Chapter 7 of the United States Bankruptcy Code is the Bankruptcy Code's "liquidation" chapter. It is used primarily by individuals who wish to free themselves of debt simply and inexpensively, but may also be used by businesses that wish to liquidate and terminate their business.
One of the primary purposes of Chapter 7 bankruptcy is to discharge certain debts to give an honest individual debtor a "fresh start." The discharge has the effect of extinguishing the debtor's personal liability on dischargeable debts. In a chapter 7 case, however, a discharge is available to individual debtors only, not to partnerships or corporations. Although the filing of an individual chapter 7 petition usually results in a discharge of debts, an individual's right to a discharge is not absolute, and some types of debts are not discharged.
How Chapter 7 Works
In order to complete the Official Bankruptcy Forms which make up the petition and schedules, the debtor(s) will need to compile the following information:
- A list of all creditors and the amount 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.
Currently, the courts are required to charge a $155 case filing fee, a $30 miscellaneous administrative fee, and a $15 trustee surcharge (a total of $200). The fees should be paid to the clerk of the court upon filing or may, with the court's permission, be paid by individual debtors in installments. Debtors should be aware that failure to pay these fees may result in dismissal of the case. 11 U.S.C. § 707(a).
The filing of a petition under chapter 7 "automatically stays" most actions against the debtor or the debtor's property. This stay arises by operation of law and requires no judicial action. As long as the stay is in effect, creditors generally cannot initiate or continue any lawsuits, wage garnishments, or even telephone calls demanding payments. Creditors normally receive notice of the filing of the petition from the clerk.
A discharge releases the debtor from personal liability for discharged debts and prevents the creditors owed those debts from taking any action against the debtor or his property to collect the debts. The bankruptcy law regarding the scope of a chapter 7 discharge is complex, and debtors should consult competent legal counsel in this regard prior to filing. As a general rule, however, excluding cases which are dismissed or converted, individual debtors receive a discharge in more than 99 percent of chapter 7 cases. In most cases, unless a complaint has been filed objecting to the discharge or the debtor has filed a written waiver, the discharge will be granted to a chapter 7 debtor relatively early in the case, that is, 60 to 90 days after the date first set for the meeting of creditors.
The grounds for denying an individual debtor a discharge in a chapter 7 case are very narrow and are construed against a creditor or trustee seeking to deny the debtor a chapter 7 discharge. Among the grounds for denying a discharge to a chapter 7 debtor are that the debtor failed to keep or produce adequate books or financial records; the debtor failed to explain satisfactorily any loss of assets; the debtor committed a bankruptcy crime such as perjury; the debtor failed to obey a lawful order of the bankruptcy court; or the debtor fraudulently transferred, concealed, or destroyed property that would have become property of the estate.
If the debtor elects to reaffirm the debt, the reaffirmation should be accomplished prior to the granting of a discharge. A written agreement to reaffirm a debt must be filed with the court and, if the debtor is not represented by an attorney, must be approved by the judge. In addition, the debtor's attorney is required to advise the debtor of the legal effect and consequences of such an agreement, including a default under such an agreement.
Most claims against an individual chapter 7 debtor are discharged. A creditor whose unsecured claim is discharged may no longer initiate or continue any legal or other action against the debtor to collect the obligation. A discharge under chapter 7, however, does not discharge an individual debtor from certain specific types of debts listed in section 523 of the Bankruptcy Code. Among the types of debts which are not discharged in a chapter 7 case are alimony and child maintenance and support obligations, certain taxes, debts for certain educational benefit overpayments or loans made or guaranteed by a governmental unit, debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity, debts for death or personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle while the debtor was intoxicated from alcohol or other substances, and debts for criminal restitution orders under title 18, United States Code. 11 U.S.C. § 523(a). To the extent that these types of debts are not fully paid in the chapter 7 case, the debtor is still responsible for them after the bankruptcy case has concluded. Debts for money or property obtained by false pretenses, debts for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, debts for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity, and debts arising from a property settlement agreement incurred during or in connection with a divorce or separation are discharged unless a creditor timely files and prevails in an action to have such debts declared excepted from the discharge.