Ch 7 bankruptcy

How chapter 7 bankruptcy works

The word “bankruptcy” may conjure images in your mind of auctioneers selling all your property except the clothes on your back. The reality is that Chapter 7 bankruptcy isn’t anything like that. The three most common reasons that people file bankruptcy are divorce, job loss, and medical bills. It’s very likely that you have friends, family or co-workers who have gone through bankruptcy and that you never heard a word about it.

So how does Chapter 7 bankruptcy work? We offer a 30-minute free phone consultation where we can review your options with you. We collect information about your income, expenses, debt and assets. After this initial evaluation we help you figure out whether you qualify for Chapter 7 (this will depend on income, family size, etc. though most folks who come see us do qualify).  Next, we discuss whether the debts can be wiped out in bankruptcy. Taxes can be dischargeable sometimes, same with student loans. Alimony/child support are dischargeable. Credit cards, personal loans, utility bills and medical bills can be wiped out.

If the client qualifies for Chapter 7, we discuss the ramifications of bankruptcy. It may be more difficult to get a mortgage for the next few years and any car loan you take out will likely be at a higher interest rate than someone who hadn’t filed might qualify for, but in general, you can overcome these disadvantages by building credit after bankruptcy. Job seekers and people who might be looking to rent an apartment should know that only a very small percentage of employers and landlords will run credit checks.

Next, the conversation turns to assets. People want to know what property they can keep in a bankruptcy. The short answer is that you would only have to surrender property which is not “exempt.” The bankruptcy code is full of exemptions. Your clothes, furniture, household goods are safe unless you’re a Kardashian or something. You can generally keep your house and car, though some people use bankruptcy to get rid of underwater houses or cars.

The Process

If a client decides to file, we get started putting together all the required paperwork and filling out schedules. Then we file the case with the court. This filing begins what is called the “automatic stay.” During the automatic stay no creditors can contact you, either by telephone or by mail. If they do, we may be able to sue them and collect money damages.

Approximately one month after filing, you’ll meet with a bankruptcy trustee. This is called a 341 meeting. It’s the trustee’s job to make sure you aren’t hiding assets anywhere. It usually takes less than five minutes.

About sixty days after the 341 hearing, if all goes well, the bankruptcy is confirmed and all your dischargeable debts are eliminated. This means that the creditors can never attempt to collect the debts again, and you get a fresh start.

How do I stop foreclosure?

The most common problem people come to see about is foreclosure. Knowing you might lose your home in foreclosure is scary, but there are a lot of ways we can help you get back into good standing on your mortgage so we can keep you in your house. In this post I run down some of the options out there:

1. Try for a loan modification. In our opinion, most of the loan mod programs out there are nearly worthless. HAMP can be a good fix for a homeowner behind on payments, since it reduces monthly payments AND puts your loan back into good standing. But since there's no way to force lenders to comply with HAMP, most people are left out in the cold (and pushed into foreclosure). It's been very rare to see a homeowner get a HAMP modification, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try it, hoping to catch the right person on the right day and catch a lucky break.

As for the lenders' "internal" modification programs, your guess is as good as ours whether you'll qualify.  Since the criteria and terms of these mod programs are usually secret, you're at the lender's mercy. So if you go this route, negotiate and negotiate hard. Even though the customer service rep on the phone might not realize it, the bank is probably going to lose a lot of money if they foreclose on you. Show them why. It might be helpful to order an appraisal--if the lender knew your house was $100,000 underwater, they might not think it's such a good idea to kick you out of it.

2. Don't hire loan modification sleazeballs. If foreclosure is the number one problem we see in our office, 1A is people who have paid sleazy loan modification outfits to help them stay out of foreclosure. These programs are expensive, and most of the time they just don't work. In particular, stay away from: 1) out-of-state companies (it's harder to get your money back), 2) companies that tell you to stop making your mortgage payments; and 3) for-profits that ask for a large up-front fee without telling you what they can do for you or how they can do it. So many people get caught up in these scams, and it only creates a bigger mess to clean up once the scammer runs away with the money and leaves you right where you started or worse.

3. Consider Chapter 13 reorganization. Chapter 13 is a way to force a lender to accept repayment of your arrears over time. It's ideal for the person who missed a bunch of payments, but now has the income not only to make the payments, but also to catch up and stop foreclosure. Chapter 13 allows you to pay your mortgage arrears in equal installments over a three- to five-year period. It can be surprising when a lender refuses to let you catch up on your mortgage, even when it knows you have the income for it. This way you can call the shots and force them to accept your money.

4. Strip off your second mortgage. If you didn't have to pay your second mortgage, could you afford to catch up on your mortgage? As of earlier this year, in a Chapter 13 reorganization we can strip second mortgages (and third mortgages, and fourth...) where the value of the house is less than the balance of the first mortgage. It's called lien stripping. To do this, we need an appraisal to prove the value of your home. Once we can prove that your second mortgage is fully unsecured, we can strip the lien in Chapter 13.

5. More people have just been moving on. If you can't afford your mortgage payment, can't qualify for a modification, and bankruptcy won't help your situation, it's time to make some hard choices. If you have an underwater house, meaning you have no equity, what do you really own? And if you have to pay $10,000 just to get back into good standing, is it really worth it? If you decide to abandon a home to foreclosure, you can usually live in the house mortgage-free for at least six months while the foreclosure runs its course. For many of our clients, this is just enough time to save up some money to make the transition to a new place to live comfortably. And if you have a second mortgage that won't go away in the bankruptcy, well we can usually wipe that out in Chapter 7.

The Bankruptcy Means Test: Is it going to stop me from filing Chapter 7?

The means test is one of the bankruptcy mysteries our clients ask about most often. The means test was created by the 2005 bankruptcy amendments, and was meant to make it harder for high-income folks to file bankruptcy.

To decide whether clients qualify to discharge their debts in Chapter 7, the courts are concerned with two major questions: 1) Does a consumer have enough assets to pay off their debt? and 2) Does a consumer have enough income to pay off their debt? The means test helps the court answer the second question.

Your attorney will compile the last six months of all income your household has received, and compare it against the median household income of a family your size in your state—for example, as of this post, the median household size for a family of two in Minnesota was $72,734. This information is available on some handy tables on the U.S. Trustee's web site. If your household income is less than the median, congratulations—you've finished the form and you can file Chapter 7!

If your household income is more than the median, you may still be able to file Chapter 7, but there are a whole set of other calculations that your attorney will need to go through involving your monthly expenses to find out. These include some standard expenses that can be found on the U.S. Trustee's web site, as well as some actual monthly expenses. Once you deduct these expenses from monthly income, the goal is generally to have a very low number for your leftover—or disposable—income.

But filling out the means test form requires a whole lot more than just looking up some numbers and plugging them into a chart. First of all, some of the deductions are backward-looking over the past six months. Some are forward-looking. And some are hypothetical (an expense is allowed if you should be spending on it). Also, many of the expenses have rules--you can't take the expense unless certain criteria are met. These rules are based on the Bankruptcy Code and court cases interpreting the bankruptcy law. This is why you'll need a good attorney who knows the ins and outs of bankruptcy, not just someone who will fill out your bankruptcy forms without much legal analysis.

Some cases are exempt from the Means Test, for example, cases where most of the debt is business debt rather than consumer debt, or where the debtor is a disabled veteran or military reservist/guardsman.

These are just the basics. In other articles, we've gone more in-depth so you can understand more about the means test and how you can qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

What happens to my car loan when I file bankruptcy?

In this post we discuss what happens to a car loan when a borrower files bankruptcy.

Options in Chapter 7 bankruptcy

In Chapter 7, you have three options for dealing with a car loan. These options are to surrender the car, reaffirm the loan, or "retain and pay."

  • Surrender: If you file Chapter 7 and you wish to get rid of your car with a loan, you have the option of surrendering the car to the bank. The upside to this is that you can walk away from the loan, without having to pay any deficiency (i.e. the difference between the amount of the loan and the value of the car that you would generally owe if you walk away form a car loan.) The deficiency is wiped out in a Chapter 7 case.

  • Retain-and-pay: This is the most common option for car loans in Chapter 7. You get to "discharge" your car loan, which means they can never come after you personally for any unpaid amount on the loan. However, instead of surrendering the car, you keep the car, and continue making the payments for as long as you want. Both the borrower and lender act as if the bankruptcy had never been filed. Once the loan is paid off, you can get the lien released, and own the car free and clear, just as if you hadn't filed bankruptcy. Some lenders won't go for this, typically credit unions and some banks, and instead they'll demand a "reaffirmation agreement."

  • Reaffirmation: Some lenders don't want to let you discharge your personal obligation on the loan, and instead demand a reaffirmation, which is a legal process where you renew your promise to pay the loan, and unfortunately you keep your personal liability. Typically, it's credit unions that tend to demand reaffirmation agreements, and a few banks out there. Ask your attorney if your lender will accept retain-and-pay or demand a reaffirmation. If you choose reaffirmation, you will likely have to go to bankruptcy court so that the judge can explain the consequences to you and make sure you understand.

Chapter 13 tools for car loans

In a Chapter 13 case, you can reduce the principal of the car loan, reduce the interest and catch up on arrears.

  • Reduce principal: In Chapter 13 you can "cram down" a car loan, but only if you took the loan out more than two and a half years ago. To do this, we find the current value of the car. Then we can reduce the principal of the car loan from the current balance, to just the value of the car. So if you owe $9,000, and the car is worth $5,000, cram down reduces the balance of your loan from $9,000 to $5,000.

  • Reduce interest: For many car loans in Chapter 13, you can reduce the interest rate on the car loan from an exorbitant rate to something more reasonable. In past cases we have reduced interest rates to somewhere between 4 and 6 percent, typically. This can be a big help for subprime car loans.

  • Catch up on arrears: In Chapter 13, if you're behind on a car loan, you can use bankruptcy to force the lender to accept catch-up payments. So if you're $1,000 behind on the car, you can take those arrears and stretch them over a three-to-five year period, pay a small monthly payment to catch up (say, $20-35 a month in this scenario), and then resume making your regular monthly payments. This is a good option if you're facing repossession.

If you're struggling with a car loan or facing repossession, and don't know what to do, you have plenty of options inside or outside bankruptcy. Get in touch with a lawyer to learn more about the tools available.

What to expect at the bankruptcy meeting of creditors

This post describes what you can expect at your bankruptcy meeting of creditors in Minnesota.

1. What's a bankruptcy meeting of creditors? A meeting of creditors, sometimes called the "341 meeting," is a requirement of bankruptcy. In most bankruptcy cases, you do not have to appear in court. You go to a meeting of creditors instead. In most cases, the meeting is just a formality, but it's important to prepare either way.

2. When is the meeting? Usually three to five weeks after you file your bankruptcy case.

3. Who shows up at the meeting? The bankruptcy meeting of creditors happens in public, so other bankruptcy filers and attorneys will be there. There is also the bankruptcy trustee, who conducts the meeting. The judge is never at the meeting of creditors.

4. But it's called the meeting of creditors. Won't my creditors be there? Creditors show up VERY rarely to these meetings. In the last 100 cases we've been involved in, a creditor has shown up only once, and we totally expected it and prepared for it. Credit card companies, car lenders and mortgage companies almost never show up.

5. What do I need to bring? This is important. The meeting will be canceled and rescheduled if you don't bring proof of ID and social security number. You'll also need your most recent paystub and all bank statements covering the date of filing. We'll ask you for all this stuff way before your meeting so we have backup copies in case you forget.

6. How long does the meeting take? The trustee usually schedules five cases every half hour. So your meeting should take more than a few minutes, unless we've told you that your case is complicated. But if that's the case we'll make sure you're well prepared.

7. What should I wear? Just dress like you would to a meeting at our office. There's no need to dress up, just dress neat (and don't overdo it on the bling--if you come in looking like a zillionaire, people will wonder why you're filing bankruptcy.)

8. What will the trustee ask me? Here are a few questions the trustee is likely to ask:

  • Is this your signature on the petition and schedules? Did you read the petition and schedules before you signed them? Is the information true and complete?

  • Have you listed all of your assets on the schedules? Are you a co-owner of any property with anyone else? (e.g. family cabins)

  • Do you expect to come into any money, such as an inheritance?

  • Does anyone owe you money?

  • Have you paid any creditors in the last 90 days, other than minimum payments?

  • Are you a party to any lawsuits you haven’t identified in your schedules?

  • Are you owed any domestic support? Do you owe domestic support?

  • Have you transferred any property to anyone in the last year? Is anyone holding property for you?

  • Have you previously filed bankruptcy?

9. How should I answer? Just tell the truth. Don't feel like you need to tell a whole story--keep your answers short and sweet--but answer truthfully and completely. If you don't know the answer to a question, ask for clarification--it's better not to answer right away than to answer incorrectly.

10. Where is the meeting? 

What are the Minnesota bankruptcy exemptions?

In this post we list the Minnesota bankruptcy exemptions. Post updated January 2018.

In an earlier post we told you about what items were exempt in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy (meaning you get to keep them).  Items that are not exempt may be taken by the trustee to pay your creditors. Although the great majority of Chapter 7 cases are no-asset, meaning that the debtor loses no property, people are often concerned about whether their property is exempt. In Minnesota, you can choose either the Minnesota bankruptcy exemptions or the federal exemptions, depending on which are more advantageous to you. In this post, we compare the two sets of exemptions for some of the most common property items:

Item

Federal exemption

Minnesota exemption

Your home

$23,675

$390,000

Wildcard (any property)

$11,850–$13,100

None

Household goods and clothes

$12,625

$10,350

Jewelry

$1,600

$2,695 (only wedding rings)

Motor vehicle

$3,775

$4,600

Tools of the trade

$2,375

$11,500

Life insurance policy with loan value

$12,625

$9,200

IRA or Roth

$1,283,025

$1,171,150

Personal injury compensation payments

$23,675 (with exceptions)

Unlimited

Social security benefits

Unlimited

Unlimited

Child support

Unlimited

Unlimited

*Some exemptions can be doubled in a joint case, some cannot.

By the way, the exemptions change every so often, so these may not always stay the same. The Minnesota bankruptcy exemptions are complicated, and don't always apply exactly how they would appear to. Consult a bankruptcy attorney to find out whether a particular item of yours would be exempt in a Chapter 7 case.

Can I keep some debts out of my bankruptcy?

Bankruptcy clients often wonder whether they can leave off certain debts on their bankruptcy filing. The short answer is "no." The long answer? Also "no." This usually comes up where you have a #1 favorite credit card (triple bonus miles!) or a debt you owe to a friend or family member that you don't want to wipe out. But the rules for unsecured nonpriority debts (credit cards, personal loans, etc.) don't allow you to keep any debts out of your bankruptcy case, and leaving them out on purpose can ruin your case. So here are a couple of things you might need to know:

1. If you owe a balance, we have to list it. You can leave a credit card out of your bankruptcy only if there's no debt owed on the card. If you owe even a dollar-fifty, we have to list in your papers. But chances are, whether there's a balance on the credit card or not, the card issuer will close your account--many credit card companies check your credit report regularly and they'll know if you've filed even if they weren't listed in your bankruptcy.

But this doesn't mean you should rush to pay off debts on credit cards so you can keep them. Payments made to a creditor in the 90 days before filing are called preferences, and they can be recovered by the trustee and distributed to other creditors. So any money you might pay to a creditor right before filing might end up costing them when they have to defend a preference lawsuit by the trustee. The lesson? You should probably just hold onto your money.

2. Friends and family you owe money to will have to be listed. When we ask a client to list their creditors, people often forget to list friends and family that they've borrowed money from. Or sometimes, they don't want these people to know that they're filing bankruptcy and they leave them off. This is a bad move. If you intentionally leave off a creditor from your filing, you may be denied discharge for withholding information from the bankruptcy court. Also, that stuff I mentioned about preferences a minute ago? Repayments to friends and family may be preferences (meaning the trustee can sue that creditor) if made a full year before filing.

Instead of letting you jeopardize your case, we'll give you pointers on how to have that tough conversation with your mother-in-law where you tell her you're wiping out your debt to her. (Tip 24: Leave the car running for a quick getaway)

3. You can pay back any debt you want after bankruptcy. Your bankruptcy case will wipe out your legal obligation to pay most debts. This means that once your case is filed, the creditor can't take action against you (not even a "pretty please") to collect the debt. However, if you want to pay a debt after your bankruptcy, nobody's going to stop you. It's none of the Bankruptcy Court's business if it's done after your case has ended.

The moral of the story? No secrets allowed if you want to make it through bankruptcy without any problems. Tell your attorney about any of the pitfalls that might be getting in your way and you should sail through bankruptcy smoothly. If you have any questions, just let us know.

The automatic stay in bankruptcy

One of the biggest benefits of bankruptcy is that your filing will stop any debt collection against you. This means no more angry phone calls from debt collectors, no more threatening letters, and any lawsuits against you must stop (including pending foreclosure sales). Under the bankruptcy law, this is called the "automatic stay." There are only a few things you need to know about the automatic stay:

1. The automatic stay begins the moment we file your case. This means that a foreclosure sale at 10:00 doesn't count if you filed your case at 9:59. It also means that a creditor who calls you minutes after your case has been filed has to stop, even if they haven't received notice of your filing yet.

2.  The stay is in effect until the end of your case, unless a creditor has a good reason. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the stay often lasts until your case is closed. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, your case may last for three to five years. The automatic stay remains in effect the entire time.

A creditor may make a motion with the court to lift the stay. This usually happens with a secured debt you're not paying--the creditor can ask to have the stay lifted in order to foreclose on a mortgage in default, for example. If a creditor does try to lift your stay, your attorney can advise you on whether it's a good idea to fight the motion and prevent that creditor from being able to collect until the end of your case.

Even though the stay does expire at the end of a Chapter 7 case, that's usually not a problem for the debtor, since the stay is replaced by the discharge injunction. The discharge injunction is similar to the stay--once a debt is discharged in bankruptcy, a creditor can't try to collect it ever again.

3. The automatic stay protects you from all creditors, even ones who will still be able to collect when your bankruptcy is finished. If you have tax debts that are nondischargeable, or unpaid student loans, the automatic stay gives you three to four months of breathing room while you figure out your finances. Even if you're going to owe the debt once the bankruptcy is finished, they can't bother you while the stay is in place.

4. You may be able to recover money damages for stay violations. The Bankruptcy Code is dead serious about protecting debtors from being bothered by creditors after a case has been filed. If you are damaged by any "willful" violation of the automatic stay, you may recover actual damages, including costs and attorney's fees, and, sometimes even punitive damages.

In general, if you're getting collection calls in bankruptcy, we may give them one free pass--we remind the creditor that you filed a case and warn them not to contact you again. If they're brave enough (read: stupid enough) to continue giving you hassle, we can sue them for damages. Any damages that you win are not considered part of the bankruptcy estate and don't need to be turned over to the trustee, meaning they're your down payment toward your fresh start.

If the agency calling you is a third-party debt collector, they may have also violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which can result in awards of up to $1,000 statutory damages, actual damages and attorneys fees.

If you've filed bankruptcy, notify your attorney any time a creditor contacts you, and be sure to keep a record of what calls you've received and from whom.  If you've been harassed by a creditor after your bankruptcy has been filed, get in touch to discuss your options.

What does it cost to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy?

I guess it's no surprise that our chapter 7 bankruptcy clients are often cash-strapped. So one of the first things a potential client wants to know during a consultation is how much bankruptcy costs. Obviously, every case is different, but here's a rough version of what we tell clients about how much bankruptcy costs.

1. We charge a flat fee. If you're considering Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you don't want to worry about your lawyer running up the fee as he churns hours on your case. Flat fee billing gives our clients predictability--we quote you a fee before you sign up with us, and that's what you'll pay.

2. The amount of the fee depends. For a basic Chapter 7 for a single filer paid in full, we charge $2,250, including all filing fees. Our prices do increase with the complexity of your case.

Your fee will be based on our best prediction of the complexity of your Chapter 7 case. One example: if a client is above median income, involving a much more detailed analysis under the means test, that case may cost more. There are other factors that may affect the complexity of your case, so here's my advice on price-shopping--if a bankruptcy attorney can quote you a one-size-fits-all price before understanding your particular issues, run away. That lawyer probably doesn't understand just how complex some cases can be.

3. Your Chapter 7 bankruptcy fee must be paid before we file your case. If we file your bankruptcy case and you haven't paid our entire fee, the debt to us is discharged along with all your other debts. We're out of luck. You might not want to hire the lawyer who doesn't understand this concept and offers to let you pay after the bankruptcy is filed.

Last tip--you may not want to bargain-hunt on bankruptcy. The best lawyers will quote you a fair price, but the worst ones will probably discount their fees to try to take business from the good ones. You want a lawyer who's experienced enough to understand a lot of the tricks and traps of bankruptcy. You also want someone who'll be available to answer your questions, and won't blow you off because they're too busy with all their other cases. And you want someone who's willing to use the bankruptcy law creatively to help you improve your situation.

Do I have to include all my debts in my bankruptcy?

One of the questions we are asked most frequently is whether you need to include all your debts when you file bankruptcy. It often arises in the context of debts to family members or other people you wouldn't want to disappoint. The answer is YES, you must include each and every debt you have when you file. The rationale is that if you were selective about which debts to include in your bankruptcy, some creditors might be treated preferentially.  The Bankruptcy Code is written to ensure that if you are able to discharge some or all of your debts, each of your creditors is treated equally. This means that, in the event you'll be paying back some percentage of your unsecured debt (typically, this would be a Chapter 13 bankruptcy), each creditor will take a pro rata share of what you pay. If your case is a "no-asset" bankruptcy (most Chapter 7s), you may not be paying anything to your unsecured creditors, but it is still essential that they be listed on your bankruptcy schedules and that they receive formal notice that you've filed.

One thing we suggest if you owe debts to friends or family is to call them and let them know that you're filing. While bankruptcy may wipe out your legal obligation to pay back your debts, you are not freed from your moral obligations. You can tell your friends or family, if you wish, that you intend to pay them back after your bankruptcy case closes. This can be a tough conversation, but it is definitely better that you tell them rather than have them hear of it for the first time when they receive notice in the mail from the Bankruptcy Court.

It is very important that you don't pay back friends and family once you make the decision to file bankruptcy. In fact, one of the questions that you'll be asked by the Bankruptcy Trustee is whether you have paid back any friends or family in the past year. If you have, the trustee could potentially sue that person and take the money back.

As always, this isn't intended as specific legal advice.  We recommend you contact a bankruptcy attorney to discuss your situation.

Can I run up my credit cards before filing bankruptcy?

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy will often wipe out your credit card debt. But people who are looking to file bankruptcy are often still living off their credit cards, or at least using them on a regular basis. So our clients ask us, "can we use our credit cards before filing bankruptcy?" There are a couple of basic rules to follow:

1. Don't buy a jet ski on your credit card right before your bankruptcy. The bankruptcy law says a debt is non-dischargeable (meaning that it won't be wiped out in bankruptcy) if the debt was incurred under false pretenses. False pretenses may include the fact that you didn't intend to pay the debt when you incurred it. But the creditor will have to prove that you didn't intend to pay the debt, which is usually an uphill battle for them.

This is why the law gets more specific. Purchases greater than $550 made on a credit card for luxury goods and services within the 90 days before filing are presumed to be non-dischargeable—meaning that to get them discharged, you'll have to prove that the jet ski was necessary for the health and welfare of you or your family. That'd have to be one special jet ski.

2. OK, so you can't buy a jet ski, but you can probably buy diapers. "Luxury goods and services" isn't defined in the bankruptcy code, but the law does say that the term doesn't include "goods or services reasonably necessary for the support or maintenance of the debtor or a dependent of the debtor." So although I can't promise you a judge will think your particular purchases were necessary, I'd guess you'd be able to make a strong argument that food, medicine, diapers, or gas station purchases would normally pass the test.

3. Don't take large cash advances right before your bankruptcy either. Cash advances more than $825 from a single creditor within 70 days before filing bankruptcy are presumed nondischargeable. Which brings up an important point. If you try to avoid the presumption limits (such as taking $824 in cash advances 71 days before filing your bankruptcy case) the creditor can still try to prove false pretenses generally, and if you're trying to skirt the presumptions, it may look like you're hiding something and attract unwanted attention from your creditors and the court.

4. Once you file bankruptcy, you won't be able to use your credit cards. So why not start living on cash right now? We usually recommend that our clients cut up their credit cards and see if they can make their monthly expenses for roughly three months before the bankruptcy. Living without credit can be hard after you've become accustomed to it, so it makes sense to get some practice before you file bankruptcy.

Questions about non-dischargeability? Don't make these decisions without an experienced attorney.

A debt collector is taking my paycheck. What do I do?

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One of the most frequent reasons we get called to help people fight debt collectors is when a person's wages are taken hostage. It's called garnishment, and it's one of the most powerful ways a debt collector can get your money. A garnishment can hit unexpectedly, and can cause lots of problems, especially that you might not be able to make your bills for the next month. Here are some of the rules around garnishment, and some tips to help you deal with it.

You can't be garnished unless you've been sued

To get a wage garnishment against you, a debt collector must first sue you. They can win their case by fighting you in court, but occasionally, you didn't get notice of the lawsuit and the collector can get a default judgment because you didn't show up for court. If a debt collector takes your wages before you've been sued, it's most likely not a garnishment, and therefore is probably illegal. To see if you have a judgment against you, check out the Minnesota courts judgment search.

They can't take your whole paycheck

In Minnesota, if a debt collector wants to take your wages, it must send you a "wage exemption notice" at least 10 days before it takes your money. You may be exempt from garnishment if you received public benefits in the past six months or if you were recently released from prison). If that's the case, you must fill out the exemption notice and return it to the collector's attorney within 10 days.

If you aren't fully exempt, there are still limits to what can be taken. You can keep 75 percent of your "disposable earnings"--i.e. your gross income minus your taxes--or 40 x the minimum wage per week (currently $320).

Child support has different rules

If you are being garnished for child support, forget everything I've said. More than 50 percent of your wages can be taken, and there are very few ways to escape being garnished.

There are ways to put a stop to garnishment

One way to stop a garnishment if you haven't appeared in court yet is to reopen a default judgment. This may be something you can do on your own, but it's best to consult an attorney because it can be tricky.

It is also possible to settle the debt for less than you owe. We can help you negotiate judgments.

Another way to stop a garnishment is filing bankruptcy. Not only will a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy stop wage garnishment in progress, but you also can recover money that was garnished within the last 90 days.

Why you should stay out of the bankruptcy bargain bin

As bankruptcy filings have been on the rise, it seems like the legal market has been flooding with new bankruptcy practitioners. And with the intense competition, we're seeing what looks like a price war, which is generally great for the consumer. But as we're seeing prices cut drastically, we also suspect providers are cutting corners on quality. That's why it might not be a good idea to go bargain hunting when there are serious issues at stake.

  • "Limited scope representation" and petition preparers. You'll find these services scattered across Craigslist--they advertise bankruptcy for $300-$600 and offer significantly less service than a specialist attorney would. But it's not like you can just check some boxes in a bankruptcy case and head off to have tea with the trustee. Don't believe it when someone says bankruptcy is simple--your bankruptcy may be simple, but you won't know that until you discuss your situation with an experienced practitioner.

  • Pre-bankruptcy planning issues. There are several things that can possibly derail an entire Chapter 7 case. For example, cash advances on a credit card made in the month before filing may be nondischargeable. Or if the client has sold property to a family member at a discount price before filing, the trustee might argue fraud. An experienced attorney can help you avoid these pitfalls.

  • The means test is tricky. Pop quiz, petition preparer. On the means test, do you count expenses on a six-months-in-the-past basis or do you deduct expenses ongoing? How do you treat the $600/month the client is sending home to Africa? Can you count the car ownership deduction if the client owns the car outright? If someone gives you a quick answer to any of these questions, be cautious.

  • 341 meetings can be scary. Getting grilled by the trustee at the meeting of the creditors is no fun. We prepare our clients by letting them know what kinds of questions the trustee will ask--and we know it's different from one trustee to the other. If practitioners are not accompanying clients to the 341 meeting on a routine basis, they don't know what sorts of issues trustees have been digging at. For example, I heard one trustee recently ask whether the filer had any credit card points that could be cashed in (because if the filer didn't exempt those, the trustee could seize them as part of the bankruptcy estate.) Nobody would know to look out for that issue unless they'd been there hearing the trustee ask about it. You need an attorney who knows all the potential traps.

These issues only scratch the surface of the legal analysis an experienced bankruptcy attorney will undertake when they represent you. If you're skipping this level of detail in your case, you may be leaving yourself vulnerable to having your case dismissed or your property seized.

Fighting debt collectors vs. filing bankruptcy

We make a point of not selling any particular service to our clients. We're here to listen to your story and then lay out the different options you may have. Often, consumers call us when they've been sued by a creditor. Getting sued is a scary thing and the person sitting across the table from us is often nervous and upset.  We do our best to take fear out of the equation and get focused on reaching a resolution. In a situation like this, we generally start with a few questions, like:

-Do you actually owe the debt claimed in the lawsuit?

-Does the amount demanded in the suit seem like approximately what you thought you owed to this creditor?

-Who is suing you (original creditor or debt buyer)?

We'll then turn to a more holistic discussion of your situation. In order to set forth your options we will need to learn about your work situation, your monthly obligations, your assets and your other debts (are you at a point where other creditors may sue you?). We will also ask about your future plans. If you're planning to buy a house or a new car in the near future and will require the ability to get new credit, that will impact the way you deal with the suit.

In any case, your unique situation will determine what options are open to you, but the two most common remedies our clients choose are defending/settling the lawsuit or filing bankruptcy.

Defending a lawsuit: If you are interested in defending the lawsuit, we will determine what defenses and potential counterclaims you have. Sometimes we can develop counterclaims that really turn the table on the creditors. We will let you know if we think your case has that potential and give you our opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of the creditor's claims. We can also discuss whether it makes the most sense for you to litigate the case or try to settle it.

Bankruptcy: You can find more detailed information on the bankruptcy process here.

If you are facing suits from multiple creditors we can discuss whether a bankruptcy, either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, makes more sense than fighting a series of lawsuits. In terms of legal fees, it costs about the same to hire us to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy as it does for us to defend one debt collection suit. Of course there are ramifications either way, but rest assured that we'll discuss them at length with you and help you make the best decision.

Who will find out about my bankruptcy?

Bankruptcy can be a touchy subject--something that our clients want to keep as private as possible. In general, there are very few people who need to know that you filed bankruptcy.

1. My employer? No, your employer does not need to know that you filed bankruptcy.We will not send notice to your employer unless there is a particular reason to do so and you agree.

2. My landlord? It depends. If you have a lease on a residential property, we will generally need to give notice to your landlord that you are either keeping the lease, or dumping it in the bankruptcy. Also, if you owe money to your landlord, you may have to give notice.

3. My family? Generally not. There are only a couple of reasons any of your family members will get notice of your bankruptcy. The most common are if they cosigned a debt with you (or vice versa) or if you owe them money. Your attorney can probably give you some tips on dealing with family member/creditors in bankruptcy.

4. Is it on the internet? No. Your bankruptcy case will generally not be Google-able. There are public court records that attorneys can access on the web, but they're password protected, and someone would need to be looking for your name in particular to find it.

Will they take my stuff if I file bankruptcy?

One of our clients' biggest worries when they come in for a bankruptcy consultation is whether the court is going to take away their stuff. And they're right to be concerned-- a bankruptcy trustee has the power to order turnover of certain assets to pay off debt in a bankruptcy. But one of the biggest jobs of a bankruptcy attorney is to advise clients how to protect their things, and we can often help our clients save their assets. For many of our Chapter 7 clients, we can protect everything they own using the bankruptcy exemptions. There are are two different sets of legal exemptions--state and federal--each with different strengths and weaknesses. Once we've had a chance to review what a client owns, we get to choose whichever set of exemptions is more beneficial.

Here are some of the most common exemptions:

  • Some amount of cash

  • Equity in your home (this is the biggest difference between the state and federal exemptions--the state offers a much larger home equity exemption)

  • Car

  • Furniture/household goods

  • Clothing

  • Jewelry (including wedding ring)

  • Individual Retirement Account (IRA)/401(k)

  • Tools of the trade (things you need for a business)

  • Wildcard exemption (federal exemptions only--you can use this to exempt anything that is not covered by another exemption)

  • And others.

Each exemption has a dollar amount cap, but that will depend on whether you choose the state or federal exemptions.