Can you really keep everything you own if you file bankruptcy?


The Answer: Usually Yes.

1) Yes, usually you can keep those possessions that you own free and clear—meaning you don’t owe any money to a creditor which has a lien on those possessions. 

2) Yes, usually you can keep those possessions which you don’t own free and clear—meaning you owe money to a creditor which has a lien on them—IF you want to keep them, AND are willing and able to meet certain conditions.

In today’s blog post we’ll address the first part of the above answer. We’ll get to the second part in the near future.

Keep What You Own Because of Property Exemptions, and Possibly Because of Chapter 13

Most people who file bankruptcy can keep what they own for two reasons: 1) property exemptions and 2) Chapter 13 protections. In a nutshell, property exemptions designate what types and amounts of assets you can keep; if you have any type or amount of property that isn’t covered, Chapter 13 adds an additional layer of protection.

The Core Principle of Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

In a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy,” your debts are discharged—legally written off forever—in return for you giving your unprotected assets to your creditors (as represented by the bankruptcy trustee). BUT, for most people, all or most of their assets ARE protected, or “exempt.”

As a result, debtors in Chapter 7 generally get a discharge of their debts without having to give any of their assets, or only a select set of assets, to the trustee.

Property Exemptions Aren’t As Simple As May Seem

  • The Bankruptcy Code has a set of federal exemptions, and each state also has its own exemptions. In some states you have a choice between using the federal exemptions or the state ones, while in other states you are only permitted to use the state exemptions. When you have a choice, choosing which of the two exemption schemes is better for you is often not clear and you need an experienced attorney to help with this.
  • If you have moved relatively recently from another state, you may have to use the exemption rules of your prior state. Because different state’s exemption types and amounts can differ widely, thousands of dollars can be at stake depending on when your bankruptcy case is filed.
  • Even once you know which set of exemptions apply to you, whether all of your assets are covered by an exemption and protected is often not clear. The exemption statues in many instances were written long ago using outdated language, often interpreted by the courts as to their current meaning. Plus the local trustees often have unwritten rules about how they interpret the exemption categories in practice. As a result, determining whether an asset is exempt or not involves much more than merely comparing a list of your assets against a list of the applicable exemptions.

So navigating through exemptions can be much more complicated than it looks, and is one of the most important services provided by your bankruptcy attorney.

If You Do Own Non-Exempt Assets

Most people who file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case lose nothing to the trustee because everything they own is exempt.  But what if you DO own one or more assets which do not fit any of the available exemptions? If you want to keep those assets, they can often be protected through a Chapter 13 case.  We’ll cover that in our next blog post.


Bankruptcy doesn’t just clean up after the failure of a business. Bankruptcy can also prevent that failure in the first place.


General Motors: 2009 vs. 2013

When General Motors filed bankruptcy in 2009, it was insolvent: it owed about $173 billion and had assets of less than half that, about $82 billion. It was not able to pay its bills when they became due.

Through bankruptcy the business shed a significant amount of its debts, reduced its U.S. plants from 47 to 34 and its U.S. employees from 91,000 to 68,500.  It sold or closed the following vehicle brands: Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn, and Saab. In return for a $50 billion loan from the U.S. government, the nation’s taxpayers became 60.8% owners of G.M.

Now, four years later G.M. is profitable again. By the end of 2013 the government is expected to sell the last of its common stock in the company. According to the Center for Automotive Research, the rescue of the U.S. auto industry—including G.M.—saved 1.14 million jobs at automakers and other companies that rely on them.

If you own and operate a small business, maybe a bankruptcy could save that business, and your job in that business.

Your Business as a Sole Proprietorship

Practically speaking, your business is operated as a sole proprietorship if you did not create a corporation, limited liability (LLC), partnership, or any other kind of formal legal entity when you set up that business. You own and operate your business by yourself for yourself, although the business may have a formal or informal “assumed business name” or “DBA” (“doing business as”).

There are various advantages and disadvantages of operating your business this way. For our immediate purposes what’s important is that you and your business are legally treated as a single economic entity. That’s different than if your business operated as a corporation which would legally own its own assets and owe its own debts, distinct from you and any other shareholder(s). This blog post, and the next few on this broad topic of business bankruptcies, assumes that you operate your business as a sole proprietorship.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7, “straight bankruptcy,” or “liquidating bankruptcy,” allows you to “discharge” (legally write off) your debts in return for liquidation—surrendering your assets to the bankruptcy trustee in order to be sold and the proceeds distributed to your creditors. In most Chapter 7 cases you receive a discharge of your debts even though none of your assets are surrendered and liquidated, because everything you own is protected–“exempt.”

But if you own an ongoing business—again, a sole proprietorship—which you intend to keep operating, Chapter 7 may be a risky option. You and your attorney would need to determine if all your business’ assets would be exempt under the laws applicable to your state. Certain crucial assets of your business—perhaps its accounts receivable, customer list, business name, or favorable premises lease—may not be exempt, and thus subject to being taken by the trustee. Proceed very carefully to avoid having your business effectively shut down in this way.

Chapter 13

The Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” bankruptcy option is generally better designed than Chapter 7 for ongoing sole proprietorship businesses. It provides much better mechanisms for retaining your personal and business assets. Even business (and personal) assets that are not “exempt” can usually be protected through a Chapter 13 plan.

You and your business get immediate relief from your creditors, usually along with a significant reduction in the amount of debt to be repaid.  So Chapter 13 helps both your immediate cash flow and the long-term prospects for the business. It is also an excellent way to deal with tax debts, often a major issue for struggling businesses. Overall, it allows you to continue operating your business while taking care of a streamlined set of debts.


In the next few blogs we will focus on some of the most important benefits of filing a business Chapter 13 case.


In bankruptcy it’s okay to FEEL differently towards some creditors than others. You can also sometimes ACT differently, but only if you very carefully follow the rules.

The last blog was about making a good decision about filing bankruptcy, one that sits well with you morally and serves your best interests legally. If you do decide to file bankruptcy, you usually also have the chance to decide how to deal with some of your creditors. Today’s blog is about creditors you would like to favor for some personal reason, usually because of a special relationship. Specifically, how you favor such creditors BEFORE your bankruptcy is filed is the subject of today’s blog.

The special creditors we’re talking about here are people you feel you must pay, whether out of family connection, loyalty to a friend, or any other personal reason. Your desire to pay this person can be an honorable moral obligation that just about trumps everything. For example, someone may have made a personal loan to you who now desperately needs you to pay it back.

The problem with favoring certain creditors is that doing so flies in the face of one of the basic principles of bankruptcy law—that creditors which are legally the same should be treated the same. Mostly that applies to how creditors are treated DURING the bankruptcy case itself. But in certain limited but crucial ways this principle spills over into the time BEFORE your case is filed. Payments you made to a creditor can be undone—the creditor can be forced to pay to the bankruptcy trustee whatever you paid to the creditor within a certain period of time before your bankruptcy filing.

The practical consequences of this can be devastating. You make a special effort to pay someone that you care about, likely when you don’t have much money, only to later risk having your bankruptcy trustee make that person pay that money “back,” not to you but rather to the trustee. Since this can happen long after you paid that creditor, the money you paid probably has long ago been spent, often leaving that creditor scrambling. Instead of you helping that person as you intended, he or she can get significantly inconvenienced and frustrated, or worse.  And after all that, you may feel obligated to pay that same amount of money a second time to that creditor if you still want to make him or her whole.

What’s the point of this seeming craziness? It goes back to that principle of treating creditors the same. For example, in the relatively rare Chapter 7 case in which you have assets at the time of filing that are not “exempt”—not protected—the trustee takes them, sells them, and distributes the proceeds to your creditors. If you pay a creditor not long before filing the bankruptcy case, the theory is that you “preferred” that creditor over others. The inappropriate payments are called “preference payments,” or simply “preferences.” The idea is that had you not made those payments, there would have been money to distribute to the creditors overall.

So what are the rules about this so that one can avoid them? If you’d like very effective sleep-inducing bedtime reading, here is Section 547 of the Bankruptcy Code explaining preferences. Nearly 1,400 words, in 57 subsections and sub-subsections!

But the good news is that the basic rule is both reasonably straightforward and often easy to work around if you understand it. So here it is.  A preference is a payment (usually money, but it can be any asset) made (voluntarily or involuntarily such as a garnishment) on a prior debt to a creditor (anybody to whom you legally owe money) during the period of 90 days before the filing of a bankruptcy.  That period of time stretches out to a full year before filing for payments made to “insiders”—basically relatives, friends, and business associates.

So how do you work around this? Well, if you know about the rule in advance, you avoid paying creditors you care about during those 90-day and 1-year periods before filing, whichever is applicable. And if you’ve already made those payments, you avoid the problem by waiting to file long enough to get past those time periods.

There are other aspects that make this easier than it might sound. Payments to most secured debts (on your home, vehicle) don’t count. The trustee can’t chase payments to a single creditor totaling less than $600 in the case of a consumer debtor or less than $5,000 for a business debtor.  And there are various other exceptions.

The bottom line is that overall it’s dangerous to pay creditors who you feel a special loyalty to before filing bankruptcy. The basic 90-day/1-year rule is rather simple, but it has lots of twists and turns so it’s safer to just avoid the issue whenever possible. Often it’s better to wait until after you file your bankruptcy case to pay these people. That’s the subject of the next blog.

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

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

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

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


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

Asset Distribution

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


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


If you’re seriously considering closing down a struggling business, you are likely very concerned about personal damage control: how do you end the business without being pulled down with it?

My last blog was about saving your business through a Chapter 13 case. I can explore that option with you when you come in to see me, but let’s assume here today that either before or after talking with me you’ve made up your mind to close the business. And let’s keep it simpler by assuming that your business is or was a sole proprietorship, as I did in the last blog, and that you truly need bankruptcy relief because of the totally unmanageable size of the debts.

Lots of considerations come into play, but let’s focus on two main ones—assets and debts—in looking at three options: 1) a no-asset Chapter 7 case, 2) an asset Chapter 7 one, and 3) a Chapter 13 case.

No-Asset Chapter 7 for a Fast Fresh Start

After putting so much effort and hope into your business, once you accept the reality that you have to give up on it, you understandably may just want to clean up after it as fast as possible. And in fact a “straight bankruptcy” may be the most consistent with both your gut feelings and with your legal realities.

IF everything that you own—both from the business and personally—fits within the allowed asset exemptions, then your case will likely be relatively simple and quick. A no-asset Chapter 7 case is usually completed from start to finish in about three months. And if none of your assets are within the reach of the trustee, there is nothing to liquidate and distribute among your creditors. The liquidation and distribution process can take many additional months—or even years, so avoiding that streamlines a Chapter 7 case greatly.

But this assumes that all your debts can be handled appropriately in a Chapter 7 case—the debts that you want to discharge (write off) would be discharged and those that would not are ones that you either want to or are able and willing to pay. The debts you want to pay may include secured debts like vehicle loans and mortgages; debts you are able and willing to pay may include certain taxes, support payments, and perhaps student loans.

Asset Chapter 7 Case As a Convenient Liquidation Procedure

If you do have some assets that are not exempt, that alone may not be a reason to avoid Chapter 7. Assuming that those are assets that you can do without—and maybe even are happy to be rid of, such as if they came from your former business—letting the bankruptcy trustee mess with them instead of you doing so may be a sensible and fair way of putting the past behind you.

That may especially be true if you have some debts that you would not mind the trustee paying out of the proceeds of selling your non-exempt assets. You can’t predict with certainly how a trustee will act and how much if any would trickle down to which creditors, but this is something to keep in mind with this option.

Chapter 13 to Deal with the Leftover Consequences

Even if you’d prefer putting your closed business behind you quickly, there may be fallout from that business that a Chapter 7 would not deal with adequately. For example, if the business left you with substantial tax debts that cannot be discharged, non-exempt assets that you need to protect, or a significant mortgage arrearage, Chapter 13 could sometimes save you thousands of dollars and provide you protection from and a better way of dealing with these kinds of creditors. Deciding between Chapter 7 and 13 when different factors point in different directions is where you truly benefit from having an highly experienced bankruptcy attorney help you make that delicate judgment call.


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

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

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

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

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

Your Chapter 7 trustee can use your unneeded assets to pay current-year income taxes if you split the calendar tax year into two: the pre-bankruptcy and post-bankruptcy “short years.”

I’m closing this series on taxes and bankruptcy with three blogs on some relatively sophisticated topics. The tools I discuss do not apply to most cases. But when they do, they can save you a lot of amount of money, and better meet your goals. This first one is a good example.

Let’s first set the scene. If you have substantial income tax liabilities, especially if they are spread over a number of years, Chapter 13 is often the best tool for dealing with them. But a Chapter 13 takes three to five years. Sometimes a Chapter 7 case accomplishes enough so that it’s the better option. If your taxes are old enough and you meet a series of conditions (see my last blog about this), a Chapter 7 case could discharge (legally write off) most or all of your tax debts. But even if Chapter 7 would leave you with a significant nondischargeable tax debt, it might still make more sense as long as you could anticipate a reliable and manageable arrangement for satisfying that one last debt outside of bankruptcy. Getting in and out of bankruptcy in a matter of months instead of up to five years may be worth a lot to you.

The short year election could help just enough to make Chapter 7 a feasible option, and therefore the preferred option. That’s  because it can enable more of your nondischargeable taxes to be paid by the Chapter 7 trustee, leaving you owing less taxes at the completion of your bankruptcy case.

As I said in the first sentence of this blog, the short year election allows you to split your tax year into two tax portions, each of which is treated as its own tax year. The first “short year” covers from January 1 of that year to the day immediately before the filing of your Chapter 7 case, and the other “short year” is the rest of the year—from the date of filing your case until December 31.  

How can this possibly help? Two ways.

1. It allows any taxes you may owe for the short year before filing the Chapter 7 case to be a “priority” debt in your case, so that it can be paid from assets collected by the Chapter 7 trustee. This turns debt that would have been treated as incurred after the filing of the case, and thus wholly your obligation, into one that may be paid in whole or in part by the trustee. This can reduce or eliminate the current year tax debt, leaving you with either less or none to pay after your bankruptcy case is over.

2. It allows you to apply any loss carry forwards or credit carry forwards from the prior tax year to the income earned during that same pre-bankruptcy short year. The loss carry forwards reduce the tax for that short year, thus reducing any your potential tax debt owed after your case is finished. The credit carry forwards increase the tax for that short year, but that gives the trustee the opportunity to pay it if there are estate assets with which to do so. Each in their own way can increase the possibility that you will have less or no taxes to pay after your case is over.

The context that this works best in is a closed business or some other situation where the debtors have non-exempt assets that they do not mind surrendering to the trustee in return for a discharge of most of or all of the debts. Imagine a spouse who had been trying to run a business, and then had to close it down. The other spouse has a relatively high salary or other income but stopped paying withholdings or quarterly estimated taxes at the beginning of the year because of the lack of income from the other spouse closing down the business. By three-fourths of the way through the year, a substantial amount of tax liability could accrue. They may not be able to simply wait until after the end of the year because of pressure from creditors. The short year election allows the tax debt accrued through three-fourths of the year to be potentially paid by the trustee by liquidating the no longer needed business assets. The trustee may also have funds from other sources, such as preferential payments from a creditor or two.

So, through the benefit of the short year election, in the right circumstances the trustee could pay thousands of dollars of your nondischargeable tax debt by liquidating assets that you no longer need, instead of having this same money just going to your other creditors. And to the extent that the trustee would be getting some of that money through forced reimbursement of creditor’s preference payments, some of your taxes would be indirectly paid by those creditors. Not often that you can get somebody else to pay your taxes.

As I said at the beginning, the short year election is a tool which applies only limited cases, but when it does it can be extremely helpful.


NOTE: This election is available ONLY in asset Chapter 7 cases–not Chapter 13s or no-asset Chapter 7s.

Can you keep your tax refund if you file a Chapter 7 case? It’s mostly a matter of timing.


Here are the bullet points:

  • Everything you own at the time your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case is filed becomes your “bankruptcy estate.” Usually, most or all of that “estate” stays in your possession and you get to keep because it’s “exempt,” or protected.
  • That “estate” includes not only your tangible, physical possessions, but also intangible ones—assets you own that you can’t physically touch—such as money owed and not yet paid to you.
  • Depending on the timing, a tax refund can be an intangible asset that becomes part of your bankruptcy estate. Then whether you can keep it or not depends on whether it is exempt.
  • Because an income tax refund usually consists of the overpayment of payroll withholdings, the full amount of that refund has accrued by the time of your last payroll withholding of that tax year. So even though nobody knows the amount of your refund until your tax return is prepared a few weeks or months later, for bankruptcy purposes it is all yours as of the very beginning of the next year.
  • So if you file a Chapter 7 case after the beginning of the following year and before you have received your tax refund, it is part of your bankruptcy estate and the trustee can keep it if it is not exempt, or can keep as much of it as it not exempt. That’s also true if you have received the refund and not done anything with it.
  • You can avoid this by filing your tax return and receiving and appropriately spending the refund before your Chapter 7 case is filed. DO NOT do this without very specific advice from your attorney. The bankruptcy system is very interested in what money you receive and precisely how you spend it before filing bankruptcy, and you can very easily get into trouble if this is not all done very carefully.
  • If the bankruptcy is filed so that the refund is an asset of the bankruptcy estate, whether or not it is exempt depends on how large it is and how much of an exemption is allowed in your state. In some cases, using all or part of an exemption for the tax refund may reduce the availability of the exemption for other assets.
  • Some states have specific exemptions applicable to certain parts of the tax refund, or laws that exclude them from the bankruptcy estate altogether, particularly regarding the Child Tax Credit or the Earned Income Tax Credit. These likely do not exist in a majority of the states, but it’s worth checking.  
  • Even if the refund, or a portion of it, is not exempt, the Chapter 7 trustee may still NOT claim it if he or she determines the amount is not enough to open an “asset case.” That is, the amount of refund to be collected is so small that the benefit of distributing it to the creditors is outweighed by the administrative cost involved. You might hear a phrase similar to the amount being “insufficient for a meaningful distribution to the creditors.” This threshold amount can vary from one court to another, indeed from one trustee to another, so be sure to discuss this with your attorney. But note that if the trustee is collecting any other assets, then most likely he or she will want every dollar of tax refunds that are not exempt.
  • There is a risk that you will not be able to claim an exemption if you don’t list the tax refund to which the exemption applies. So be sure to always list any tax refund to which you may be entitled.
  • Although I’m focusing on this issue now because we are in tax season, the same principles apply year-round. Frankly, it can be a little harder to wrap your brain around this as applied to, say, filing a bankruptcy in the middle of the year. As of July 1, you’ve had a half-year of tax withholdings deducted from your paychecks and forwarded by your employer to the taxing authorities. So, assuming the same amounts were withheld throughout the year, if you end up getting a substantial refund the following spring, for bankruptcy purposes about half of that had accrued by mid-year. So a bankruptcy filed on July 1, needs to take that into account. Some Chapter 7 trustees don’t push this issue much until the last quarter of the year, when that much more of the refunds have accrued. But regardless, tell your attorney about income tax refunds anticipated the following year, particularly if you have a history of relatively large tax refunds.


When the sole proprietor of a just-closed business files a personal Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, the trustee may or may not have assets to liquidate and distribute to the creditors. If NOT, the case will more likely be finished faster. But if the trustee DOES collect some assets, the extra time may be worth it for the former business owner.  

If you’ve closed down your business and as a result are now personally liable on large debts that you cannot pay, you may well be wondering whether bankruptcy is your best option. Assuming that you qualify for a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy,” one important issue to consider is whether your case would likely be an “asset” or “no asset” one.  An “asset case” is one in which the Chapter 7 trustee collects assets from you to sell, and then distribute their proceeds to your creditors. A “no asset case” is one in which the trustee does not collect any assets from you because your assets are either protected by “exemptions” or are not worth the trustee’s efforts and expense to collect.

Generally a “no asset case” is simpler and quicker than an “asset case,” although not necessarily better. It’s simpler because it avoids the entire liquidation and distribution process. A simple “no asset case” can be completed about three months after it is filed (assuming other kinds of complication do not arise).  In contrast, it takes at least a number of additional months for a trustee to take possession of an asset, sell it in a fair and open manner with notice to all interested parties, give creditors the opportunity to file claims on the sale proceeds, object to any inappropriate claims, and then distribute the funds to the creditors.  Some assets—especially intangible ones such as a debtor’s disputed claims against a third party—can take several years for the trustee to negotiate and/or litigate in order to convert it into cash, with the bankruptcy case kept open throughout this time.

In spite of this seeming disadvantage, an “asset case” can be better for a former business owner in certain circumstances.

First, a business owner may decide to close down a business and file a bankruptcy quickly afterwards to hand over to the trustee the headaches of collecting and liquidating the remaining assets and paying the creditors in a fair and legally appropriate way. After fighting for a long time to try to save a business, the owner may well be emotionally spent and in no position to try to negotiate work-out terms with all the creditors. There is unlikely sufficient money available to pay an attorney to do this. And if there are relatively few assets compared to the amount of debts—the usual situation—it’s likely that after all that effort the former owner will still owe an impossible amount of debt.

And second, that former business owner may want his or her assets to go through the Chapter 7 liquidation process if the debts that the trustee will likely pay first are ones that the former business owner especially wants to be paid. The trustee pays creditors according to a legal list of priorities. Without going here into the details of that long priorities list, at the top of the list are child and spousal support arrearages. Also high on the list are certain employee wage, commission, and benefits claims, as well as certain tax claims. He or she may well feel a special responsibility to take care of the ex-spouse and children, former employees, and taxes. And the fact that he or she would likely continue being personally liable on these obligations after the bankruptcy is over undoubtedly adds some motivation.

A “no asset” personal Chapter 7 case can be a relatively quick and efficient way for a former sole proprietor to put the closed business legally into the past. While an “asset” case can take somewhat longer, it can help pay some of the special creditors you want to be paid anyway.