October 21, 2018

Finally – Some Good New for Georgia Bankruptcy Filers

Georgia homestead exemptionWithin the last few weeks, there have been two favorable developments for Georgia bankruptcy filers.  First, as of May 1, 2012, the median income tables for Georgia families has been adjusted upwards, reversing a longstanding trend.  Second, on May 2, 2012, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 117 which raised the Georgia homestead exemption from $10,000 to $21,500.  Here is why both of these developments are positive for Georgia bankruptcy filers:

Upward Adjustment of Median Income numbers – the median income tables are used in means test calculations to determine whether a bankruptcy filers is eligible for Chapter 7, and, if not, what he has to pay back to unsecured creditors in Chapter 13.  Prior to May 1, 2012, the median income for a family of 4 in Georgia was $64,223.   In cases filed on May 1, 2012 and thereafter the median income for a family of 4 is $66,250.

This means that it is now slightly easier to qualify for Chapter 7 and that the payback to unsecured creditors in Chapter 13 does not have to be quite so high. 

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Supreme Court Hands Credit Card Companies a Big Win

auto ownership expense denied in means testYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a creditor friendly decision in the case of Ransom v. Fia Card Services.  At issues was the “ownership expense” deduction in the means test.

The means test is a calculation used to determine whether a debtor has enough “disposable income” to afford a Chapter 13 repayment plan.

In the Ransom case, the debtor (Jason Ransom) claimed a means test deduction for both operation of a vehicle ($338 per month) and for ownership ($471 per month).  The problem – Mr. Ransom owned his vehicle free and clear.

In an 8-1 decision written by Obama appointee Elena Kagan (the lone dissent issued by conservative Justice Scalia), the Supreme Court held that a debtor who owns his vehicle free and clear can only claim a deduction for vehicle operation but not a deduction for ownership. [Read more…]

Chapter 7 in Georgia Becomes More Difficult on November 1, 2010

The United States Trustee has released revised median income figures for Georgia households.  These new figures will apply to Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases filed after November 1.   The revised figures continue the trend of lower household income amounts meaning that it will be more difficult to avoid a “presumption of abuse” in Chapter 7 filings.  Presumably the new numbers reflect lower household income figures associated with the current recession.

The Bankruptcy Code looks to median household income figures compiled by the U.S. Census to determine whether or not you have the “means” or capacity to pay back some or all of your bills.   Means testing was introduced into the consumer bankruptcy process in 2005.

The chart below summarizes the impact of the revised numbers:

Family sizeMedian income
thru Oct. 31
Median income:
after November 1

The impact of this change is most pronounced on two person and three person families.   Lower median income numbers mean that more filers will end up in Chapter 13 since anyone “above median” will be presumed to have enough money to pay back creditors in a Chapter 13.  Chapter 13 cases filed using the new numbers will also result in higher monthly trustee payments because the amount of funds “available” to pay back creditors will be higher.

Above median debtors are not without hope – those filers can still qualify for Chapter 7 under part 2 of the means test, but that process puts more scrutiny on a filer’s budget and adds to the complexity of the filing.  Read more about the forthcoming change to the median income tables on the Bankruptcy Law Network, where my colleague Jill Michaux has posted an article entitled “The Means Test Gets Meaner.”

Bottom line:  if you are considering Chapter 7, look closely at that option prior to November 1, 2010 or risk an unpleasant post-Halloween surprise.

Supreme Court Issues Important Ruling About Chapter 13

Supreme Court of the United StatesOn June 7, 2010, the United States Supreme Court released its decision in the case of Hamilton, Chapter 13 Trustee v. Lanning.   The Supreme Court rarely hears argument in consumer bankruptcy cases so the Lanning decision is big news to consumer bankruptcy lawyers.

The issue in Lanning is one that has troubled bankruptcy lawyers since 2005, when the “means test” was added to the Bankruptcy Code.   The means test functions as a test – do you have the “means” or disposable income to fund a Chapter 13 repayment plan?  If the means test shows that you do not have sufficient disposable income to make a Chapter 13 work, then you qualify for Chapter 7.

As one of the assistant United States trustees once told me – the purpose of the means test is to disqualify as many people as possible from Chapter 7, and to force them into Chapter 13.

In practice, the means test does not work very well in predicting who can make a Chapter 13 work.  One of the biggest complaints has to do with the mechanical nature of means testing.   To run a means test, I have to gather pay stubs from the past 6 months.  I then create a monthly average, which represents available income.  Next I prepare a means test budget, but I do not use actual expense amounts.  Instead, the means test tells me how much my clients are allowed to spend for food, medicine, utilities, etc.  And where do these budget numbers come from?  Means test numbers are based on IRS budgets used in delinquent tax repayment plans.  In other words, the means test budget allocations are not especially generous. [Read more…]

Median Income Numbers for Georgia Go DOWN!

For the first time since means testing was instituted in 2005, the median income number in Georgia have gone down.   This means that potential Chapter 7 debtors will have a more difficult time avoiding a “presumption of abuse” and the extra cost and hassle of means test calculations.

Here is a comparison table

Current Median Income Numbers            Median Income numbers
after November 1, 2009

Family size

1                                $40,760                                  $40,691

2                                $54,054                                  $55,258

3                                 $61,959                                  $61,104

4                                 $71,554                                  $68,502

Balancing the AccountsLet’s consider how this change affects you if you have a family of 4.  If you file by October 31, 2009, you can have household income of $71,554 and still qualify for Chapter 7 without having to qualify under the means test.  As of November 1, 2009, if you earn $71,554, the presumption of abuse arises and you must try to qualify by rebutting the presumption using the means test.

If your six month average gross income (April-September) is close to the current median income numbers and you expect the May-October numbers to be similar, it may make sense to try to file prior to November 1 – or at least to discuss this possibility with your lawyer.

Free Online Means Test Calculator

I am not going to promise you that you are going to be able to follow this, but the folks at Nolo have released a free on-line means test program.    I find this calculator more complex than the means test calculator built in to BestCase – the petition preparation program that I use.   The BestCase program draws data from other fields that you fill out anyway – like mortgages and car payments, whereas the Nolo program is a stand alone and requires manual data entry.

If you are computer savvy I would almost suggest that you download the BestCase trial version (full featured except that it prints  “demo” on the output) instead of the Nolo version.  I supect that the folks at Nolo assume that most prospective debtors will get frustrated and call one of the lawyers who buy advertising space at the Nolo site!

In any case, here are links to both the Nolo calculator and to the BestCase download:

Nolo means test calculator

BestCase petition preparation program with means test calculator

How to Keep Your Costs Down and Get Good Bankruptcy Advice Quickly

Personal bankruptcy is made for “what if” scenarios.  What if I file individually instead of jointly with my wife?   What if I quit my job while I am in the middle of my Chapter 13?   What if I need a replacement vehicle after I file?

I don’t always have the answers but I can usually think through one or two likely scenarios.  I can be more effective helping you if you give me the information I need.   Specifically that means the following:

  • take the time to complete my intake questionnaire in its entirety.  Don’t leave out information that you believe is not relevant.   My intake questionnaire is keyed to my bankruptcy program and I have been developing and updating it for over 15 years.  Everything on my questionnaire is there for a reason – and I can serve you better if I have everything that is requested there
  • get me copies of your credit reports.   AnnualCreditReport.com offers a free service to get current copies of your credit reports.  Current credit reports help us avoid leaving out creditors from our analysis and they can also provide other helpful information such as prior addresses and other names in which you have been extended credit
  • get me copies of all payment advices for the past 7 months.  The Bankruptcy law now requires all debtors to engage in a median income test as well as a means test analysis.  The starting point of this analysis is evidence of income you and other members of your household have received.   Payment advices should be provided for salaries, investment income, one-time checks, some disability payments, dividends, etc.  If you are not sure, ask.

Sometimes I hear from clients who want to submit their information on a spreadsheet or Quicken file.   Feel free to send those files along, but do not send them in lieu of my questionnaire and the other requested information.

How Big is my Household for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 Means Test Purposes?

I have written a lot on this blog about the median income test and the means test.  Each of these pre-filing calculations turn on both your household income as well as your family size.

While it would seem that the number of people in your family ought to be easy to calculate, it turns out that issues do arise relating to this very important calculation.

I recently received an email from a blog reader named Sheila who asks the following law school exam type of question:

I have been told conflicting things about determining household size for purposes of the chapter 7 means test.  My 20 year old son currently lives with me for free. He will probably move out in the next couple months.  My 18 year old daughter lives with me, but will be going away to college in the fall. A divorce decree allows my ex-husband to use her as a dependent for tax purposes.   My 16 year old daughter lives with me and is my dependent for tax purposes.  How do I determine my household size for the purpose of the means test?

Here is my response: [Read more…]

Can I File a Chapter 7 By Myself, Without an Attorney

This morning, I received an email from a gentleman named Jim, who writes:

How can I file chapter 7 by myself without paying someone, anyone $ 99.00 $199.00, $299.00 etc… Three different people( with a financial intrest of course) said representation is required.

Here is my response: Jim, you certainly have the right to file a Chapter 7 case by yourself.  The forms are available either on-line or at an office supply store.  There are also several books about how to do this.  I am currently reviewing a book entitled The Complete Chapter 7 Personal Bankruptcy Guide by attorney Edward Haman that is published by Sphinx Publishing that is quite comprehensive.

Here are the issues:

1. the bankruptcy process has become significantly more complicated since October, 2005, when the BAPCPA changes to the bankruptcy laws were enacted.   I know a number of lawyers who used to file the occasional Chapter 7 here in Atlanta, but who have now given up the practice because of the complications.  In particular, you need to fully understand how the median income test and the means test works – if you do the calculations incorrectly, you could end up in a deposition at the United State’s trustee’s office, face a motion to dismiss or face a motion to convert to Chapter 13.

2. you need to understand about the pre-filing credit counseling requirement as well as the pre-discharge financial management course requirement

3. in order to actually file your case, you will need to go to the Clerk of Bankruptcy Court and scan your pages to get your case filed.  I suspect that this process is not particularly complicated, but I have not used the scanning equipment at the Clerk’s office.

4. you cannot dismiss a Chapter 7 voluntarily if you change your mind.  For example, if you file, but it turns out that you earn too much or own too many assets the judge may not let you out of your case, at least until after your assets are liquidated.

5. you need to understand how the Georgia exemption law works and how it applies in Chapter 7 to protect property that the law allows you to protect.  If you don’t properly declare property as exempt even if the law would otherwise allow you to protect it, then you could lose your property anyway.

6. do not expect to receive advice from the Chapter 7 trustees or the U.S. Trustees.  Their interest is to maximize the recovery of the estate (i.e. your creditors).

While folks contemplating bankruptcy obviously do not have a lot of money, I think that in most situations the complexity (which, no doubt is unnecessarily complex) makes a pro se filing a mistake.

File Your Bankruptcy by the End of the Month or Start the Process Over

If you read this blog and other consumer bankruptcy blogs like Scott Riddle’s Georgia Bankruptcy blog or the Bankruptcy Law Network blog, you know that preparing for filing a case involves a great deal of effort on your part to collect information and documents.  Are there any steps that you as the potential bankruptcy debtor can take to speed up the process and to keep costs down.

My Bankruptcy Law Network colleague, Michael Doan, has posted a very useful article about the timing of filing.  Specifically, Michael points out that if you start the bankruptcy information gathering process towards the end of a month, and the process rolls over to the next month, then a lot of the work has to be redone.  For example, the six month medican income test look back would involve a new six month period, your credit counseling certificate validity date may run out and the required tax return might change.  I encourage you to take a look at Michael’s well thought out post entitled "File by the End of the Month or Start Over."

I think that in a big picture sense, what Michael is saying is that you need to communicate regularly and accurately with your lawyer.  If you meet with your lawyer on the 20th of the month and promise to have all necessary documentation by the 27th, but you end up rescheduling your appointment to the 5th of the following month, don’t be surprised if you have to pay a higher fee to account for all the new calculations.

In my practice, I do not start the time consuming process of analyzing pay stubs and figuring out the median income and/or means test until I have pretty much all of the required documentation.  This means that I can’t give my client bottom line numbers unless and until my client provides me with pay stubs and tax returns.  I can still give a "big picture" analysis based on my experience, but the actual number crunching has to wait.   This is a major shift from pre-BAPCPA practice where I could run numbers almost immediately.

Some of my colleagues are more willing to tolerate the risk of not getting documentation in time and they end up running their calculations two or three times.  If you are a lawyer and this is how you have set up your practice, I would advise you to keep your notes so at least your’ll have a head start on the calculations.

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