By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Understand the basic procedures involved in administering a bankruptcy case.
- Recognize the basic elements of creditors’ rights under the bankruptcy code.
- Understand the fundamentals of what property is included in the debtor’s estate.
- Identify some of the debtor’s exemptions—what property can be kept by the debtor.
- Know some of the debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
- Know how an estate is liquidated under Chapter 7.
Case Administration (Chapter 3 of the Bankruptcy Code)
Recall that the purpose of liquidation is to convert the debtor’s assets—except those exempt under the law—into cash for distribution to the creditors and thereafter to discharge the debtor from further liability. With certain exceptions, any person may voluntarily file a petition to liquidate under Chapter 7. A “person” is defined as any individual, partnership, or corporation. The exceptions are railroads and insurance companies, banks, savings and loan associations, credit unions, and the like.
For a Chapter 7 liquidation proceeding, as for bankruptcy proceedings in general, the various aspects of case administration are covered by the bankruptcy code’s Chapter 3. These include the rules governing commencement of the proceedings, the effect of the petition in bankruptcy, the first meeting of the creditors, and the duties and powers of trustees.
The bankruptcy begins with the filing of a petition in bankruptcy with the bankruptcy court.
Voluntary and Involuntary Petitions
The individual, partnership, or corporation may file a voluntary petition in bankruptcy; 99 percent of bankruptcies are voluntary petitions filed by the debtor. But involuntary bankruptcy is possible, too, under Chapter 7 or Chapter 11. To put anyone into bankruptcy involuntarily, the petitioning creditors must meet three conditions: (1) they must have claims for unsecured debt amounting to at least $13,475; (2) three creditors must join in the petition whenever twelve or more creditors have claims against the particular debtor—otherwise, one creditor may file an involuntary petition, as long as his claim is for at least $13,475; (3) there must be no bona fide dispute about the debt owing. If there is a dispute, the debtor can resist the involuntary filing, and if she wins the dispute, the creditors who pushed for the involuntary petition have to pay the associated costs. Persons owing less than $13,475, farmers, and charitable organizations cannot be forced into bankruptcy.
The Automatic Stay
The petition—voluntary or otherwise—operates as a stay against suits or other actions against the debtor to recover claims, enforce judgments, or create liens (but not alimony collection). In other words, once the petition is filed, the debtor is freed from worry over other proceedings affecting her finances or property. No more debt collection calls! Anyone with a claim, secured or unsecured, must seek relief in the bankruptcy court. This provision in the act can have dramatic consequences. Beset by tens of thousands of products-liability suits for damages caused by asbestos, UNR Industries and Manville Corporation, the nation’s largest asbestos producers, filed (separate) voluntary bankruptcy petitions in 1982; those filings automatically stayed all pending lawsuits.
First Meeting of Creditors
Once a petition in bankruptcy is filed, the court issues an order of relief, which determines that the debtor’s property is subject to bankruptcy court control and creates the stay. The Chapter 7 case may be dismissed by the court if, after a notice and hearing, it finds that among other things (e.g., delay, nonpayment of required bankruptcy fees), the debts are primarily consumer debts and the debtor could pay them off—that’s the 2005 act’s famous “means test,” discussed in Section 13.3 “Chapter 7 Liquidation”.
Assuming that the order of relief has been properly issued, the creditors must meet within a reasonable time. The debtor is obligated to appear at the meeting and submit to examination under oath. The judge does not preside and, indeed, is not even entitled to attend the meeting.
When the judge issues an order for relief, an interim trustee is appointed who is authorized initially to take control of the debtor’s assets. The trustee is required to collect the property, liquidate the debtor’s estate, and distribute the proceeds to the creditors. The trustee may sue and be sued in the name of the estate. Under every chapter except Chapter 7, the court has sole discretion to name the trustee. Under Chapter 7, the creditors may select their own trustee as long as they do it at the first meeting of creditors and follow the procedures laid down in the act.
Trustee’s Powers and Duties
The act empowers the trustee to use, sell, or lease the debtor’s property in the ordinary course of business or, after notice and a hearing, even if not in the ordinary course of business. In all cases, the trustee must protect any security interests in the property. As long as the court has authorized the debtor’s business to continue, the trustee may also obtain credit in the ordinary course of business. She may invest money in the estate to yield the maximum, but reasonably safe, return. Subject to the court’s approval, she may employ various professionals, such as attorneys, accountants, and appraisers, and may, with some exceptions, assume or reject executory contracts and unexpired leases that the debtor has made. The trustee also has the power to avoid many prebankruptcy transactions in order to recover property of the debtor to be included in the liquidation.
Creditors’ Claims, the Debtor, and the Estate (Chapter 5 of the Bankruptcy Code)
We now turn to the major matters covered in Chapter 5 of the bankruptcy act: creditors’ claims, debtors’ exemptions and discharge, and the property to be included in the estate. We begin with the rules governing proof of claims by creditors and the priority of their claims.
Claims and Creditors
A claim is defined as a right to payment, whether or not it is reduced to judgment, liquidated, unliquidated, fixed, contingent, matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, legal, equitable, secured, or unsecured. A creditor is defined as a person or entity with a claim that arose no later than when the court issues the order for relief. These are very broad definitions, intended to give the debtor the broadest possible relief when finally discharged.
Proof of Claims
Before the trustee can distribute proceeds of the estate, unsecured creditors must file a proof of claim, prima facie evidence that they are owed some amount of money. They must do so within six months after the first date set for the first meeting of creditors. A creditor’s claim is disallowed, even though it is valid, if it is not filed in a timely manner. A party in interest, such as the trustee or creditor, may object to a proof of claim, in which case the court must determine whether to allow it. In the absence of objection, the claim is “deemed allowed.” The court will not allow some claims. These include unenforceable claims, claims for unmatured interest, claims that may be offset by debts the creditor owes the debtor, and unreasonable charges by an insider or an attorney. If it’s a “no asset” bankruptcy—most are—creditors are in effect told by the court not to waste their time filing proof of claim.
Claims with Priority
The bankruptcy act sets out categories of claimants and establishes priorities among them. The law is complex because it sets up different orders of priorities.
First, secured creditors get their security interests before anyone else is satisfied, because the security interest is not part of the property that the trustee is entitled to bring into the estate. This is why being a secured creditor is important (as discussed in Chapter 11 “Secured Transactions and Suretyship” and Chapter 12 “Mortgages and Nonconsensual Liens”). To the extent that secured creditors have claims in excess of their collateral, they are considered unsecured or general creditors and are lumped in with general creditors of the appropriate class.
Second, of the six classes of claimants (see Figure 13.3 “Distribution of the Estate”), the first is known as that of “priority claims.” It is subdivided into ten categories ranked in order of priority. The highest-priority class within the general class of priority claims must be paid off in full before the next class can share in a distribution from the estate, and so on. Within each class, members will share pro rata if there are not enough assets to satisfy everyone fully. The priority classes, from highest to lowest, are set out in the bankruptcy code (11 USC Section 507) as follows:
(1) Domestic support obligations (“DSO”), which are claims for support due to the spouse, former spouse, child, or child’s representative, and at a lower priority within this class are any claims by a governmental unit that has rendered support assistance to the debtor’s family obligations.
(2) Administrative expenses that are required to administer the bankruptcy case itself. Under former law, administrative expenses had the highest priority, but Congress elevated domestic support obligations above administrative expenses with the passage of the BAPCPA. Actually, though, administrative expenses have a de facto priority over domestic support obligations, because such expenses are deducted before they are paid to DSO recipients. Since trustees are paid from the bankruptcy estate, the courts have allowed de facto top priority for administrative expenses because no trustee is going to administer a bankruptcy case for nothing (and no lawyer will work for long without getting paid, either).
(3) Gap creditors. Claims made by gap creditors in an involuntary bankruptcy petition under Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 are those that arise between the filing of an involuntary bankruptcy petition and the order for relief issued by the court. These claims are given priority because otherwise creditors would not deal with the debtor, usually a business, when the business has declared bankruptcy but no trustee has been appointed and no order of relief issued.
(4) Employee wages up to $10,950 for each worker, for the 180 days previous to either the bankruptcy filing or when the business ceased operations, whichever is earlier (180-day period).
(5) Unpaid contributions to employee benefit plans during the 180-day period, but limited by what was already paid by the employer under subsection (4) above plus what was paid on behalf of the employees by the bankruptcy estate for any employment benefit plan.
(6) Any claims for grain from a grain producer or fish from a fisherman for up to $5,400 each against a storage or processing facility.
(7) Consumer layaway deposits of up to $2,425 each.
(8) Taxes owing to federal, state, and local governments for income, property, employment and excise taxes. Outside of bankruptcy, taxes usually have a higher priority than this, which is why many times creditors—not tax creditors—file an involuntary bankruptcy petition against the debtor so that they have a higher priority in bankruptcy than they would outside it.
(9) Allowed claims based on any commitment by the debtor to a federal depository institution to maintain the capital of an insured depository institution.
(10) Claims for death or personal injury from a motor vehicle or vessel that occurred while the debtor was legally intoxicated.
Third through sixth (after secured creditors and priority claimants), other claimants are attended to, but not immediately. The bankruptcy code (perhaps somewhat awkwardly) deals with who gets paid when in more than one place. Chapter 5 sets out priority claims as just noted; that order applies to all bankruptcies. Chapter 7, dealing with liquidation (as opposed to Chapter 11 and Chapter 13, wherein the debtor pays most of her debt), then lists the order of distribution. Section 726 of 11 United States Code provides: “Distribution of property of the estate. (1) First, in payment of claims of the kind specified in, and in the order specified in section 507…” (again, the priority of claims just set out). Following the order specified in the bankruptcy code, our discussion of the order of distribution is taken up in Section 13.3 “Chapter 7 Liquidation”.
Debtor’s Duties and Exemptions
The act imposes certain duties on the debtor, and it exempts some property that the trustee can accumulate and distribute from the estate.
The debtor, reasonably enough, is supposed to file a list of creditors, assets, liabilities, and current income, and a statement of financial affairs. The debtor must cooperate with the trustee and be an “honest debtor” in general; the failure to abide by these duties is grounds for a denial of discharge.
The individual debtor (not including partnerships or corporations) also must show evidence that he or she attended an approved nonprofit budget and counseling agency within 180 days before the filing. The counseling may be “an individual or group briefing (including a briefing conducted by telephone or on the Internet) that outline[s] the opportunities for available credit counseling and assisted such individual in performing a related budget analysis.”11 United States Code, Section 109(h). In Section 111, the 2005 act describes who can perform this counseling, and a host of regulations and enforcement mechanisms are instituted, generally applying to persons who provide goods or services related to bankruptcy work for consumer debtors whose nonexempt assets are less than $150,000, in order to improve the professionalism of attorneys and others who work with debtors in, or contemplating, bankruptcy. A debtor who is incapacitated, disabled, or on active duty in a military zone doesn’t have to go through the counseling.
The bankruptcy act exempts certain property of the estate of an individual debtor so that he or she will not be impoverished upon discharge. Exactly what is exempt depends on state law.
Notwithstanding the Constitution’s mandate that Congress establish “uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies,” bankruptcy law is in fact not uniform because the states persuaded Congress to allow nonuniform exemptions. The concept makes sense: what is necessary for a debtor in Maine to live a nonimpoverished postbankruptcy life might not be the same as what is necessary in southern California. The bankruptcy code describes how a person’s residence is determined for claiming state exemptions: basically, where the debtor lived for 730 days immediately before filing or where she lived for 180 days immediately preceding the 730-day period. For example, if the debtor resided in the same state, without interruption, in the two years leading up to the bankruptcy, he can use that state’s exemptions. If not, the location where he resided for a majority of the half-year preceding the initial two years will be used. The point here is to reduce “exemption shopping”—to reduce the incidences in which a person moves to a generous exemption state only to declare bankruptcy there.
Unless the state has opted out of the federal exemptions (a majority have), a debtor can choose which exemptions to claim.These are the states that allow residents to chose either federal or state exemptions (the other states mandate the use of state exemptions only): Arkansas, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. There are also some exemptions not included in the bankruptcy code: veteran’s, Social Security, unemployment, and disability benefits are outside the code, and alimony payments are also exempt under federal law. The federal exemptions can be doubled by a married couple filing together.
Here are the federal exemptions:11 United States Code, Section 522.
- Real property, including mobile homes and co-ops, or burial plots up to $20,200. Unused portion of homestead, up to $10,125, may be used for other property.
- Motor vehicle up to $3,225.
- Animals, crops, clothing, appliances and furnishings, books, household goods, and musical instruments up to $525 per item, and up to $10,775 total.
- Jewelry up to $1,350.
- $1,075 of any property, and unused portion of homestead up to $10,125.
- Health aids.
- Wrongful death recovery for person you depended upon.
- Personal injury recovery up to $20,200 except for pain and suffering or for pecuniary loss.
- Lost earnings payments.
- Tax exempt retirement accounts; IRAs and Roth IRAs up to $1,095,000 per person.
- Public assistance, Social Security, Veteran’s benefits, Unemployment Compensation.
- Crime victim’s compensation.
Tools of Trade:
- Implements, books, and tools of trade, up to $2,025.
Alimony and Child Support:
- Alimony and child support needed for support.
- Unmatured life insurance policy except credit insurance.
- Life insurance policy with loan value up to $10,775.
- Disability, unemployment, or illness benefits.
- Life insurance payments for a person you depended on, which you need for support.
In the run-up to the 2005 changes in the bankruptcy law, there was concern that some states—especially FloridaThe Florida homestead exemption is “[r]eal or personal property, including mobile or modular home and condominium, to unlimited value. Property cannot exceed: 1/2 acre in a municipality, or 160 acres elsewhere.” The 2005 act limits the state homestead exemptions, as noted.—had gone too far in giving debtors’ exemptions. The BAPCPA amended Section 522 to limit the amount of equity a debtor can exempt, even in a state with unlimited homestead exemptions, in certain circumstances. (Section 522(o) and (p) set out the law’s changes.)
As already noted, secured creditors generally have priority, even above the priority claims. That’s why banks and lending institutions almost always secure the debtor’s obligations. But despite the general rule, the debtor can avoid certain types of security interests. Liens that attach to assets that the debtor is entitled to claim as exempt can be avoided to the extent the lien impairs the value of the exemption in both Chapter 13 and Chapter 7. To be avoidable, the lien must be a judicial lien (like a judgment or a garnishment), or a nonpossessory, non-purchase-money security interest in household goods or tools of the trade.
Tax liens (which are statutory liens, not judicial liens) aren’t avoidable in Chapter 7 even if they impair exemptions; tax liens can be avoided in Chapter 13 to the extent the lien is greater than the asset’s value.
Dischargeable and Nondischargeable Debts
The whole point of bankruptcy, of course, is for debtors to get relief from the press of debt that they cannot reasonably pay.
Once discharged, the debtor is no longer legally liable to pay any remaining unpaid debts (except nondischargeable debts) that arose before the court issued the order of relief. The discharge operates to void any money judgments already rendered against the debtor and to bar the judgment creditor from seeking to recover the judgment.
Some debts are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. A bankruptcy discharge varies, depending on the type of bankruptcy the debtor files (Chapter 7, 11, 12, or 13). The most common nondischargeable debts listed in Section 523 include the following:
- All debts not listed in the bankruptcy petition
- Student loans—unless it would be an undue hardship to repay them (see Section 13.6 “Cases”, In re Zygarewicz)
- Taxes—federal, state, and municipal
- Fines for violating the law, including criminal fines and traffic tickets
- Alimony and child support, divorce, and other property settlements
- Debts for personal injury caused by driving, boating, or operating an aircraft while intoxicated
- Consumer debts owed to a single creditor and aggregating more than $550 for luxury goods or services incurred within ninety days before the order of relief
- Cash advances aggregating more than $825 obtained by an individual debtor within ninety days before the order for relief
- Debts incurred because of fraud or securities law violations
- Debts for willful injury to another’s person or his or her property
- Debts from embezzlement
This is not an exhaustive list, and as noted in Section 13.3 “Chapter 7 Liquidation”, there are some circumstances in which it is not just certain debts that aren’t dischargeable: sometimes a discharge is denied entirely.
A debtor may reaffirm a debt that was discharged. Section 524 of the bankruptcy code provides important protection to the debtor intent on doing so. No reaffirmation is binding unless the reaffirmation was made prior to the granting of the discharge; the reaffirmation agreement must contain a clear and conspicuous statement that advises the debtor that the agreement is not required by bankruptcy or nonbankruptcy law and that the agreement may be rescinded by giving notice of rescission to the holder of such claim at any time prior to discharge or within sixty days after the agreement is filed with the court, whichever is later.
A written agreement to reaffirm a debt must be filed with the bankruptcy court. The attorney for the debtor must file an affidavit certifying that the agreement represents a fully informed and voluntary agreement, that the agreement does not impose an undue hardship on the debtor or a dependent of the debtor, and that the attorney has fully advised the debtor of the legal consequences of the agreement and of a default under the agreement. Where the debtor is an individual who was not represented by an attorney during the course of negotiating the agreement, the reaffirmation agreement must be approved by the court, after disclosures to the debtor, and after the court finds that it is in the best interest of the debtor and does not cause an undue hardship on the debtor or a dependent.
Property Included in the Estate
When a bankruptcy petition is filed, a debtor’s estate is created consisting of all the debtor’s then-existing property interests, whether legal or equitable. In addition, the estate includes any bequests, inheritances, and certain other distributions of property that the debtor receives within the next 180 days. It also includes property recovered by the trustee under certain powers granted by the law. What is not exempt property will be distributed to the creditors.
The bankruptcy code confers on the trustee certain powers to recover property for the estate that the debtor transferred before bankruptcy.
One such power (in Section 544) is to act as a hypothetical lien creditor. This power is best explained by an example. Suppose Dennis Debtor purchases equipment on credit from Acme Supply Company. Acme fails to perfect its security interest, and a few weeks later Debtor files a bankruptcy petition. By virtue of the section conferring on the trustee the status of a hypothetical lien creditor, the trustee can act as though she had a lien on the equipment, with priority over Acme’s unperfected security interest. Thus the trustee can avoid Acme’s security interest, with the result that Acme would be treated as an unsecured creditor.
Another power is to avoid transactions known as voidable preferences—transactions highly favorable to particular creditors.11 United States Code, Section 547. A transfer of property is voidable if it was made (1) to a creditor or for his benefit, (2) on account of a debt owed before the transfer was made, (3) while the debtor was insolvent, (4) on or within ninety days before the filing of the petition, and (5) to enable a creditor to receive more than he would have under Chapter 7. If the creditor was an “insider”—one who had a special relationship with the debtor, such as a relative or general partner of the debtor or a corporation that the debtor controls or serves in as director or officer—then the trustee may void the transaction if it was made within one year of the filing of the petition, assuming that the debtor was insolvent at the time the transaction was made.
Some prebankruptcy transfers that seem to fall within these provisions do not. The most important exceptions are (1) transfers made for new value (the debtor buys a refrigerator for cash one week before filing a petition; this is an exchange for new value and the trustee may not void it); (2) a transfer that creates a purchase-money security interest securing new value if the secured party perfects within ten days after the debtor receives the goods; (3) payment of a debt incurred in the ordinary course of business, on ordinary business terms; (4) transfers totaling less than $600 by an individual whose debts are primarily consumer debts; (5) transfers totaling less than $5,475 by a debtor whose debts are not primarily consumer debts; and (6) transfers to the extent the transfer was a bona fide domestic support obligation.
A third power of the trustee is to avoid fraudulent transfers made within two years before the date that the bankruptcy petition was filed.11 United States Code, Section 548. This provision contemplates various types of fraud. For example, while insolvent, the debtor might transfer property to a relative for less than it was worth, intending to recover it after discharge. This situation should be distinguished from the voidable preference just discussed, in which the debtor pays a favored creditor what he actually owes but in so doing cannot then pay other creditors.
A bankruptcy commences with the filing of a petition of bankruptcy. Creditors file proofs of claim and are entitled to certain priorities: domestic support obligations and the costs of administration are first. The debtor has an obligation to file full and truthful schedules and to attend a credit counseling session, if applicable. The debtor has a right to claim exemptions, federal or state, that leave her with assets sufficient to make a fresh start: some home equity, an automobile, and clothing and personal effects, among others. The honest debtor is discharged of many debts, but some are nondischargeable, among them taxes, debt from illegal behavior (embezzlement, drunk driving), fines, student loans, and certain consumer debt. A debtor may, after proper counseling, reaffirm debt, but only before filing. The bankruptcy trustee takes over the nonexempt property of the debtor; he may act as a hypothetical lien creditor (avoiding unperfected security interests) and avoid preferential and fraudulent transfers that unfairly diminish the property of the estate.
- What is the automatic stay, and when does it arise?
- Why are the expenses of claimants administering the bankruptcy given top priority (notwithstanding the nominal top priority of domestic support obligations)?
- Why are debtor’s exemptions not uniform? What sorts of things are exempt from being taken by the bankruptcy trustee, and why are such exemptions allowed?
- Some debts are nondischargeable; give three examples. What is the rationale for disallowing some debts from discharge?
- How does the law take care that the debtor is fully informed of the right not to reaffirm debts, and why is such care taken?
- What is a hypothetical lien creditor? What is the difference between a preferential transfer and a fraudulent one? Why is it relevant to discuss these three things in the same paragraph?