What is the “presumption” that certain recent credit card purchases and cash advances will not be discharged in bankruptcy?
In the last couple of blogs I have written about the types of debts that get written-off (“discharged”) and those that don’t. Included on my earlier list of those that might NOT be discharged are those “incurred through fraud or misrepresentation, including recent cash advances and ‘luxury’ purchases.” Today’s blog focuses on this one type of debts.
In fact, this blog just looks at one particular subcategory of these debts—those that the Bankruptcy Code says “are presumed to be nondischargeable.” What is this “presumption,” how does it work, and what should you do about it?
First of all, the idea behind this exception to discharge is that debtor who cheats the creditor to borrow the money or get the credit should not be able to discharge that debt in bankruptcy. That follows one of the most basic principles of bankruptcy, that you have to be honest to get the benefits of bankruptcy. As the U.S. Supreme Court said 78 years ago, the purpose of bankruptcy is “that it gives to the honest but unfortunate debtor… a new opportunity in life and a clear field for future effort, unhampered by the pressure and discouragement of preexisting debt.” Local Loan Co. v. Hunt, 292 US 234, 244 (1934).
So this exception to discharge says that a creditor can challenge your ability to write off a particular debt “to the extent obtained by… “false pretenses, false representation, or actual fraud… .” Section 523(a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code. In other words, if you got the loan or credit through fraud or misrepresentation, the creditor could make that argument in order to exclude that debt from the discharge of your debts.
Debts which potentially belong to this fraud/misrepresentation category of debts ARE discharged UNLESS the creditor formally objects to the discharge of the debt within a rather quick deadline, usually 60 days after your meeting with the bankruptcy trustee. That objection would be in the form of a lawsuit the creditor files at the bankruptcy court. In that lawsuit the creditor lays out the facts of fraud or misrepresentation that would justify the debt not being discharged. The creditor would then need to prove those facts with evidence. The debt is still discharged unless the creditor present evidence that leads the bankruptcy judge to decide that the debt was in fact obtained by the debtor’s fraud or misrepresentation.
A presumption in the bankruptcy law that a debt is not dischargeable simply makes it much easier for the creditor to prove that point, in those specific circumstances where the presumption applies. The creditor simply needs to establish that those circumstances apply to the challenged debt. Then that debt is “presumed” not to be discharged. And it will not be discharged unless the debtor can bring contrary evidence showing the lack of fraud or misrepresentation by him or her. In terms that may be familiar, a presumption “shifts the burden of proof” from the creditor to the debtor.
Why is this important? Litigation is expensive. Most cases are settled before going to trial because the amounts at issue are not worth the costs of battling it out in court. Congress has decided in two sets of circumstances to tip the advantage in favor of the creditors, by giving them the presumption of no discharge.
The first of these circumstances arises if a consumer incurs a debt of more than $500 in “luxury goods or services” in the 90 days before filing the bankruptcy. That debt is presumed not to be dischargeable, meaning that the creditor doesn’t need to bring evidence establishing that the debtor intended to cheat the creditor by not paying the debt. The thought behind this is that either the person making the purchase knew he or she was going to file bankruptcy and was not going to pay the debt, or else at least was quite reckless to be using creditor that close to filing bankruptcy.
So what are “luxury goods or services”? Broader than it sounds. They include anything except those “reasonably necessary for the support or maintenance of the debtor or a dependent of the debtor.” The court decides what fits that definition. It’s up to the debtor to persuade the court that the goods and/or services totaling more than $500 were “reasonably necessary,” or that the debt was incurred with the honest intention, at that time, of paying it.
The second of these circumstances arises if a consumer incurs a debt of more than $750 through a cash advance or advances made in the 70 days before filing the bankruptcy. In the same way as with the “luxury goods” presumption, the creditor does not need to bring evidence establishing that the debtor did not intend to pay the debt. And in the same way, the debtor can try to persuade the court that the cash advance was incurred with the intention of paying it.
Just because a “luxury good” was purchased more than 90 days before your bankruptcy case is filed or a cash advance was made more than 70 days before then, these do not necessarily mean that the creditor will not challenge your ability to discharge that debt. In these situations the presumption would not apply. So the creditor would have to show the court convincing evidence that you did not intend to pay the debt. Since that is often not easy to show, creditors are not as likely to challenge purchases and cash advances that were made before the presumption period.
Avoid these presumptions by not using any credit and making cash advances in the few months before filing bankruptcy. But if you did avoid these, can you just wait to file until enough time has passed to get beyond these 70 and 90-day periods? Yes, that is a way to get past the presumption periods, as long as you do not have an urgent need to file your case. But although that may make it less likely that a creditor will raise a challenge, this does not necessarily mean it won’t happen. If a creditor thinks it has evidence that you incurred a debt that you did not intend to pay, or that you incurred in other circumstances involving fraud or misrepresentation, the creditor may still decide to raise the issue without the benefit of a presumption.