The Bankruptcy Code is divided into chapters. The chapters which usually apply to consumer debtors are chapter 7, known as a Liquidation, and chapter 13, known as an Adjustment of the Debts of an Individual with Regular Income.
An important feature applicable to all types of bankruptcy filings is the automatic stay. The automatic stay means that the mere request for bankruptcy protection automatically “stays” or forces an abrupt halt to repossessions, foreclosures, evictions, garnishments, attachments, utility shut-offs, and debt collection harassment. It offers debtors a breathing spell by giving the debtor and the trustee assigned to the case time to review the situation and develop an appropriate plan. Creditors cannot take any further action against the debtor or the property without permission from the bankruptcy court.
In a chapter 7, or liquidation case, the bankruptcy court appoints a trustee to examine the debtor’s assets and divide them into exempt and nonexempt property. Exempt property is limited to a certain amount of equity in the debtor’s residence, motor vehicle, household goods, life insurance, health aids, specified future earnings such as social security benefits and alimony, and certain other personal property. The trustee may then sell the nonexempt property and distribute the proceeds among the unsecured creditors. Although a liquidation case can rarely help with secured debt (the secured creditor still has the right to repossess the collateral), the debtor will be discharged from the legal obligation to pay unsecured debts such as credit card debts, medical bills and utility arrearages. However, certain types of unsecured debt are allowed special treatment and cannot be discharged. These include some student loans, alimony, child support, criminal fines, and some taxes. Attorney’s fees in Chapter 7 cases are usually charged on a flat fee basis (with the court’s filing fee over and above the attorney’s fee).
In a chapter 13 case, the debtor puts forward a plan, following the rules set forth in the bankruptcy laws, to repay all creditors over a period of time, usually from future income. A chapter 13 case may be advantageous in that the debtor is allowed to get caught up on mortgages or car loans without the threat of foreclosure or repossession and is allowed to keep both exempt and nonexempt property. The debtor’s plan is a simple document outlining to the bankruptcy court how the debtor proposes to pay current expenses while paying off all the old debt balances. The debtor’s property is protected from seizure from creditors, including mortgage and other lien holders, as long as the proposed payments are made. The plan generally requires monthly payments to the bankruptcy trustee over a period of three to five years. Arrangements can be made to have these payments made automatically through payroll deductions. Attorney’s fees in Chapter 13 cases are usually charged on a flat fee basis (with the court’s filing fee over and above the attorney’s fee).
A case filed under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code is frequently referred to as a “reorganization” bankruptcy. Generally, the debtor, as “debtor in possession,” operates the business and performs many of the functions that a trustee performs. A written disclosure statement and a plan of reorganization must be filed with the court that will voted on by creditors.
While individuals are not precluded from using chapter 11, it is more typically used to reorganize a business, which may be a corporation, sole proprietorship, or partnership. A corporation exists separate and apart from its owners, the stockholders. The chapter 11 bankruptcy case of a corporation (corporation as debtor) does not put the personal assets of the stockholders at risk other than the value of their investment in the company’s stock.
Attorney’s fees in Chapter 11 cases are usually charged on an hourly fee basis (with the court’s filing fee over and above the attorney’s fee) and since Chapter 11 cases are complex in nature, fees tend to be substantial.
Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code was enacted by Congress in 1986, specifically to meet the needs of financially distressed family farmers. The primary purpose of this legislation was to give family farmers facing bankruptcy a chance to reorganize their debts and keep their farms. Attorney’s fees in Chapter 12 cases are usually charged on a flat fee basis (with the court’s filing fee over and above the attorney’s fee).