What to Do When a Debtor Wants to File a Chapter 7 but the Means Test Qualifies Them for a Chapter 13

— Victoria Ring, Colorado Bankruptcy Training

For those of you just entering the field of debtor bankruptcy, this article will be very helpful to you because it addresses a very common problem that occurs when working with debtors.  The common problem is that debtors want their cake and eat it too. This statement may sound a little harsh but allow me to explain:

I am finding that many new attorneys entering the bankruptcy field do not have the training to screen their clients before sending us the petitions for input.  One of the easiest methods for an attorney to screen their clients is to find out how much equity is in their home before taking the case. During the intake it only takes a minute or two to find out approximately how much the debtors owe on their mortgage.  Then, while the client is still in the office, go to a computer and do a search on www.zillow.com.  Although Zillow is certainly not a court authority by any stretch of the imagination, it will tell you immediately the approximate amount of unexempt equity the debtor may have.

For example: I had a case today for a California debtor who had just divorced. There was $200,000 of equity in the home.  Since the debtor was divorced, he only had to claim $100,000 of this equity.  Under the 704 California exemptions, the debtor was provided with a healthy $75,000, leaving him with $25,000 that was UNEXEMPT.  Was the debtor happy about the $75,000 exemption?  Of course not.  The debtor was angry because he wanted to keep the $25,000 plus have all his debts excused.  Although most debtors may not realize it at the time, in reality they are being unfair and asking the attorney to commit fraud by making this selfish demand.

Unfortunately, most of the new bankruptcy attorneys that I work with do not understand the bankruptcy law well enough to properly advise their client.  Instead, they accept the case, have the client fill out the intake forms, pay the fees and send the paperwork to my team.  We input the petition and discover the problem with the equity in the home.  By this time, the attorney has invested his or her time, the debtor has spent several hours gathering information and we have worked inputting the case.  When we discover this problem we alert the attorney, the attorney talks to the client and the debtor decides not file bankruptcy.  The attorney is forced to refund some of the money because the attorney did not know how to properly explain the advantages to the debtor of filing a Chapter 13 instead.  In fact, if the attorney had called to discuss this case with me, I could have taught him how to turn this unhappy client from a Chapter 7 to a positive Chapter 13 because I deal with these issues all the time.

For example, this particular debtor had $38,000 in Schedule F debts and $25,000 of unexempt equity in his home.  The debtor did not want to surrender his interest in the property because he wanted to make sure his ex-wife and children had a home to live in.  This is admirable, but the court and creditors look at numbers because they are not emotionally tied to debtors. New attorneys must learn these types of skills so they can help the debtor understand why it may or may not be to their advantage to file bankruptcy at this time.

But for the particular debtor in our scenario, it would have been to his advantage to file a Chapter 13.  First of all, we could have proposed a 100% Plan which would have more than likely protected the $25,000 of unexempt equity.  Secondly, the Chapter 13 would have eliminated $73,000 in interest charges over the 5 year Plan period, the debtor would have paid off his student loan in full as well as the unpaid personal income taxes from 2002.  By presenting these positive factors to the debtor, the attorney may have saved this case and never had to refund money.  Plus the debtor would be happier once he understood the advantages.

(Note:  A key to good marketing is to point out advantages for the client.  If you can show a client how much money you can save them and how, they often will do whatever is necessary to comply with your requests and invest their time and money making it happen.  This is what makes a happy client and this is what generates referrals.)

But in this case, the attorney did not call to discuss the matter with me.  He simply told the client that he would have to pay $25,000 or lose his home.  This naturally scared the debtor to death and he decided not to file. Who can blame him?

It amazes me when things like this happen; and they happen quite frequently.  In fact, it may be shocking to you also.  I hope so, because I want this article to be shocking enough to help to prevent this from happening to you.  Also, please understand that this article is not intended in any manner to provide legal advice.  I am not an attorney and I am not trying to predict what a bankruptcy court to do by writing this article.  I am simply trying to help you understand the concept of fairness so you will know how to better deal with situations exactly like this in the future.

I wish you the best of success and encourage you to continue learning and working hard to protect the debtor; but in a fair and balanced way.

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