Getting sued by a creditor starts a very fast-ticking time bomb. You should and you CAN prevent this bomb from going off.


A Lawsuit Should Catch Your Attention AND Spur You to Action

For certain economic reasons, most conventional creditors don’t sue you as quickly as they legally could. That means that if you are getting sued you are very likely in some significant financial trouble. Even if you feel like there is nothing you can do, there almost always is, and you owe it to yourself to treat it as a wake-up call. You will feel better if you are proactive and at the very least understand your options, instead of just avoid the situation out of understandable fear or embarrassment.

Most debts that people get behind on are at some point—often quite quickly—assigned by the original creditors to collection agencies. This can happen two ways. Either the creditor still owns the rights to the debt and the collection agency simply gets a percentage of what it collects, or the creditor sells all of its rights to the debt to a collection agency and then is legally no longer in the picture.

Either way, the collection agency then tries to get you to pay the debt. In most situations it is reluctant to sue you—at least at first—because a lawsuit costs it money that it doesn’t know if it will ever recoup from you. Instead—again at least at first—it will tend to aggressively contact you and try to make you pay whatever it can. Depending on the facts of the situation—including whether you have a job or real estate or other assets—the collection agency will then decide whether it’s worth suing you. If you ARE sued, there’s a good chance that the collection agency believes it can force payment from you by garnishing your paycheck or bank account, or by putting a lien on your home or by attaching other assets. Once you are sued, the collector has upped the ante and is signaling that it believes investing in a lawsuit is worthwhile to it.

This is a signal you need to pay attention to right away.

The Game Collectors Play

Collection agencies act out of their own self-interest. They don’t generally sue you without doing a cost-benefit analysis: they don’t invest the cost of a lawsuit without thinking that the odds are good that they’ll get a decent return on that investment—getting those costs repaid and the debt as well. After all, a collection agency that wastes too much of its money on lawsuits that don’t pay off won’t be in business long.

So if you’re sued, most likely the collector has its eyes on one or more potential ways it expects to force you to pay—such as a paycheck to garnish, or some real estate to put a lien on (to foreclose on or get paid when you sell or refinance). Even if you are not working now, your prior work history may make you a decent target. The collector has decided it would benefit from forcing you to pay the debt by court order and enforcement—through garnishment, forcing you to appear for a judgment debtor examination, placing a judgment lien on your real estate, and such.

In fact the collection agency is banking on you not taking the lawsuit seriously enough. The sad truth is that a large majority of the time people don’t respond to lawsuits so that judgments are entered against them by default. The collector is hoping to get a judgment against you, and then to use the force of law to start grabbing your income and your assets.

How to Beat Collectors at This Game

Don’t assume that there is nothing you can do. Don’t take the seemingly common sense but wrong approach that you owe them the money and so you have to take whatever they dish out. Find out what they can and can’t do to you, and how you can protect yourself. And do that before the time expires and the creditor or collection agency gets its judgment against you.

Don’t let your creditors take advantage of you and your lack of knowledge.  Most consumer or bankruptcy attorneys will give you a free consultation with honest advice about your options. Learn what’s best for you in light of your own personal goals and hopes. You can and ought to have a proactive game plan.

Timing is Absolutely Crucial

When you find out you’ve been sued, there is very little time to respond. If you don’t in time, you lose the lawsuit “by default.”

The judgment that results is much more than simply an admission that you owe the debt. The formal complaint in most creditor lawsuits consist of a statement that you owe a debt, and now owe the full balance, plus the interest accrued so far and into the future, plus whatever attorney fees and other costs paid by the creditor/collector to sue you.

Letting a default judgment be entered against you makes you forever legally liable based on whatever allegations the creditor put into its complaint, even if inaccurate or not supported by your contract or by the law.

The complaint may include admissions that can be even more dangerous, for example, that you incurred the debt through fraud, potentially making the debt not dischargeable even in bankruptcy.

Reasons to Not Allow a Default Judgment

Quickly see an attorney as soon as you are sued because:

a) You should understand the consequences of the lawsuit, and your options for dealing with it. Know what your options are instead of assuming you have none.

b) You may have defenses so that you don’t legally owe the debt after all. Collection agencies routinely try to collect debts on which the statute of limitations has expired. They can sue the wrong person. They may include allegations which are not accurate or supported by law.

c) You may have a counterclaim—an argument that the creditor acted illegally in some way and actually owes you money for damages. At the least this could give you leverage to settle the debt under much better terms.

d) Once the time to respond expires and a judgment is entered, it is too late to deny the allegations in the complaint.   

e) By having an attorney review the lawsuit and your overall debt picture, and discuss your options, you may end up solving deeper problems. Most consumers do not have an attorney who they talk with regularly. So problems accumulate. You don’t have a chance to ask questions when they arise. This often leads to lots of confusion and anxiety. Seeing an attorney about a pending lawsuit could lead to addressing how to improve your entire financial life.  


How does bankruptcy stop garnishments, foreclosures, and repossessions?


Filing a bankruptcy case gets immediate protection for you, for your paycheck, for your home, and for all your possessions. This “automatic stay” provides this kind of protection for you and your property the moment either a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case or a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case is filed. Virtually all efforts by all your creditors against you or anything you own comes to an immediate stop.

“Automatic Stay” = Immediate Stop

“Stay” is simply a legal word meaning “stop” or “freeze.”

“Automatic” means that this “stay” goes into effect immediately upon the filing of your bankruptcy petition. That filing itself, according to the federal Bankruptcy Code, “operates as a stay” of virtually all creditors’ actions to pursue a debt or take possession of collateral. Since the filing of your case itself imposes the stay, there is no delay or doubt about whether a judge will sign an order to impose the “stay” against your creditors.

Creditors Need to Be Informed, Sometimes Directly

Although the protection of the “automatic stay” is imposed instantaneous, practically speaking your creditors need to be informed about the filing of your case so that they are made aware that they must comply with it. If your creditors are all listed in your bankruptcy case documents, they should all get informed by the bankruptcy court within about a week or so after your case is filed. This doesn’t take any additional action by either you or your attorney (beyond making sure all of your creditors are listed in the schedule of creditors filed at the bankruptcy court). If you have no reason to expect any action against you by any of your creditors before that, just letting them all be informed by the court is usually all that’s needed.

However, if you are expecting some action by any of your creditors quicker than a week or so after filing the case, be sure to talk with your attorney about it. That way any such creditor can be directly informed by about your bankruptcy filing to stop whatever collection action it was contemplating. Make sure you and your attorney are clear which of you is informing that creditor and in what way.

Creditor Action Taken Unexpectedly

But what if a creditor has not yet been informed of your bankruptcy filing when it takes some action against you or your property in the days after your bankruptcy filing but before it finds out about it?

If this happens, the “automatic stay” is so powerful that in most circumstances such a creditor must undo whatever action it took against you after your bankruptcy was filed, even if this creditor honestly did not yet know about your filing. For example, if after your bankruptcy is filed a creditor files a lawsuit against you or gets a judgment on a lawsuit that it had filed earlier, the creditor must dismiss (throw out) its lawsuit or vacate (erase) the judgment.


Debtors’ prisons? There’s that and a lot more to the very colorful history of bankruptcy law.


American bankruptcy law naturally grew out of the law of England during our colonial history. Pre-Revolutionary War bankruptcy laws were extremely different from current law.

  • The first bankruptcy law in England was enacted more than 450 years ago during the reign of Henry VIII. Debtors were called “offenders” under this first law, in effect seen as perpetrators of a property crime against their creditors. The purpose of this law, and as expanded during the following hundred and fifty years, was not to give relief to debtors. Rather it was to provide to creditors a more effective way to collect against their debtors.
  • Given this purpose, it is not surprising that this first law did not give debtors a discharge—a legal write-off—of their debts. In a bankruptcy the assets of the “offender” were seized, sold, and the proceeds distributed to creditors. And then the creditors could still continue pursuing the “offender” for any remaining balance owed.
  • A bankruptcy proceeding could only be started by creditors, not by debtors.  Creditors accused a debtor of an “act of bankruptcy,” such as physically hiding from creditors, or hiding assets by transferring them to someone else.  The current extremely seldom used “involuntary bankruptcy” is a remnant of this.
  • Strangely, only merchants could file bankruptcy. Why? Credit was seen as immoral, with only merchants being allowed to use credit, for whom it was seen as a necessary evil. As the only ones who had access to credit, only merchants had the capacity to become bankrupt.
  • For the following century and a half through the late 1600s, Parliament made the law even stronger for creditors, allowing bankruptcy “commissioners” to break into the homes of “offenders” to seize their assets, put them into pillories (structures with holes for head and hands used for public shaming), and even cut off their ears.
  • Finally in the early 1700s the discharge of debts was permitted for cooperative debtors, but only if the creditors consented!
  • Yet the law still provided for the death penalty for fraudulent debtors (although it was very seldom used).
  • Cooperative debtors received an allowance from their own assets, the very early beginnings of the current Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”

So this was the English bankruptcy law that was largely in effect at the time that the U.S. Constitution was adopted. That gives some perspective on what the framers may have had in mind with the Bankruptcy Clause of the U. S. Constitution. That Clause gave Congress power to “pass uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies.” Fortunately the language is so open-ended that it gave bankruptcy laws the opportunity to evolve during the last two hundred fifty years into one infinitely both more compassionate and beneficial for the economy.

But this evolution during our national history was extremely rocky, until surprisingly recently. That is the topic of the next blog. 


The point of filing bankruptcy is to get relief from your debts. So, when and how DO those debts get “discharged”—legally written off—in a regular Chapter 7 bankruptcy?


Here’s what you need to know:

1.      You WILL receive a discharge of your debts, as long as you play by the rules. Under Section 727 of the Bankruptcy Code, the bankruptcy court “shall grant the debtor a discharge” except in relatively unusual circumstances:

  • If you’re not an individual!  Corporations and other kinds of business entities do not receive a discharge of debts, only human beings do.
  • If you’ve received a discharge in an earlier case too recently. You can’t get a new discharge of your debts in a Chapter 7 case if:
    • you already received a discharge of debts in an earlier Chapter 7 case filed no more than 8 years before your present case was filed, or
    • you already received a discharge of debts in an earlier Chapter 13 case filed no more than 6 years before your present case was filed (except under limited conditions).
  • If you hide or destroy assets, conceal or destroy records about your financial condition.
  • If in connection with your Chapter 7 case you make a false oath, a false claim, or withhold information or records about your property or financial affairs.

2.      ALL your debts will be discharged, UNLESS a particular debt fits one of the specific exceptions. Section 523 of the Code lists those “exceptions to discharge.” I’m not going to discuss those exceptions in detail here, but the main ones include:

  • most but not all taxes
  • debts incurred through fraud or misrepresentation, including recent cash advances and “luxury” purchases
  • debts which were not listed on the bankruptcy schedules on time
  • money owed because of embezzlement, larceny, or through other kinds of theft or fraud in a fiduciary relationship
  • child and spousal support
  • claims against you for intentional injury to another person or property
  • most but not all student loans
  • claims against you for causing injury or death to someone by driving while intoxicated (also applies to boating and flying)                                                                                                                   

3.      A discharge from the bankruptcy court stops a creditor from ever attempting to collect on the debt. Under Section 524, the discharge order acts as a court injunction against the creditor from taking any action—through a court procedure or on its own–to “collect, recover, or offset any such debt.” If a creditor violates this injunction by trying to pursue a discharged debt, the bankruptcy court may hold the creditor in contempt of court and, depending on the seriousness of its illegal behavior, can require the creditor to pay sanctions.

Chapter 7 protects you and your assets with the automatic stay. Chapter 13 goes a big step further by also protecting your co-signers and their assets.

The first three chapters of the Bankruptcy Code—chapters 1, 3, and 5—include code sections that tend to apply to all of the bankruptcy options. In contrast, the code sections within chapters 7 and 13 apply only to cases filed under those chapters. Because the automatic stay—your protection from collection by creditors that kicks in as soon as your bankruptcy case is filed—applies to all bankruptcy cases, it is found in one of the earlier chapters of the code. It’s in chapter 3, section 362.

But the very first section of chapter 13—section 1301—also deals with the automatic stay, and adds another layer of protection that only applies to cases filed under Chapter 13.

The core of section 1301 states that once a Chapter 13 case is filed, “a creditor may not act, or commence or continue any civil action, to collect all or any part of a consumer debt of the debtor from any other individual that is liable on such debt with the debtor.”

This means that a creditor on a consumer debt, who is already stopped by the general automatic stay provisions of section 362 from doing anything to collect a debt directly from the debtor, is also stopped from collecting on the same debt from anybody else who is co-signed or otherwise also obligated to pay that debt.

If you think about it, that’s rather powerful. You are given the ability to protect somebody—often somebody your really care about—who is not filing bankruptcy and so is not even directly in front of the court. The person being protected may not even know that you are protecting them from the creditor.

This “co-debtor” protection does have some important conditions and limits:

1. It applies only to “consumer debts” (those “incurred by an individual primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose”).

2. For purposes of this code section, income tax debts are not considered “consumer debts.” So spouses on jointly filed tax returns or business associates with whom you share a tax liability are NOT protected.

3. This protection does not extend to those who “became liable on… such debt in the ordinary course of such individual’s business.”

4. Creditors can ask for and get permission to pursue the otherwise protected co-debtor to the extent that:

(a)  the co-debtor received the benefit of the loan or whatever “consideration” was provided by the creditor (instead of the person filing the bankruptcy), or

(b)  the Chapter 13 plan “proposes not to pay such claim.”

5. This co-debtor stay evaporates as soon as the Chapter 13 case is completed, or if it’s dismissed (such as for failure to make the plan payments), or converted into a Chapter 7 case.

Choosing between Chapter 7 and 13 often involves weighing a series of considerations. If you want to insulate a co-signer or someone liable on a debt with you from any adverse consequences of your bankruptcy case, that is one consideration that will likely push you in the Chapter 13 direction because of the co-debtor stay.

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.

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.