The Constitution gives Congress the power to legislate on bankruptcy. The current law is the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which provides for six types of proceedings: (1) liquidation, Chapter 7; (2) adjustment of debts of a municipality, Chapter 9; (3) reorganization, Chapter 11; (4) family farmers with regular income, Chapter 12; (5) individuals with regular income, Chapter 13; and (6) cross-border bankruptcies, Chapter 15.
With some exceptions, any individual, partnership, or corporation seeking liquidation may file a voluntary petition in bankruptcy. An involuntary petition is also possible; creditors petitioning for that must meet certain criteria.
A petition operates as a stay against the debtor for lawsuits to recover claims or enforce judgments or liens. A judge will issue an order of relief and appoint a trustee, who takes over the debtor’s property and preserves security interests. To recover monies owed, creditors must file proof of claims. The trustee has certain powers to recover property for the estate that the debtor transferred before bankruptcy. These include the power to act as a hypothetical lien creditor, to avoid fraudulent transfers and voidable preferences.
The bankruptcy act sets out categories of claimants and establishes priority among them. After secured parties take their security, the priorities are (1) domestic support obligations, (2) administrative expenses, (3) gap creditor claims, (4) employees’ wages, salaries, commissions, (5) contributions to employee benefit plans, (6) grain or fish producers’ claims against a storage facility, (7) consumer deposits, (8) taxes owed to governments, (9) allowed claims for personal injury or death resulting from debtor’s driving or operating a vessel while intoxicated. After these priority claims are paid, the trustee must distribute the estate in this order: (a) unsecured creditors who filed timely, (b) unsecured creditors who filed late, (c) persons claiming fines and the like, (d) all other creditors, (e) the debtor. Most bankruptcies are no-asset, so creditors get nothing.
Under Chapter 7’s 2005 amendments, debtors must pass a means test to be eligible for relief; if they make too much money, they must file Chapter 13.
Certain property is exempt from the estate of an individual debtor. States may opt out of the federal list of exemptions and substitute their own; most have.
Once discharged, the debtor is no longer legally liable for most debts. However, some debts are not dischargeable, and bad faith by the debtor may preclude discharge. Under some circumstances, a debtor may reaffirm a discharged debt. A Chapter 7 case may be converted to Chapter 11 or 13 voluntarily, or to Chapter 11 involuntarily.
Chapter 11 provides for reorganization. Any person eligible for discharge in Chapter 7 is eligible for Chapter 11, except stockbrokers and commodity brokers; those who have too much debt to file Chapter 13 and surpass the means test for Chapter 7 file Chapter 11. Under Chapter 11, the debtor retains possession of the business and may continue to operate it with its own management unless the court appoints a trustee. The court may do so either for cause or if it is in the best interests of the creditors. The court must appoint a committee of unsecured creditors, who remain active throughout the proceeding. The debtor may file its own reorganization plan and has the exclusive right to do so within 120 days if it remains in possession. The plan must be accepted by certain proportions of each impaired class of claims and interests. It is binding on all creditors, and the debtor is discharged from all debts once the court confirms the plan.
Chapter 13 is for any individual with regular income who has difficulty paying debts; it is voluntary only; the debtor must get credit counseling. The debtor presents a payment plan to creditors, and the court appoints a trustee. The plan extends the time to pay and may reduce the size of the debt. If the creditors wind up with more in this proceeding than they would have in Chapter 7, the court is likely to approve the plan. The court may approve a stretch-out of five years. Some debts not dischargeable under Chapter 7 may be under Chapter 13.
Alternatives to bankruptcy are (1) composition (agreement by creditors to accept less than the face amount of the debt), (2) assignment for benefit of creditors (transfer of debtor’s property to a trustee, who uses it to pay debts), and (3) receivership (a disinterested person is appointed by the court to preserve assets and distribute them at the court’s direction). Because these are voluntary procedures, they are ineffective if all parties do not agree to them.
- David has debts of $18,000 and few assets. Because his debts are less than $25,000, he decides to file for bankruptcy using the state court system rather than the federal system. Briefly describe the procedure he should follow to file for bankruptcy at the state level.
- Assume that David in Exercise 1 is irregularly employed and has developed a plan for paying off his creditors. What type of bankruptcy should he use, Chapter 7, 11, or 13? Why?
- Assume that David owns the following unsecured property: a $3,000 oboe, a $1,000 piano, a $2,000 car, and a life insurance policy with a cash surrender value of $8,000. How much of this property is available for distribution to his creditors in a bankruptcy? Explain.
- If David owes his ex-wife alimony (maintenance) payments and is obligated to pay $12,000 for an educational loan, what effect will his discharge have on these obligations?
- Assume that David owns a corporation that he wants to liquidate under Chapter 7. After the corporate assets are distributed to creditors, there is still money owing to many of them. What obstacle does David face in obtaining a discharge for the corporation?
- The famous retired professional football player—with a pension from the NFL—Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson was convicted of wrongful death in a celebrated Santa Monica, California, trial in 1997 and ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages to the families of the deceased. Mr. Simpson sold his California house, moved to Florida, and, from occasional appearances in the press, seemed to be living a high-style life with a big house, nice cars, and sharp clothing. He has never declared bankruptcy. Why hasn’t he been forced into an involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy by his creditors?
- A debtor has an automobile worth $5,000. The federal exemption applicable to her is $3,225. The trustee sells the car and gives the debtor the amount of the exemption. The debtor, exhausted by the bankruptcy proceedings, takes the $3,225 and spends it on a six-week vacation in Baja California. Is this an “abuse” of the bankruptcy system?
- A debtor has $500 in cash beyond what is exempt in bankruptcy. She takes the cash and buys new tires for her car, which is worth about $2,000. Is this an “abuse” of the bankruptcy system?
SELF CHECK QUESTIONS
- Alternatives to bankruptcy include
- an assignment
- a composition
- all of the above
- A composition is
- a procedure where a receiver takes over the debtor’s property
- an agreement by creditors to take less than the face value of their debt
- basically the same as an assignment
- none of these
- The highest-priority class set out by the 2005 act is for
- employees’ wages
- administrative expenses
- property settlements arising from divorce
- domestic support obligations
- Darlene Debtor did the following within ninety days of filing for bankruptcy. Which could be set aside as a preferential payment?
- paid water and electricity bills
- made a gift to the Humane Society
- prepaid an installment loan on inventory
- borrowed money from a bank secured by a mortgage on business property
- Donald Debtor sold his 1957 Chevrolet to his brother for one-fifth its value sixty days before filing for bankruptcy. The trustee wishes to avoid the transaction on the basis that it was
- a hypothetical lien
- a lease disguised as a sale
- a preferential payment
- a voidable preference
- Acme Co. filed for bankruptcy with the following debts; which is their correct priority from highest to lowest?i. wages of $15,000 owed to employeesii. unpaid federal taxesiii. balance owed to a creditor who claimed its security with a $5,000 deficiency owing
- i, ii, iii
- ii, iii, i
- iii, ii, i
- i, iii, ii