December 15, 2017

Inside the Mind of a Bankruptcy Lawyer – Should I File and if so, Why Should I Choose Your Firm?

There are dozens of lawyers out there who offer to prepare and file bankruptcy cases.  Some work in high volume “bankruptcy mill” firms that compete on price while others compete on experience, knowledge and service.  Usually the cost differential is a few hundred dollars, but when you are considering bankruptcy, every dollar counts – so why would you want a lawyer like me as opposed to a firm that would offer to represent you for a lower price?

I could offer a glib answer like “if you needed brain surgery, would you look for the cheapest surgeon on the one with the most experience and industry recognition” but that does not really answer the question.  Perhaps it would be helpful if you could look over my shoulder as I analyze a real life situation that came before me recently.

Earlier this month an email arrived from a couple who wanted information about bankruptcy.  The wife wrote that she was a stay at home mom raising 2 children and that her husband lost his job about a year ago, and recently started back to work at a lower paying job.  Their current household income is just under $50,000.  They own a house that is now worth less than what they paid for it – the house is worth about $200,000 – the first mortgage is $210,000 and the second mortgage is $35,000.  They own one older car outright and are financing a mini-van.  They have also incurred around $25,000 of credit card debt – most of which was used trying to keep the mortgage current.

Earlier this year they fell behind on both the first and second mortgage.  The first mortgage lender started foreclosure proceedings, but suspended foreclosure and offered to consider my potential clients for a mortgage modification.  They have been making modified payments for several months but when they called the lender to ask if they had been approved for a permanent modification, the account rep told them that their modification paperwork had not been approved but that their application had been sent to another department for a reconsideration.  News of this decision had not been provided to my prospective clients – the only reason they found out was from their call.  No one from the mysterious reconsideration division was available and their multiple calls have not been returned for over 2 weeks.

They decided to contact me because they are getting the sense that the mortgage company is unlikely to approve their modification and they want to be prepared for a possible foreclosure.  What are their options?
Here is what I advised them through my conversation with the wife:

First, I asked what was their desire regarding the house – was keeping the house a priority?  The wife responded that they would like to keep their house but they were not sure they could afford it given the husband’s reduced salary.

I explained that Chapter 13 is the type of bankruptcy that can stop a foreclosure but that Chapter 13 would not allow us to change the amount of the monthly payments, nor would it change the total balance due on the mortgage.  Chapter 13 would allow them to “cure” their arrearage by paying that arrearage (the past due payments) over a five year period of time, along with other debts that would also be included in the Chapter 13 payment plan. However, if they were not able to afford the regular monthly payments Chapter 13 probably did not make much sense.

The only possible justification for a Chapter 13 would arise from the possibility that they could use Chapter 13 to “strip” the second mortgage and make that unsecured.  Under Chapter 13 law, a second mortgage that is wholly unsecured, meaning that the balance due the first mortgage exceeds the fair market value of the home.  If the second mortgage is wholly unsecured, we can file a motion to strip the lien, thereby making the second mortgage debt an unsecured claim in the Chapter 13.  If our Chapter 13 plan called for paying unsecured debt at 5 cents on the dollar, then Chapter 13 might be something to consider.

In this case, the wife advised me that the monthly payment due the first lender was more than what they could afford, plus she did not seem enthusiastic about signing on for a five year payment plan, so we decided to remove Chapter 13 from consideration.

We then proceeded to discuss Chapter 7.

I pointed out that Chapter 7 would allow the couple to discharge their credit card debt as well as any potential liability arising from the surrender of their home.  I felt that the real danger came from the second mortgage lender as it has been my experience that first lenders rarely pursue deficiency claims because  of the Georgia law that requires them to go to court to certify the deficiency before a judge within 30 days of the foreclosure.  Second mortgage holders, by contrast, need only file suit on the promissory note associated with their loans.  I see far more deficiency balance claims from second mortgage lenders than from first mortgage lenders.

I also noted that since the foreclosure process could take several months, one strategy here would be to remain in the house and pay nothing – nothing to either mortgage lender and nothing to the credit card lenders.  This strategy would allow my prospective clients to reduce their budget outflow dramatically for several months while they built up a small cash reserve, and then file bankruptcy in four to six months when creditors were starting to take action.  I noted that this strategy was based on economics, and that they would have to be comfortable with the moral implications of this course of action.  I also noted that this “wait until the last minute” strategy would cause significant damage to their credit in addition to the bankruptcy.  By contrast, filing a Chapter 7 when there were few or no 120 day late references would make recovery from bankruptcy a little easier.  Credit reports document payment histories and while a bankruptcy discharge will put the balances at zero, it does not delete the negative payment histories.

On the other hand, I advised the wife that if she and her husband waited to file and the husband secured a better, higher paying job, their household income might leave them with disposable income in their budget, or it might cause their household income to exceed the median income for a family of four, thereby making Chapter 7 much more difficult or impossible.  It has been my experience that when household income exceeds the median (in Georgia the current median income for a family of 4 is $68,258) by $10,000 or more, it can be very difficult to qualify for Chapter 7 under the means test.  Thus, if the husband was actively looking for employment and his target income was $80,000 or more, waiting to file Chapter 7 might not be the best idea.

The wife then asked me about the credit report issue – how long would it take for she and her husband to rebuild their credit.  I responded by saying that it my experience, a Chapter 7 debtor can expect his credit score to remain depressed for eight months to a year following the Chapter 7 discharge.  However, Chapter 7 has the positive effect of eliminating all debt and thereby causing an improvement to the debt to income ratio.  Further, individuals can only file Chapter 7 once every eight years – so from a lender’s perspective a recently discharged debtor has no debt and cannot file bankruptcy for at least 8 years.

I assured the wife that I made it my practice to follow up with my clients who had received a discharge to review their credit reports three to five months after discharge.  I have found that at least half of the time, there are errors on the credit reports that artificially depress post bankruptcy credit scores and sometimes, the errors are actionable, meaning that we can collect damages from creditors for Fair Debt Collection Practices Act violations.  In a few cases I have been able to collect enough in damages to cover the attorney’s fees and filing fees associated with the original bankruptcy filing!

I ended by conversation with the wife by thanking her for contacting me.  I then followed up our conversation with a brief email summarizing what we had spoken about and providing her with the “get started” link to one of my web sites.

I hope you can see that even a “simple” fact pattern can give rise to a variety of options and pratical considerations.  Consumer bankruptcy is not a “one size fits all” practice and I am able to raise all of the points that I did because I have seen a lot of different issues over the past 23 years.  If you have any questions about what have written here or if you want to discuss your personal situation, I encourage you to contact attorney Susan Blum or me by phone at 770-393-4985 or send us an email.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Ginsberg represents honest, hardworking men and women in the Atlanta area who need personal bankruptcy protection. In practice for over 25 years, Jonathan teaches bankruptcy law and practice at legal continuing education seminars and he is a founding member of the Bankruptcy Law Network. Jonathan lives with his wife and children in Atlanta.

Comments

  1. Phyllis Collins says:

    GREAT article! I really enjoy your blog!!!

  2. Great post, Jonathan!

    There is no “one size fits all”, there are no simple cases (at least none I’ve seen in a long time) and there’s no good reason to search for the cheapest attorney who can help you out of a difficult financial situation… as someone once told me their grandmother told them: “Cheap becomes expensive.”

  3. Nice blogs you have..I agree with you that Chapter 13 is the type of bankruptcy that can stop a foreclosure but that Chapter 13 would not allow us to change the amount of the monthly payments, nor would it change the total balance due on the mortgage. It is also requires you to make monthly payments to your creditors for up to five years. In contrast, chapter 7 bankruptcy lets you get out of paying almost all of your debts after just 4 months…

  4. Several years ago, the U.S. Trustee filed an objection to one of my Chapter 7 cases, asserting that my (self-employed) client could afford to fund a Chapter 13. The trustee disallowed, among other items, college tuition and room and board for a college aged child. An attorney for the trustee’s office told me that the U.S. Trustee starts from the point of view that a 100% Chapter 13 plan is the desired form of bankruptcy and that anything less will be viewed with scrutiny. From my perspective, a Chapter 7 is the ideal solution, and anything more is less desirable.

  5. Charles Brown says:

    Maybe chapter 7 is the ideal solution, and anything more is less desirable.In theory, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a liquidation proceeding in which the debtor’s non-exempt assets, if any, are sold by the Chapter 7 trustee and the proceeds distributed to creditors. However, in most consumer cases, all the assets are exempt, leaving no assets to liquidate and no dividends to creditors. Chapter 7 is generally the simplest and quickest form of bankruptcy and is available to individuals, married couples, corporations and partnerships.
    Filing Chapter 7 The case begins by filing the official petition, schedules and statement of financial affairs. These forms ask you to list all of your assets and all of your debts, along with some recent financial history. This is the most important and most time consuming part of a bankruptcy filing.When we file for Bankruptcy we need to select the best Bankruptcy attorney to handle our case..

Speak Your Mind

*

Page optimized by WP Minify WordPress Plugin