Don’t get rushed into filing bankruptcy when the timing’s not right. Filing at the right time could save you thousands of dollars.


Timing Does Not Always Matter Much, But It CAN Be Huge

Many laws about bankruptcy are time-sensitive. And those time-sensitive laws involve the most important issues—what debts can be discharged (written off), what assets you can keep, how much you pay to certain creditors, and even whether you file a Chapter 7 case or a Chapter 13 one.

It is possible that the timing of your bankruptcy filing does not matter in your particular circumstances. But given how many of the laws are affected by timing, that’s not very likely. It’s wiser to give yourself some flexibility about when your case will be filed. If you wait until you’ve lost that flexibility—because you have to stop a creditor’s garnishment or foreclosure—you could lose out on some significant advantages.

Today’s blog post covers the first one of those potential timing advantages.

Being Able to Choose between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13

Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” are two very different methods of solving your debt problems. There are dozens and dozens of differences. You want to be able to choose between them based on what’s best for you, not because of some chance timing event.

To be able to file a Chapter 7 requires you to pass the “means test.” This test largely turns on your income. If you have too much income—more than the published median income for your family size and state—you can be disqualified from doing the get-a-fresh-start-in-four-months Chapter 7 option and be forced instead into the pay-all-you-can-afford-for-three-to-five-years Chapter 13 one.

The “Means Test” Income Calculation

What’s critical here is that income for purposes of the means test has a very special, timing-based definition. It is money that you received from virtually all sources—not just from employment or operating a business—during the six full calendar months before your case is filed, and then doubling it to come up with an annual income amount. For example, if your bankruptcy case is filed on September 30 of this year, what is considered income for this purpose is money from all sources you received precisely from March 1 through August 31 of this year. Note that if you waited to file just one day later, on October 1, then the period of pertinent income shifts a month later to April 1 through September 30.

So if you received an unusual chunk of money on March 15, that would be counted in the means test calculations if you filed anytime in September, but not if you filed anytime in October. If that chunk of money pushed you over your applicable median income amount, you may be forced to file a Chapter 13 case if your bankruptcy case is filed in September. But not if you filed in October because that particular chunk of money arrived in the month before the 6-month income period applicable if you waited to file until October.


Being able to delay filing your bankruptcy in this situation—here literally by one day from September 30 to October 1—allows you to pass the means test and therefore very likely not be forced to file a Chapter 13 case. Being in a Chapter 13 case when it doesn’t benefit you otherwise would cost you many thousands of dollars in “plan” payments made over the course of the required three to five years. Clearly, filing your case at the tactically most opportune time can be critical.

The sooner you meet with a competent attorney who can figure out these and similar kinds of considerations, the sooner you will become aware of them and the more likely problems like the one outlined here can be avoided. 

If you owe more business debt than consumer debt, then you avoid not only the “means test” but also some other roadblocks to a successful post-business Chapter 7 bankruptcy case.

What’s the “Means Test” and Why it Matters?

Bankruptcy law says that if your income is more than a certain amount, you have to pass a “means test” to be able to go through a Chapter 7 case successfully. One way to avoid this “means test” is by having less income than the permitted “median family income.” But the “median family income” amounts are relatively low. If your income is at all above the applicable median amount, you have to go through the “means test,” with a significant risk of being forced into a 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 payment plan instead of three-month Chapter 7 “liquidation.”

Debtors with More Non-Consumer Debts than Consumer Debts

You can skip the “means test” altogether if your debts are NOT “primarily consumer debts.” This way you could be eligible for a Chapter 7 case even if your income is above the median level. Indeed, you avoid other kinds of “presumptions of abuse” as well, not just the formulaic “means test,” but also the broader “totality of circumstances” challenges. Congress has seemingly decided that if your debts are mostly from a failed business venture, you should be permitted an immediate Chapter 7 “fresh start,” regardless of your current income and expenses.

What is a “Consumer Debt”?

The Bankruptcy Code defines a “consumer debt” as one “incurred by an individual primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose.”

The focus is on the purpose for which you incurred the debt in the first place. If you made a credit purchase or took out the loan exclusively, or even mostly, for your business, then it may well not a “consumer debt.” That is a factual question that must be decided separately for each one of your debts.

“Primarily Consumer Debts”?

The Bankruptcy Code does not make this crystal clear, but generally if the total amount of consumer debt is less than the total amount of non-consumer debts, your debts are not “primarily consumer debts.” And then you do not have to mess with the “means test.”

Seemingly Consumer Debts May Not Be

Small business owner often financed the start-up and ongoing operation of their businesses with what would otherwise appear to be consumer credit—credit cards, home equity lines of credit and such. Given their purpose, these may qualify as non-consumer debts in calculating whether you have “primarily consumer debts.” This is definitely something to discuss with your attorney to consider how the local judges are interpreting this issue.

Unexpectedly High Business Debts Can Help

Sometimes business owners have business debts larger than they thought they had, which could push their non-consumer debt higher than their consumer debt. For example, if you had to break a commercial lease when you closed your business, the unpaid lease payments projected out over the intended term of the broken lease could be huge. Or your business closure may have left you with other hidden debts, such as obligations to business partners or unresolved litigation, with tremendous damages owed. The silver lining to these larger-than-expected business debts is that they may allow you to skip the “means test” and other grounds for dismissal or conversion to Chapter 13, allowing you to discharge all your debts through a Chapter 7 case when you could not have otherwise.


Using a Chapter 7 case to clean up after closing down your business will be easy or not depending largely on three factors: business assets, taxes, and other nondischargeable debts. These three will usually also determine if you should be in a Chapter 7 case or instead in a Chapter 13 one.

Once you’ve closed down your business and decided to file bankruptcy, you may have a strong gut feeling about choosing the Chapter 7 option. After what you’ve been through, you just want a fresh, clean start. If you’d put years of blood, sweat and tears into trying to get your business to succeed, and then finally had to throw in the towel after resisting doing so for so long, at this point you likely feel like it’s time to put all that behind you. The last thing you likely feel like doing is dragging things along for the next three to five years that a Chapter 13 case usually lasts.

And you may well be ABLE to file a Chapter 7 case. The “means test” largely determines whether, given your income and expenses, you can file a Chapter 7 case. In my last blog I told you that you can avoid the “means test” altogether if more than half of your debts are business debts instead of consumer debts. But even if that does not apply to you, the “means test” will still not likely stand in your way, especially if you just closed down your business recently. That’s because the period of income that counts for the “means test” is the six full calendar months before your bankruptcy case is filed. An about-to-fail business usually isn’t generating much income.

But usually the question is not whether you are able to file a Chapter 7 case, but rather whether doing so is really better for you than a Chapter 13 one.

Many factors can come into play, but the following three seem to come up all the time:

1. Business assets: There are two kinds of Chapter 7 cases: “no asset” and “asset.” In the former, the Chapter 7 trustee decides—usually quite quickly—that none of your assets (which technically belong to your “bankruptcy estate”) are worth taking and selling to pay creditors. Either all those assets are “exempt” from the reach of the trustee, or are not worth enough for the trustee to bother. But with a recently closed business, there are more likely to be assets that are not exempt and are worth the trustee’s effort to collect and liquidate. If you have such collectable business assets, you will want to discuss with your attorney where the anticipated proceeds of the Chapter 7 trustee’s sale of those assets would likely go, and whether that is in your best interest compared to what would happen to those assets in a Chapter 13 case.

2. Taxes: Just about every closed-business bankruptcy seems to involve tax debts. Although some taxes CAN be discharged in a Chapter 7 case, most cannot. Chapter 13 is often a better way to deal with taxes. This will depend on the precise kind of tax—personal income tax, employee withholding tax, sales tax—and on a series of other factors such as when the tax became due, whether a tax return was filed, if so when, and whether a tax lien was recorded.

3. Other nondischargeable debts: Bankruptcies involving former businesses seem to get more than the usual amount of creditor challenges to the discharge of debts. These challenges are usually based on allegations that the business owner acted in some fraudulent fashion against a former business partner, a business landlord. or some other major creditor.  Such litigation, often started or at least threatened before the bankruptcy is filed, can turn an otherwise simple bankruptcy case into a long and expensive battle, regardless whether your case is a Chapter 7 or 13. But depending on the nature of the anticipated allegations, Chapter 13 may give you certain legal and tactical advantages over Chapter 7.

I’ll expand on these three one at a time in my next three blogs. From them you will be able to get a much better idea whether your business bankruptcy case should be in a Chapter 7 or not, and if so whether it will likely be relatively simple or not.

Closing down a business can be messy. A bankruptcy filed to deal with its financial fallout is often more complicated than a normal consumer bankruptcy case. But not necessarily.  In one respect at least, a business bankruptcy can actually be much easier than a consumer one.  

If you’ve owned a small business that you have already shut down, or are about to, you may be afraid of filing bankruptcy because you’ve heard that “business bankruptcies” are terribly expensive and not a good way to wrap up the affairs of a business. In the next few blogs I will address this concern by showing ways that bankruptcy can be a relatively simple and effective solution.

Today I start with a little twist in the “means test” that favors certain former business owners over normal consumers.

The “means test” determines whether you may file a “straight” Chapter 7 case to discharge your debts in a matter of a few months, or instead must file a 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 payment case. Unless you need some of the other benefits of Chapter 13, Chapter 7 is usually preferred because it gets you to a fresh start much more quickly and cheaply.

In many situations, a former business owner will NOT be able to pass the means test and so will be required to go through Chapter 13. For example:

  • If, after closing her business a business owner succeeded in getting a good job before filing bankruptcy, the income from that job may be higher than the “median income” applicable to her state and family size. So she may well not pass the “means test.”
  • If the business was operated by one spouse while the other continued working and earning a decent income, that other spouse’s income alone may bump the couple above their applicable “median income,” again with the result of not passing the “means test.”
  • If a debtor’s income is higher than the applicable “median income,” he may still be able to pass the means test by deducting from his income his actual and/or approved expenses. But a former business owner will not be able to deduct monthly payments to secured creditors on business collateral he is surrendering—vehicles and equipment, for example—or for other business expenses, such as rent on the former business premises. This reduces the likelihood that he will have enough allowed expenses to pass the “means test.”

But here’s the good news for some former business owners: the “means test” only applies if your “debts are primarily consumer debts.” (See Section 707(b)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code.) So if your debts are primarily business debts—more than 50%–you essentially can skip the “means test.”

Careful, because by “debts” the law means all debts, including home mortgages and personal vehicle loans. So your business debts will usually have to be quite high to be more than all your consumer debts.

And to apply this law we must be very clear about the difference between these two types of debts. So what’s a “consumer debt”? The definition may sound familiar: it’s a “debt incurred by an individual primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose.” (Section 101(8).)  So, for example, if you took out a second mortgage on your home a few years ago explicitly to fund your business, the current balance on that second mortgage would not likely be a consumer debt.

Sometimes the line between these is not clear, so this is something you need to discuss thoroughly with your attorney if you want to avoid the “means test” under this “primarily business debts” exception.

Very few people who want to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy need to take the means test all the way to its limit. But if you do, you better have some iron-clad “special circumstances” to defeat your “presumption of abuse.”

The means test triggers whether or not your case is presumed to be an abuse of Chapter 7. Each step of the means test gives you a way to avoid this presumption of abuse. So, you avoid the presumption IF ANY of the following apply to you:

1. your income is no more than the median family income for your state and your size of family;

2. your income is more than the applicable median family income, but, after subtracting a list of allowable expenses, your remaining monthly disposable income is less than $117 per month; or

3. your income is more that the applicable median family income, your remaining monthly disposable income is between $117 and $197 per month, AND when you multiply your specific monthly disposable income amount by 60, this total is less than 25% of your “non-priority unsecured debts” (debts not secured by collateral, excluding special “priority debts”—certain taxes, support payments, etc.).

(See my last few blogs about these earlier parts of the means test.)

A large percentage of people who want to file Chapter 7 avoid the presumption of abuse on the first step—having sufficiently low income. Many others do so because their monthly disposable income is low enough at the second step, or their monthly disposable income is low enough in comparison to the amount of their debt.

BUT, if after all this you still have a presumption of abuse, your case will either be dismissed (thrown out) or else changed into a Chapter 13 case (requiring payments to your creditors). Your last chance to avoid this is if you can show “special circumstances.” The Bankruptcy Code lays out this law as follows:

[T]he presumption of abuse may only be rebutted by demonstrating special circumstances, such as a serious medical condition or a call or order to active duty in the Armed Forces, to the extent such special circumstances… justify additional expenses or adjustments of current monthly income for which there is no reasonable alternative.

So when pushed to the limit, a test that is supposed to be an objective way to decide who qualifies to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy comes down to a very subjective question about whether any “special circumstances” apply.

To be fair, much of the means test IS objective, in the sense that it involves a whole lot of number-crunching to see if you can escape that dreaded “presumption of abuse.” But when a lot of those numbers—such as the allowed expense amounts, or the above-mentioned $117 and $195 amounts—appear arbitrary or do not accurately reflect your honest reality, then that “objectivity” has gotten away from the purpose for which it was supposedly intended.

Regardless, if you want to file a Chapter 7 case and, after going through all the steps of the means test, you are among that small minority of people still with a presumption of abuse, how likely are you going to be saved by the remaining subjective step in the process? Will you be able to persuade the judge that your “special circumstances” defeat the presumption of abuse?

This is a prime example of when you want a very experienced and conscientious bankruptcy attorney at your side. Why? Because the ambiguousness of the law, as you saw in the excerpt above, means that your attorney will need to 1) know how the local bankruptcy judges are interpreting this law, 2) carefully apply that to the details of your case when advising you about your options before filing your case, and then 3) if necessary be persuasive in making your case for “special circumstances” in court.  

The goal of most Chapter 7 cases is to get in and get out—file the petition, go to a simple 10-minute hearing with your attorney a month later, and two months later get your debts written off. Mission accomplished, end of story. And usually that’s how it goes. So when it doesn’t go that way, why not?

Four main kinds of problems can happen:

1. Income:  Under the “means test,” If you made or received too much money in the 6 full calendar months before your Chapter 7 case is filed, you can be disqualified from Chapter 7. As a result you can be forced instead into a 3-to-5 year Chapter 13 case, or have your case be dismissed altogether—thrown out of court. These results can sometimes be avoided by careful timing of your case filing, or by making changed to your income beforehand, or if necessary by a proactive filing under Chapter 13. Or sometimes it’s worth fighting to stay in Chapter 7 by showing that it is not an “abuse” to do so.

2. Assets:  In Chapter 7, if you have an asset which is not “exempt” (protected), the Chapter 7 trustee will be entitled to take and sell that asset, and pay the proceeds to the creditors. You might be happy to surrender a particular asset you don’t need in return for the discharge of your debts, in particular if the trustee is going use the proceeds in part to pay a debt that you want paid, such as a child support arrearage or an income tax obligation. But instead you may not want to surrender that asset, either because you think it is worth less than the trustee thinks or you believe it fits within an exemption. Or you may simply want to pay off the trustee for the privilege of keeping that asset. In all these “asset” scenarios, there are complications not present in an undisputed “no asset” case.

3. Creditor Challenges to Discharge if a Debt:  Creditors have the limited right to raise objections to the discharge of their individual debts, on grounds such as fraud, misrepresentation, theft, intentional injury to person or property, and similar bad acts. In most circumstances the creditor must raise such objections within about three months of the filing of your Chapter 7 case. So once that deadline passes you no longer need to worry about this, as long as that creditor got appropriate notice of your case.

4. Trustee Challenges to Discharge of Any Debts:  If you do not disclose all your assets or fail to answer other questions accurately, either in writing or orally at the hearing with the trustee, or if you fail to cooperate with the trustee’s investigation of your financial circumstances, you could possibly lose the ability to discharge any of your debts. The bankruptcy system is still largely, believe it or not, an honor system—it relies on the honesty and accuracy of debtors (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of creditors). So the system is quite harsh towards those who abuse the system by trying to hide the ball.

To repeat: most of the time, Chapter 7s are straightforward. No surprises. That’s especially true if you have been completely honest and thorough with your attorney during your meetings and through the information and documents you’ve provided. In Chapter 7 cases for my clients, my job is to have those cases run smoothly. I do that by carefully reviewing my clients’ circumstances to make sure that there is nothing troublesome, and if there is, to address it in advance in the best way possible. That way we will have a smooth case, or at least my clients will know in advance the risks involved. So, be honest and thorough with your attorney, to greatly up the odds of having a simple Chapter 7 case.

It will be just a little bit easier or a little bit harder to qualify to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” as of November 1, 2011. Whether it’ll be easier or harder for you depends on the state where you reside and on your family size.

What changes on November 1? The bankruptcy system looks to the U.S. Census to calculate each state’s median income, as applicable to each size of family. Median income is the amount at which half of the state’s families have incomes higher and half have lower. If your income is below your state’s median income for your size of family, then in almost all situations you can file a Chapter 7 case. But if your income is above that median income amount and you still want to file a Chapter 7 case, then you have to fill out a long and rather complicated form about your allowed expenses to determine whether or not filing a Chapter 7 case would be “abusive.” So if you want to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it’s a lot easier if you’re below the median.

On November 1, new median income amounts become applicable. Some people were predicting these amounts would be lower because of the faltering economy. But in many states the income figures went up instead of down. For example, among single-person families, 31 of the states’ median incomes went up and only 19 went down. Remember, if the median income goes up, that makes it a little more likely that your income will fall below that median, and you’ll have smoother sailing qualifying for Chapter 7.

So, if your income is close to the applicable median amount, and the median is increasing for your family size in your state on November 1, then you have a better chance at falling under the median if you file on or after that date. But if the applicable median is decreasing, then you have a better chance of falling under the median if you file your bankruptcy before then, by no later than October 31.

I’m about to give you the two lists of median income amounts—the one applicable through October 1, and the other starting November 1. But before you start comparing those annual income amounts to your income, please understand that the meaning of “income” in this context is quite different than conventional meanings of that word. “Income” here is calculated using a six-calendar-month look back period that is doubled and then divided by 12 for an average monthly income. It includes all sources of income from all family members other than social security, not just taxable income.

Because of this and many other sorts of complications, yon truly need to consult with a bankruptcy attorney about whether this November 1 median income changes matter to you, and whether you should try to file before then or instead after. But to get you started, here are the two median income lists: the one to use until October 31, 2011, and the other to use after that.

Not everyone who wants to file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” can do so. But most can. There is probably no topic that causes more confusion among people thinking about filing bankruptcy –do they qualify? Let me set the story straight.

1. Inaccurate publicity:  

People think it’s difficult to qualify for filing bankruptcy because of lingering public memory of a major amendment of the bankruptcy code six years ago.  This “reform” was intended to make filing bankruptcy, and especially Chapter 7, more difficult, and its proponents were happy to proclaim this intent. This has stayed in the public’s mind even though the law actually did not make it harder for most people to file whichever Chapter they wanted.

2. Confusion breeds fear:  

If you don’t think that it makes sense that a law which went into effect in the middle of the last decade continues to sow such misinformation, bear two things in mind. First, this set of amendments to the Bankruptcy Code was one of the most confusing, self-contradictory, and convoluted pieces of legislation ever to pass through Congress. (And that’s saying a lot!) Second, sorting out this sweeping set of statutory contradictions and ambiguities through the court system takes many years. Some of the important issues are just now making it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Others won’t be resolved for years. In an environment where the law is not reasonably clear, even common sense suggests “erring on the side of caution.” Add a dose of misinformation, and it’s easy to see why people assume the worst.

3. The new “Means Test” does not even apply to many bankruptcy filers:  

The “means test,” the main new hoop to jump through to qualify for Chapter 7, has complications, but a large percent of filers avoid it altogether. If your annualized income during the six full calendar months before filing the bankruptcy—counting income from virtually every source other than social security—is less than the published median family income in your state for your size of family, then you qualify for Chapter 7, without needing to apply the “means test.” A large percentage of people filing bankruptcy have relatively low income, at least for a time, and so they dodge the “means test.”

4. The “Means Test” is often easy:  

Even if your income IS higher than the applicable median, most of the time the expenses that you are allowed to subtract from your income enables you to pass the “means test” successfully. You end up showing you have no meaningful amount of “disposable income.”

5. Chapter 13 is often the preferred option anyway:  

The point of the “means test” is to require people who have enough “disposable income” to pay some (or, in rare cases, all) of their debts through a Chapter 13 case. In the relatively few times this happens, usually the amount that must be paid in the Chapter 13 case to the creditors is much less than the total debt. Plus, Chapter 13 provides advantages over Chapter 7 in many, many situations, so it may be the first choice anyway, regardless whether the person would pass or fail the “means test.”