If you’re financially hurting during this 4th of July, you may not exactly be feeling like this is a great country. But it is.

Here’s why:

  • We are the fresh-start nation of the world. We’ve all heard the famous words from the poem at the base of the Statute of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus, 1883

  • Much of our history is one of migration within or beyond the edges of the country in hopes of finding a better life:
    • in the late 1700s, following Daniel Boone’s route through the Cumberland Gap of the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia to Kentucky
    • during the first half of the 1800’s, pouring into and throughout the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region, and across the southeast into Texas
    • from the 1840s through the 1860s, trekking 2,000 mile along the dangerous Oregon, California , and Mormon Pioneer Trails
    • populating the Great Plains as encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862 which distributed free land  to those who “have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years,” and the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889
    • in the first half of the 20th century, 6 million African Americans participating in the “Great Migration” from the rural South to the urban North and West
    • since the end of World War II, the consistent shift in population from the northeast and Midwest Rust Belt to the southern and western Sun Belt.
  • The spirit of a fresh start is woven into our history and culture, as expressed in our laws, starting with our foundational law, the Constitution: “The Congress shall have Power… To establish… uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States” According to a famous commentary on the Constitution, this clause was not in the original draft, but was added after a vote of 9 states in favor and 1 against.
  • In spite of this clear Constitutional mandate, it took Congress more than 100 years– until 1898—to pass a bankruptcy law that wasn’t repealed within a few years!  We’ve managed to have a comprehensive bankruptcy law in effect ever since then.
  • Property exemptions—your right to keep a certain amount of your property when filing bankruptcy–is the result of a 200-year-old Constitutional battle of states’ right versus federal power.  Throughout the 1800s, the country waged a political and economic war between Northeastern bankers and Western and Southern farmers and small merchants. Because of reoccurring devastating financial “panics” during that century, the farmers and merchants had good reason to worry about losing their homes and farms to out-of-state creditors. As a result, the first law exempting property from the collection of debt was adopted in 1839 in the Republic of Texas, and spread quickly through the South and the Midwest during the 1840s and 1850s. Exemption laws continue to protect our property from creditors today.
  • In spite of huge efforts over the years by creditors to make bankruptcy less accessible to consumers, the Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 options do continue to provide tremendous relief for most people who need them. Although not perfect, they give you a relatively flexible, balanced, and effective way to personally take part in the centuries-old and sometimes necessary American tradition of a financial fresh start.

Chapter 13 is extraordinary in the number of distinct ways it can solve debt problems endangering your home. Here are five more ways beyond the five of the last blog.

6. Chapter 13 “super-discharge”: You can discharge (legally write off) some debts in a Chapter 13 case that you cannot in a Chapter 7 one. A couple of decades ago there were many more kinds of debts that could be discharged under Chapter 13, but Congress has whittled away at the list steadily. Now there are two left worth mentioning here. First, obligations arising out of divorce decrees dealing with the division of property and of debt (but NOT the part dealing with child/spousal support); and second, obligations involving “willful and malicious injury” to a person or property (but NOT related to driving while intoxicated). Both of these “super-discharged” types of debts are legally complicated, and definitely need to be addressed with the help of an experienced attorney. But in the right circumstances Chapter 13 can discharge one of your most serious debts, the same one that Chapter 7 would leave you owing.

7. Nondischargeable debts such as income taxes, back child/spousal support: Special debts which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy leave you at the mercy of those creditors just a few months after you file a Chapter 7 case. Those creditors—such as the IRS, and your ex-spouse and/or the state or local support enforcement authorities—often have the power to impose tax and support liens on your home, and potentially can even seize and sell your home to pay those liens. In contrast, a Chapter 13 protects you while you pay off those special debts in an organized plan, by preventing those liens from being placed on your home. By the time your Chapter 13 case is finished, those special debts are paid in full, never to threaten your home again.

8. “Statutory liens”: utility, ”mechanic’s”/”materialman’s,” and child support liens: If before filing bankruptcy you already have one of these involuntary liens imposed by law against your home, those liens would very likely survive a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Because the “automatic stay” that prevents the enforcement of liens expires with the completion of a Chapter 7 case, these creditors would be able to threaten your home at that point. Instead, in a Chapter 13 the “automatic stay” continues throughout the three-to-five year case, again protecting your home while you satisfy the lien.

9. Judgment liens: Unlike the other nine items in this list, judgment liens can be avoided, or removed from your home’s title, in the same circumstances under Chapter 7 as in Chapter 13. A judgment lien can be removed if it “impairs” your homestead exemption, that is, if it encumbers the equity in your home that is protected by that exemption. The reason that I list it here is that this judgment lien avoidance can sometimes be put to extra good use in Chapter 13 when used in combination with one or more of these other 9, in a way which could not happen in Chapter 7. Let’s say for example that your home equity position would allow you to remove a judgment lien, but you are so far behind on your mortgage payments that you would lose your home to a foreclosure after finishing a Chapter 7 case. Your ability to remove that judgment lien from your home title would do you no good if you’re going to have your home foreclosed by your mortgage lender a few months later. It’s the Chapter 13’s ability to give you protected time to cure that mortgage arrears that gives practical value to your power to remove the judgment lien.

10. Preserve non-exempt equity: Home property values have declined so much in the last few years that most people thinking about bankruptcy do not have too much equity in their homes. That is, if there is any equity at all, it’s protected by the applicable homestead exemption, and therefore not at risk if you file a Chapter 7 case. But IF you DO have more value in your home than allowed under your homestead exemption, Chapter 13 can often protect it. You don’t run the risk of a Chapter 7 trustee seizing it to sell and pay the proceeds to your creditors. Instead, under Chapter 13 you can often either keep the home by paying those creditors gradually over the course of the up-to-5-year Chapter 13 case, or can sell the home yourself on your own schedule. Either way, Chapter 13 leaves you much more in control of the situation.

Each one of these ten Chapter 13 powers can solve a big problem so that you can keep your home. But they can have an especially dramatic impact when used in combination. In the next blog I’ll give some examples so that you see how these ten actually work, both separately and in combination.


Get the maximum benefit from your bankruptcy against your taxes by following these sophisticated strategies.

Pre-bankruptcy planning to position a debtor in the best way for discharging or for otherwise favorably dealing with tax debts is one of the more complicated tasks handled by a bankruptcy attorney. Do NOT attempt these strategies, including the five mentioned here, without an attorney, indeed frankly without an attorney who focuses his or her law practice on bankruptcy. Elsewhere in this website I make clear that you cannot take anything in this website, including what I write in these blogs, as legal advice. That’s especially true in this very sophisticated area. Also, I could write a chapter in a book on each of these five strategies, so all I’m doing here is introducing you to them, to begin the discussion when you come in to see me.

1st:  Wait out the appropriate legal periods before the filing of your bankruptcy case.

As you may know from elsewhere in these blogs, most (but not all) forms of income tax become dischargeable after the passing of specific periods of time. Much of pre-bankruptcy tax strategy turns on figuring out precisely when each of your tax liabilities will become dischargeable, and then either waiting to file bankruptcy until all those liabilities are dischargeable, or, when under serious time pressure to file, at least when the maximum amount will be discharged as is possible under the circumstances.

2nd:  File past-due returns to start the clock running on those as soon as possible.

If you know you owe taxes for prior years and don’t have the money to pay them, your gut feeling may well be to avoid filing those tax returns in an attempt to “fly under the radar” as long as you can. But irrespective of any other rules, you cannot discharge a tax debt until two years after the pertinent tax return has been filed. Get good advice about how to deal with the IRS or other taxing authority during those two years so that you take appropriate steps to protect yourself and your assets. You deserve a rational basis for getting beyond your understandable fears about this.

3rd:  Try to stay in compliance with the new tax year(s) while you wait to file your bankruptcy case, by designating tax payments to the more recent tax years instead of older ones.

Because recent tax year tax liabilities cannot be discharged in a Chapter 7 case and must be paid in full as a priority debt in a Chapter 13 case, you want to try to stay current on your most recent tax debts. It’s also usually a necessary step in keeping the IRS and its ilk from taking aggressive action against you, thus allowing you to wait longer and discharge more taxes. With the IRS in particular you can and should explicitly designate which tax account any particular tax payments are to be applied to achieve this purpose.

4th:  Avoid tax fraud and evasion, and whenever possible, withholding taxes.

Simply put, you can’t ever discharge any taxes related to fraud, fraudulent tax returns, or tax evasion, so avoid these kinds of illegal behavior. If you have any doubt, talk to a knowledgeable tax accountant or attorney. Unpaid tax withholdings also cannot be discharged, so either try to avoid them from accruing, focus your resources on paying them off, or just recognize that they will either have to be paid after your Chapter 7 case or as a priority debt during your Chapter 13 case.

5th:  Be aware of tax liens.

Tax lien claims have to be paid in full in Chapter 13, with interest, and can survive a Chapter 7 discharge. So try to avoid having the taxing authority record a tax lien against you—admittedly sometimes easier said than done. Or if that is not possible, at least refrain from building up equity in possessions or real estate. That equity, although often exempt from the clutches of the bankruptcy trustee and most creditors, is still subject to a tax lien. So any built up equity just increases what you will have to pay to the taxing authority on debt you might otherwise been able to discharge completely.

Chapter 13 gives you more flexibility about what you can do with your current income tax refund. But unlike Chapter 7 which doesn’t care about your future years’ refunds, Chapter 13 does.

As I said in my last blog, if you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy after the beginning of the year, at a time when you’re still due a tax refund on the year that just passed, your trustee is going to be very interested in that refund. It’s your money that the government is simply holding for you until you claim it.  That’s true even if you haven’t yet filed your tax return, or don’t even know the amount of the refund. Whatever the amount, it’s still your money—you just haven’t yet claimed it or calculated the amount by filing the tax return. So unless that refund fits within an exemption, or is small enough to not be worth the trustee’s bother, the trustee is going to get that refund.

Chapter 13 comes with some good news and some bad news on tax refunds.

The good news comes from Chapter 13’s flexibility when it comes to assets that are not exempt. In a Chapter 7 case, non-exempt assets simply go to the trustee to be distributed to creditors according to a very rigid formula.  In Chapter 13, in contrast, you may be able to use that refund in two very beneficial ways.

First, you may be able to get permission to use the refund, or a part of it, for a necessary, one-time expense. A standard example is a critical vehicle repair, needed to be able to commute to work. The expense usually needs to be an extraordinary one, over and beyond what would be included in your standard monthly budget.

Second, to the extent that you are required to pay the refund over to the trustee, in a Chapter 13 case you usually have somewhat greater control over where that money will go. Your attorney might be able to explicitly earmark, through a specific provision in your Chapter 13 plan, where the trustee pay some or all of that refund. More likely, in certain cases, with careful wording of your plan, your attorney may be able to nudge that money in a particular direction that may be more favorable to you. For example, a vehicle that you need to keep could be paid off faster than otherwise, thus taking away from that creditor any grounds for objecting.    

Now the not-so-good news. One positive aspect of Chapter 7 is that it’s fixated on what assets you have a right to as of the moment your case is filed.  But Chapter 13 is by its very nature also interested in your future income during the three to five years that you are expecting to be in the case. And for most purposes future tax refunds are considered future income. So your Chapter 13 plan has to account for the tax refunds that you would be receiving during the years that you are in the case. In most cases that means that you must turn over your tax refunds to the trustee to be paid out according to the terms of your plan.

The truth is that this is not necessarily bad:

  • If you usually get large tax refunds, your withholdings should likely be adjusted so that you can put that money to use during the year for your regular living expenses. This is especially helpful if your budget is tight. Doing so would reduce the size of the refunds going to the trustee, minimizing this problem.
  • In some situations, a year or two into a case you may be able to get permission to use that year’s tax refund for a new special expense, such as ,again, for a new vehicle repair.
  •  Even if the refunds do just go to the trustee during the course of your case, sometimes that extra money flowing into your Chapter 13 plan finishes your case faster, in other cases it may result in important creditors being paid more quickly, and finally sometimes the refunds may enable you to pay off the plan within the mandatory maximum deadline.

You want to know: “Can I really keep everything I own if I file bankruptcy?”

A two-part answer:

1) Yes, you can, usually, keep those possessions that are all yours (you don’t owe any money on them).  

2) Yes, you can, usually, keep those particular possessions on which you are making payments to a creditor (like your home or vehicle), IF you want to keep it them, AND are willing and able to meet certain conditions. (Hint: those conditions are usually lots better in bankruptcy than without one.)

In today’s blog I’ll get into the first part of that answer. I’ll get to the second part later.

Most people who file bankruptcy can keep what they own for two reasons: 1) exemptions and 2) Chapter 13 protections. I’m covering exemptions today.

Make no mistake: at the heart of bankruptcy is the basic principle that your debts are discharged—legally written off forever—in return for you giving all your assets to your creditors. Except you can keep any of your assets which fit within an exemption. As the saying goes, this exception swallows the rule. Most of the time, all assets are exempt and so debtors get a Chapter 7 discharge without giving anything to the trustee.

Exemptions are simply a list of the types and amounts of assets that are protected from your creditors, and thus from the Chapter 7 trustee acting for those creditors. But exemptions are anything but simple.

First, the Bankruptcy Code contains its set of federal exemptions, and each state also has its own exemptions. If you file a bankruptcy in certain states, you have a choice between using the federal exemptions and the state ones, while in other states you can only use the state exemptions. In states where you have a choice, picking which of the two exemption schemes is better for you is often not at all obvious and you need an experienced attorney to advise you.

Second, 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 rules can differ wildly, thousands of dollars can be at stake depending on what day your bankruptcy is filed.

Third, once you know which set of exemptions apply to you, whether any of your particular assets is covered by an exemption, and thus protected from your creditors, is often not clear. The exemption statues were often written many decades ago, use archaic language, and have a whole history of court ruling to interpret what they include. Plus the local trustees often have unwritten rules about how they interpret the exemption categories in practice. So, determining whether an asset is exempt or not is often much, much more than checking down a list of exemptions. By way of example, if you and your spouse each have one vehicle that you use for getting to work, and a third one used by your 18-year-old to get back and forth to school, will your vehicle exemption cover all three vehicles? Under what circumstances?

So navigating through exemptions can be much more complicated than it looks, and is one of the most important services provided by a bankruptcy attorney.

The fact remains that among most people who do end up filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, everything they own DOES fit within the exemptions. So the bankruptcy trustee takes nothing from them.

But what if you DO own one or more assets which do not fit any of the available exemptions? How can those still be protected through a Chapter 13 case?  I cover that in my next blog.

Bankruptcy helps both sides of your balance sheet. Getting a financial fresh start means not just getting relieved of your debts, but also protecting your essential assets. You can preserve this crucial benefit of bankruptcy by not selling, using up, or borrowing against your protected assets BEFORE the filing of your bankruptcy case.

It is much more difficult to get your financial footing if you have nothing to stand on—if you don’t have at least basic housing, household goods, clothing, transportation, and, where appropriate, tools of trade, unemployment or disability benefits, and retirement savings.  

Bankruptcy usually protects most or all of your assets. On the one hand, Chapter 7 protects all “exempt” assets, so that a very high percentage of people who file under Chapter 7 lose nothing. And if you have assets which are worth more than the applicable exemptions, Chapter 13 usually protects those additional or higher-value assets as well.

But bankruptcy cannot protect what you’ve already squandered. It saddens me when just about every day new clients tell me how in the months or year or two before coming in to file bankruptcy they depleted their assets in a desperate attempt at avoiding bankruptcy. Most of the time, the assets they sold, spent, or borrowed against would have been completely protected had they filed bankruptcy while they still had them.

I recognize that it’s easy being a Monday morning quarterback—to say, after a client comes in needing to file bankruptcy, that they should not have used up assets in an effort to avoid filing. After all there undoubtedly are some people who were able avoid bankruptcy by selling their assets, and I don’t see them because they don’t need my services.

But I challenge you—if you are considering spending, selling, or borrowing against any of your assets, do you know whether that asset is one which would be protected in bankruptcy?

What concerns me are decisions with serious long-term consequences made without any legal advice about the alternatives. If a person in her 50s cashes in a substantial amount of a 401(k) retirement plan to pay creditors who would be written off, that can significantly harm the quality of her retirement lifetime.  Or if a husband and wife sell a free-and-clear vehicle that’s in good condition on the assumption that they’ll lose it once they file bankruptcy, only to be left with a single older vehicle that cannot reliably get them to work, that decision would lead to anything but a fresh start.

For a bunch of reasons, people tend to get legal advice when at the absolute end of their rope, well after these kinds of dangerous decisions have been made.  Let me help you avoid that. You have the capacity to get a better fresh start by getting the necessary advice on time in order to to preserve your assets.