Here’s how to focus on running your business, by stopping your creditors from taking the wind out of your sails.

In the last few blogs I’ve been talking about some of the extra considerations that come into play when you own a business, are having financial troubles, and wonder if bankruptcy can help. No question—most of the time, having a business adds an extra layer of issues for me to help you work through in deciding whether bankruptcy is the best option, and then putting your case together if it is. But a business Chapter 13 case does not have to be complicated. Let’s take a very simple business situation, and walk it through a Chapter 13 case, to get a practical feel for how it works.

So let’s say Mark, a single 30-year old, started a handyman business when he lost his job three years ago. Before that he’d done about ten years of all kinds of construction and maintenance work, already owned all the tools he needed, and had even taken a few courses at the local community college in small business management because he’d always wanted to run his own business. He had good credit at the time, owed nothing but about $3,000 on some credit cards, plus had never been late on his modest mortgage. Mark had lived all his life in the same city, was the kind of guy who knew tons of people, and had well-earned reputation that he could fix anything. He put a lot of time into putting together a detailed and realistic business plan. He knew he should have some money saved up to get him past the start-up phase, but then the recession hit, he was out of work, and decided it was now or never. Besides, he had $7,000 of credit available on his credit cards if he got desperate.

His business started off slowly, partly because he didn’t have any money for advertizing. But he was creative and worked very hard building a customer base and a good business reputation. His income was creeping steadily upwards, but way too slowly. Over the course of the first year Mark maxed out his credit cards, and simply didn’t have enough money to pay income taxes to the IRS, falling behind $7,000 to them. Then during the second year he managed to service the credit card debt but couldn’t pay it down any, and fell behind another $7,000 to Uncle Sam. Then this last year, the IRS forced him to start making $500 monthly payments on his $14,000 debt, plus the estimated payments for the current year so that he didn’t continue falling further behind with them. As a result he’d gotten spotty on his credit card payments, which jacked up the interest rates and pushed him over the credit limits, piling on all kinds of fees. And now he’s missed a total of 4 payments on his mortgage, putting him $6,000 in arrears.

In the midst of all this his business now has steady—and still slowly increasing—income, Mark enjoys his work in spite of all the financial pressures, and believes he can keep growing it, especially if/when the economy improves. But the IRS has him in a vice, the credit cards creditors are sending their accounts to collection agencies, and his home is heading sooner or later to foreclosure.

A Chapter 13 case filed now for Mark would:

  • Stop the pressure by the IRS on the $14,000 debt, by cancelling the $500 payments, and giving him much longer—3-to-5 years—to pay that debt, usually with NO additional ongoing interest or “failure to pay” penalties, thus reducing the total amount to be paid to the IRS.
  • Stop collection efforts by the credit card creditors and collection agencies, who would only receive money AFTER he caught up on the house arrearage AND paid off all the taxes, with the amount received depending on what Mark could afford and how much in assets he needed to protect.
  • Immediately and consistently protect all his business and personal assets—tools and supplies, his business truck and/or personal vehicle, receivables owed by customers for prior work, and his business and personal bank and/or credit union accounts.
  • Allow him to focus on his business instead of his creditors, giving that business much more of a chance at success.
  • Get him debt-free–at the end of the 3-to-5 years Chapter 13 Plan, his mortgage would be current, he would owe nothing more to Uncle Sam, and he would have paid as much as he could afford on the credit cards, with the rest written off.

And the business that he loves, and in which he invested so much hope and dedication, would be alive and well.

Bankruptcy isn’t just for cleaning up after the death of a business. It can keep your business alive.

Bankruptcy saved General Motors. That business got out of a lot of it debt and restructured its operations, and ended up saving a lot of jobs. If you operate your own small business, bankruptcy may be able to save your job, too.

Let’s assume you have a very small, very simple business. One so simple that you did not form a corporation or any other kind of legal entity when you set up the business. And to keep this blog simple, assume you don’t have any partners.  You own and operate your business by yourself for yourself, in what the law calls a sole proprietorship.

There are advantages and disadvantages of operating your business this way. For better or worse you and your business are legally treated pretty much as a single unit—unlike a corporation which owns its own assets and has its own debts distinct from the owner(s). In the right circumstances, a sole proprietorship is a much easier type of business to deal with in a bankruptcy.

Chapter 7, “straight bankruptcy,” is seldom the right option if you own a business that you want to keep operating during and after the bankruptcy. Chapter 7 is also called “liquidating bankruptcy.” You can write off (“discharge”) your debts in return for liquidation—the surrender of your assets to the trustee to sell and distribute to your creditors. Except that in most Chapter 7 cases everything you own is protected–“exempt”—so that you lose nothing or very little. But if you own an ongoing business, although some of the assets of an ongoing business may be exempt, usually not all of them are.  So the Chapter 13 trustee could require you to give crucial parts of your business to him or her to liquidate.

Instead, a Chapter 13 case—ironically sometimes misnamed a “wage-earner plan”—is much better designed to enable you keep your personal and business assets. You get immediate relief from your creditors, and for a much longer period of time, 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 business’ long-term prospects. It is also an excellent way to address tax debts, often a major issue for struggling businesses. Overall, it is a relatively inexpensive tool that combines the discipline of a court-approved plan of payments to creditors with the flexibility of allowing you to continue operating your business.

In the next few blogs I’ll explain some of the most important benefits of filing a business Chapter 13 case. But in the meantime, please understand that when you own ANY kind of business, solving your financial problems will be more complicated.  Sometimes only a little more complicated, other times much more so. Because we’re not just dealing with the size and timing of a paycheck, but rather with all the financial and practical aspects of running a business. Plus, issues of timing are often important in business bankruptcy cases, requiring more pre-bankruptcy planning to chart the best path for you. So, no matter how small your business, be sure to get competent legal advice, and do so as soon as possible. You have a lot at stake.


A “straight” Chapter 7 can write off some income taxes. But if you owe recent taxes, or multiple years of taxes, Chapter 13 is usually a much better way to go. It often provides tremendous advantages over both Chapter 7 and dealing with the IRS on your own.

I’ll illustrate this with an example, and then explain it in my next blog.

Let’s say a husband and wife owe $35,000 in a combination of medical bills and credit cards, requiring monthly payments of $800. After the husband lost his long-time job back in 2006, he followed his dream of starting a business, which was starting to make progress when it got hammered in the Great Recession. He closed it in 2010 and found a reliable job a number of months later, although one where he earns 30% less than he did at the one lost years earlier. His business had generated some income, but barely enough for the couple to meet their bare essentials. So there was no money to pay the quarterly estimated taxes, and they had no money to pay the amount due when they filed their joint tax returns for 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. They expect to come out even for the 2011 tax year because of tax withholdings from their wages. To try to simplify the facts, assume they owe the IRS $4,000 in taxes, $750 in penalties, and $250 in interest for each of those five years. So their total IRS debt for those years is $25,000—including $20,000 in the original taxes, $3,750 in penalties, and $1,250 in interest. The wife has had consistent employment throughout this time, with pay raises only enough to keep up with inflation. They filed each of the tax returns in mid-April when they were due, and have been making modest payments when they have been able to, but those have not even been keeping up with the penalties and interest. Assume they have no secured debts—no mortgage or vehicle loans. They can realistically afford to pay about $500 a month to all of their creditors, not enough to pay their regular creditors much less the IRS.

Outside of bankruptcy, the IRS would likely require payment in full of the entire tax obligation, with interest and sometimes penalties continuing to accrue until everything was paid in full. Their payments would be imposed without regard to the other debts they owe. And if the couple failed to make their payments, the IRS would likely try to collect through garnishments and tax liens. Depending how long repayment would take, the couple could easily end up paying $30,000 or more with additional interest and penalties. This would be in addition to their $35,000 medical and credit card debts, which could easily increase to $45,000 or more, especially if these other debts went to collections or lawsuits. That’s likely because the couple would be paying all available money to the IRS. So likely the couple would eventually end up paying at least $75,000 to their creditors.  

In a Chapter 13 case, the 2006 and 2007 taxes, interest and penalties would very likely be paid nothing and discharged at the end of the case. So would the penalties for 2008, 2009, and 2010. That takes care of $11,500 of the $25,000 present tax debt. The remaining $13,500 of taxes and interest for 2008, 2009, and 2010 would have to be paid as a “priority” debt, although without any additional interest or penalties once the Chapter 13 case is filed. Adding in some “administrative expenses” (the Chapter 13 trustee and our attorney fees), and assuming that their income qualified them for a three-year Chapter 13 plan, this couple would likely be allowed to pay about $500 per month to ALL of their creditors—credit cards and medical, AND the IRS. Then after three years, they’d be done. The “priority” portion of the IRS debt would have been paid in full, but the older IRS debt and all the penalties would be discharged likely without any payment. So would the credit card and medical debts. After the three years, the couple would have paid a total of around $17,500 (including the “administrative expenses”), instead of about $75,000 without the Chapter 13. They’d be done instead of barely starting to pay their mountain of debt. And they would have not spent the last three years worrying about IRS garnishments and tax liens, lawsuits and harassing phone calls, and the constant lack of money for necessities.

As I said, in my next blog I’ll explain how all this works.

You don’t always need to file a Chapter 13 case—with its 3-to-5-year payment plan–to deal with income tax debts. Thinking that you do is a myth, alongside the broader myth that “you can’t write off taxes in a bankruptcy.” Both have a kernel of truth, which is why they persist. It’s true: some taxes cannot be discharged (legally written off) in bankruptcy. But some can. And it’s true: Chapter 13 is often an excellent way to solve tax problems. But that does not necessarily mean it is the best for you. Instead Chapter 7 might be.

Chapter 13 tends to be the better tool if you owe a string of income tax debts including relatively recent ones. Why? Because in this situation Chapter 13 gives you the best of both worlds. First, if you owe recent income taxes which cannot be discharged, you get lots of advantages under Chapter 13, including paying less by avoiding most penalties and interest. That can be a huge savings, especially if you can afford only relatively small payments. Second, if you have older back taxes, these are also wrapped into the Chapter 13 plan, often without you paying any more into your plan, then they are discharged at the end of your case.

But you DON’T NEED the best of both worlds if all or most of your income tax debts are dischargeable. Then Chapter 7, the straightforward “straight” bankruptcy is enough.

So, WHAT ARE the conditions for a specific income tax debt to be discharged in Chapter 7? How are you going to know if Chapter 7 will discharge all or most of your taxes so that it is the right option for you?

Some of the conditions for discharge of taxes are quite straightforward. Some are more complicated. And as you’ll see, some are even purposely vague. So unfortunately it’s not as simple as plugging a particular tax debt into a clear formula to see if it is dischargeable. Determining whether a particular tax debt will be discharged requires the careful judgment of an experienced attorney.

I’ll just list these conditions for discharging income taxes here, and then explain them in my next blog. Don’t be surprised if they sound confusing in this list. It’s true: anything having to do with taxes tends to be complicated!

To discharge an income tax debt in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, it must meet these conditions:

1) Three years since tax return due: The applicable tax return must have been due more than three years before you file your Chapter 7 case. And if you requested any extensions for filing the applicable tax returns, you have to add that extra time to this three-year period.

2) Two years since tax return actually filed: Regardless when the tax return was due, you must have filed at least two years before your bankruptcy is filed in court.

3) 240 days since assessment: The taxing authority must have assessed the tax more than 240 days before the bankruptcy filing.

4) Fraudulent tax returns and tax evasion: You cannot have filed a “fraudulent return” or “willfully attempted in any manner to evade or defeat such tax.”

You can see that these are begging for some clarification. For that please come back to read my next blog. Or else call to set up a consultation with me. If you have substantial tax debts, you should definitely get some thorough personal advice. Know your options so you can make an informed choice, about bankruptcy and otherwise.

No wonder people think “bankruptcy can’t help me with my tax debt.” Even attorneys sometimes perpetuate the myth.

A few days ago I saw a video of a bankruptcy attorney being interviewed in what amounted to be an infomercial. He was asked by the interviewer whether there were some debts that can’t be “touched” in a bankruptcy:

Attorney: “Absolutely. Things like child support, alimony, uh, tax debts, student loans. Those generally aren’t dischargeable.”

Interviewer:  “So the government’s gonna help you eliminate some of the debt in a bankruptcy. But not the debt to them.”

Attorney: “Not theirs, of course!”

Lumping tax debts in with child support and alimony—which indeed cannot be legally written off, or discharged—is just plain wrong. For him to say that tax debts “generally aren’t dischargeable” while including it with other debts that are never dischargeable, or in the case of student loans very rarely dischargeable, is at best very confusing.

And no question, the merger of taxes and bankruptcy can be confusing, because each of these are rather complicated areas of law. Misinformation doesn’t help.

In my next few blogs, you’ll get some solid answers about what taxes can be discharged and what can’t. The fact is that bankruptcy can discharge taxes of many types and in many situations. Sometimes ALL of a taxpayer’s taxes can be discharged, or most of them. But there ARE significant limitations, which I will explain carefully.

But right now maybe the most important thing to understand is that even as to the particular taxes that may not be discharged, a bankruptcy still usually provides huge advantages in dealing with those taxes. So besides the possibility that you will be able to discharge some or all of your taxes, bankruptcy can also:

1. Keep the taxing authorities from garnishing your wages and bank accounts, and “levying on” (seizing) your personal and business assets.

2. Stop them from gaining greater leverage against you, through tax liens and piling on greater penalties and interest.

3. Avoid forcing you to pay them monthly payments based on totally unreasonable policies (such as giving no consideration to most of your other legal obligations), all the while penalties and interest continue to accrue.

Overall, bankruptcy gives you leverage against the IRS, or state or local taxing authority that you cannot get any other way. It gives you a lot more control over a very powerful class of creditors. And your tax problems are resolved as part of your whole financial package, so you don’t find yourself working hard to deal with your taxes while worrying about being blindsided by other creditors.

I’ll explain all this in my next blogs. Call me in the meantime if you can’t wait, or you know you shouldn’t wait. There is no kind of debt that needs more careful personal attention and advice than tax debts.

One million more homeowners have just become eligible for refinancing at the current very low interest rates. Until now, the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) has been limited to homeowners with mortgages of no more than 125% of the value of their homes. By way of example, for a home currently worth $200,000, the mortgage could be no more than $250,000. Now that 125% limitation has been eliminated, allowing homeowners more deeply underwater to qualify for HARP refinancing. So some people who have not been able to take advantage of the low interest rates will be able to do so and get the resulting lower monthly mortgage payments. This change should especially help homeowners in those parts of the country hardest hit by reduced home values, where a large percentage of homeowners have been cut off from being able to use HARP.

To qualify under the revised refinancing:

1. You must have a mortgage owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which include about half of all U.S. home mortgages. You can find out whether yours is by looking that up online at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or calling 800-7FANNIE or 800-FREDDIE (8 am to 8 pm ET for both numbers).

2. Your mortgage must have belonged to either of these two institutions by no later than May 31, 2009.

3. You cannot have been late on any of the mortgage payments during the last 6 months or on more than one payment in the last 12 months.

4. You can’t have already refinanced through HARP.

The program continues to be voluntary for the mortgage lenders, so there are additional incentives for them. Lenders have been accused of being extremely picky about income documentation and home valuation under HARP, apparently fearing that they would have to buy-back the new mortgages being sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. So the new changes eliminate most of that risk. As a result, the application process should be much easier and less expensive for borrowers.

Detailed rules are expected by the middle of November, with lenders ready to implement the revamped program starting around December 1.


If you’re a homeowner who is selling his or her home for any of the following three reasons, think again: 1) you can’t afford the house payments, 2) you owe income taxes with a tax lien on your house, and/or 3) your mortgage modification application was rejected.

In my last blog I told you the first three of ten reasons why you should get advice from a bankruptcy attorney before selling your home. Here are the next three. All of these are about saving you money, and helping you make much better decisions about your home.  

1.  Can’t Afford the House Payments:   It’s sensible to sell your home if it’s more house than you need, or you’re not able to make the payments. But you may really need to hang onto the house, and are selling it because you think you have no choice. If so, you may instead be able to keep your home either by reducing the debt attached to the house or by reducing the rest of your debt so that you can afford the house debt. I gave you some ways to reduce the debts on the house in my last blog, and will give some more in the next one. As for reducing or getting rid of the rest of your debt, even if you are resisting the idea of filing bankruptcy “just so I can afford my house,” you still owe it to yourself to know your options. We live in truly extraordinary times in terms of home values and economic uncertainty. So especially now, it’s wise to be open to creative ways of meeting your financial needs.

2.  Have Income Tax Debt:   If you owe back income taxes, these taxes may have already attached to your home’s title with the recording of a tax lien. Or that may happen in the near future. You may feel extra pressure to sell your home to pay those taxes. But Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy options can often help you deal with your tax debts, sometimes in ways better than you expect. Some income taxes can be legally written off altogether. Others would likely be able to be paid much less than outside bankruptcy, through huge savings in interest and penalties, and other possible advantages. The details are beyond what I can cover in this blog. But if income tax debts or tax liens are part of why you are selling your home, first find out how bankruptcy would deal with them.  

3.  Your Mortgage Modification Application Was Rejected:   Mortgage modification programs—both governmental ones like HAMP as well as private ones—have been tremendously controversial and of questionable benefit to homeowners.  They are almost always terribly frustrating to go through. Without getting into all that here, there are definitely times when mortgage modification requests are rejected because the homeowner did not fully complete the application or the mortgage lender did not process it accurately. Often it is not really clear why the modification was not approved. After going through this challenging process without a reduction in your mortgage payments, understandably you may well feel like you have no choice but to sell your home. But sometimes a bankruptcy filing—either Chapter 7 or 13, depending on the circumstances—can help get a mortgage modification approved, either the first time or in a renewed application. Reducing your debts through bankruptcy provides you more resources to put into your house, generally making you a better candidate for mortgage modification.

Deciding whether to sell your home involves a whole lot of factors–personal, financial, and legal. Virtually every time I meet with new clients who are thinking about selling their home, they learn a bunch of things which puts that decision in a whole different light.  Often, my clients are pleasantly surprised by options and advantages they did not know were available. Let me help you, too, make an informed and wise choice about most important asset.


Why? Because you may be able to keep a vehicle you thought you couldn’t afford to pay for. Chapter 13 allows you to pay smaller monthly vehicle loan payments, under certain conditions. You may be able to pay off the debt and own the vehicle free and clear for a lot less than the loan balance.

This blog is one of a series on the mistakes people make before seeing an attorney about filing bankruptcy. These decisions often seem sensible from a certain angle. But almost always they are made without knowing all the options.

If you need a vehicle but just can’t afford the monthly payments, you probably figure that you are going to lose the vehicle and don’t have any choice about it. You know the contract requires you to make the payments or you lose the vehicle. You may have been trying hard for months to keep or get the payments current, putting up with late fees and constant notices or phone calls from the creditor threatening repossession. You would have already let the vehicle go except you’ve got to have a vehicle for work and/or other family obligations, and have no way to replace it. You feel stuck, with no good options.

On top of everything else, you might have heard that a bankruptcy can’t help much, at least for hanging onto the vehicle—that you still have to either make the payments, and catch up if you’re behind, or else lose the vehicle.

That’s true, in a “straight bankruptcy,” a Chapter 7.

But it’s not necessarily true in a Chapter 13 case. If you meet two conditions, you can likely do a “cramdown” on the vehicle loan: lower your payments and likely pay less overall for the vehicle. You may well also be able to lower your interest rate.

The two conditions to be able to do a “cramdown”:

1) Your vehicle loan was entered into more than 910 days before your Chapter 13 case is filed (that’s just about two and a half years before); and

2) At the time your case is filed, the value of your vehicle is less than the balance on your loan.

If your vehicle loan meets these two conditions, we can essentially re-write your loan.  We can reduce the total amount you must pay down to the value of the vehicle, “cramming it down” to that lower amount. That’s called the “secured portion” of the debt. We then calculate a new monthly payment—the amount needed to pay off that smaller balance, often at a lower interest rate, and often on a longer remaining term, resulting often in a radically reduced monthly payment.

What happens to the “unsecured portion”—the part of the debt beyond the value of the vehicle? It gets lumped in with the rest of your unsecured debts, usually not requiring you to pay anything more to all your unsecured creditors regardless of your vehicle loan.

And what if you’re behind on your vehicle loan at the time you file your Chapter 13 case—when do you have to pay that arrearage? You don’t. It’s just part of the re-written, new “crammed down” obligation.

So you can see that you might NOT want to surrender a vehicle or allow it to be repossessed if instead you could keep that vehicle while immediately having it cost you much less to do so. Often, having a reliable vehicle is essential to achieving a successful re-start of your financial life.  Before you lose that essential part of your financial plan, come see me to find out your options.

Picking the right Chapter to file can be simple, or it can be a very delicate, even difficult choice. And appearances can be deceiving. A situation that seems at first to call out for an obvious choice can turn out to have a twist or two that turns the case upside down.  

That twist can come in the form of an unexpected disadvantage in filing a bankruptcy under the intended Chapter, or instead an unexpected advantage in filing under the other Chapter.

Let me be clear. The majority of my clients walk into their initial consultation meeting with me with a strong idea whether they want to file a Chapter 7 or a 13.  After all, there is a wealth of information available—like this blog that you’re looking at now. So lots of my clients come in having read up on their alternatives. Whether their inclination to file one or the other Chapter comes from their head or from their gut, it’s often correct.

But often it is not correct.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Although the main differences between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 can be outlined in a few sentences, there are in fact dozens of more subtle but often crucial differences. Many of them do not matter in most situations, but sometimes one or two of those differences can be decisive in determining what is best in your case. If you did not know about them, you would file the wrong kind of case. And pay the consequences for many years.

So that this doesn’t just sound like just a bunch of hot air, let me show you through one example. Imagine that you have a home that you have been trying to hang onto for years, but by now have pretty much given up on doing so. You’ve fallen behind on both the first and the second mortgage. Besides, with the decline in housing values the last three years or so, the home is now not even worth the amount owed on the first mortgage. And say you owe $80,000 on the second mortgage, so the home is “under water” by that amount. You have no good reason to think that the market value will climb back up enough to give you equity in the home for many years.  Your family would sure like to keep living in their home, so the kids could stay in their schools and close to their friends, but it sure sounds like it makes no sense to keep trying to hang onto something worth $80,000 less than what you owe. Besides, you just can’t don’t have the money to pay both mortgages. So you figure it’s time to give up on the home, and just start fresh with a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.”

But then you learn from your bankruptcy attorney that if your home is worth less than the balance on the first mortgage, through a Chapter 13 case you can “strip” the second mortgage off the title of your home. It becomes an unsecured debt which is lumped in with the rest of your unsecured debt (like credit cards, medical bills). In return for paying into your Chapter 13 Plan a designated amount each month based on your budget, and doing so for the three-to-five year length of your Chapter 13 case, you would be able to keep your home often by paying very little—and sometimes nothing—on that $80,000 balance. At the end of your case, whatever amount is left unpaid on that second mortgages will be “discharged”—legally written-off—so you own the home without that mortgage and having no debt (other than the balance on the first mortgage.  

This “stripping” of the second mortgage is NOT available under the Chapter 7 that you initially thought you should file. Having Saving your home by lowering your payments on it and bringing the debt against it much closer to its value may well swing your choice in the Chapter 13 direction.

This is just one illustration of countless ways that the option you initially think is the better one might not be. So keep an open mind about your options when you first consult with your attorney. Communicate your goals to him or her, and be clear about why you think one Chapter sounds better to you than the other. In the end, after laying out your story and hearing the attorney’s advice, it IS ultimately your choice. But do yourself a favor and be flexible, because you might get a better deal by the end of your meeting than you thought was possible at the beginning of it.