Bankruptcy is not a punishment. It is a protection. But contrary to popular belief, this protection is not for creditors. It is for debtors.
This is because the courts — which essentially represent the will of society — recognize that it is not in society’s best interest for condemn people in debt to a lifetime of financial agony; even if the wounds are self-inflicted vs. caused by unforeseen external events (e.g. excessive medical bills, etc.).
As such, bankruptcy gives debtors the time, legal protection, and financial relief they need to get out — and ideally stay out — of debt, so they can (again, ideally) make a positive contribution to society down the road.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that creditors are left high and dry. They will typically get partial payment based on where they are in the pecking order. And some debts such as alimony, child support, student loans, and court-ordered restitution per a previous criminal conviction cannot be discharged as part of a bankruptcy filing (with this in mind, the court may consider a structured repayment plan if debtors can prove that they cannot meet their full obligations on these debts, and programs exist to provide some relief for student loans).
Steps in Filing for Bankruptcy
Now that you are aware that filing for bankruptcy is essentially a legal protection for debtors and not a collection method for creditors (in fact, as we’ve written about creditors typically don’t want debtors to file for bankruptcy!), we can look at the other unknown aspect that fills many people with anxiety and distress: what the filing process looks like.
Basically, here are the steps that you’ll take on your journey of filing for chapter 7 bankruptcy:
- Within six months of filing for bankruptcy, you must complete a mandatory credit counseling course. The course is delivered through in-person training, as well as via the web.
- You must submit a complete application to the court that includes financial statements, income tax assessments, and proof that you pass your state’s respective chapter 7 means test. If you wisely hire a bankruptcy attorney to represent and guide you, then he or she will handle this on your behalf and ensure that your application is complete. Note that if your application is incomplete, then it will be delayed or may be denied, and you will not be granted an automatic stay from your creditors. They will continue to contact you, charge interest on debts, and proceed with collection activity such as wage garnishment and civil lawsuits.
- If your application is complete and accepted, the court will assign a trustee to govern the remainder of the bankruptcy process. Keep in mind that the trustee does not work for you or for creditors. He or she is an officer of the court.
- Your creditors will be invited to a meeting that you must attend (if you have an attorney, then he or she will accompany you). During this meeting, the trustee and creditors will have the opportunity to ask you questions about your finances and future earning potential.
- After the meeting of creditors (also called a “341 Meeting’), your eligibility to file for chapter 7 will either be confirmed or denied, largely on the basis of whether you passed the chapter 7 means test. If you are not eligible, then you will typically be able to file for chapter 13 bankruptcy in which you propose a structure repayment plan that is typically executed for 3-5 years.
- The trustee will then take an inventory of your non-exempt assets (i.e. items that can be sold or liquidated to pay off your debts). You might also be able to negotiate with the trustee to retain certain non-exempt assets. Essentially, if the trustee can get as much or more from you vs. another party, there is a good chance you will be able to keep the asset(s).
- Next, the trustee goes through your secured assets and determines what assets will be returned to creditors. You may be able to retain some of these assets by paying for them, or reaffirming debt. However, keep in mind that if you wish to reaffirm any debts, then you must attend a reaffirmation hearing in front of a judge. If you have an attorney, then he or she can represent you at the hearing and you do not have to attend.
- You must complete a financial management course. Similar to the credit counseling course that must be taken within the six months immediately prior to filing for bankruptcy, the financial management course is available in-person and online. Once you have completed the course, you must submit a form to the court verifying your achievement.
- Within 3-6 months after filing, you will receive a discharge notice in the mail (your attorney will also receive a copy). At this point, the automatic stay is lifted — which is fine, because even if you have creditors at this point, they will not be threatening you with collection activity.
- Typically within a few days (or sometimes a few weeks) after getting your discharge notice in the mail, you will receive a letter informing you that your case has been closed. You will no longer be liable to most (or ideally all) of your creditors, and can start your new life ahead with a clean financial slate.
To learn more about the process of filing for chapter 7 bankruptcy, contact the Law Office of Charles Huber today. We have over 30 years of experience filing consumer bankruptcy cases. Our experience is your advantage!