How are Debts Handled in Bankruptcy

April 3, 2015

Individuals who have been through the bankruptcy process are often happy to talk about their experiences. Usually this is not a bad thing, but sometimes it can lead to misinformation and unrealistic expectations. How your friend’s debts were treated in her case may be very different from how similar debts are treated in your case. For instance, a bankruptcy court may find that a $5,000 credit card debt must be paid in full in one case, partially paid in another, and not paid at all in a third.

A debt that is included in a bankruptcy case can take several different paths and be altered in several different ways. What “legally” happens to the debt depends on the type of debt and the laws that apply to it; the intent of the debtor; and the order of the bankruptcy court. In certain situations it even matters how and when the debt was created! Let’s take a look at common types of debts in bankruptcy cases and how they are often treated.

Priority Debts

The Bankruptcy Code instructs the bankruptcy trustee to pay creditors in accordance with a priority hierarchy. For example, recent tax debts are paid ahead of credit cards; owed child support obligations are paid ahead of medical bills.  Priority debts have little impact in most Chapter 7 cases, where there is no money to pay creditors from the bankruptcy estate. However, priority debts play a large part in Chapter 7 cases when assets are distributed or in Chapter 13 repayment cases. In Chapter 13 cases, some priority debts must be repaid in full before the bankruptcy court will grant a discharge. Note that priority debts may be discharged at the end of a bankruptcy case unless they are also non-dischargeable debts.

Non-Dischargeable Debts

Non-dischargeable debts are either excluded from a bankruptcy discharge by law, by a court, or by agreement between the debtor and creditor. The Bankruptcy Code identifies several kinds of debts that are not discharged during a Chapter 7 case, a Chapter 13 case, or in either case. When a debt is excepted or excluded from the bankruptcy discharge, it survives the bankruptcy case either in whole or in part.

Secured Debts

Secured debts, like car payments and house loans, are secured by collateral. Treatment of a secured debt during a bankruptcy case is complex. A secured debt may be discharged in whole and the collateral surrendered (called “surrender”); discharged and the property retained (called a “lien stripping”); or discharged in part (called a “cram-down”). In a Chapter 7 case a debtor has the choice of “reaffirming” the debt with the creditor at the same or changed terms. A reaffirmed debt survives a bankruptcy discharge.

Unsecured Debts

Unsecured debts commonly include medical bills, credit cards, unsecured personal loans, debts to family members, and old tax debts. Unsecured debts in a Chapter 7 no-asset case are discharged, unless excepted as a non-dischargeable debt. Unsecured debts in a Chapter 13 case are either discharged at the end of the case, paid in full, or paid at a “pennies-on-the-dollar” rate with the remaining amount discharged.

Your debts and financial situation will dictate how your debts are treated in bankruptcy. Don’t rely on general rules found on the internet or advice about how your friend’s debts were treated in her bankruptcy, call an experienced attorney and have your own case fully and professionally evaluated.

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