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


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

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

The Fraud/Misrepresentation Exception to Discharge

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

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

The Point of a “Presumption”

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

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

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

The “Luxury Goods or Services” Presumption

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

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

The Cash Advances Presumption

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

A Creditor Does Not Need a Presumption

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

Avoiding These Presumptions

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

In most Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcies,” most debts are legally written off, especially debts that are not secured by any collateral and don’t belong to any of the special “priority” categories of debt. But how about in a Chapter 13 payment plan? What determines whether these creditors get paid, and if so how much?

The beauty of Chapter 13 is that it is both flexible and structured. Flexibility allows Chapter 13 to help people with wildly different circumstances. Structure—the set of rules governing Chapter 13—is important because clear rules balancing the rights of debtors and creditors reduces disputes between them. There is only so much money to go around to the creditors, so less fighting means less precious money spent on attorneys and more available for satisfying the creditors. And then getting on with life.

How much the general unsecured debts get paid in any Chapter 13 case is a reflection of these two themes working together. These are illustrated through the following rules, and their impact on the payout to these creditors.

1. Creditors which are legally the same are treated the same. So, all general unsecured creditors get paid the same percent of their debt through a Chapter 13 plan.

2. For any creditor—including a general unsecured one—to share in the distribution of payments, it has to file a proof of claim on time with the bankruptcy court. A general unsecured creditor which fails to file this simple document stating the amount and nature of the debt will receive nothing through the plan, and the debt will be discharged at the end of the case if it completed successfully.

3. The failure of one or more creditors to file its proof of claim usually, but not always, means that there will be more money available for the other creditors. Two exceptions: a “0% plan,” in which the general unsecured creditors are receiving nothing; or a “100% plan,” in which these creditors are being paid the entire amount of their debts.

4. “0% plans” are those in which all of the money paid by the debtor through the Chapter 13 trustee is earmarked to pay secured creditors, “priority” creditors (such as taxes and child/spousal support), and/or trustee and attorney fees. Some bankruptcy courts frown on “0% plans,” especially in certain situations, such as when there does not seem to be good reason to be in a Chapter 13 case instead of a usually much less expensive Chapter 7.

5. “100% plans” are those in which all of the general unsecured creditors’ debts are paid in full through the trustee. These happen primarily for two reasons. The debtors:

a. are required to make payments based on their budget, which provides enough money over the course of the case to pay off their debts in full; or

b. own more non-exempt assets which they are protecting through their Chapter 13 case than they have debts, which requires them to pay off their debts in full.

6. A major consideration for how much the general unsecured creditors receive is how long the debtors are required to pay into their Chapter 13 case. Generally, if debtors’ pre-filing income is less than the published “median income” for their applicable state and family size, then they pay for 3 years into their plan. If their income is more than that amount, they must pay for 5 years instead. The length of the case obviously affects how much is paid in, and so usually affects how much the general unsecured creditors receive.

7. Payments to general unsecured creditors can be affected by changes which occur during the case—income increases or decreases adjusting the plan payment amount, unexpected tax refunds and employee bonuses paid over to the trustee, and even additional allowed debtors’ attorney fees reducing what is available to the creditors.

8. Once the general unsecured creditors receive whatever the Chapter 13 plan provides for them (and the rest of the plan requirements are met), the remaining balances are legally discharged. The result is that all general unsecured creditors receive the same pro rata share, and that’s the end of the story for them. The exception is the relatively rare creditor which succeeds during the case in convincing the court that its debt should not be discharged at all. This only applies to situations involving a debtor’s fraud or other similar significant wrongdoing, and only if the creditor raises the issue by a very strict deadline just a few months into the case. This creditor still shares in the distribution of payments to all the general unsecured creditors. But at the end of the case, there is no discharge of its remaining debt, which the creditor can then pursue against the debtor.

Clearly, a lot of considerations go into how much the general unsecured creditors will be paid in any Chapter 13 case. There are many interacting rules to be applied to the unique financial and human factors of each case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there ARE two exceptions.

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

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

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

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

One can understand if a major U.S. credit card company forgets that one of its customers had earlier written off that company’s debt in bankruptcy. But forgetting this very important fact for 15,500 of its customers?!?

It is bad enough that Capital One lost track that its old debts had been legally written off (“discharged”). But in each one of these 15,500 cases it didn’t bother to check if the debts were discharged, and so it actually filed documents in subsequent bankruptcy cases asserting that the debts were still legally owed. Each of these “proofs of claim” were dated and signed by a Capital One representative, with the signature right next to this statement: “Penalty for presenting fraudulent claim: Fine of up to $500,000 or imprisonment for up to 5 years, or both.” Now, I don’t think anyone is alleging that Capital One is purposely and fraudulently chasing stale debt, but they sure are being awfully negligent in their internal recordkeeping, or maybe even reckless in blindly chasing debts without bothering to find out if they are still legally owed.

This whole ugly mess was uncovered by the “U.S. Trustee.” People filing bankruptcy may hear that the U.S. Trustee is somebody who is not on your side, mostly someone who can turn your Chapter 7 case into a Chapter 13 one if you don’t follow the rules. But its watchdog role is much broader–it “protects the integrity of the bankruptcy system by overseeing case administration and litigating to enforce the bankruptcy laws.“ Obviously, a creditor filing a document in a bankruptcy case saying that it is owed money when it not is in violation of the bankruptcy laws. Doing this in 15,500 cases is majorly bashing the integrity of the bankruptcy system, and causing havoc to “case administration.”

How so? Think about it. A creditor’s proof of claim is generally considered accurate unless somebody challenges it. The creditor usually attaches some documentation, which makes the debt look authentic. The debtor usually has little incentive to spend time or money on the issue because usually that proof of claim does not change how much the debtor has to pay, instead only how the creditors will divide up the money. When Capital One gets paid on a false claim in an asset Chapter 7 case or a Chapter 13 case, that inappropriate payment reduces the trustee’s payouts to all the other creditors, the amount of reduction depending on the size of each one of the other creditors’ claims. So now in 15,500 individual cases Capital One has to give back whatever money it actually received—amounting to $2.35 million—and the trustee in each case has to precisely recalculate how much each one of the other creditors was short-changed, and then cut checks for all those other creditors in those amounts. What a huge waste of time.

What does this mean for you? As to Capital One, if it is or was one of your creditors and you are (or will be) in either a Chapter 13 case or asset Chapter 7 case, have your attorney keep a close eye on any proofs of claim this creditor files. As to creditors in general, this is good reminder that creditors sometimes file inaccurate documents—purposely or not—in bankruptcy court. Proof of claims specifically, and other documents as well (such as motions for relief from stay) need to be scrutinized carefully, not just accepted as face value. Much of the time most creditors keep decent records and file accurate documents in court. Just don’t assume all of them do all the time. Especially Capital One.