Because of Chapter 13’s much more powerful automatic stay, its ability to prevent judgment liens and tax liens is extremely valuable.
Our last blog post described ways that the “automatic stay”—your protection from creditors’ collection actions—is so much more powerful in a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” case than in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.”
One way that this Chapter 13 protection from creditors is better is simply that it lasts much, much longer than under Chapter 7. This benefit is also related to today’s topic, how Chapter 13 can permanently stop unsecured creditors from turning their debts into secured ones. This is an underappreciated advantage of filing a Chapter 13 case.
Prevent Creditors from Turning Unsecured Debts into Secured Ones
Creditors with secured debts generally have much more leverage than those with unsecured debts. In a Chapter 7 case most unsecured debts get “discharged”—legally written off—without any payment required. In a Chapter 13 case unsecured debts are only paid if and to the extent there is any money left over during the course of the payment plan after paying secured creditors and special “priority” debts (such as unpaid child support and recent income taxes).
Creditors with unsecured debts have a variety of ways of turning those into debts secured against your assets. Two examples are judgment liens and income tax liens, which we’ll discuss more in a moment.
Those liens, as well as other kinds, can turn a debt that can simply be discharged into one that has to be paid in full or in part. Or even if it was a debt that could not have been discharged (such as unpaid child support or recent income taxes), once the creditor has a lien the debt is more dangerous for you, even if you file a bankruptcy afterwards.
Filing bankruptcy—either Chapter 7 or 13—prevents a creditor from converting its unsecured debt into a secured one. The same law—the “automatic stay”—that stops other forms of collection action against you immediately upon the filing of a bankruptcy case, also stops creditors from creating liens against your assets. The U.S. Bankruptcy Code states that filing a bankruptcy “petition… operates as a stay… of–… (5) any act to create… against property of the debtor any lien” that secures a debt existing at the time the petition is filed. (See Section 362(a)(5) of the Bankruptcy Code.)
Preventing Judgment Liens
Any creditor with an unsecured debt you owe can sue you if you do not pay the debt according to its terms. Most of the time such a lawsuit turns into a judgment against you on the debt. State laws determine how the creditor can then collect on the judgment against you. But usually the judgment either automatically becomes a lien against some of your assets or the creditor can take additional steps to create a lien, such as a lien against your home for the amount of the judgment.
As soon as there is a lien, a debt which could otherwise be discharged as an unsecured debt may have to be paid in full or in part in order to get a release of the judgment lien on your real estate or other assets.
Filing either a Chapter 7 or 13 case on a debt that has not yet turned into a judgment will prevent that from happening. Even if a lawsuit has been filed the judgment can be prevented if the bankruptcy is filed quickly enough.
If the debt is the kind that can be discharged in a Chapter 7 case—which includes most unsecured debts—then that will take care of the debt. At the end of the case the debt is discharged and then the creditor has no more debt to sue you for and create a judgment lien on your assets.
But what if the debt is one that is not discharged in the 3 or 4 months that a Chapter 7 case takes to process? If you are accused of having gotten the debt through fraud or misrepresentation there is a good chance the debt would not be discharged in a Chapter 7 case, for example. If the creditor takes appropriate action during the case the debt would not be discharged and the creditor can turn that debt into a judgment and put a lien on your assets.
In a Chapter 13 case you can make arrangements to pay such a fraud/misrepresentation based debt during the course of the 3-to-5-year payment plan. The “automatic stay” prevents the creditor from converting the unsecured debt into a secured one (as long as the creditor does not get extraordinary permission to the contrary from the bankruptcy judge).
Preventing Income Tax Liens
Income tax debts either meet the conditions for being dischargeable in bankruptcy or they don’t meet those conditions. These conditions mostly turn on whether enough time has passed since the tax return at issue was legally due and since the tax return was in fact submitted to the IRS or state tax agency. If the tax meets the conditions for discharge, the tax is simply discharged in a Chapter 7 case, essentially like any other dischargeable debt.
But if the IRS/state records a tax lien before you file a bankruptcy case that turns the unsecured tax into a secured one. Depending on what the tax lien attaches to, you may have to pay the tax in part or in full to get the tax lien released from your assets. So it’s very important to file bankruptcy—either Chapter 7 or 13—before the tax lien is recorded.
But what if the tax is one that does not meet the conditions for discharge? Filing a Chapter 7 case will stop the tax lien for only the 3-4 months that the “automatic stay” is in effect. The IRS/state can record a tax lien on such a tax as soon as your case is closed.
However, if you file a Chapter 13 case instead the IRS/state will be prevented from recording at tax lien throughout the 3-to-5-year period that a case usually lasts. During that period you would pay that tax, on your own schedule and at the same time that you deal with your other important debts. After paying off the tax, without the threat of a recorded tax lien, and completing the case, there would be no more tax debt on which a tax lien could be recorded.