Bankruptcy clears out your debts or creates a payment plan to creditors, allowing you to catch up. Businesses, farmers, municipalities, and individuals can file for bankruptcy.
While wiping out your debts might sound appealing, bankruptcy will basically ruin your credit. But in some cases, it might be the best option.
And note, some debts (especially student loan debt) may not be eligible to be wiped out in bankruptcy. So, make sure you fully understand what you're getting into before starting the process.
What Do the Numbers/Types Mean?
There are two types of bankruptcy — Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a liquidation of your debts — it wipes out most of your unsecured debts. For cleared debts, there is no return to creditors. Chapter 7 is considered a simple and straightforward process.
The process can take three to four months to complete. With Chapter 7, you also get legal protections. For example, if someone has sued you, that basically goes away with other debts. If your home is being foreclosed on, the foreclosure is stopped, so you have time to work out an arrangement with the lender.
You must qualify for Chapter 7 through your state’s specific means test. One qualifying factor is your income. If your household income is $85,000 but your state’s median income is $65,000, you fail the means test and do not qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In addition to the means test, you also can’t have filed for Chapter 7 in the last six years.
A court decides which of your assets to sell. You can have exemptions for items such as your car, home, and retirement savings. Exemptions are state-specific. Keep in mind that your home can still be sold depending on what you owe and what the value of the home is. Expect any luxury items such as a boat and second home to be liquidated.
Some debts cannot be discharged, such as taxes, alimony, child support, and student loans.
Chapter 7 will stay on your credit report for 10 years. While you can still apply for credit, your rates are likely to be terrible. But each person’s situation is different. Some people are able to bounce back within a year to a fairly good credit score, allowing them to obtain automobile financing. The cost of filing Chapter 7 is $335.
Chapter 13 is a reorganization bankruptcy. It is a forced court-created repayment plan lasting three to five years. Most are five years. If there are debts remaining after five years, they are discharged.
Chapter 13 is for people who have an income but need some space with creditors. In other words, they need creditors to lower payments, allowing the debtor to catch up.
One advantage of Chapter 13 is that you can keep your home. Any foreclosure that is in process will be halted in Chapter 13. Unlike Chapter 7, properties are not sold.
Credit card/medical bills may be discharged.
To be eligible, you must have regular income and unsecured debts of less than $394,725, and secured debts of less than $1,184,200. Tax debt (i.e., property taxes), child support, and again student loans, may not be eligible. The cost of filing Chapter 13 is $310.
If you miss any payments while in the plan, you can lose all of your protections and the benefits of the plan. In that case, you go through all of the trouble of filing for bankruptcy only to be back where you were before filing.
Chapter 13 payments are not made directly to creditors. Instead, the debtor sends payments to a mediator, who then sends the payments to creditors. There is no contact between the debtor and creditors during the payment plan.
Chapter 13 will stay on your credit report for five years.
For both bankruptcies, if you decide to use a bankruptcy attorney, the cost can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
Can It Really Help?
Yes, assuming you have a plan for fixing your finances. If you see no light at the end of the tunnel because of crippling debt, wiping out your debt can give you a fresh start. However, if you don’t have an income or don’t have a plan to increase your income or create a budget, filing for bankruptcy may not help in the end.
What About Student Loans?
Unfortunately, most of the time (read 99.999%) student loans do not go away when you file for bankruptcy. The only way to get rid of student loans is in the situation where they are causing undue hardship on the borrower or dependents. Undue hardship is difficult to prove and only a small number of people who file for bankruptcy actually succeed in discharging their student loans.
Why? Because Federal student loans have a variety of income-driven repayment plans that could make your monthly payment $0 if you have low enough income.
If you are disabled and can't work, you can get your loans discharged under Disability Discharge.
And finally, there are lots of student loan forgiveness programs to help as well.
All in all, it's extremely challenging to prove to a judge you can't qualify for something to make your payments manageable.
The notable exceptions here are private student loans, which have a much higher likelihood of being discharged bankruptcy.
Filing for bankruptcy has its positives if you have a plan to turn the situation around and not wind up back where you started.
Keep in mind that bankruptcies become public record. Employers and any co-signers may be notified once you file. You’ll have to answer “yes” on any application asking if you’ve ever filed for bankruptcy. It truly is an event that will be with you in one form or another for the rest of your life.
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him here.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.