The Discharge in Bankruptcy
The bankruptcy discharge varies depending on the type of case a debtor files: chapters 7, 11, 12, or 13. Bankruptcy Basics attempts to answer some basic questions about the discharge available to individual debtors under chapters 7 & 13.
WHAT IS A DISCHARGE IN BANKRUPTCY?
A bankruptcy discharge releases the debtor from personal liability for certain specified types of debts. In other words, the debtor is no longer legally required to pay any debts that are discharged. The discharge is a permanent order prohibiting the creditors of the debtor from taking any form of collection action on discharged debts, including legal action and communications with the debtor, such as telephone calls, letters, and personal contacts. Although a debtor is not personally liable for discharged debts, a valid lien (i.e., a charge upon specific property to secure payment of a debt) that has not been avoided (i.e., made unenforceable) in the bankruptcy case will remain after the bankruptcy case. Therefore, a secured creditor may enforce the lien to recover the property secured by the lien.
WHEN DOES THE DISCHARGE OCCUR?
The timing of the discharge varies, depending on the chapter under which the case is filed. In a chapter 7 case, for example, the court usually grants the discharge promptly on the expiration of the time fixed for filing a complaint objecting to discharge and the time fixed for filing a motion to dismiss the case for substantial abuse (60 days following the first date set for the 341 meeting). Typically, this occurs about four months after the date the debtor files the petition with the clerk of the bankruptcy court. In cases under chapters 12 and 13, the court generally grants the discharge as soon as practicable after the debtor completes all payments under the plan. Since a chapter 12 or chapter 13 plan may provide for payments to be made over three to five years, the discharge typically occurs about four years after the date of filing. The court may deny an individual debtor's discharge in chapter 7 or 13 cases if the debtor fails to complete "an instructional course concerning financial management." The Bankruptcy Code provides limited exceptions to the "financial management" requirement if the U.S. trustee or bankruptcy administrator determines there are inadequate educational programs available, or if the debtor is disabled or incapacitated or on active military duty in a combat zone.
HOW DOES THE DEBTOR GET A DISCHARGE?
Unless there is litigation involving objections to the discharge, the debtor will usually automatically receive a discharge. The clerk of the bankruptcy court will mail a copy of the order of discharge to all creditors, the U.S. trustee, the trustee in the case, and the trustee's attorney, if any. The debtor and the debtor's attorney also receive copies of the discharge order. The notice, which is simply a copy of the final order of discharge, is not specific as to those debts determined by the court to be non-dischargeable, i.e., not covered by the discharge. The notice informs creditors generally that the debts owed to them have been discharged and that they should not attempt any further collection. They are cautioned in the notice that continuing collection efforts could subject them to punishment for contempt.
ARE ALL OF THE DEBTOR'S DEBTS DISCHARGED OR ONLY SOME?
Not all debts are discharged. The debts discharged vary under each chapter of the Bankruptcy Code. The Code specifically excepts various categories of debts from the discharge granted to individual debtors. Therefore, the debtor must still repay those debts after bankruptcy. Congress has determined that these types of debts are not dischargeable for public policy reasons (based either on the nature of the debt or the fact that the debts were incurred due to improper behavior of the debtor, such as the debtor's drunken driving). There are 19 categories of debt excepted from discharge under Chapter 7. A more limited list of exceptions applies to cases under chapter 13. Generally speaking, the exceptions to discharge apply automatically. The most common types of non-dischargeable debts are certain types of tax claims, debts not set forth by the debtor on the lists and schedules the debtor must file with the court, debts for spousal or child support or alimony, debts for willful and malicious injuries to person or property, debts to governmental units for fines and penalties, debts for most government-funded or guaranteed educational loans or benefit overpayments, debts for personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated, debts owed to certain tax-advantaged retirement plans, and debts for certain condominium or cooperative housing fees. Obligations affected by fraud or maliciousness are not automatically excepted from discharge. Creditors must ask the court to determine that these debts are excepted from discharge. In the absence of an affirmative request by the creditor and the granting of the request by the court, these types of debts will be discharged. Debts dischargeable in chapter 13, but not in chapter 7, include debts for willful and malicious injury to property, debts incurred to pay non-dischargeable tax obligations, and debts arising from property settlements in divorce or separation proceedings. Although a chapter 13 debtor generally receives a discharge only after completing all payments required by the court-approved (i.e., "confirmed") repayment plan, there are some limited circumstances under which the debtor may request the court to grant a "hardship discharge" even though the debtor has failed to complete plan payments. Such a discharge is available only to a debtor whose failure to complete plan payments is due to circumstances beyond the debtor's control. The scope of chapter 13 "hardship discharge" is similar to that in a chapter 7 case with regard to the types of debts that are excepted from the discharge."
DOES THE DEBTOR HAVE THE RIGHT TO A DISCHARGE OR CAN CREDITORS OBJECT TO THE DISCHARGE?
In chapter 7 cases, the debtor does not have an absolute right to a discharge. An objection to the debtor's discharge may be filed by a creditor, by the trustee in the case, or by the U.S. trustee. Creditors receive a notice shortly after the case is filed that sets forth much important information, including the deadline for objecting to the discharge. To object to the debtor's discharge, a creditor must file a complaint in the bankruptcy court before the deadline set out in the notice. Filing a complaint starts a lawsuit referred to in bankruptcy as an "adversary proceeding."The court may deny a chapter 7 discharge for any of the reasons described in the Bankruptcy Code, including failure to provide requested tax documents; failure to complete a course on personal financial management; transfer or concealment of property with the intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors; destruction or concealment of books or records; perjury and other fraudulent acts; failure to account for the loss of assets; violation of a court order or an earlier discharge in an earlier case commenced within certain time frames (discussed below) before the date the petition was filed. If the issue of the debtor's right to a discharge goes to trial, the objecting party has the burden of proving all the facts essential to the objection. In chapter 12 and chapter 13 cases, the debtor is usually entitled to a discharge upon completion of all payments under the plan. As in chapter 7, however, discharge may not occur in chapter 13 if the debtor fails to complete a required course on personal financial management. A debtor is also ineligible for a discharge in chapter 13 if he or she received a prior discharge in another case commenced within time frames discussed in the next paragraph. Unlike chapter 7, creditors do not have standing to object to the discharge of chapter 12 or chapter 13 debtor. Creditors can object to confirmation of the repayment plan, but cannot object to the discharge if the debtor has completed making plan payments.
CAN A DEBTOR RECEIVE A SECOND DISCHARGE IN A LATER CHAPTER 7 CASE?
The court will deny a discharge in a later chapter 7 case if the debtor received a discharge under chapter 7 or chapter 11 in a case filed within eight years before the second petition is filed. The court will also deny a chapter 7 discharge if the debtor previously received a discharge in chapter 12 or chapter 13 case filed within six years before the date of the filing of the second case unless (1) the debtor paid all "allowed unsecured" claims in the earlier case in full, or (2) the debtor made payments under the plan in the earlier case totaling at least 70 percent of the allowed unsecured claims and the debtor's plan was proposed in good faith and the payments represented the debtor's best effort. A debtor is ineligible for discharge under chapter 13 if he or she received a prior discharge in chapter 7, 11, or 12 cases filed four years before the current case or in a chapter 13 case filed two years before the current case.
CAN THE DISCHARGE BE REVOKED?
The court may revoke a discharge under certain circumstances. For example, a trustee, creditor, or the U.S. trustee may request that the court revoke the debtor's discharge in a chapter 7 case based on allegations that the debtor: obtained the discharge fraudulently; failed to disclose the fact that he or she acquired or became entitled to acquire property that would constitute property of the bankruptcy estate; committed one of several acts of impropriety described in the Bankruptcy Code, or failed to explain any misstatements discovered in an audit of the case or fails to provide documents or information requested in an audit of the case. Typically, a request to revoke the debtor's discharge must be filed within one year of the discharge or, in some cases, before the date that the case is closed. The court will decide whether such allegations are true and, if so, whether to revoke the discharge. In chapter 11, 12, and 13 cases, if confirmation of a plan or the discharge is obtained through fraud, the court can revoke the order of confirmation or discharge.
MAY THE DEBTOR PAY A DISCHARGED DEBT AFTER THE BANKRUPTCY CASE HAS BEEN CONCLUDED?
A debtor who has received a discharge may voluntarily repay any discharged debt. A debtor may repay a discharged debt even though it can no longer be legally enforced. Sometimes a debtor agrees to repay a debt because it is owed to a family member or because it represents an obligation to an individual for whom the debtor's reputation is important, such as a family doctor.
WHAT CAN THE DEBTOR DO IF A CREDITOR ATTEMPTS TO COLLECT A DISCHARGED DEBT AFTER THE CASE IS CONCLUDED?
If a creditor attempts collection efforts on a discharged debt, the debtor can file a motion with the court, reporting the action and asking that the case be reopened to address the matter. The bankruptcy court will often do so to ensure that the discharge is not violated. The discharge constitutes a permanent statutory injunction prohibiting creditors from taking any action, including the filing of a lawsuit, designed to collect a discharged debt. A creditor can be sanctioned by the court for violating the discharge injunction. The normal sanction for violating the discharge injunction is civil contempt, which is often punishable by a fine.
CAN AN EMPLOYER TERMINATE A DEBTOR'S EMPLOYMENT SOLELY BECAUSE THE PERSON WAS A DEBTOR OR FAILED TO PAY A DISCHARGED DEBT?
The law provides express prohibitions against discriminatory treatment of debtors by both governmental units and private employers. A governmental unit or private employer may not discriminate against a person solely because the person was a debtor, was insolvent before or during the case, or has not paid a debt that was discharged in the case. The law prohibits the following forms of governmental discrimination: terminating an employee; discriminating with respect to hiring; or denying, revoking, suspending, or declining to renew a license, franchise, or similar privilege. A private employer may not discriminate with respect to employment if the discrimination is based solely upon the bankruptcy filing.
LIQUIDATION UNDER THE BANKRUPTCY CODE
Alternatives To Chapter 7Debtors should be aware that there are several alternatives to chapter 7 relief. For example, debtors who are engaged in business, including corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships, may prefer to remain in business and avoid liquidation. Such debtors should consider filing a petition under chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. Under chapter 11, the debtor may seek an adjustment of debts, either by reducing the debt or by extending the time for repayment or may seek a more comprehensive reorganization. Sole proprietorships may also be eligible for relief under chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. In addition, individual debtors who have regular income may seek an adjustment of debts under chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. A particular advantage of chapter 13 is that it provides individual debtors with an opportunity to save their homes from foreclosure by allowing them to "catch up" past due payments through a payment plan. Moreover, the court may dismiss a chapter 7 case filed by an individual whose debts are primarily consumer rather than business debts if the court finds that the granting of relief would be an abuse of chapter 7. If the debtor's "current monthly income" is more than the state median, the Bankruptcy Code requires application of a "means test" to determine whether the chapter 7 filing is presumptively abusive. Abuse is presumed if the debtor's aggregate "current monthly income" over 5 years, less certain statutorily allowed expenses, is more than $10,000, or 25% of the debtor's non-priority unsecured debt, as long as that amount is at least $6,000. The debtor may rebut a presumption of abuse only by a showing of special circumstances that justify additional expenses or adjustments of current monthly income. Unless the debtor overcomes the presumption of abuse, the case will generally be converted to chapter 13 (with the debtor's consent) or will be dismissed. The "current monthly income" received by the debtor is a defined term in the Bankruptcy Code and means the average monthly income received over the six calendar months before the commencement of the bankruptcy case, including regular contributions to household expenses from non-debtors and including income from the debtor's spouse if the petition is a joint petition, but not including social security income or certain payments made because the debtor is the victim of certain crimes. Debtors should also be aware that out-of-court agreements with creditors or debt counseling services may provide an alternative to a bankruptcy filing.
CHAPTER 7 ELIGIBILITY
To qualify for relief under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, the debtor may be an individual, a partnership, or a corporation or other business entity. Subject to the means test described above for individual debtors, relief is available under chapter 7 irrespective of the number of the debtor's debts or whether the debtor is solvent or insolvent. An individual cannot file under chapter 7 or any other chapter, however, if during the preceding 180 days a prior bankruptcy petition was dismissed due to the debtor's willful failure to appear before the court or comply with orders of the court, or the debtor voluntarily dismissed the previous case after creditors sought relief from the bankruptcy court to recover property upon which they hold liens. In addition, no individual may be a debtor under chapter 7 or any chapter of the Bankruptcy Code unless he or she has, within 180 days before filing, received credit counseling from an approved credit counseling agency either in an individual or group briefing. If a debt management plan is developed during required credit counseling, it must be filed with the court. One of the primary purposes of bankruptcy is to discharge certain debts to give an honest individual debtor a "fresh start." The debtor has no liability for discharged debts. In a chapter 7 case, however, a discharge is only available to individual debtors, not to partnerships or corporations. Although an individual chapter 7 case usually results in a discharge of debts, the right to a discharge is not absolute, and some types of debts are not discharged. Moreover, a bankruptcy discharge does not extinguish a lien on property.
HOW CHAPTER 7 WORKS?
A chapter 7 case begins with the debtor filing a petition with the bankruptcy court serving the area where the individual lives or where the business debtor is organized or has its principal place of business or principal assets. In addition to the petition, the debtor must also file with the court: (1) schedules of assets and liabilities; (2) a schedule of current income and expenditures; (3) a statement of financial affairs; and (4) a schedule of executory contracts. Debtors must also provide the assigned case trustee with a copy of the tax return or transcripts for the most recent tax year as well as tax returns filed during the case (including tax returns for prior years that had not been filed when the case began).