Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code provides for liquidation of your assets. Under this chapter, the trustee gathers and sells the debtor’s nonexempt assets and uses the proceeds of such assets to pay creditors. The Bankruptcy Code will allow the debtor to keep certain “exempt” property; but a trustee will liquidate the debtor’s remaining assets. Accordingly, potential debtors should realize that the filing of a petition under chapter 7 might result in the loss of property.

The primary purposes of bankruptcy are 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. 11 U.S.C. § 727(a)(1). 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.

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. 11 U.S.C. §§ 101(41), 109(b). Subject to the means test described below for individual debtors, relief is available under chapter 7 irrespective of the amount 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. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109(g), 362(d) and (e). 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. 11 U.S.C. §§ 109, 111

Means Test:

In 2005, the Bankruptcy Code was changed by adding a means test to prevent wealthy debtors from filing for Chapter 7. The first step to the means test requires debtors to compare their income to the median family income. If the debtor’s income is lower than the median family income there is no presumed abuse. If your income is greater than the median income the you must determine whether you have enough disposable income to pay at least a portion of your unsecured debts. If your disposable income adds up to a certain amount then you fail the means test and will have to file under another section of the Bankruptcy Code.

How a 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. (3) 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 and unexpired leases. Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1007(b).

In order to complete the Official Bankruptcy Forms that make up the petition, statement of financial affairs, and schedules, the debtor must provide the following information:

  • A list of all creditors and the amount and nature of their claims;
  • The source, amount, and frequency of the debtor’s income;
  • A list of all of the debtor’s property; and
  • A detailed list of the debtor’s monthly living expenses, i.e., food, clothing, shelter, utilities, taxes, transportation, medicine, etc.
    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). 11 U.S.C. § 521. Individual debtors with primarily consumer debts have additional document filing requirements. They must file: a certificate of credit counseling; evidence of payment from employers, if any, received 60 days before filing; a statement of monthly net income and any anticipated increase in income or expenses after filing; and a record of any interest the debtor has in federal or state qualified education or tuition accounts. Id.

The commencement of a bankruptcy case creates an “estate.” The estate technically becomes the temporary legal owner of all the debtor’s property. It consists of all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case, including property owned or held by another person if the debtor has an interest in the property.

When a chapter 7 petition is filed, the U.S. trustee appoints an impartial case trustee to administer the case and liquidate the debtor’s nonexempt assets. 11 U.S.C. §§ 701, 704. Between 21 and 40 days after the petition is filed, the case trustee will hold a meeting of creditors. During this meeting, the trustee puts the debtor under oath, and both the trustee and creditors may ask questions. The debtor must attend the meeting and answer questions regarding the debtor’s financial affairs and property. 11 U.S.C. § 343. If a husband and wife have filed a joint petition, they both must attend the creditors’ meeting and answer questions. The 341 meeting will allow the trustee to report to the court whether the case should be presumed to be an abuse under the means test described in 11 U.S.C. § 704(b) and to help the trustee determine if the debtor possesses assets that can be distributed to creditors.

If all the debtor’s assets are exempt or subject to valid liens, the trustee will normally file a “no asset” report with the court, and there will be no distribution to unsecured creditors. Most chapter 7 cases involving individual debtors are no asset cases.

But if the case appears to be an “asset” case at the trustee will liquidate the debtor’s nonexempt assets in a manner that maximizes the return to the debtor’s unsecured creditors. The trustee accomplishes this by selling the debtor’s property if it is free and clear of liens (as long as the property is not exempt) or if it is worth more than any security interest or lien attached to the property and any exemption that the debtor holds in the property. The trustee may also attempt to recover money or property under the trustee’s “avoiding powers.” The trustee’s avoiding powers include the power to: set aside preferential transfers made to creditors within 90 days before the petition; undo security interests and other prepetition transfers of property that were not properly perfected under nonbankruptcy law at the time of the petition; and pursue nonbankruptcy claims such as fraudulent conveyance and bulk transfer remedies available under state law.

From the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts