What is a Dischargeable Debt?

When considering a bankruptcy, you will often hear your attorney refer to "dischargeable" debts. It's important to fully understand what the term means, because discharging your debt is the primary purpose of filing a bankruptcy.

A debt is dischargeable when bankruptcy can essentially eliminate it, or make it go away. The most common types of dischargeable debt are credit cards, medical bills, unsecured loans, and personal loans. Federal Income Taxes are sometimes dischargeable (if they were filed on time and are more than three years old), but in most cases taxes are not dischargeable. Student loans and government fines are rarely dischargeable.

When are your debts discharged? Debts are discharged when all the steps of your bankruptcy are completed. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, this happens relatively quickly, within 3 or 4 months of filing. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy takes much longer... the plan itself will be 3 to 5 years long, and the official discharge will take months longer.

The good news is, as long as you are complying with your bankruptcy requirements, the automatic stay prevents creditors from attempting to collect on your debts. So, in the time between filing and discharge, you will be protected from your creditors.

Why are some debts dischargeable, while others are not? The policy of Congress, as manifested through the United States Code,  largely determines what is discharged and what isn't. Congress has determined credit cards can be discharged... usually. If you used your credit cards to pay taxes or make a large purchase right before filing bankruptcy, they are NOT discharged.

Congress has taken the policy stand that student loans, whether Federal or private, are NOT dischargeable, except under the most extreme circumstances. It can be argued that a student loan is a debt not much different than a credit card. They both can be used to purchase services or goods. Both can prevent a debtor from enjoying the "fresh start" promised through bankruptcy. But, at least for now, Congress has taken the policy stance that student loan debts will survive through bankruptcy, to the point where your wages (or even Social Security benefits!) can be garnished.

Taxes and student loans involve money originating from or directed to the Federal government. So, maybe it should be no surprise that Federal bankruptcy law demands that they be repaid in full. For debtors facing financial hardship, relief is often denied. Unfortunately, the bankruptcy "fresh start" is not a reality for may debtors.

Contact us to meet with an experienced Pittsburgh bankruptcy attorney who can discuss which of your debts can be discharged, and what to do about those that cannot.

Car Accidents and Bankruptcy: A Summary

My last three posts have discussed the dischargeability of certain debts related to auto accidents. There are several distinctions to make... Chapter 7 or Chapter 13? Intoxicated or not? Willful and/or malicious? Personal injury or death? Or just property damage? I'll attempt to summarize the distinctions below. Please review my previous blog posts "Car Accidents and Bankruptcy, Parts I, II, and III for great detail.

Below is an attempt to summarize, in shorthand, what is (and is NOT) discharged in both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy when dealing with damages in an auto accident.

Damages Discharged in Chapter 7:

  • Not willful and malicious, AND;
  • No intoxication or drugs influencing accident
  • Intoxication/influence causing only property damage

Damages NOT Discharged in Chapter 7:

  • Willful AND malicious damage to either property OR person, OR;
  • Intoxication/influence causing personal injury or death

Damages Discharged in Chapter 13:

  • All damages related only to property
  • Damages related to personal injury/death but NOT willful OR malicious

Damages NOT Discharged in Chapter 13

  • Personal injury or death resulting from intoxication/influence OR willful act OR malicious act

NOTE: Even though a debt may be "dischargeable" in Chapter 13, it may still end up paid in full or in part depending on the rate at which the debtor is required to repay unsecured creditors. More accident-related debts are dischargeable in Chapter 13 due to this being the case.

Car Accidents and Bankruptcy, Part III

The last situation to discuss regarding the dischargeability of debts related to auto accidents is the situation in which the debtor's conduct was considered to be "willful and malicious".

"Willful" denotes the idea that the act was done with motive, on purpose. It could involve a level of premeditation or planning by the actor. The act must be more than merely negligent to be willful. There must be a clear intention to cause harm.

"Malicious" is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "having or showing a desire to cause harm to another person; having or showing malice." Once again, someone can act willfully or intentionally, but if there was no intent to do harm, the standard of "willful and malicious" is not met.

It should be pointed out, this standard of willful and malicious conduct will rarely be applicable to auto accidents. Most auto accidents involve either driving under the influence or negligence. Auto accidents are rarely "willful and malicious", though the possibility exists. For instance, an individual could intend to injure a victim with a car by ramming their car or chasing and hitting them.

The willful and malicious standard will more commonly apply to situations where a judgment has been entered in a civil lawsuit for physical assault. But, as discussed above, it could apply to an auto accident in rare instances.

There is an important distinction in Chapter 7 bankruptcy between intoxication damages and willful and malicious damages. As discussed in an earlier post, property damage resulting from intoxication may be discharged in a Chapter 7; however, property damage resulting from a willful and malicious act is NOT dischargeable in Chapter 7. It will be important to discuss this distinction with your attorney. -See 11 USC Sec. 523(a)(6)

There are a couple slight distinctions to the willful and malicious standard in Chapter 13 bankruptcy. In Chapter 13, the act need be only willful OR malicious to be non-dischargeable. Therefore, the act only needs to be intentional or done with malice. It will be a very slight distinction in almost every case. However, there is a major distinction between Chapter 13 and Chapter 7 related to property damages. Property damages caused by willful OR malicious acts can be discharged in Chapter 13, whereas they cannot be discharged in Chapter 7.

In my next post, I will summarize the last three posts, as it becomes quite complicated what can be discharged in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 when dealing with auto accidents.

Car Accidents and Bankruptcy, Part II

As discussed in my previous post, there are three major questions that must be answered when considering whether to include an auto accident lawsuit in a bankruptcy for potential discharge.

  • Was the debtor under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the accident?
  • Was there bodily injury to the victim, or just property damage?
  • Were the actions of the debtor willful or malicious (intentional)?

These three questions will determine if the lawsuit filed (most likely by the insurance company) will be discharged, or whether it will survive the bankruptcy.

The United States Bankruptcy Code addresses bankruptcy discharge under Title 11, Sections 523, 727, and 1328, and these are the sources for most of the information to follow.

Congress has embraced a policy that personal injury and death damages caused by a driver intoxicated or under the influence of drugs should not be eligible for a discharge in either a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Section 523(a)(9) prevents the discharge of a debt related to, "death or personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft if such operation was unlawful because the debtor was intoxicated from using alcohol, a drug, or another substance."

This section applies to both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies. It is most important to note what this section does NOT apply to... property damage caused while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. If an individual causes only property damage while intoxicated, for instance by running into a parked car or destroying a fence, the purely property damage claim can be discharged in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

If, on the other hand, the damage claim relates to a bodily injury or death, the claim cannot be discharged, even if it was not willful or malicious. The claim and the debt will survive or "pass-through" the bankruptcy. It will be important to review the details of the lawsuit with your bankruptcy attorney to determine how section 523 will apply to your bankruptcy petition. It is entirely possible that filing a bankruptcy will remain worthwhile, if the debtor has large amounts of other debt. Filing a bankruptcy on the remaining debt may make it possible to pay damages related to an accident.

Congress has taken a hard stand against discharging debts related to driving under the influence when someone has been injured. As an experienced Pittsburgh bankruptcy attorney, I can help you determine if you are eligible for a discharge of an accident related debt.

In my next post, I will write about damages related to willful or malicious conduct of the debtor, and the (sometime) differing results in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Willful and malicious acts will prove to be the most difficult to discharge.

How Long Do I Need to Wait to File Another Chapter 7 Bankruptcy?

An occasional issue for someone looking to obtain debt relief through bankruptcy is a previous bankruptcy filing. Debtors are not limited to filing one bankruptcy in their lifetime, but there is a mandatory waiting period between Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings.

Section 727(a)(8) of the United States Bankruptcy Code prohibits a discharge in a bankruptcy case if, "the debtor has been granted a discharge under this section... in a case commenced within 8 years before the date of the filing of the petition."

To make a couple points clear... first, the "discharge" is an extremely important part of any bankruptcy case. The discharge is what actually dismisses your debt. Without a discharge, a debt can still be collected on, and you can still be sued by a creditor. Sometimes, it is known going into a bankruptcy that a certain debt will not be discharged, for instance a student loan obligation or some tax debts. However, a bankruptcy in which ZERO debts are discharged is pretty much worthless. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy that does not discharge your credit card debt, personal loans, or medical bills serves no purpose.

So, since section 727(a)(8) prohibits a bankruptcy discharge for cases filed within 8 years, there is no reason to actually file such a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. You could technically file the second Chapter 7, but there would be no resulting discharge.

A second major point to make clear is how the 8 year period is calculated.  727(a)(8) speaks of a previous case "commenced" within 8 years. "Commenced" is just another way of saying "started", and a case is started when the petition is filed. So, to get a discharge in a Chapter 7 (the whole point of a bankruptcy!) you must wait 8 years and a day from the date you filed your previous Chapter 7. It doesn't matter when it was discharged, only filed. If you are seeking bankruptcy relief, and have previously filed a Chapter 7, make sure you inform your attorney of the previous filing date.

If you need to file bankruptcy, but it is less than 8 years since your previous Chapter 7, you may need to consider a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, or take other actions to stabilize your finances. Your situation isn't hopeless, and often times a plan can be formulated to hold off your creditors.  Contact us to examine your options.