is a Powerful Package
If you want to keep your home but are behind on your mortgage payments, a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” is often what you need. It comes with an impressive set of tools to address many home debt problems. It gives you more time to catch up on the mortgage, may enable you to “strip” a second or third mortgage off your title, and gives you very helpful ways for dealing with property taxes, income tax liens, judgment liens, and such.
When Chapter 7 is Enough
But what if you have managed to fall only a few months behind on your mortgage, and could afford the payments if you just got relief from your other debts?
Or what if you aren’t even keeping the house, but do need a little more time to find another place to live?
Then you may not need a Chapter 13 case, and could save the extra time and cost that it would take compared to Chapter 7. In the right situations Chapter 13 is highly worthwhile because of what it can do. But if you don’t need those advantages, Chapter 7 may be adequate and appropriate.
Buying Just Enough Time for What You Need
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 just as quickly as a Chapter 13 filing.
But Chapter 7 usually buys you much less time than a Chapter 13 could.
If you are not very far behind on your mortgage payment(s) and want to keep your home, when you file a Chapter 7 case your mortgage lenders will usually give you several months to catch up on your back payments. You must immediately start making your regular monthly payments, if you had not been making them, and must enter a strict schedule for catching up on the arrearage. In return the lender agrees to hold off foreclosing, as long as you make the payments as agreed.
If instead you are not keeping the house but just need to have more time to save money for moving into a rental home, a well-timed Chapter 7 case will buy you more time in your house. During that time you don’t pay mortgage payments, enabling you to get together first and last month’s rent payment, any necessary security deposit and other moving costs.
The tough-to-answer question is how much extra time would a Chapter 7 filing give you. It mostly depends on how aggressive your mortgage company is about trying to start or restart the foreclosure efforts. A pushy lender could, soon after you file your case, ask the bankruptcy court for “relief from the stay”—permission to start or restart the foreclosure process. If so, then your bankruptcy filing would buy you only an extra month or so.
Or on the other extreme, a mortgage lender could potentially take no action during the 3 months or so until your Chapter 7 case is finished. At that point the “automatic stay” protection expires, and the lender can start or restart the foreclosure. Or it may sit on its hands even longer. During the height of the mortgage crisis a few years ago, mortgage lenders were so backed up and so reluctant to foreclose, that many homeowners were living in their homes without making payments for a year or two! That is mostly a thing of the past but it goes to show how open-ended this situation can be at times.
Your bankruptcy attorney will likely have some experience in how aggressive your particular mortgage lender is under facts similar to yours.
Stopping Dangerous Liens Against Your Home
Chapter 7 prevents potential liens from being placed against your home, especially important when the lack of a lien makes all the difference. This can occur with IRS and state tax liens and judgment liens. A timely filing of a Chapter 7 case could result in paying nothing on a debt vs. paying it in part or in full.
Consider the example of an older IRS debt that meets the conditions for discharge (legal write-off in bankruptcy), in a situation in which you have equity in your home but no more than would be protected under the homestead exemption. If you did not file a bankruptcy until after the IRS recorded a tax lien for that debt against your house, that lien would continue being attached to your house in spite of your bankruptcy. You would have to pay the tax debt in order to get the lien released when you sold or refinanced the house.
However, if your Chapter 7 case was instead filed before the IRS recorded a tax lien, the “automatic stay” would prevent that tax lien from being recorded, the tax debt would be discharged and never have to be paid.
Discharge Other Debts So You Can Afford to Pay Your Mortgage Payments
Chapter 7 allows you to focus your financial resources on your house payments by getting rid of your other debts.
If you’ve managed to keep current on those mortgage payments, but fear you can’t continue to do so because of financial pressure from other debts, the relief you get from discharging those other debts can allow you to stay in your home long term.
Or you may have missed only a few mortgage payments, AND, after discharging your other debts, can reliably make future monthly payments plus enough extra to catch up on your arrearage within year or less. If so, then Chapter 7 would like likely do enough for you. Most mortgage creditors will make arrangements with you –called a “forbearance agreement”—to catch up the missed payments by paying a sufficient specific amount extra each month until you’re caught up, as long as that catch-up time is relatively short.
However, if after discharging your other debts you could not catch up on your arrearage within about a year, you may well need the extra firepower of Chapter 13 to buy you more time.