What Is Bankruptcy?

Bankruptcy is the legal proceeding involving a person or business that is unable to repay outstanding debts. The bankruptcy process begins with a petition filed by the debtor, which is most common, or on behalf of creditors, which is less common. All of the debtor's assets are measured and evaluated, and the assets may be used to repay a portion of outstanding debt.

Key Takeaways

  • Bankruptcy is a legal proceeding carried out to allow individuals or businesses freedom from their debts, while simultaneously providing creditors an opportunity for repayment.
  • Bankruptcy is handled in federal courts, and rules are outlined in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
  • There are various types of bankruptcy, commonly referred to by their chapter within the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
  • Bankruptcy can allow you a fresh start, but it will stay on your record for a number of years depending on the type of bankruptcy filed.
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Bankruptcy

Understanding Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy offers an individual or business a chance to start fresh by forgiving debts that simply cannot be paid while offering creditors a chance to obtain some measure of repayment based on the individual's or business's assets available for liquidation. In theory, the ability to file for bankruptcy can benefit an overall economy by giving persons and businesses a second chance to gain access to consumer credit and by providing creditors with a measure of debt repayment. Upon the successful completion of bankruptcy proceedings, the debtor is relieved of the debt obligations incurred prior to filing for bankruptcy.

All bankruptcy cases in the United States are handled through federal courts. Any decisions over federal bankruptcy cases are made by a bankruptcy judge, including whether a debtor is eligible to file or whether he should be discharged of his debts. Administration over bankruptcy cases is often handled by a trustee, an officer appointed by the United States Trustee Program of the Department of Justice, to represent the debtor's estate in the proceeding. There is usually very little direct contact between the debtor and the judge unless there is some objection made in the case by a creditor.

Types of Bankruptcy Filings

Bankruptcy filings in the United States fall under one of several chapters of the Bankruptcy Code: Chapter 7, which involves liquidation of assets; Chapter 11, which deals with company or individual reorganizations, and Chapter 13, which is debt repayment with lowered debt covenants or specific payment plans. Bankruptcy filing specifications vary among states, leading to higher or lower filing fees depending on how easily a person or company can complete the process.

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Individuals or businesses with few or no assets file Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The chapter allows individuals to dispose of their unsecured debts, such as credit cards and medical bills. Individuals with nonexempt assets, such as family heirlooms (collections with high valuations, such as coin or stamp collections), second homes, cash, stocks, or bonds, must liquidate the property to repay some or all of their unsecured debts. So, a person filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy is basically selling off his or her assets to clear debt. Consumers who have no valuable assets and only exempt property, such as household goods, clothing, tools for their trades, and a personal vehicle up to a certain value, repay no part of their unsecured debt.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Businesses often file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the goal of which is to reorganize and once again become profitable. Filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows a company to create plans for profitability, cut costs, and find new ways to increase revenue. Preferred stockholders may still receive payments, though common stockholders will not.

For example, a housekeeping business filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy might increase its rates slightly and offer more services to become profitable. Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows a business to continue conducting its business activities without interruption while working on a debt repayment plan under the court's supervision. In rare cases, individuals can file Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Individuals who make too much money to qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy may file under Chapter 13, also known as a wage earner's plan. The chapter allows individuals and businesses with consistent income to create workable debt repayment plans. The repayment plans are commonly in installments over the course of a three- to five-year period. In exchange for repaying their creditors, the courts allow these debtors to keep all of their property including nonexempt property.

Other Bankruptcy Filings

Financially distressed municipalities, including cities, towns, villages, counties, and school districts, may file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9. Under Chapter 9, there is no liquidation of assets to repay the municipality's debts. Chapter 12 bankruptcy provides relief to "family farmers" or "family fishermen" with regular annual income. Both Chapters 9 and 12 make use of an extended debt repayment plan. Chapter 15 was added in 2005 to deal with cross-border cases which involve debtors, assets, creditors and other parties who may be in more than one country. This type of petition is usually filed in the debtor's home country.

Being Discharged From Bankruptcy

When a debtor receives a discharge order, he is no longer legally required to pay any of the debts on that order. So, any creditor listed on that discharge cannot legally undertake any type of collection activity (making phone calls, sending letters) against the debtor once the discharge order is enforced. Therefore, the discharge absolves the debtor of any personal liability for the debts specified in the order.

But not all debts qualify to be discharged. Some of these include tax claims, anything that was not listed by the debtor, child support or alimony payments, personal injury debts, debts to the government, etc. In addition, any secured creditor can still enforce a lien against property owned by the debtor, provided that lien is still valid.

Debtors do not necessarily have the right to a discharge. When a petition for bankruptcy has been filed in court, creditors receive a notice and can object if they choose to do so. If they do, they will need to file a complaint in the court before the deadline. This leads to the filing of an adversary proceeding to recover monies owed or enforce a lien.

The discharge from Chapter 7 is usually granted about four months after the debtor files to petition for bankruptcy. For any other type of bankruptcy, the discharge can occur when it becomes practical.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Bankruptcy

Declaring bankruptcy can help relieve you of your legal obligation to pay your debts and save your home, business, or ability to function financially, depending on what kind of bankruptcy petition you file. But it also can lower your credit rating, making it more difficult to get a loan, mortgage, low-rate credit card, or buy a home, apartment, or business in the future.

If you're trying to figure out if you should file, your credit is probably already damaged. A Chapter 7 filing will stay on your credit report for ten years, while a Chapter 13 will remain there for seven. Any creditors you solicit for debt (a loan, credit card, line of credit, or mortgage) will see the discharge on your report, which will prevent you from getting any credit.