If you are behind on your mortgage(s) and/or on other debts on your home, Chapter 13 gives you some tremendous tools for dealing with them.
Last week’s blog post was about not filing a Chapter 13 case to save your home when a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” would serve you better. Sometimes you don’t need the additional advantages that Chapter 13 provides to keep your home. Or in situations on the other extreme, sometimes even those advantages are not enough to enable you to keep your home.
In that same blog post I introduced five of those Chapter 13 advantages. I’ll just mention them here (partly to entice you to look at what I wrote about them last week). Then I’ll give you five more major ways Chapter 13 helps you with home debts.
The First Five Chapter 13 Advantages
1. More time to catch up on any back mortgage payments.
2. Stripping second or third mortgage.
3. The flexibility that comes from getting extended protection from your mortgage holder(s).
4. A good way to catch up on any back real property taxes.
5. Protect your home from previously recorded and upcoming income tax liens.
6. The Chapter 13 “Super-Discharge”
You can “discharge” (permanently write off) certain very specialized debts in a Chapter 13 case that you cannot in a Chapter 7 one. There are two main kinds of debts that you can only discharge under Chapter 13:
1. obligations arising out of a divorce decree dealing with the division of property and of debt (but NOT the provisions about child/spousal support); and
2. obligations involving “willful and malicious injury” to property (but NOT bodily injury or death, and not if the injury was related to driving while intoxicated).
So if you owe a significant amount in one of these two unusual kinds of debts, it’s worth considering Chapter 13 as a possible solution.
7. Debts Which Cannot Be Discharged Such as Income Taxes & Back Child/Spousal Support
If you owe any of those special debts which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, as soon as you finish a Chapter 7 case (usually only about three or four months after you start it) the creditors on those debts can start collecting on them from you. Those particular creditors—such as the IRS, the state taxing authority, the state or local support enforcement agencies, and your ex-spouse—often have extraordinary collection powers. They can put a tax lien or support lien on your home, and under some circumstances can even seize and sell your home to pay those liens.
In great contrast, a Chapter 13 case protects you while you pay off those special debts in a payment plan that you propose and is reviewed and approved by the bankruptcy judge assigned to your case. During the 3-to-5-year plan, all of your creditors—including the ones just mentioned above—are prevented from putting liens on your home. By the completion of your Chapter 13 case those special debts are paid in full or paid current, so that they can’t threaten you or your home any more.
8. “Statutory Liens”: Utility, Contractors, Municipal/Local and Other Involuntary Liens
If you had an involuntary liens imposed by law against your home before you file bankruptcy, those liens would very likely survive a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
These are called “statutory liens” because they are set up through state statutes, or laws. A utility lien is for an unpaid utility bill. A contractor’s lien (sometimes called a “mechanic’s” or “materialman’s” lien) is for an unpaid, and usually disputed, home remodeling or repair debt. Cities and other local governments can impose a wide variety of fees against your property—such as for failing to keep vegetation trimmed to prevent a fire hazard—which then become liens if not paid.
These liens against your home generally survive a Chapter 7 case, and so these creditors would be able either to threaten foreclosure of your home to force payment, or at least would force payment whenever you’d sell or refinance your home. Under Chapter 13, in contrast, the protection for your home would generally continue throughout the three-to-five year case, keeping it safe while you satisfy the lien.
9. Judgment Lien “Avoidance”
A judgment lien is one that is placed on your home after someone (usually a creditor) sues you, gets a judgment against you, and records that judgment in the county where your home is located (or uses whatever the appropriate procedure is in your state).
In bankruptcy a judgment lien can be removed from your home under certain circumstances, that is, if that judgment lien “impairs” your homestead exemption. The homestead exemption is the amount of equity in your home that the bankruptcy law protects from your creditors. “Impairing” the homestead exemption means that the judgment lien eats into the part of the equity in your home that is protected by the exemption.
Although judgment lien avoidances are available under Chapter 7 as well as Chapter 13, it can often be put to better use in Chapter 13 when used in combination with advantages available only under Chapter 13.
To illustrate with an example, imagine if the amount of home equity that you have in your home would allow you to remove a judgment lien (because that lien eats into equity protected by the homestead exemption), but you are so far behind on your mortgage payments that you would lose your home to a foreclosure by your mortgage lender if you filed a Chapter 7 case. Removing that judgment lien from your home title would be meaningless if you will lose your home to foreclosure. Curing that mortgage arrears under Chapter 13 makes your power to remove the judgment lien worthwhile in a real and practical way.
10. Protect Equity in Your Home NOT Covered by the Homestead Exemption
With home property values increasing in most parts of the country the last couple years, after major declines during the Great Recession, there are more situations in which the amount of protection provided by the applicable homestead exemption is not enough to cover all the equity. Most people contemplating bankruptcy probably still don’t have too much equity in their homes. But if you DO have more value in your home than allowed under your homestead exemption, Chapter 13 can protect it unlike a “liquidating” Chapter 7 case.
If you have equity in your home beyond the homestead exemption’s protection, in a Chapter 7 case you run the risk of a Chapter 7 trustee seizing it to sell and pay the unprotected portion of the proceeds to your creditors. Under Chapter 13, in contrast, you can keep the home by paying those creditors gradually over the course of the up-to-five-year Chapter 13 case.
Or you may not want to do that, or you may not have the money in your budget to do that within five years. Then you can sell the home yourself on your own schedule, likely even a few years later, in order to pay the creditors that unprotected portion of the equity, while keeping the homestead exemption amount to put into your next rented or purchased home. In either situation, Chapter 13 leaves you much more in control of your home and your life.