Bankruptcy gives you a handle on your debts. There are different kinds of debts. It helps if you have a handle on these differences.


Debts in Bankruptcy

If you are thinking about bankruptcy there’s no more basic question than what it will do to each of your debts. Will it wipe away all your debts or will you still owe anybody? What about debts you would like to keep like your car or truck loan or your home mortgage? What help does bankruptcy give for unusual debts like taxes, or child and spousal support?

The Three Categories of Debts

At the heart of bankruptcy is the basic rule of treating all creditors within the same legal category the same. So we need to understand the three main categories of debts. You may not have debts in all three of these categories, but lots of people do. A basic understanding of these three categories will help make sense of bankruptcy, and make sense of how it treats each of your creditors.

The three categories of debts are “secured,” “general unsecured,” and “priority.”   

Secured Debts

Every single debt is either “secured” by something you own or it is not. A secured debt is secured by a lien—a legal right against—that property or possession you own.  

Most of the time you know whether or not a debt is secured because you voluntarily gave collateral to secure the debt. When you buy a car, you know that you are signing on to a vehicle loan in which the lender is put onto your car’s title as its lienholder. That lien on the title gives that lender certain rights, such as to repossess it if you don’t make the agreed payments.

But debts can also be secured as a matter of law without you voluntarily agreeing to it. For example, if you own a home and an unsecured creditor sues you and gets a judgment against you that usually creates a judgment lien against the title of your home. Or if you don’t pay federal income taxes you owe, the IRS may put a tax lien on all your personal property.

For a debt to become effectively secured, either voluntarily or involuntarily, certain steps have to be taken to accomplish that. Otherwise the debt is not secured, and the creditor does not have rights against the property or possession that was supposed to secure the debt.

In the case of a vehicle loan, the lender and you have to go through certain paperwork for the lender to become a lienholder on the vehicle’s title. If those aren’t done right, the vehicle will not attach as collateral to the loan. That could totally change how that debt is treated in bankruptcy.

Finally, it’s important to see that debts can be fully secured or only partly secured. This depends on the amount of the debt compared to the value of the collateral securing it. If you owe $15,000 on a vehicle worth only $10,000, the debt is only partly secured—secured as to $10,000, and unsecured as to the remaining $5,000 of the debt. A partly secured debt may be treated differently in bankruptcy than a fully secured one.

General Unsecured Debts

All debts that are not legally secured by collateral are called unsecured debt.  And “general” unsecured debts are simply those which are not one of special “priority” debts that the law has selected for special treatment. (See below.) So this category of “general unsecured debts” includes all debts with are both not secured and not “priority.”

General unsecured debts include every imaginable type of debt or claim. The most common ones include most credit cards, virtually all medical bills, personal loans without collateral, checking accounts with a negative balance, unpaid checks, payday loans without collateral, the amount left owing after a vehicle is repossessed and sold, and uninsured or underinsured vehicle accident claims against you.

It helps to know that sometimes a debt which had been secured can turn into a general unsecured one. For example, a second mortgage that was fully secured by the value of the home at the time of the loan can become partially or fully unsecured if the home’s value falls. Or a general unsecured debt can turn into a secured one. For example, a general unsecured credit card debt can become secured debt if a lawsuit is filed against you, a judgment is entered, and a judgment lien is recorded against your real estate.

Priority Debts

As the word implies, “priority” debts are ones that Congress has decided should be treated better than general unsecured debts.

Also, there’s a strict order of priority among the priority debts. Certain “priority” debts get paid ahead of the others (and ahead of all the general unsecured debts). In bankruptcy getting paid first often means getting paid something instead of nothing at all.

This has the following practical consequences in the two main kind of consumer bankruptcy:  

In most Chapter 7 cases there is no “liquidation” of your assets for distribution to your creditors. That’s because in the vast majority of cases, all the debtors’ assets are protected; they are “exempt.” But in those cases where there ARE non-exempt assets which the bankruptcy trustee gathers and sells, priority debts are paid in full by the trustee before the general unsecured ones receive anything. And among the priority debts those of higher priority are paid in full before the lower priority ones receive anything.

In a Chapter 13 case, your proposed payment plan must demonstrate how you will pay all priority debts in full within the 3 to 5 years of your case. Then after the bankruptcy judge approves your plan, you must in fact pay them before you can complete the case (and discharge all or most of your general unsecured creditors). There is more flexibility about when the priority debts are paid with those 3 to 5 years.

Here are the most common priority debts for consumers or small business owners, from higher to lower priority:

  • child and spousal support—the full amount owed as of the filing of the bankruptcy case
  • wages and other forms of compensation owed by the debtor to any of his or her employees—maximum of $12,475 per employee, for work done in the final 180 days before the bankruptcy filing or close of business, whichever was first
  • certain income taxes, and some other kinds of taxes—some are priority but others are general unsecured if they are old enough and meet some other conditions

The next blog posts will discuss how debts in these three categories are treated in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. 


If you file bankruptcy, it’s okay to voluntarily repay any debt. But there can be unexpected consequences.

The Bankruptcy Code says “[n]othing…  prevents a debtor from voluntarily repaying any debt.” Section 524(f).

But that doesn’t mean that repaying a debt won’t have consequences, including sometimes some highly unexpected ones. So what are those consequences?

To start off let’s be clear that we’re NOT talking about a creditor which you want to pay because it has a right to repossess collateral that you want to keep. Nor is this about paying a debt because the law does not let you to discharge (write off) it. Those two categories of debts—secured debts and non-dischargeable ones—have their own sets of rules governing them. We’re talking here about voluntary repayment, paying a debt even though you’re not legally required to.

And let’s also make a big distinction about the timing of those voluntary payments. We’re NOT talking here about payments made to creditors BEFORE the filing of bankruptcy. That was covered in the last blog. Be sure to check that out because the consequences of paying certain creditors at certain times before bankruptcy can be very surprising and frustrating, seemly going against common sense.

Instead, today’s blog is about paying creditors AFTER filing your bankruptcy case. The straightforward rule here is that you can pay your special creditor after filing a “straight” Chapter 7 case, but can’t do so in a “payment plan’ Chapter 13 case. For that you must wait until the case is completed, which is usually three to five years after it starts. So, if you would absolutely want to start making payments to a special creditor—such as a relative who lent you money on a personal loan—right after filing your bankruptcy case, you would have to file a Chapter 7 case instead of a Chapter 13 one.

Why is there such a difference between Chapter 7 and 13 for this? Basically because Chapter 7 fixates for most purposes on your financial life as of the day your case is filed, while Chapter 13 cares about your financial life throughout the length of the payment plan. You can play favorites with one of your creditors right after your Chapter 7 is filed because doing so doesn’t affect your other creditors. In contrast, in a Chapter 13 case your payment plan is designed so that you are paying all you can afford in monthly payments to the trustee to distribute to the creditors in a legally appropriate fashion. Here the law does not allow you to favor one creditor over the other ones just because you have a special personal or moral reason to do so. You can only favor a creditor AFTER the case is completed, again usually three to five years after filing.

So what would the consequences be of paying your special creditor “on the side” during an ongoing Chapter 13 case? The simple answer is that it’s illegal so don’t do it. Beyond that it’s difficult to answer because it would depend on the circumstances of the case (such as how much you paid inappropriately) and would depend on the discretion of the Chapter 13 trustee and of the bankruptcy judge. You’d be risking having your entire Chapter 13 case be thrown out. You would be wasting a tremendous investment of time and money, risking years of your financial life. Clearly, things you want to avoid.

Instead, talk very candidly with your attorney about your special debt and why you are so committed to paying it. There are usually sensible ways for dealing with these kinds of situations once it’s all out on the table. Your attorney’s job is to present options to you for meeting your goals, including that of paying this special creditor. He or she will only be able to do that for you if you make clear that you want to pay off this creditor and explain why.

Yes, you have a moral obligation to pay your debts. But do you have higher moral obligations to release yourself from those debts?


You could consider the choice whether or not to file bankruptcy to simply be a “business decision.” Merely a weighing of the costs and benefits of filing and not filing. This weighing would go beyond just the immediate dollars and cents by including intangible factors like the impact on your credit record. But still, in this approach your focus is on “the bottom line,” on what’s “in your best interest.”

That’s fine as far as it goes. After all, corporations of all sizes file “strategic bankruptcies” all the time. Their very smart and well-informed managers decide that bankruptcy is the best way to reduce debt and streamline their operations, so that the business can survive and hopefully thrive into the future.

And who doesn’t want to survive and thrive?

But you are more than a business. More than a corporation. For you, the human costs and benefits have to be added into the equation.  

And that’s where morality comes into the decision. We humans are moral creatures. That means that our important choices are often moral choices, between doing what’s right and doing what’s wrong. To strip this away from our decision about whether or not to file bankruptcy is to dehumanize us. If we don’t engage in the moral component of this choice, we are less likely to make a good decision. And we will likely feel unsettled afterwards regardless how we decide.

So what do you need to do to make a good moral decision?  

First, accept the choices that you made—good and bad, sensible and short-sighted, intentional and forced—and the circumstances that got you where you are now. Accept that you made a series of legal commitments to pay your debts, consider how much choice you had at the time about them, and in hindsight what you would have done differently, if anything. Why are you now not able to keep those commitments?

Second, consider both the moral costs and benefits of continuing to try to meet those financial commitments. The benefit would be keeping your promises to pay, which may be more or less strong of a commitment depending on the circumstances (for example, the carefully considered purchase of a home or vehicle versus incurring an emergency ambulance bill).  What would be the costs in terms of your physical and emotional health, your marriage and family relationships, and whatever other responsibilities you have to your community? You have moral obligations not just to your creditors, but also to yourself, to your spouse, to your kids, and to society in general. Do you have a realistic chance of successfully paying off your debts, and even if so, what would be the likely human costs while doing so? And if you do not have a realistic chance, how do you weigh the benefit of putting up a good fight against the costs that come from just delaying the inevitable?

Third, recognize that you now have both the opportunity and obligation to make a good decision about whether to continue trying to meet those commitments. To just accept the status quo without facing the situation honestly and bravely is making a decision by default, which is likely neither your morally best nor practically wisest move.

Fourth, get advice so that you know your legal options. You might not think you have a moral obligation to do this, but you cannot make morally good choices about how to deal with your legal commitments without knowing your legal alternatives about each of those commitments. You cannot know whether there are more morally acceptable ways to deal with your creditors—such as to file a Chapter 13 payment plan instead of a “straight” Chapter 7—if you don’t know your legal options. When you see the legal structure within which your choices have to be made, that often helps make the moral choices much clearer.

And fifth, look at each of your legal options, and weigh them in light of your different obligations—to each of your creditors, to yourself, your spouse, your family, and anyone else affected.  On one hand, this is an entirely personal decision. You need to look yourself in the mirror and be satisfied that you are doing the right thing. But as with any important decision, you can and most of the time should get help from the right people and resources. As appropriate, talk to your closest friend, your pastor, your accountant, write in your journal, or pray or meditate about it–do whatever you know helps you make a good decision. And although your bankruptcy attorney is primarily your legal advisor, and will respect that the final decisions are up to you, he or she has counseled countless people wrestling with these decisions and so will be able to help you with yours.

Henry David Thoreau said that the “price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” What is “the amount of life” you are giving up until you decide that you’ve got to make a good decision and you go get the legal advice you need so that you can do so?

If you buying something on time and want to keep it, you often can do so for less money IF you bought it more than a year ago.



  • A creditor which has rights to collateral is called a “secured creditor.” Your obligation to pay what you owe to this creditor is secured by rights it has to take possession and ownership of the collateral if you don’t make your payments on the debt. 
  • In bankruptcy, secured creditors have a lot more leverage against you because of the collateral than do creditors without any collateral—“unsecured creditors.”
  • If you want to keep the collateral, Chapter 7 is sometimes is your best choice, but in many circumstances Chapter 13 can give you more options.
  • Secured debts in which the collateral is your home or your vehicle are governed by special rules because of how important those kinds of collateral are to most people. See my blogs of last week and earlier about some of these special rules.
  • But you will not find many blogs talking about secured debts where the collateral is something other than your home or vehicle. The main secured debts of this type are probably furniture and appliance purchases, money loans secured by your own personal assets, and business loans secured by business and/or personal assets.


  • This tool applies only to Chapter 13—it can’t be done in Chapter 7.
  • If the collateral securing a secured debt is worth less than the balance on that debt, then you may be able to divide that debt into two parts: the secured part—the amount of the debt up to the value of the collateral, and the unsecured part—the rest of the debt beyond the value of the collateral. An example will make that clear. Let’s say you owed $1,000 on a refrigerator, in which the purchase contract gave the creditor the right to repossess that refrigerator if you didn’t make the agreed payments. If the present value of that refrigerator is $600, then the secured portion of that debt would be $600, and the remaining $400 of that debt would the unsecured portion.
  • In a Chapter 13 “cramdown” you pay not the total debt, but only the secured part of the debt. You pay the unsecured part of the debt only at the percentage that all the rest of your regular unsecured creditors are paid. That is usually less than 100% and can sometimes be a low as 0%. In the above example, the $1,000 total refrigerator debt is crammed down to $600, and the remaining $400 part of the debt is lumped in with the rest of your unsecured creditors. So if in your Chapter 13 plan your unsecured creditors are receiving 0%, then you would pay only the $600 secured portion, the remaining unsecured portion would get nothing and would be discharged (written off) at the end of your Chapter 13 case. Or if your unsecured creditors are receiving 50%, then you would pay $200 of that unsecured portion of $400, and the rest would be discharged at the end of your case. Note that you would still pay interest, but only on the secured portion instead of on the entire balance.  

THE cramdown rule with collateral other than your home or vehicle:

  • “[I]f the debt was incurred during the 1-year period preceding [the bankruptcy] filing” then you cannot do a cramdown on collateral that is neither your home nor your vehicle. See the last sentence of Section 1325(a) of the Bankruptcy Code (tucked in right after subsection (a)(9)). This means that if the debt is any older than 1 year, you CAN do a cramdown.

So, if you have a debt, more than 1 year old, secured by something other than your home or vehicle(s), in which the collateral is worth less than the debt, you can cram down the debt to the value of the collateral. If so, then because this can only be done under Chapter 13, that would be one factor in favor of filing under Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7. Talk to your attorney to see if this applies to you, and to find out all the other Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13 factors to weigh in your situation.

Even without mentioning the word “bankruptcy,” the most important court decision in years may still have a huge effect on future bankruptcies. How? Possibly by greatly reducing the need to file bankruptcies resulting from medical debts.  

First, a short summary.

Last week’s Supreme Court decision upheld the “individual mandate,” the most contentious part of the Affordable Care Act. That’s the obligation for certain people who don’t get health insurance to pay a penalty for not doing so. The Court held that the mandate is not constitutional under the Commerce Clause because NOT buying insurance is NOT engaging in commerce. So not buying insurance is not behavior that Congress has the power to regulate on that basis.

However, the Court still determined that the mandate is constitutional, under a different part of the Constitution, Congress’ taxing power. Even though Congress did not call the penalty a tax, it functions as a tax because, among other reasons, payment and collection of the penalty are done only through the IRS.

The Court also upheld the “Medicaid expansion” part of the Act. But while doing so the Court significantly limited a penalty for any states which decide not to participate in that expansion.

Second, if you want to read all or part of the full opinion, it’s here on the Supreme Court’s website. And for a good all-around news summary of the decision, here is an article from the Washington Post on the day it was released. For a more thorough summary, see this blog in “plain English” from the highly respected SCOTUSblog.

Third, to make it even easier for you, the rest of this blog consists of key quotations from the Court’s opinion. So you get the actual language of the court without wading through what are actually four different opinions totaling 193 pages. Thes following excerpts come only from the “opinion of the Court,” the parts which got the necessary five-out-of-nine votes to carry the day, totaling only about 36 pages out of the 193. Also to keep it manageable, these excerpts focus only on the “individual mandate” issue, not the Medicaid issue or any of the other procedural ones. (If you want to find any of the excerpts within the full opinion, the page number from Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion is in parentheses at the end of each one.)


Introductory excerpts:

“In our federal system, the National Government pos­sesses only limited powers; the States and the people retain the remainder. Nearly two centuries ago, Chief Justice Marshall observed that ‘the question respecting the extent of the powers actually granted’ to the Federal Government ’is perpetually arising, and will probably continue to arise, as long as our system shall exist.’ McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 405 (1819).” (p. 2)

“The Federal Government has expanded dramatically over the past two centuries, but it still must show that a consti­tutional grant of power authorizes each of its actions.” (p. 3)

“Our permissive reading of these powers is explained in part by a general reticence to invalidate the acts of the Nation’s elected leaders. ‘Proper respect for a co-ordinate branch of the government’ requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if ‘the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demon­strated.’ United States v. Harris, 106 U. S. 629, 635 (1883). Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.  (p. 6)

“In 2010, Congress enacted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 124 Stat. 119. The Act aims to in­crease the number of Americans covered by health in­surance and decrease the cost of health care.  … .

“The individual mandate requires most Americans to maintain ‘minimum essential’ health insurance coverage. 26 U. S. C. §5000A. The mandate does not apply to some individuals, such as prisoners and undocumented aliens. §5000A(d). Many individuals will receive the required cov­erage through their employer, or from a government pro­gram such as Medicaid or Medicare. See §5000A(f). But for individuals who are not exempt and do not receive health insurance through a third party, the means of satisfying the requirement is to purchase insurance from a private company.”  (p. 7)

“The Government advances two theories for the proposi­tion that Congress had constitutional authority to enact the individual mandate. First, the Government argues that Congress had the power to enact the mandate under the Commerce Clause. Under that theory, Congress may order individuals to buy health insurance because the failure to do so affects interstate commerce, and could un­dercut the Affordable Care Act’s other reforms. Second, the Government argues that if the commerce power does not support the mandate, we should nonetheless uphold it as an exercise of Congress’s power to tax. According to the Government, even if Congress lacks the power to direct individuals to buy insurance, the only effect of the indi­vidual mandate is to raise taxes on those who do not do so, and thus the law may be upheld as a tax.” (p. 15)

The Commerce Clause

“The Constitution grants Congress the power to ’regulate Commerce.’ Art. I, §8, cl. 3 (emphasis added). The power to regulate commerce presupposes the existence of com­mercial activity to be regulated.” (p. 19)

“The individual mandate, however, does not regulate existing commercial activity. It instead compels individ­uals to become active in commerce by purchasing a product, on the ground that their failure to do so affects interstate commerce.”  (p. 20)

“Congress already enjoys vast power to regulate much of what we do. Accepting the Government’s theory would give Congress the same license to regulate what we do not do, fundamentally changing the relation between the citizen and the Federal government.”  (pp. 23-24)

“The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate com­merce, not to compel it, and for over 200 years both our decisions and Congress’s actions have reflected this un­derstanding.” (p. 24)

“The Government argues that the individual mandate can be sustained as a sort of exception to this rule, because health insurance is a unique product. According to the Government, upholding the individual mandate would not justify mandatory purchases of items such as cars or broccoli because, as the Government puts it, ‘[h]ealth in­surance is not purchased for its own sake like a car or broccoli; it is a means of financing health-care consump­tion and covering universal risks.’ Reply Brief for United States 19. But cars and broccoli are no more purchased for their ‘own sake’ than health insurance. They are purchased to cover the need for transportation and food.” (p. 27)

“No matter how “inherently integrated” health insurance and health care consumption may be, they are not the same thing: They involve different transactions, entered into at different times, with different providers. And for most of those targeted by the mandate, significant health care needs will be years, or even decades, away. The proximity and degree of connection between the mandate and the subsequent commercial activity is too lack­ing to justify an exception of the sort urged by the Gov­ernment. The individual mandate forces individuals into commerce precisely because they elected to refrain from commercial activity. Such a law cannot be sustained under a clause authorizing Congress to ‘regulate Commerce.’ ” (p. 27)

Congressional Taxing Power

“The Government’s tax power argument asks us to view the statute differently than we did in considering its com­merce power theory. In making its Commerce Clause argument, the Government defended the mandate as a regulation requiring individuals to purchase health in­surance. The Government does not claim that the taxing power allows Congress to issue such a command. Instead, the Government asks us to read the mandate not as order­ing individuals to buy insurance, but rather as imposing a tax on those who do not buy that product.” (p. 31)

“Under the mandate, if an individual does not maintain health insurance, the only consequence is that he must make an additional payment to the IRS when he pays his taxes. See §5000A(b). That, according to the Government, means the mandate can be regarded as establishing a condition—not owning health insurance—that triggers a tax—the required payment to the IRS. Under that theory, the mandate is not a legal command to buy insurance. Rather, it makes going without insurance just another thing the Government taxes, like buying gasoline or earn­ing income. And if the mandate is in effect just a tax hike on certain taxpayers who do not have health insurance, it may be within Congress’s constitutional power to tax.” (p. 32)

“The exaction the Affordable Care Act imposes on those without health insurance looks like a tax in many re­spects. The ‘[s]hared responsibility payment,’ as the statute entitles it, is paid into the Treasury by ‘tax­payer[s]’ when they file their tax returns. 26 U. S. C. §5000A(b). It does not apply to individuals who do not pay federal income taxes because their household income is less than the filing threshold in the Internal Revenue Code. §5000A(e)(2). For taxpayers who do owe the pay­ment, its amount is determined by such familiar factors as taxable income, number of dependents, and joint filing status. §§5000A(b)(3), (c)(2), (c)(4). The requirement to pay is found in the Internal Revenue Code and enforced by the IRS, which—as we previously explained—must assess and collect it “in the same manner as taxes.” Supra, at 13–14. This process yields the essential feature of any tax: it produces at least some revenue for the Government.” (p. 33)

“Congress’s authority under the taxing power is limited to requiring an individual to pay money into the Federal Treasury, no more. If a tax is properly paid, the Government has no power to compel or punish individuals subject to it. We do not make light of the se­vere burden that taxation—especially taxation motivated by a regulatory purpose—can impose. But imposition of a tax nonetheless leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.” (pp. 43-44)

“The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain in­dividuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Be­cause the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.” (p. 44)

If you are behind on your car or truck loan and a Chapter 7 case will not help you enough, file a Chapter 13 case instead so that you can keep that vehicle.

I laid out your options with vehicle loans under Chapter 7 in my last blog:

1. Surrender the vehicle and discharge (write off) any “deficiency balance”–the often large amount that outside of bankruptcy you would still owe after the creditor sells off your vehicle for less than the loan balance. The vehicle’s gone but so is all your debt.

2. Keep the vehicle and maintain the regular payments if you’re current. Or if you are behind, pay the full amount of back payments so that you are current within a month or two of filing the bankruptcy case. In both of these situations, you will almost certainly be required to sign a “reaffirmation agreement” renewing your full liability on the vehicle loan.

But what if you absolutely must keep your vehicle, and simply won’t be able to scrape up the money to catch up within a month or two after filing?  Some creditors may be somewhat more flexible—giving more time or even putting missed payments “at the end of the loan.” But these situations are relatively rare, and may not help you enough. Then it’s time to consider the Chapter 13 option with your attorney.

Keep the Vehicle through a Cram-Down

If you meet one straightforward condition, Chapter 13 gives you some tough medicine indeed, way beyond just buying you more time to pay the missed payments. Through the so-called cram-down, you get to re-write the loan—disregarding any missed payments. The balance on the loan is reduced to—crammed down to–the fair market value of the vehicle (assuming that’s less than the loan balance). Sometimes the interest rate can be reduced and often the loan term can be extended. The combined effect of all this is usually to reduce the monthly payment amount, often significantly. The amount of total savings depends on the details of your case, but most of the time you get the vehicle free and clear at the end of the Chapter 13 case after paying significantly less than you would have otherwise.

So what’s the condition you have to meet to be able to do this cram-down?  The vehicle loan must have been entered into more than 910 days (about two and a half years) before filing your Chapter 13 case. If your vehicle loan is not at least that old, no cram down.

Keep the Vehicle without a Cram-Down

You may not qualify for a cram-down because your loan is not old enough, or a cram-down could simply not do any good because your vehicle is worth more than the loan balance. But Chapter 13 can still be helpful, by not being obligated to catch up quickly on the back payments. And in the right circumstances, your monthly vehicle loan payments can be reduced, giving you more money for living expenses or to pay other important creditors.

Surrender the Vehicle

To be clear, although Chapter 13 gives you some big advantages if you are keeping your vehicle, if you don’t need that vehicle you can surrender it just as you can in a Chapter 7 case.

The difference is that instead of the “deficiency balance” being discharged without the creditor receiving anything as in the vast majority of Chapter 7 cases, under Chapter 13 that “deficiency balance” is added to the rest of the pool of general unsecured creditors.

What’s the effect of that? In most cases it doesn’t cost you anything, nothing more than what you would have paid to complete your Chapter 13 case without that “deficiency balance” included. Why? Because in most Chapter 13 plans, you are required to pay a certain amount based on your budget, or a certain minimum amount to the unsecured creditors based on assets you are protecting. So in those cases having an extra chunk of unsecured debt merely shifts how the creditors divide up among themselves the same amount of your money.

But there are some uncommon situations in which adding that “deficiency balance” to your unsecured debts would increase the amount you would have to pay into your Chapter 13 plan. Discuss whether any of those apply to you before deciding whether surrendering your vehicle in a Chapter 13 is in your best interest.

Eligibility can turn on 1) who is filing the bankruptcy, 2) the kinds and amounts of debts, 3) the amount of income, and 4) the amount of expenses.

1) Who is filing the bankruptcy:

If you are a human being (or a human being and his or her spouse), you can file either a Chapter 7 or 13 case.

If you are a part owner of a partnership or corporation, that partnership or corporation cannot file a Chapter 13 case. But it can file a Chapter 7 one. And it can do so whether or not you also file one individually.

2) The kinds and amounts of debts:

If you have “primarily consumer debts” (more than 50% by dollar amount), then you have to pass the “means test” to be allowed to be in a Chapter 7 case. (More about that below.)

Chapter 7 has no restriction on the amount of debt allowed. In contrast, Chapter 13 is restricted to cases with a maximum of $360,475 in unsecured debts and $1,081,400 in secured debts.

3) Amount of income:

The “means test” in Chapter 7 is quickly satisfied if your income is no more than the published “median income” for your family size and state.

Chapter 13 requires “regular income,” which is defined in somewhat circular fashion to be income “sufficiently stable and regular” to enable you to “make payments under a [Chapter 13] plan.” Also, if the income is less than the “median income” applicable to your family size and state, then the plan will generally last three years; if the income is at the applicable “median income” amount or more, the plan will last five years.

4) The amount of expenses:

In Chapter 7, if you are not below “median income,” then you enter into a largely mathematical test involving your expenses to see if you pass the “means test” and are eligible for filing a Chapter 7 case.

In Chapter 13, a similar calculation largely determines the amount you must pay monthly into your plan to satisfy the requirements of Chapter 13.


Choosing between Chapter 7 and 13 can often be very simple and obvious. But there are at least a dozen major differences among them, ones that you may well not be aware of. So when you come in to see me or another attorney, be clear about your goals but also open-minded about how to reach them. You may well have tools available that you were not aware of.

You may want the fast fresh start of a Chapter 7 case, but sometimes your circumstances scream out for a Chapter 13 instead.  It’s true—for some people Chapter 13 provides tremendous tools not available under Chapter 7. Now all you have to do is qualify for it.

Qualifying for Chapter 13 is completely different than qualifying for Chapter 7. You 1) can’t have too much debt, and 2) must be “an individual with regular income.”


Too Much Debt

There is no limit how much debt you can have if you file a Chapter 7 case. But under Chapter 13 there IS a strict maximum debt amount. The idea is that Chapter 13 is a relatively straightforward and efficient procedure designed for relatively simple situations. If there’s a huge amount of debt, the theory is that you need a more complicated procedure, Chapter 11, which is arguably ten times more elaborate (and about that many times more expensive!).  

So Congress has come up, rather arbitrarily, with a strict debt maximum to qualify for Chapter 13. Actually, there are two separate maximums, one for unsecured debt and another for secured debt. You’re thrown out of Chapter 13 if you exceed either amount.

The current maximums are $1,081,400 for secured debt and $360,475 in unsecured debts. Those same numbers apply whether you are filing by yourself or with a spouse.

These amounts may sound like way beyond what most consumers would owe, and in fact they do not cause most people a problem. But these limits are problematic more than you might think. Consider if you owed a normal amount of debt and then were hit with a catastrophic medical emergency and/or very serious ongoing condition that quickly exhausted your medical insurance. A few hundred thousand dollars of medical debts can add up faster than you can believe.  

Other potentially troublesome situations, particularly for the unsecured debt limit, include if you’ve owned a business, or are involved in serious litigation. Or if you own real estate, especially more than just your primary residence, the secured debt limit can also be reached quickly, especially in certain part of the country.


“Individual with Regular Income”

First, corporations and partnerships can file Chapter 7s, but not 13s—you must be an “individual.”

Second, the Bankruptcy Code defines—not very helpfully, mind you—“individual with regular income” as someone “whose income is sufficiently stable and regular to enable such individual to make payments under a plan under Chapter 13.”  That’s sounds like a circular definition—your income is regular enough to qualify to do a Chapter 13 case if your income is regular enough to do a Chapter 13 case!? Such an ambiguous definition gives bankruptcy judges a great deal of discretion about how they enforce this requirement. Some are pretty flexible, letting you at least try. Others look more closely at your recent income history and have to be pursuaded that your income is consistent enough to meet this hurdle. This is one of those areas where it pays to have a good attorney in your corner, one who has experience with your judge and the expertise to present your circumstances in the best light.