What is bankruptcy?
Bankruptcy is a legal proceeding under federal law that enables a debtor with serious financial difficulties to obtain financial relief. Essentially, bankruptcy allows debtors to either eliminate their debts or repay them under the protection of a bankruptcy court. An understanding of the federal bankruptcy court system is the key to resolving most bankruptcy cases. Obtaining a lawyer with experience both in federal courts is therefore the best way to ensure an optimal outcome when filing for bankruptcy in Georgia.
The law considers a debt as either secured or unsecured. Secured debts are those that have collateral attached to them such as your house or car. For example, if you obtain a mortgage on your house, your house becomes collateral for your mortgage. If you do not pay back a loan, the lender may foreclose or repossess your property to recover the debt. Examples of unsecured debts include:
- credit cards
- medical bills
- anything else that is not guaranteed by collateral
How Can You File for Bankruptcy in Georgia?
You have a choice in which chapter of bankruptcy you decide to file. Bankruptcy consists of several types of chapters that contain different mechanisms for addressing financial problems. With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, also known as a liquidation, you can eliminate or discharge (forgive) all or some of your unsecured debts. Anyone, even a corporation, can file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. A Chapter 7 case will also allow a debtor to surrender secured property back to the creditor if the debtor can no longer afford to keep it. On the other hand, if a debtor can afford to keep his property, he can retain it by reaffirming the debt with the creditor. This holds so long as that property does not have excessive equity.
Once a debtor reaffirms a secured debt, payments on secured debt will continue pursuant to the terms of the contract. A trustee shall preside over the case and determine whether there are any nonexempt assets to liquidate for the benefit of creditors upon the filing of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Thus, if a trustee determines that your asset (for example your car or home) has equity and you cannot exempt this equity under Georgia law, then the trustee can sell your asset and pay your unsecured creditors with the proceeds from this sale.
Filing for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy
Debtors with disposable income who do not qualify for filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy can file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy, also known as a “Wage Earners Plan,” allows a debtor to protect valuable assets. A Wage Earners Plan can also assist debtors who has fallen behind on their mortgage or car payments to catch up on those payments through a reorganization plan. In this plan, a debtor proposes to pay back her creditors over a period of time. The plan is presented to a bankruptcy judge for approval and a Chapter 13 trustee will then administer the reorganization plan. The Chapter 13 trustee collects and distributes funds paid by the debtor to all of his or her creditors based on the plan approved by the Bankruptcy Court. However, payments on long-term debt must continue at their contract rate after the filing.
This type of bankruptcy has certain financial limits. Only individuals having the income to fund a case as well as secured debt not exceeding $1,010,650 and unsecured debt not exceeding $336,900 can file (these exact figures change every three years). If a debtor exceeds these limits, then he or she must look to a Chapter 11 case should they still desire protection from creditors. Additionally, some debtors can make use of a Chapter 12 bankruptcy. A Chapter 12 bankruptcy is similar in nature to a Chapter 13, but is available only to those individuals who earn their living from farming or fishing.
Should I file for bankruptcy?
Filing for bankruptcy is not a decision that you should take without thorough investigation. The amount of debt you owe and your ability to make payments to your creditors should all impact your decision to file for a bankruptcy. Anyone considering filing for bankruptcy protection should investigate all possible options that may be available before deciding on bankruptcy. Our Coweta County bankruptcy attorneys are eager to assist you in making this important decision.
Are there alternatives to bankruptcy?
The short answer is yes. A debtor should always investigate other methods of solving his or her financial problems prior to deciding to file for bankruptcy relief. Many consider bankruptcy a last resort measure. A debtor has some options available other than bankruptcy such as credit counseling, negotiating settlements with creditors with or without the assistance of an attorney or some form of out-of-court settlement.
Each debtor’s financial circumstances are unique and deciding whether one option is better than another often depends on individual circumstances. It is always a good idea for those experiencing financial difficulties to seek out assistance from professionals who handle such matters regularly.
What is a discharge of debts?
Basically, a discharge of debts is the elimination of a debtor’s personal obligation to pay that debt. Importantly, some debts cannot be discharged or eliminated. Non-dischargeable debts can include: student loans, domestic support obligations, child support and alimony and recent income taxes, paytoll taxes, criminal fines or penalties, and DUI claims. A discharge will give the debtor a chance to start over financially.
Will I lose a valuable asset such as my home or car if I file for bankruptcy?
Depending on the type of bankruptcy a debtor files and their financial circumstances, you could lose your home. If a debtor files a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case and has a home with equity, then there is the possibility that she could lose that home. It depends on how much equity the debtor has in the home. Georgia allows a certain dollar amount of any equity in a home to be exempt from the bankruptcy. If a debtor files an individual case, he or she may exempt up to $21,500 of equity in their primary residence and if a married couple files, then the amount doubles. If the debtor’s equity falls between these figures then no, they may not lose their home, however if the equity is higher, then the possibility exists. Equity in a vehicle works the same way with the figures being $3,500 for an individual filer.
If on the other hand, a debtor files a Chapter 13 case and has equity over the exemption amount, then he or she can keep the home provided they pay their unsecured creditors an amount equal to the nonexempt equity. If the debtor believes he or she cannot afford to keep the collaterized property because of the financial situation, there is an option to surrender the property back to the creditor.
Do I have to do anything before filing for bankruptcy relief?
Yes. The current bankruptcy law requires that a debtor wanting to file for bankruptcy protection must obtain credit counseling prior to filing a case. You must complete the credit counseling within six months prior to the filing of the case. An agency approved by your regional U.S. trustee will provide you with credit counseling. For a list of those agencies approved for the state of Georgia, go to www.usdoj.gov/ust/ and under Bankruptcy Reform, click on credit counseling and debtor education. After filing, you’ll complete a debtor education course before receiving a discharge of debts. This course is in addition to the pre-filing credit counseling. You’ll get a certificate when you complete each course, which is filed with the Bankruptcy Court.
Will I have to appear in court?
When you file a bankruptcy case, you have to attend a hearing titled Section 341, First Meeting of Creditors. This hearing is scheduled approximately 30 days following the filing of the case. If you file a Chapter 13 case, you may have to attend a confirmation hearing. The confirmation hearing is when the judge assigned to the case approves the repayment plan filed by the debtor. Further, you may have to attend additional hearings depending on the circumstances of your case.
Will filing bankruptcy affect my credit report?
Yes. In most cases, your credit score will go down once you file a bankruptcy case. How much that score will drop depends on your individual financial circumstances.
What if I have a co-signer on a debt?
A bankruptcy filing may affect any someone who co-signs a debt with you. If the debtor files a Chapter 13, under Section 1301 of the Bankruptcy Code, the co-debtor is protected from actions by the creditor until the creditor gets Bankruptcy Court approval to pursue that co-debtor. In addition, the co-signer may find a notation on their credit report indicating that the debt they co-signed is in bankruptcy.
What if I have been sued or a foreclosure is pending before I file?
Outside of a bankruptcy, if a creditor files a lawsuit against a debtor and receives a judgment, that creditor may collect on that judgment by either attaching liens against the debtor’s property or garnishing wages. When a debtor files for bankruptcy protection, this will automatically stop any garnishment. Further, any pending litigation, foreclosure sale or repossession must not continue upon the filing of a case. These actions must remain stopped unless the Bankruptcy Court gives the creditor permission to proceed (on a first bankruptcy filing).
Will I ever be able to own a home after filing bankruptcy?
Yes. The filing of a bankruptcy case does not prevent a person from ever owning property again. It may take some time before you rebuild your credit enough to borrow funds at a reasonable interest rate for the purchase of a house or car.