Now that the new bankruptcy law is in effect, the landscape has changed for those who are considering bankruptcy as an avenue to reduce or eliminate the burden of a bad financial situation. All debtors will have to get credit counseling before they can file a bankruptcy case—and additional counseling on budgeting and debt management before their debts can be wiped out. Some filers with higher incomes won't be allowed to use Chapter 7, but will instead have to repay at least some of their debt under Chapter 13. And, because the law imposes new requirements on lawyers, it will be tougher to find an attorney to represent you in a bankruptcy case.
Here are some of the changes:
Before you can file for bankruptcy under either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, you must complete credit counseling with an agency approved by the United States Trustee's office. (To find an approved agency in your area, go to the Trustee's website, www.usdoj.gov/ust, and click "Credit Counseling and Debtor Education.") The purpose of this counseling is to give you an idea of whether you really need to file for bankruptcy or whether an informal repayment plan would get you back on your economic feet.
Restricted Eligibility for Chapter 7
Under the old rules, most filers could choose the type of bankruptcy that seemed best for them -- and most chose Chapter 7 over Chapter 13. The new law will prohibit some filers with higher incomes from using Chapter 7.
How High is Your Income?
Under the new rules, the first step in figuring out whether you can file for Chapter 7 is to measure your "current monthly income" against the median income for a family of your size in your state. Your "current monthly income" is not your income at the time you file, however: It is your average income over the last six months before you file. For many people, particularly those who are filing for bankruptcy because they recently lost a job, their "current monthly income" according to these rules will be much more than they take in each month by the time they file for bankruptcy.
Once you've calculated your income, compare it to the median income for your state. (You can find median income tables, by state and family size, at the website of the United States Trustee, www.usdoj.gov/ust; click "Means Testing Information.")
If your income is less than or equal to the median, you can file for Chapter 7. If it is more than the median, however, you must pass "the means test" -- another requirement of the new law -- in order to file for Chapter 7.
Some Chapter 13 Filers Will Have to Live on Less
Under the old rules, people who filed under Chapter 13 had to devote all of their disposable income -- what they had left after paying their actual living expenses -- to their repayment plan. The new law adds a wrinkle to this equation: Although Chapter 13 filers still have to hand over all of their disposable income, they have to calculate their disposable income using allowed expense amounts dictated by the IRS -- not their actual expenses -- if their income is higher than the median in their state (see "Restricted Eligibility for Chapter 7," above). These expenses are often lower than actual costs.
What's worse, these allowed expense amounts must be subtracted not from the filer's actual earnings each month, but from the filer's average income during the six months before filing. This means that debtors may be required to pay a much larger amount of "disposable income" into their plan than they actually have to spare every month -- which, in turn, means that many more Chapter 13 plans will fail.
State Exemptions Aren't Available to Recent State Residents
Under the old bankruptcy law, the personal property debtors were allowed to keep in Chapter 7 bankruptcy was determined by the laws of the state where they lived (as long as they lived there for at least three months). Under the new law, you must live in a state for at least two years prior to filing in order to use that state's exemption laws. Otherwise, you must use the exemptions available in the state where you used to live. Similar rules apply to homestead exemptions, which determine how much equity in a home you can keep when filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. However, to use your new state's homestead exemption, you must live there for at least 40 months.
Because exemption amounts vary widely from state to state, these new residency requirements could make a big difference in the amount of property you get to hold on to. For example, if you recently moved from California to Nevada and you have a fairly valuable car, you might want to wait to file for Chapter 7: Once you've been in Nevada for two years, you can claim its $15,000 exemption for motor vehicles. If you have to use California's exemptions, you can keep only $2,300 worth of equity.
Chris Simons is a prolific freelance writer. You are welcomed to visit http://bankruptcy.cyberinformer.com, for more information on Bankruptcy.