If you and someone else jointly owe a debt, bankruptcy can protect you against the debt and against your co-signer. Or if you want, bankruptcy can instead protect your co-signer.
Let’s look at two essentially opposite scenarios involving you and your co-signer getting sued on a debt you both owe:
1) You’ve had a falling out with the co-signer, and all you care about is escaping the debt; or
2) You believe you have a moral duty to protect the co-signer, so that is your highest priority.
We’re going to address the first scenario today, and then the second one in the next blog.
If you and your co-signer are being pursued by your creditor, and you cannot and will not pay the debt, you have two distinct obligations to worry about—a definite one to the creditor and a likely one to the co-signer.
… from the Creditor Itself
The obligation to the creditor is based on your promise to pay the debt. Most likely that obligation can be discharged (legally written off) by filing bankruptcy.
Like any other creditor, this one could object to the discharge on grounds of your fraud or misrepresentation, but those objections are rare.
You could discharge this debt through either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, depending on whichever is in your best interest otherwise. Chapter 13 happens to come with the “co-debtor stay,” some extra protection for your co-signer which will be discussed in the next blog, because here we are assuming you don’t care about protecting the co-signer.
… from the Co-Signer
You very likely have a closely related but still distinct obligation to your co-signer, one that is likely less clear than the one you owe directly to the creditor. This obligation to the co-signer is indirect, likely only to arise if your co-signer pays all or part of your debt to the creditor. Even then you may or may not have a legal obligation to the co-signer. There is a good chance that you and the co-signer did not write out the terms of your obligation. So your obligation to the co-signer could be merely inferred, based on an unspoken assumption that you would make the co-signer whole if you ever failed to pay the debt and the co-signer paid the creditor all or part of it. But there could also be a sensible inference—depending on the facts of the case—that the co-signer did not expect you to pay it in that situation. So you could possibly defend against that liability.
But practically speaking, the creditor is going to pursue both you and your co-signer. If you can’t pay the creditor who you clearly owe, there may well not be much point in putting a lot of time and expense into defending against a legal obligation to the co-signer. A bankruptcy would likely discharge both obligations, protecting you from both.
If you do file bankruptcy, be sure to list among your creditors not just the direct creditor but also your co-signer. Otherwise you could remain liable to the co-signer after your bankruptcy case is finished.
As with your direct creditor, your co-signer could object to the discharge of his or her claim against you, based on your fraud, misrepresentation, or similar bad behavior in the incurring of the debt. Although these objections are rare, they ARE more often raised by former friends, ex-spouses, ex-business partners. Why? Because 1) they have a personal axe to grind, 2) misunderstanding tend to arise more in informal arrangements, and 3) these kind of folks may know more damaging information about you than would a conventional creditor.
The best way to protect yourself from such challenges is to explain the situation thoroughly to your attorney when you first meet. That way your bankruptcy documents can be prepared in a proactive way, and you’ll avoid being blindsided.