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How to Handle Garnishments: Options to End Creditors Collection Efforts

Garnishments are just one way that a creditor can try to collect on a judgment. If you are facing a garnishment, you should understand your options. Understanding how to handle garnishments can save you time and money.

Garnishments are a scary thing. A creditor wants to take money out of your paycheck or your bank account. In Virginia, a creditor can perform either a wage garnishment or a bank garnishment. For a wage garnishment, a creditor can garnish 25% of your “disposable income,” which means they get 25% of your paycheck after deducting for requires taxes. If you are very low income, your income may be too low to be garnished; but, this is very low threshold. For a bank garnishment, a creditor can seize all money in a bank account up to the amount of the judgment. Some funds cannot be garnished, such as social security.

If you are being garnished, there is likely a judgment against you. Most creditors can only garnish you  if there is a judgment against you; the most common exceptions to this rule are tax debt and federal student loans.  Since federal student loans and taxes are owed to the government, they are given special rights to collect. A judgment could have been obtained without you ever having appeared in court or being personally presented with documents.

Some individuals come into our office unsure why they are being garnished or believe they can fight the garnishment. In Virginia, the law requires that a creditor served you at your last known address. Service does not have to be in person, like you often see in the movies (i.e., someone handing you papers and saying you were served). The sheriff or process server can post the notice on the front door of your last know address or hand the papers to any adult living in your residence. If you never got the paperwork, it does not matter — it’s still valid.

On occasion we are able to vacate (reverse) a judgement on grounds that you were served somewhere that was not your residence, but this is rare. Additionally, even if you can get the judgment vacated, you will likely be sued again by the creditor after the judgment was vacated. If the judgment was based on a valid debt, this may be a futile effort.

Guaranteed Ways to Stop a Garnishment

Only two guaranteed ways exist to stop a valid garnishment: satisfy the debt in full or file bankruptcy.

Pay the debt

If you can full pay the debt, a garnishment would stop. Creditors cqn only collect up to what they are owed. However, this can include interest and attorney fees, if they judgement allowed for those expenses. Depending on how old a judgment is, it may have increased dramatically due to interest. We have seen some clients with judgments subject to 30% interest!

Filing bankruptcy

Filing bankruptcy stops any and all collection activity; it is the trump card that debtors can play against handle garnishments and stop creditors from collecting. The moment you file a bankruptcy, as long as you haven’t had multiple bankruptcy cases pending within the last year, the federal court issues an order that says all creditors must immediately cease any and all collection activity. To ensure the creditor has knowledge of a bankruptcy, our office sends notice of the bankruptcy to any creditor attempting to garnish you and the court where the creditor obtained the judgment. Sometimes, we are even able to get some of the garnished funds back.

Bankruptcy is often the only guaranteed way to stop a garnishment. Often, we recommend bankruptcy as the only viable way to stop garnishments. Often, our clients often spend less to file bankruptcy than to pay or settle a judgment.

Ways to Attempt to Stop a Garnishment

There are two other ways that can either potentially handle garnishments. We rarely recommend these two other options, but in certain circumstances they may help; these options are negotiate the debt or file a Homestead Deed.

Negotiate the Debt

We occasionally can recommend trying to negotiate a debt; but, creditors are less likely to negotiate after a judgment is obtained. Creditors get certain rights when they obtain a judgment, these rights include garnishments, interrogatories (getting you to answer questions under oath), etc. If the creditor is getting more through the garnishment process than you are offering, it is not very likely they will take the settlement.

File a Homestead Deed

One other option to handle garnishments that we rarely recommend is to file a Homestead Deed, but it can serve a limited purpose. After a garnishment has been filed you will be served with the garnishment summons. On the garnishment summons, there will appear a “return date.” This date is when the judge will determine if the creditor is owed the funds or not. A homestead deed, which is a document particular to Virginia, advises the court that you are using your lifetime exemption under Virginia Code § 34-4 to protect up to $5,000.00 (or $10,000.00 if you are over 65). You must file the document in the land records.

We do not recommend a Homestead Deed because it offers a temporary solution. This protection is a lifetime exemption. This means that if $3,500.00 has been garnished from your wages during the past 6 months and you file a Homestead Deed to protect the funds, then you have used the $3,500.00 to get the funds release. Following the Return Date, the creditor can just file another wage garnishment immediately and start the garnishment all over again. Eventually, you will exhaust the the $5,000.00 protection. Using up this exemption also result in limited protections in any future bankruptcy; debtors must also use a Homestead Deed in bankruptcy to protect cash, or cash like assets.

 

Attorney Ashley F. Morgan is a Virginia licensed attorney. She has been helping clients manage various types of debts for years. Ashley focuses on helping her clients finding the ideals solution to their debt problems. Ashley reviews each person’s personal situation to determine his/her best options. She regularly helps clients handle garnishments and other collection activity.

Schedule C: Property Exemptions

Keeping Assets in a Chapter 7: Understanding Bankruptcy Exemptions

Bankruptcy Exemptions are the laws that allow you to keep assets in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

The most common type of bankruptcy is a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, aka a liquidation bankruptcy.  The process usually takes approximately three to four months for a standard case. During this process you file a petition that provides information about your life. This information includes your income, expenses, debts, assets, and personal information. The bankruptcy process allows you to keep certain items. If you have more then the minimal items the bankruptcy trustee sells the debtor’s nonexempt assets and uses the proceeds of such assets to pay creditors. Understanding bankruptcy exemptions can help you determine the right debt management option for you.

Who can file

Chapter 7 is an option for individuals or businesses. An individual gains fresh financial start after filing a Chapter 7 — only select debts remain after discharge. A business uses a Chapter 7 to close the business after it is no longer profitable.

 

How to qualify

When a debtor files Chapter 7, the court looks at the household income. If the household income is below the median for your state, you can qualify for Chapter 7. If your household income is above the median income for your state, you may still qualify. The court analyzes all income under the “Means Test.” This test is basically used by the court to determine if you have any disposable income at the end of every month to pay over to your creditors. The court determines the disposable income by deducting specific monthly expenses from your “current monthly income” (your average income over the six calendar months before you file for bankruptcy). Some of these expenses are actual expenses, such as car payments, mortgage payments, taxes, etc. Other expenses are based on the Internal Revenue Service standards for your county, such as utilities, food, etc.

 

Exemptions

When filing a Chapter 7, most people are most concerned about what assets you can keep. There are certain bankruptcy exemptions (or protections) that apply to anyone filing for bankruptcy. Your exemptions vary under state and federal laws. The exemptions you can use depend on state law and where you have resided for the past two years.
In Virginia, there are various exemptions that apply for residents. Some of the most common exemptions include:
Clothing: up to $1,000 of the value of clothing. Used clothing have a very low resale value; we use thrift store prices to value clothes. The only issue that ever arise are if there are a significant amount of newer designer clothes.
Vehicles: each debtor may keep up to $6,000.00 in equity in a car. If a car is jointly owned, this means a couple can have up to $12,000.00 worth of equity in the car. This means that if you have a car worth $20,000.00, but there is a $18,000.00 loan on the vehicle, there is only $2,000.00 worth of equity.
Household good and furnishings: each debtor can keep up to $5,000.00 on household goods. Generally, there is no issue with these items unless you have valuable antiques or collectibles.
Wedding and engagement rings: debtors are allowed an unlimited exemption for wedding and engagement rings. This means there is no limit on the value you can have for an engagement and/or wedding ring.
Tenants by the Entirety: there is an unlimited exemption for property titled Tenants by the Entirety (TBE) when there is no joint debt between the spouses. In Virginia, the law allows property (usually a marital home) to be titled in a specific manner between a married couple, but also requires that no joint debts exist between the parties. If you think this may apply to you, then I recommend speaking to an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Steps have to be taken to ensure there is no joint debt and that needs to be proven to the trustee in your case.
Federally-qualified retirement plans: traditional retirement plans, such as your 401(k), IRS, Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), etc. are all 100% exemption.
Tools of the trade: there is a $5,000.00 exemption for assets that are directly related to your primary profession.
Wildcard: Virginia bankruptcy exemptions are generous for everything exception a potential wildcard. A wildcard applies to any asset that has no other exemptions available, including cash in the bank and equity in a house. A debtor may also use this exemption to supplement any other exemption if more protections are needed.

Virginia’s wildcard is also called a Homestead Deed; it has this name because a document must be filed in the land records in the county in which you reside. This exemption is a $5,000.00 lifetime exemption. Debtors receive additional $500.00 exemption for any dependents.The exemption increases to $10,000.00 at the age of 65. However, since this is a lifetime exemption, if you file bankruptcy and use $1,500.00, you only have $3,500.00 remaining for any future bankruptcies filed in Virginia (until you turn 65).

 

NOTE: The above list of Virginia bankruptcy exemptions is NOT complete or exhaustive list. It includes only the most common exemptions. Additionally, these exemptions may change. 

 

Warnings about assets, exemptions and transfers 

It is also important to note that transferring assets to avoid including them in your bankruptcy is a bad plan. All transfers of property within two years of filing bankruptcy must be disclosed. The case trustee can reverse transactions. If the court determines you did the transfer with the intend to avoid a bankruptcy or to hide assets from creditors, the court may also deny you a discharge of your debts.

 

The court may review all debts that a debtor paid back within the last year. If you have paid back family, friends, or business partners, the court can actually sue those individuals for return of the funds. The court believes that a debtor must treat all creditors the same; as a result, you must treat American Express the same as Uncle Joe. Paying one creditor more money than another is considered a preference because you are giving preferred treatment to one creditor over another.
Once a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is filed, you cannot voluntarily dismiss the case.  A judge must review any request to end a debtor’s case. A judge will not dismiss your case just because a debtor is losing property or a trustee sues a debtor’s  family member.

 

An experienced Virginia bankruptcy attorney will be able to review your situation and help prevent potential problems in your case. Having an lawyer handle your case properly from the start can prevent problems later on.

 

Alternative options

If Chapter 7 is not right for your situation, there can be other options. Many people who qualify for Chapter 7 due to their income, choose to file a Chapter 13 because there are not adequate bankruptcy exemptions to protect all of their assets. If you have nonexempt assets, a Chapter 13 is another option to consider. In a Chapter 13, you are allowed to keep all nonexempt assets because debtors are required to pay out the value of these unprotected assets over the course of three to five years. Additionally, sometimes debt negotiation is a better option. If you have limited amounts of debt or cannot qualify for a Chapter 7, sometimes having an attorney help you settle a debt, is a better option.

 

 

 

Most individuals want to keep as many assets when possible, if you are filing bankruptcy.  Having an experienced bankruptcy attorney can help ensure your case goes smoothly and can help protect as many assets as possible. Attorney Ashley Morgan has experience dealing with all the above issues.
Sign for United States Bankruptcy Court

Top 17 Dos and Don’ts for Bankruptcy

Having financial problems? Think bankruptcy may be an option for you? To help ensure you keep your options open and available, understand there are things you should or shouldn’t do. In many cases, if you take certain action, such as transferring a house into the name of a family member before filing bankruptcy, you may either limit your options available or put your asset at risk.  There are even some actions that could completely jeopardize your ability to get a bankruptcy discharge. Here is a list of dos and don’ts for bankruptcy.

Here are the Top 17 Dos and Don’ts for bankruptcy:

  1. Do talk to a bankruptcy attorney immediately. Most bankruptcy attorneys offer free consultations, so you should take advantage of that. Talking to an attorney doesn’t mean you will definitely be filing bankruptcy. It allows you to understand how bankruptcy would apply to your situation. There are many different types of bankruptcy and it is important to understand how each option could apply to your situation; individuals primarily file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. Additionally, you want to find a bankruptcy attorney that makes you feel comfortable. You will only be completely honest with someone if you trust him or her.
  2. Don’t transfer property or money. It is important for you to be aware that transferring title to property before declaring bankruptcy is not an option. Do not sell or transfer assets to your friends or relatives to hide them from creditors or the bankruptcy court. The trustee will ask you about such transfers at the first meeting of creditors, and has the power to recover those assets. The trustee can basically undo any transaction you have done within a certain time frame. In Virginia, it is two years. Also, don’t transfer money into your kids’ bank accounts. They have you as a co-signor or guardian and are subject to the same review as your accounts. Hiding assets can be a reason for the court to deny you a discharge, and you can be subject to criminal prosecution.
  3. Do tell your lawyer everything. Even if it is embarrassing it is better if your attorney knows everything about your situation. If you have made major purchases recently, then it may be important to wait to file. Or if you have an existing medical condition, it may be important factor to consider in the timing of your bankruptcy. Additionally, it is important to list all assets and debts. Anything that isn’t listed in your petition may not be discharged. Additionally, failure to list all your assets and your debts may result in not getting a discharge.
  4. Don’t leave out income. People think that a second, part-time job does not count as income. All household income must be included. The court will look back at least six months to see what your household income has looked like. Similarly, even if your spouse is not filing, you must list his/her income unless you are legally separated. The court needs a picture of your household. The court cannot require a spouse to pay a debtor’s debts, but they can require a spouse contribute to the household. If you want to claim somebody as a dependent in your bankruptcy, you must include their income. Additionally, social security does not count in qualifying you for bankruptcy, but it still must be listed.
  5. Do keep track of expenses. Part of a bankruptcy filing is disclosing expenses. Many individuals do not always realize where their money is going. But we want to be as accurate as possible with our accounting. If you are sending your mom, $300 per month, we want to make sure we account for that. Some expenses may be questioned or deemed unreasonable. If you are spending $1,000.00 per month on food for a household of one, the court may not allow the full amount unless there is a good justification. Other expenses may be allowed, but could be questioned if higher than average. For example, if you are paying $700.00 per month for medical expenses, it is important to keep documentation in case you need to prove it later on.
  6. Don’t pay back preferred creditors or family/friends. Many consumers want to pay certain creditors in full before filing for bankruptcy. The court doesn’t want you to play favorites and pay money to some creditors and not pay the rest. The court believes all creditors should be treated the same; however, there are exceptions for secured creditors, like your mortgage or car loan. The Trustee can reach back ninety days to recover money paid to general creditors and spread it out more evenly to all of your creditors. The Trustee can take back funds paid to your family and friends, if you have paid them back within a year.
  7. Do make sure to list all debts. Bankruptcy does not allow you to pick and choose which debts to list or not list. You must list all debts, from the credit card with American Express to the personal loan from Aunt Sally.
  8. Don’t incur any new debt without first asking your attorney. It might be a good idea to get a secured car loan before the bankruptcy filing hits your credit profile, but it is a bad idea to buy non essential assets like laptop, plane tickets, TVs, etc. It is important to talk about the pros and cons to opening a new account before filing. Additionally, any new accounts may delay your filing or complicate your case.
  9. Do keep current on payments for non-dischargable debts. Bankruptcy usually cannot discharge student loans, taxes, child support, etc. This means these debts will be around even after your discharge. Talk to your bankruptcy attorney about your specific situation, but generally, you want to keep paying these debts
  10. Don’t make any last minute charges or purchases. When the creditor gets the notice that you filed, it takes a look at your account history. If it sees a bunch of charges right before filing, it will get suspicious. Additionally, creditors can object to any major purchases within approximately three months of filing bankruptcy. The creditor can basically file a separate lawsuit with the bankruptcy court and ask it to not discharge that part of your debts.
  11. Do keep track of deposits and withdrawals. The trustee in your bankruptcy will review your bank statements. He or she may have questions about large cash withdrawals or deposits. It is important to remember what the money was from/for. For example, if you pay your rent in cash every month, try to make sure you get a receipt and keep it.
  12. Don’t take any cash advances. Do not make any major cash advances off of credit cards prior to filing for bankruptcy. A creditor can object to the discharge of debts incurred as cash advances before filing.
  13. Do disclose all assets. Anything that you own needs to be listed in your petition; this includes your 15-year-old furniture and the bank account with 25 cents. Additionally, even if you are on title of an asset, like a house or a bank account, it still means you have an ownership interest. Many families add parents or children to bank accounts to make transferring assets easier, this still means under the law it is yours. It is important to disclose this to your attorney up front to prevent any problems.
  14. Don’t borrow or withdraw from your retirement. Federal and Virginia law protects your tax retirement accounts from creditors. But funds in these accounts lose this protection the moment you withdraw them. You could also be liable for taxes and penalties for an early withdrawal. These taxes and penalties may not be dischargeable in bankruptcy and could cause a hardship down the road.
  15. Do separate money. If you have money that may be protected, for example, social security, settlement from a personal injury lawsuit, etc., you want it to be clear where the money came from. Put all the funds in a separate account that you own with the same type of funds, for example, have an only social security account where money is deposited in and no other funds go in. This will make it easier for an attorney to advise you if there is a way to protect the money during a bankruptcy.
  16. Don’t file until your medical conditions are stable. If you are considering filing bankruptcy due to medical debt or expect to have major medicinal procedures in the near future, you usually do not want to file bankruptcy until those are taken care of. Unexpected complications can occur that can cost significant amounts of money. You may limit expenses, if you have insurance coverage; but, insurance does not always cover all treatments and procedures and there is often a deductible and out of pocket to consider. Filing bankruptcy to just have more medical debt occur soon after is not a good outcome.
  17. Do file your taxes. It is important to make sure you are current with your tax filings before filing bankruptcy.  When filing a Chapter 7, the court will require you to provide your most recent tax filings; the court may hold your case open until the tax return is filed and you have received any refund. If you file a Chapter 13, court will require you to file the last four years of returns in order to be compliant with bankruptcy laws.

The bankruptcy court review’s a debtor’s financial situation. This list of dos and don’ts for bankruptcy should help you understand that making financial decisions before filing can impact your case. Most bankruptcy courts can look back at least two years to review transactions completed by the debtor; the trustee in your case can also undo certain transactions. It is important to not take any actions that could jeopardize your assets or even your discharge. Talking to an attorney as soon as you are facing financial difficulties can help. Just talking to a bankruptcy attorney does not mean you are agreeing to file bankruptcy, but can help you understand the option if you need to in the future.

 

 

It is important to preserve your rights in a bankruptcy.  Having an experienced bankruptcy attorney can help ensure your case goes smoothly and you come out with a fresh start. Ashley F. Morgan Law, PC helps many individuals manage their debts every month. Attorney Ashley Morgan has experience dealing with all the above issues.

Car on the back of a tow truck

Can I Keep My Car in Bankruptcy?

Can I keep my car in bankruptcy?

One of the most common questions potential clients ask us is if they can keep a car in bankruptcy. During a Chapter 13, there is rarely an issue with a car. The question really comes up in a Chapter 7, since the court is looking at all your assets; a trustee will sell any non-exempt assets. But, the good news is that most of the time cars are not an issue in a Chapter 7.

The exemption, or protections under the law, in Virginia is fairly high; Virginia residents are allowed a $6,000.00 exemption for vehicles. If the car is owned by two individuals, the exemption is allowed for each person. Additionally, if your car has a high value, you can apply your $5,000.00 wildcard/homestead deed to help protect the car. The exemption only applies to equity in your car; so if you have a car worth $20,000.00 but you owe $16,000.00, you only need $4,000.00 in exemptions to protect the car.

A lot of debtors also say they want to keep their car out of bankruptcy. In bankruptcy you are required to list all assets and all debts. The bankruptcy will discharge the debt on the car, but the lien on the car remains. This means that the contract between you and the bank is gone, but the lender can still repossess the vehicle if payments are not made. So there is no free car, but the car company cannot make you pay for the balance of the loan if you do not want. For most of our clients, if they agree to keep paying on the debt, they can keep the car and will get the title at the end of the payments. But it also allows you the option to give up an underwater car without potential issues.

Reaffirmations

A reaffirmation is basically signing the same contract over again after filing bankruptcy. The creditor will report new payment history to the creditor reporting agencies. However, it also re-obligates you on the entire debt; so, if you fail to pay the entire loan and the car is repossessed, then the creditor can come after you for the deficiency. Additionally, a judge must sign off on the agreement; the court will likely require a hearing to prove that you can pay the debt going forward.

We rarely ever recommend the debtor sign a reaffirmation; on rare occasions there are reasons to sign them. Some creditors require a reaffirmation because they will repossess, even if you are current on your payments. Currently, the only creditor that takes this action is Ford. However, this could change at any moment. It is important to be sure you attorney is up to date about changing policies with varying lenders.

Should you keep your car?

For some of my clients, there is the question of whether you should keep the car. Chapter 7 allows a debtor to surrender the car in bankruptcy without issue of a deficiency or a repossession being reported on your credit report. For many people who have only made one or two years worth of payments on a car purchased new, you likely have negative equity in the car. Additionally, if your car was in an accident or two, there is likely a significant depreciation in value from that damage. Other individuals who find negative equity in a car are those who traded in a car with a large loss on a new car purchase.

Many people love their cars; but, we want to remind them that cars are a depreciating asset and it really is a financial decision that you are making. If you owe $25,000.00 on a car only worth $15,000.00, it is not likely to be a good financial decision to keep that vehicle. Continuing to pay on the car means you will be paying more for the vehicle than it is worth. After bankruptcy, most people’s credit increase. Additionally, many car lenders are willing to give you a car loan since you must wait at least 8 years between bankruptcy court filings (and most car loans are less than 8 years). Now if you owe $10,000.00 on a car worth $16,000.00, it is a lot easier of a decision to keep the car. You can keep that car, trade it in or sell it after the bankruptcy is over.

Cross Collateralization

One issue that most debtors do not know about is cross collateralization. This is a right that only credit unions have. Basically, if the credit union gives you a loan for a car, that lender has a lien against the car to secure the payment. The lien allows the creditor to repossess the car if the borrower does not make all of the payments. The cross-collateralization agreement allows the lien against the car (or any other collateral) to secure additional debts other than the car loan. This means that if you don’t pay a credit card, then the creditor can repossess your car.

Cross collateralization is something very few people know about. Most people understand that when finances get tight, you make sure you pay your car payment, even if you cannot pay your credit cards. But, if you aren’t paying on a credit card or personal loan, the credit union can repossess your car even if you are current on your car payments. This is important to understand when taking out car loans or opening new unsecured credit accounts.

When you file bankruptcy, your obligation to pay on all the debts is discharged, but car loan and cross-collateralized debts all remain with the car lien. This means that you may owe more on your car than you believe. Some lenders may allow you to only pay the car loan amount if you reaffirm the debt, but this policy varies from creditor to creditor. Experienced bankruptcy attorneys will usually have an idea how major lenders deal with your car in bankruptcy.

Other Options

Bankruptcy provides a debtor with various options he/she do not have outside of bankruptcy.

Redemption

One option debtors can do during you Chapter 7 is to “redeem” the car. This means during your case, you purchase the car back from the lender for the value of the car, not the total debt.

Under Section 722 of the bankruptcy code, a debtor in Chapter 7 has the right to force the lender to release its lien in exchange for a onetime payment in the value of the collateral. This can be a great way to keep your car and save money. The most difficult part of this option is coming up with the funds. There are certain lenders and programs that work with debtors on financing this payment.  When making a decision about a redemption, you should consider the total amount that would be paid (principal and interest). Additionally, there sometimes is the option of talking directly to your credit union or bank for a new car loan; this option works best if you have high income or a cosigner. But, if you want to redeem your vehicle, you should consider all possible options; some debtors are able to find the funds from family or friends, selling exempt that you kept during your bankruptcy.

Decide later

The decision about keeping the car does not have to happen immediately in the bankruptcy, unless a reaffirmation or a redemption is needed. Sometimes you want to take more time to make the decision. You do not immediately need to make the decision of whether to surrendering your car back to the lender. You can surrender the car during the bankruptcy or much later, as long as you do not reaffirm the debt. Some of my clients continue to make payments for 3 to 6 months after the bankruptcy. After their credit has bounced back, they apply for a new car payment and surrender their old vehicle then.

You have options

It is important to understand you have a lot of options. Additionally, you must take important steps to protect your assets. Talk to an experienced bankruptcy attorney about all the options that apply to your specific case and your options to handle your car in bankruptcy.

 

 

It is important to understand all your options and rights during a bankruptcy. Having an experienced bankruptcy attorney can help ensure your case goes smoothly and you come out with a fresh start. Ashley F. Morgan Law, PC helps many individuals manage their debts every month. Attorney Ashley Morgan has experience dealing with all the above issues. She understands good credit is important, and she wants her clients to completely understand all the tools at their disposal before taking action.

Bankruptcy sign ahead

Chapter 7: Ins and Out of a Bankruptcy Liquidation

A Guide to Chapter 7 Bankruptcies

The most common type of bankruptcy is a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This is also called a liquidation.  The process usually takes approximately three to four months for a standard case. During this process you file a petition that provides information regarding your income, expenses, debts, assets, and personal information. The bankruptcy process allows you to keep certain items. If you have more then the minimal items the bankruptcy trustee sells the debtor’s nonexempt assets and uses the proceeds of such assets to pay creditors.

Who Can File

Chapter 7 is an option for individuals or businesses. An individual is basically being given a fresh start after filing a Chapter 7. A business that files a Chapter 7 as way to close your business after it is no longer profitable.  Basically, after a Chapter 7, the business ceases to exist.

Parties in a Bankruptcy

There are many important people to know about in your bankruptcy filing. These people include:

Debtor

The debtor is the person (or persons or businesses) filing for bankruptcy. These individuals are looking for relief under the bankruptcy code.

Case Trustee

This person is chosen by the court to represent your creditors. It is his/her job to review your petition, ensure it is accurate, and also determine if you have any assets that the court can take and sell to pay your creditors. The Trustee interviews you at your Meeting of Creditors (also called a 341). The Trustee has a lot of power; he or she can sell jointly owned property, cancel contracts, and much more.

Creditors

These are people that the Debtor owes money. They have the right to review your petition and assets. They also have a right to object to your discharge if they believe it is being done in bad faith or you have certain debts that should be considered non-dischargable.

U.S. Trustee

This person represents the Justice Department. The U.S. Trustee has a responsibility to ensure people are properly filing bankruptcy and that cases are appropriate. Most Debtors never deal with the U.S. Trustee, but they do audit random cases to ensure your paperwork is in order, you have all the proper documentation, and you have followed all the rules.

How to Qualify

When a debtor files Chapter 7, the court looks at the household income. If the household income is below the median for your state, you can qualify for Chapter 7.
If your household income is above the median income for your state, you may still qualify. The court requires that your income is analyzed under what is called the Means Test. This test is basically used by the court to determine if you have any disposable income at the end of every month to pay over to your creditors. The court determines the disposable income by deducting specific monthly expenses from your “current monthly income” (your average income over the six calendar months before you file for bankruptcy). Some of these expenses are actual expenses, such as car payments, mortgage payments, taxes, etc. Other expenses are based on the Internal Revenue Service standards for your county, such as utilities, food, etc. Using these standards, if you have little or no money leftover, then you can usually qualify for a Chapter 7.

Exemptions

The exemptions you can use depend on state law and where you have resided for the past two years. There are also federal exemptions some Debtors are permitted to use. These exemptions, which are really legal protections, allow you to keep certain assets during your Chapter 7. Assets without protections are called non-exempt assets. The trustee in your case looks at these assets to determine if there is value to sell and give to creditors. In Virginia, there are various exemptions that apply for residents. Some of the most common exemptions include:

Clothing

Virginia law allows you to protect up to $1,000 of the value of clothing. Used clothing have a very low resale value; we use thrift store prices to value clothes. The only issues that usually ever arise are if there are a significant amount of newer designer clothes.

Vehicles

Virginia’s automobile exemption allows each individual Debtor up to $6,000.00 in equity in a car. If a car is jointly owned, this means a couple can have up to $12,000.00 worth of equity in the car. This means that if you have a car worth $20,000.00, but there is a $18,000.00 loan on the vehicle, there is only $2,000.00 worth of equity.

Household Good and Furnishings

Each debtor is allowed up to $5,000.00 on household goods. Generally, there is no issue with these items unless you have valuable antiques or collectibles.

Wedding and Engagement Rings

Virginia exemptions permit for an unlimited exemption for wedding and engagement rings. This means there is no limit on the value you can have for an engagement and/or wedding ring.

Tenants by the Entirety

There is an unlimited exemption for property titled Tenants by the Entirety (TBE) when there is no joint debt between the spouses. In Virginia, the law allows property (usually a marital home) to be titled in a specific manner between a married couple, but also requires that no joint debts exist between the parties. Additionally, there are requirements related to the TBE exemption regarding the type of property and how is was obtained. If you think this may apply to you, then I recommend speaking to an experienced bankruptcy attorney. In addition to the above issues, the spouses can have no joint debt; the non-existence of joint debt must also be proven to the trustee in your case.

Federally-Qualified Retirement Plans

Virginia law allows for a generous exemptions for traditional retirement plans, such as your 401(k), IRA, Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), etc. These qualified plans are all 100% exemption. The only caveat

Tools of the Trade

There is a $5,000.00 exemption for assets that are directly related to your primary profession. As a result, it is very important to review your situation with your attorney. For example, if you are a plumber, but have a side job as an Uber driver that brings you in extra money, you would likely be able to use the Tools of the Trade to protect tools necessary for your job as a plumber, but not be able to protect any assets related to driving Uber, such as your car or car cleaning equipment.

Wildcard

Virginia’s wildcard exemption is different than many other states. A wildcard applies to any asset that has no other exemptions available, including cash in the bank and equity in a house. You can use this exemption to supplement any of the above exemptions, if the applicable exemption is not sufficient to protect your property.
Virginia’s wildcard is also called a Homestead Deed; it has this name because a document must be filed in the land records in the county in which you reside. This exemption is a $5,000.00 lifetime exemption. The exemption increases an additional $500.00 for any dependents.The exemption increases to $10,000.00 at the age of 65. However, since this is a lifetime exemption, if you file bankruptcy and use $1,500.00, you only have $3,500.00 remaining for any future bankruptcies filed in Virginia (until you turn 65).

NOTE: The above list of Virginia bankruptcy exemptions is NOT complete or exhaustive list. It includes only the most common exemptions. Additionally, these exemptions may change depending on federal and state law. See an experienced bankruptcy attorney for the most accurate information about exemptions and what exemptions may apply to you.

Warnings about assets, exemptions and transfers 

It is also important to note that transferring assets to avoid including them in your bankruptcy is a bad plan. All transfers of property within two years of filing bankruptcy must be disclosed. The trustee can petition the bankruptcy court to reverse those transactions. If the court determines you did the transfer with the intend to avoid a bankruptcy or to hide assets from creditors, the court may also deny you a discharge of your debts.
The trustee, and potentially the court, review any debts that have been paid back within the last year. If you have paid back family, friends, or business partners, the court can actually sue those individuals for return of the funds. The law provides that you must be treat all creditors the same; as a result, you must treat American Express the same as Uncle Joe. The courts refer to the better treatment as a “preference” because you are giving preferred treatment to one creditor over another.
Once a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is filed, you cannot voluntarily choose to dismiss the case. A judge must grant you permission to dismiss a Chapter 7 case; judges only allow for a dismissal for good cause. An experienced Virginia bankruptcy attorney will be able to review your situation and help prevent potential problems in your case. Having an lawyer handle your case properly from the start can prevent problems later on.

Alternative Options to Chapter 7

If Chapter 7 is not right for your situation, there can be other options. It really depends on why Chapter 7 does not work for you. If you have nonexempt assets, a Chapter 13 is another option to consider. Additionally, sometimes debt negotiation is a better option. If you have limited amounts of debt or cannot qualify for a Chapter 7, sometimes having an attorney help you settle a debt, is a better option. Some of my clients who are trying to stop a foreclosure, are better suited to apply for a modification before considering bankruptcy.
If you are considering bankruptcy, make sure to speak to an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Ashley F. Morgan Law, PC helps many individuals file bankruptcy every month. Attorney Ashley Morgan has experience dealing with all the above issues. She understands bankruptcy is a difficult discussion for many, and she wants her clients to completely understand the bankruptcy process before making any decisions.
Check from the Federal Government/U.S. Department of the Treasury

Tax Refund and Bankruptcy

Many people use their tax refund to pay for necessary expenses. For some, the money allows for repairs on their home; for others the refund allows them to pay off some debt or afford medical or dental procedures. But in general, it is money you have been waiting for all year. When you are struggling financially, this extra money can mean a lot. As a result, many individuals ask us whether they will be able to keep their tax refund in bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy court sees a tax refund as a savings account. You pay into the federal government a little every month and at the end of the year it is waiting there for you to withdraw. This refund affects different chapters of bankruptcy, in different ways.

Chapter 7

If you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the later part of the year or during tax season, this money has had a lot of time to accumulate. If you are due a tax refund and file bankruptcy, you can only keep it, if you are able to exempt or protect those funds. In Virginia, there are exemptions that can protect child credits and earned income credits. Any additional part of the refund must be protected under Virginia’s wildcard exemption. This wildcard exemption is $5,000.00 lifetime protection to be use on cash or cash like assets. This means if you have filed bankruptcy previously or have other cash-like assets, you may have less of the wildcard to apply toward your tax refund.

If you want to protect your tax refund in bankruptcy, talk to an experienced bankruptcy lawyer. A bankruptcy attorney will be able to review your situation, discuss any potential issues and figure out the best plan for you. Sometimes this means waiting until the refund is received and used on normal expenses. But, without an attorney that understands bankruptcy law, you will not be able to make an educated decision.

Chapter 13

Now, a tax refund also plays a role in a Chapter 13. If you are in a 100% plan, which means you are fully paying back all allowed claims, you can keep you tax refund every year during your plan. If your bankruptcy plan pays creditors any less than 100%, the trustee may require that you turn over the refund and he/she will disburse the funds to your creditors. Additionally, your attorney may be able to adjust your budget to reflect the refund over the course of a year. This would mean paying slightly more each month, but being allowed to keep the tax refund.

It is important to have an experienced bankruptcy attorney that can review and understand your situation.

 

 

Ashley F. Morgan, Esq. is a Northern Virginia Bankruptcy Attorney with an office in Herndon, VA. She helps individuals in Herndon, Reston, Centreville, Fairfax Sterling, Chantilly, Woodbridge, Manasass and the surrounding areas file bankruptcy. She understands the importance that a tax refund can play in someone’s finances. Her goal is for her clients to fully understand all their options and make the best decision for their circumstances.