Too much debt can disqualify you from filing under Chapter 13.
Chapter 7 has no debt limit. But the Bankruptcy Code does impose a limit on the amount of debt that person can owe when filing a Chapter 13 case. Why? Although in conventional consumer situations an average Chapter 7 case is much quicker and easier than an average Chapter 13 case, in fact Chapter 7 can be used with a wide variety of business and consumer arenas, including for corporations and partnerships, including those with many millions of dollars of debt. Chapter 13 is a tremendously flexible procedure, but it is still a relatively streamlined one—especially compared to Chapter 11 reorganization. It was specifically designed for individuals and married couples with relatively straightforward debts.
The primary way that the law tries to limit Chapter 13 to simpler cases is with debt limits. Currently the individual filing one, or the married couple filing together, must have less than $360,475 in total unsecured debts and ALSO less than $1,081,400 in secured debts.
These dollar limits do sound arbitrary, and to some extent they are, simply reflecting a Congressional compromise going back 34 years to the original passage of the Bankruptcy Code in 1978. The limits back then were only $100,000 unsecured debt and $350,000 secured debt. These didn’t change until more than doubling in 1994 to $250,000 and $750,000, respectively, with inflationary increases every three years thereafter. The current amounts have been in effect since April 1, 2010 and will change again on April 1, 2013.
The statute specifically says that you “may be a debtor under Chapter 13” only if you owe, “on the date of the filing of the petition, noncontingent, liquidated, unsecured debts of less than $360,475 and noncontingent, liquidated, secured debts of less than $1,081,400” (with the appropriate current amounts inserted).
To be a bit over simplistic, these two descriptive words are intended to make clear that only real debts count for these limits. “Noncontingent” means that you are presently liable on the debt, not only liable if some event does or does not occur. “Liquidated” means that you owe a specific and determinable amount. A contingent debt would include one that you would only owe if somebody else did not pay it. A noncontingent debt would be one which you owe jointly with someone else but the creditor has no obligation to first pursue the other debtor. An unliquidated debt would include a lawsuit against you for unspecified damages; a liquidated debt could be a lawsuit where the alleged debt amount can be determined, even if it might be disputed.
In most cases, you will either be clearly under both secured and unsecured debt limits or clearly over one of them. But if you are at all close, be aware that these “noncontingent, unliquidated” distinctions are not always clear. And even if you are over the limits, there may be other solutions if you really need the benefits of a Chapter 13. One possibility is filing a so-called “Chapter 20”—filing a Chapter 7 case to discharge much of your debts, followed immediately by filing a Chapter 13 (7 + 13 = 20). The Chapter 7 discharge should get you under the Chapter 13 debt limits, and then although the Chapter 13 cannot discharge any more debts, it could well protect you from your remaining creditors as you pay their debts—such as mortgage arrearage, back child support, or taxes—at your own schedule.