Chapter 13 of the United States Bankruptcy Code is frequently referred to as a "wage earner" chapter, although it is available to individuals with regular income from any source, not just wages.
Chapter 13 is designed for individuals with regular income who desire to pay their debts but are currently unable to do so. The purpose of chapter 13 is to enable financially distressed individual debtors, under court supervision and protection, to propose and carry out a repayment plan under which creditors are paid over an extended period of time. Under this chapter, debtors are permitted to repay creditors, in full or in part, in installments over a three-year period, during which time creditors are prohibited from starting or continuing collection efforts. A plan providing for payments over more than three years must be "for cause" and be approved by the court. In no case may a plan provide for payments over a period longer than five years.
Any individual, even if self-employed or operating an unincorporated business, is eligible for chapter 13 relief as long as the individual's unsecured debts are less than $250,000 and secured debts are less than $750,000. A corporation or partnership may not be a chapter 13 debtor.
An individual cannot file under chapter 13 or any other chapter if, during the preceding 180 days, a prior bankruptcy petition was dismissed due to the debtor's willful failure to appear before the court or comply with orders of the court or was voluntarily dismissed after creditors sought relief from the bankruptcy court to recover property upon which they hold liens.
How Chapter 13 Works
A chapter 13 case begins with the filing of a petition with the bankruptcy court serving the area where the debtor has a domicile or residence. A husband and wife may file a joint petition or individual petitions.
Currently, the courts are required to charge a $155 case filing fee and a $30 miscellaneous administrative fee. The fees should be paid to the clerk of the court upon filing or may, with the court's permission, be paid in installments.
In order to complete the Official Bankruptcy Forms which make up the petition, statement of financial affairs, and schedules, the debtor will need to compile the following information:
- A list of all creditors and the amounts and nature of their claims;
- The source, amount, and frequency of the debtor's income;
- A list of all of the debtor's property; and
- A detailed list of the debtor's monthly living expenses, i.e., food, clothing, shelter, utilities, taxes, transportation, medicine, etc.
When married partners file a joint petition or each spouse files an individual petition, the above detailed data must be gathered for both spouses. So that financial responsibilities can be accurately assessed when only one spouse files, the income and expenses of the non-filing spouse should be included in the debtor's schedules and statement of financial affairs.
By virtue of the automatic stay, an individual debtor faced with a threatened foreclosure of the mortgage on his or her principal residence can prevent an immediate foreclosure by filing a chapter 13 petition. Chapter 13 then affords the debtor a right to cure defaults on long-term home mortgage debts by bringing the payments current over a reasonable period of time. The debtor is permitted to cure a default with respect to a lien on the debtor's principal residence up until the completion of a foreclosure sale under state law.
A meeting of creditors is held in every case, during which the debtor is examined under oath. It is usually held 20 to 50 days after the petition is filed. The debtor must attend the meeting, at which creditors may appear and ask questions regarding the debtor's financial affairs and the proposed terms of the plan. If a married couple has filed a joint petition, they both must attend the creditors' meeting. The trustee will also attend the meeting and question the debtor(s) on the same matters. In order to preserve their independent judgment, bankruptcy judges are prohibited from attending. If there are problems with the plan, they are typically resolved during or shortly after the creditors' meeting. Generally, problems may be avoided if the petition and plan are complete and accurate and the trustee has been consulted prior to the meeting.
The Chapter 13 Discharge
The bankruptcy law regarding the scope of the chapter 13 discharge is complex and has recently undergone major changes. Therefore, debtors should consult competent legal counsel prior to filing regarding the scope of the chapter 13 discharge.
The chapter 13 debtor is entitled to a discharge upon successful completion of all payments under the chapter 13 plan. The discharge has the effect of releasing the debtor from all debts provided for by the plan or disallowed, with limited exceptions. Those creditors who were provided for in full or in part under the chapter 13 plan may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect the discharged obligations.
The Chapter 13 Hardship Discharge
After confirmation of a plan, there are limited circumstances under which the debtor may request the court to grant a "hardship discharge" even though the debtor has failed to complete plan payments. Generally, such a discharge is available only to a debtor whose failure to complete plan payments is due to circumstances beyond the debtor's control and through no fault of the debtor, after creditors have received at least as much as they would have received in a chapter 7 liquidation case and when modification of the plan is not possible.