How can you tell if your Chapter 7 case will be straightforward? Avoid 4 problems.


Most Chapter 7 cases ARE straightforward. Your bankruptcy documents are prepared by your attorney and filed at court, about a month later you go to a simple 10-minute hearing with your attorney, and then two more months later your debts are discharged—written off. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes but that’s usually the gist of it.

But some cases ARE more complicated. How can you tell if your case will likely be straightforward or instead will be one of the relatively few more complicated ones?

The four main problem areas are: 1) income, 2) assets, 3) creditor challenges, and 4) trustee challenges.

1) Income

Most people filing under Chapter 7 have less income than the median income amounts for their state and family size. That enables them to easily pass the “means test.” But if instead you made or received too much money during the precise period of 6 full calendar months before your case is filed, you can be disqualified from Chapter 7. Or you may have to jump through some more complicated steps to establish that you are not “abusing” Chapter 7. Otherwise you could be forced into a 3-to-5 year Chapter 13 case or your case could be dismissed—thrown out of court. These results can sometimes be avoided with careful timing of your case, or even by making change to your income before filing.

2) Assets

Under Chapter 7 if you have an asset which is not protected (“exempt”), the Chapter 7 trustee can take and sell that asset, and pay the proceeds to the creditors. You may be willing to surrender a particular asset you don’t need in return for the discharge of your debts. That could especially be true if the trustee would use those proceeds in part to pay a debt that you want and need to be paid anyway, such as back payments of child support or income taxes. Or you may want to pay off the trustee through monthly payments in return for the privilege of keeping that asset. In these “asset” scenarios, there are complications not present in the more common “no asset” cases.

3) Creditor Challenges to the Dischargeability of a Debt

Creditors have a limited right to raise objections to the discharge of their individual debts. This is limited to grounds such as fraud, misrepresentation, theft, intentional injury to person or property, and similar bad acts. With most of these, the creditor must raise such objections to dischargeability within about three months of the filing of your Chapter 7 case—precisely 60 days after your “Meeting of Creditors.” Once that deadline passes your creditors can no longer complain, assuming that they received notice of your bankruptcy case.

4) Trustee Challenges to the Discharge of All Debts

In rare circumstances, such as if you do not disclose all your assets or fail to answer other questions accurately, either in writing or orally at the trustee’s Meeting of Creditors, or if you don’t cooperate with the trustee’s review of your financial circumstances, you could possibly lose the right to discharge any of your debts. The bankruptcy system largely relies on the honesty and accuracy of debtors. So it is quite harsh towards those who abuse the system through deceit.

No Surprises

Most of the time, Chapter 7s are straightforward. The most important thing you can do towards that end is to be completely honest and thorough with your attorney during your meetings and through the information and documents you provide. That way you will find out if there are likely to be any complications, and if so whether they can be avoided, or, if not, how they can be addressed in the best way possible. 


How does a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” protect what you may otherwise lose in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy”?


Chapter 13 is often an excellent way to keep possessions that are not “exempt”—which are worth too much or have too much equity so that their value exceeds the allowed exemption, or that simply don’t fit within any available exemption.

Options Other Than Chapter 13

If you want to protect possessions which are not exempt, you may have some choices besides Chapter 13.

You could just go ahead and file a Chapter 7 case and surrender the non-exempt asset to the trustee. This may be a sensible choice if that asset is something you don’t really need, such as equipment or inventory from a business that you’ve closed.  Surrendering an asset under Chapter 7 may also make sense if you have “priority” debts that you want and need to be paid—such as recent income taxes or back child support—which the Chapter 7 trustee would pay with the proceeds of sale of your surrendered asset(s), ahead of the other debts.

There are also asset protection techniques—such as selling or encumbering those assets before filing the bankruptcy, or negotiating payment terms with the Chapter 7 trustee —which are delicate procedures beyond the scope of this blog post.

Chapter 13 Non-Exempt Asset Protection

If you have an asset that is not protected by an exemption which you really need or simply want to keep, by filing under Chapter 13 you can keep that asset by paying over time for the privilege of keeping it.  Your attorney simply calculates your Chapter 13 plan so that your creditors receive as much as they would have received if you would have surrendered that asset to a Chapter 7 trustee.

For example, if you own a free and clear vehicle worth $3,000 more than the applicable exemption, you would pay that amount into your plan (in addition to amounts being paid to secured creditors such as back payments on your mortgage). You would have 3 to 5 years—the usual span of a Chapter 13 case—throughout which time you’d be protected from your creditors. Your asset-protection payments are spread out over this length of time, making it relatively easy and predictable to pay.

This is in contrast to negotiating with a Chapter 7 trustee to pay to keep an asset, in which you would usually have less time to pay it and less predictability as to how much you’d have to pay.

Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13 Asset Protection

Whether the asset(s) that you are protecting is worth the additional time and expense of a Chapter 13 case depends on the importance of that asset, and other factors.

First note that people with assets to protect have other reasons to be in a Chapter 13 case, and the asset protection feature is just one more benefit.

Furthermore, in some Chapter 13s you can retain your non-exempt assets without paying anything more to your creditors than if you did not have any assets to protect. If you owe recent income taxes and/or back support payments (or any other special “priority” debts which must be paid in full in a Chapter 13 case), you can use these debts to your advantage. Since in a Chapter 7 case such “priority” debts would be paid in full before other creditors would receive any proceeds of the sale of any surrendered assets, if the amount of such “priority” debts are more than the asset value you are seeking to protect, you may well only need to pay enough into your Chapter 13 case to pay off these “priority” debts.

This way you would get an immediate solution—your assets protected right away and the IRS or other “priority” debt creditor off your back. And you’d have a long-term solution, too—your assets would be protected throughout the Chapter 13 case, and the IRS and/or other “priority” creditor would get paid off. Once your case is completed, you would be debt-free. 


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.


If you moved to your present state less than two years ago, when you file bankruptcy can affect how much of your property is protected.


Even though bankruptcy is a federal procedure, the state where you are “domiciled” can greatly affect how much of your property you can protect in bankruptcy. In a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, this can determine whether you have to surrender any of your property to the bankruptcy trustee. In a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case, this can determine how much you need to pay to your creditors during your payment plan.

Property Exemptions Can Be Very Different State to State

The property exemption laws of one state can be radically different from those of another state, even if that state is right next door.

Take the example of the exemptions available to a person who lives in Mobile, on the southern tip of Alabama, and those available to someone who lives an hour drive to the east in Pensacola, on the Florida Panhandle.

First one similarity: both Alabama and Florida, like a majority of the states, require their residents to use their state property exemptions instead of a federal set of exemptions in the Bankruptcy Code. So a long-time resident of Mobile must use the Alabama exemptions in her bankruptcy filing, while a long-time resident of Pensacola must use the Florida exemptions.

These two states’ homestead exemptions—the amount of value in your home that you can protect from creditors—are a stark example how exemptions can be radically different. Alabama has one of the least generous homestead exemption amounts—$5,000 in value or equity, or $10,000 for a couple—while Florida has one of the most generous—unlimited value or equity. Simply put, if a person owned a $150,000 free and clear home in Mobile (or one with that much equity) and filed a Chapter 7 case, the Chapter 7 trustee would take that home, sell it to pay creditors, and give the person the $5,000 exemption amount (and possibly any left over after paying the creditors in full). That same valued house in Pensacola (or one with that much equity) would be completely protected, the trustee could not touch it, and the creditors would get nothing from it.

(Note that if you “acquired” your present homestead within 1,215 days (about 40 months) before filing bankruptcy—and the equity for it did not come from a prior principal residence in that same state—then your homestead exemption is limited to a maximum of $155,675, even if your present state’s exemption is more generous. (See Section 522(p) of the Bankruptcy Code.) The point of this law is to discourage people from moving to and buying a house in a state with a high or unlimited homestead exemption in order to shield their assets from bankruptcy.)

Choosing between Your Prior and Present States’ Exemptions

You may have an opportunity to take advantage of the difference in exemptions between your prior and present state because of the bankruptcy law that determines which state’s laws you must use. If you have lived in your present state for the last 730 days (2 times 365 days), then the property exemptions which will apply to your bankruptcy case are the ones allowed in your state. However, if you moved during these last 730 days from another state, then the exemptions of your prior state will apply.

(To be picky, you follow the law of the state where you had your domicile—generally, where you were living—“during the 180 days immediately preceding the 730-day period.” See Section 522(b)(3)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code for all the gory details.)

So if you moved from another state to your present state in less than two years, and you file a bankruptcy before the 730-day period expires, than you must use the exemptions of your prior state. But if you wait until immediately after that 730-day period expires, you must use the exemptions of your present state.

Find Out If the Different States’ Exemptions Matter to You

It is definitely possible that all of your property is protected by the exemptions available in EITHER state. The contrast in homestead exemptions above between Alabama and Florida is an extreme one. Most people who file bankruptcy do NOT lose any of their property. So the first thing you need to do if you have moved in the last two years from another state and are in financial trouble is talk to a local bankruptcy attorney. Find out if you have any assets which would be protected better by either of your two states. And if so, see if it is worthwhile in your particular situation to pick when you file your bankruptcy case based on which state’s exemptions are better for you. You certainly don’t want to be in the situation when you find out too late that you could have protected your property better by filing a few months or even a few days earlier.