Bankruptcy: what are my options?

For people experiencing severe financial difficulties and who are overwhelmed with debt, bankruptcy may be an important option. Whether difficult times are brought on by job loss, medical problems, family breakups, or even financial irresponsibility, bankruptcy can grant you much desired relief. Understanding some basic principles of consumer bankruptcy, however, is imperative in knowing which form of bankruptcy is appropriate.

Within bankruptcy law, there are several different “chapters.” Each “chapter” is specifically designed to help either individuals or businesses in eliminating, resolving, and/or repaying their debts. Selecting which bankruptcy chapter to proceed under, depends on the individual’s or business’s specific circumstances. For individuals (“consumers”) who are seeking relief through the bankruptcy process, two chapters are available: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. These two bankruptcy chapters differ significantly and offer different results.
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
Chapter 7 is commonly referred to as “liquidation bankruptcy.” When an individual proceeds under Chapter 7, a trustee is appointed by the bankruptcy court. The trustee then gathers all of the individual’s property (except any property that is exempt), sells (“liquidates”) it, and distributes the proceeds of the sale to the individual’s creditors. At the end of this process, any outstanding debts are discharged (eliminated). The creditors then chalk-up their losses and move on, while the individual must start anew with very little assets leftover. The Chapter 7 process generally takes about four to six months.
Not everyone is allowed to proceed under Chapter 7, however. To be eligible under Chapter 7, an individual must pass the “means test” (a mechanical formula that is used to determine who can and cannot repay some debt.) If it is determined by the court that the individual’s “current monthly income” is above a certain amount and the individual has the ability to repay some debt, the individual may be denied Chapter 7 relief and may be forced to proceed under Chapter 13. Most people who meet the eligibility requirements proceed under Chapter 7 because, unlike Chapter 13, Chapter 7 takes less time to complete and does not require the individual to pay back any portion of his or her debts.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
Chapter 13 differs significantly from Chapter 7’s liquidation method. Commonly referred to as an “Adjustment of Debt” or “Wage Earner’s Plan,” Chapter 13 focuses on using the individual’s future earnings, rather than liquidated property, to pay creditors. When an individual files under Chapter 13, a court-approved plan allows the individual to keep all of his or her property, but the individual must pay a portion of all future income to the creditors. This payout plan lasts for three to five years, depending on the circumstances and the court-approved plan. When the individual has completed the agreed payout plan, any remaining obligations are discharged.
Naturally, eligibility to proceed under Chapter 13 requires that an individual must prove that he or she is capable of paying a portion of his or her future monthly income to creditors for a period of three to five years. If the individual’s income is not regular or is too low, Chapter 13 may be denied. Likewise, if the individual’s total amount of debt is too high, the court may deny Chapter 13. Unlike Chapter 7, Chapter 13 takes much more time to complete. However, the major benefit of Chapter 13 is that the individual is allowed to keep his or her property.
Understanding the main differences between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 can assist you in knowing which form of bankruptcy will most likely work best for you. Keep in mind, however, that because the bankruptcy process is complex and oftentimes requires professional knowledge to be successful, seeking professional help is your best bet.