One good reason that people filing Chapter 7 don’t lose any of their stuff to the bankruptcy trustee—if they did have something to lose, they would likely have filed a Chapter 13 instead. How does Chapter 13 protect what you’d otherwise lose in a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy”?
As I said at the beginning of my last blog, protecting assets that are collateral on a loan—like your home or vehicle—is a whole different discussion than protecting what you own free and clear. Chapter 13 happens to be a tremendously powerful tool for dealing with secured creditors—especially with homes and vehicles. But that’s for later. Today I’m talking about using Chapter 13 as a way to hang onto possessions which are worth too much or have too much equity so they exceed the allowed exemption, or simply don’t fit within any available exemption.
Right off the bat you should know that if you have possessions which are not exempt, you may have some choices besides Chapter 13. You could just go ahead and file a Chapter 7 case and surrender the non-exempt asset to the trustee. This may be a sensible choice if that asset is something you don’t really need. There are also some asset protection techniques—such as selling or encumbering those assets before filing the bankruptcy, or negotiating payment terms with the Chapter 7 trustee —which are delicate procedures well beyond what I can cover today.
But depending on your overall situation, if you have an asset or assets which you really need (or simply want to keep), you can file a Chapter 13 and keep that asset by paying for the privilege of not surrendering it. You do that by paying to your creditors as much as they would have received if you would have surrendered that asset to a Chapter 7 trustee. But you have 3 to 5 years to do that, while you are under the protection of the bankruptcy court. Your Chapter 13 Plan is structured so that your obligation is spread out over this length of time, making it relatively easy and predictable to pay (in contrast to, for example, negotiating with a Chapter 7 trustee to pay to keep an asset).
Whether the asset(s) that you are protecting is worth the additional time and expense of a Chapter 13 case depends on the importance of that asset. Often people with assets to protect have other reasons to be in a Chapter 13 case, and the asset protection feature is just one more benefit. And believe it or not, depending on the amounts and nature of your assets and debts, you may be able to hang onto your non-exempt assets in a Chapter 13 case without paying anything more to your creditors. This tends to be more likely if you owe taxes or back support payments. One of the biggest advantages of Chapter 13 is that it can play your financial problems—like having too much assets and owing back taxes—against each other. So that you get an immediate solution—assets protected right away and the IRS off your back–and a long-term solution, too—assets protected always and IRS either written off or paid for, until you’re done and are free and clear.