Here’s the good news/bad news about the discharge of debts in a Chapter 13 payment plan compared to the discharge you get in a straight Chapter 7 case.
Sometimes choosing between Chapter 7 and 13 is easy, but other times it means carefully weighing lots of considerations. Whether the choice is easy or hard, one of those considerations is how these two options compare in their discharge (legal write-off) of your debts.
The good news in favor of Chapter 13 is that it discharges a couple more types of debts than Chapter 7 does. So in the right case this “super discharge” could be reason enough to choose Chapter 13.
The bad news is about timing—the discharge is not effective until the very end of a Chapter 13 case—usually 3 to 5 years after it is filed. That means you have to successfully complete the case to get a discharge of your debts. The fact is that a significant percentage of Chapter 13 cases are not successfully completed, leaving the debts still owed. That’s a risk that needs to be seriously considered before filing a Chapter 13 case.
In the past, one way that Congress encouraged debtors to file Chapter 13s is by allowing various kinds of debts to be discharged under Chapter 13 that could not be discharged under Chapter 7. Chapter 13 was said to provide a “super discharge.” But over the last quarter-century or so, Congress has whittled away at the list of debts treated more favorably under Chapter 13 until now only two noteworthy ones remain:
1. You can discharge non-support obligations owed to an ex-spouse in a Chapter 13 case (and not in a Chapter 7 one). These obligations usually include those in a divorce decree requiring you to pay off a joint marital debt or to pay the ex-spouse to compensate for you receiving more than your share of the marital property. They are often called the “property settlement” part of your divorce.
2. An obligation arising from a “willful and malicious” injury that you are accused of causing to a person or to property can be discharged in Chapter 13. This refers to allegations that you hurt somebody or their property not merely through your negligence—which would be discharged in Chapter 7—but instead either intentionally or recklessly—the discharge of which could be challenged in a Chapter 7 case.
These are both very delicate areas. What’s a “property settlement” type of divorce obligation instead of a support obligation, and what’s a “willful and malicious” injury instead just of a negligent one—these are often not straightforward distinctions. The decision to use Chapter 13 to undo part of a divorce decree or to escape accusations of “willful and malicious” injury can have a variety of legal, human, and tactical considerations. Weigh these carefully with an experienced bankruptcy attorney before relying on the Chapter 13 super discharge.
Not getting a discharge until the end of a Chapter 13 case is theoretically no different than under Chapter 7. In Chapter 7 as well you must satisfy a number of conditions before you can successfully complete the case and receive a discharge. But, if you are being guided through the process by an experienced bankruptcy attorney, the Chapter 7 conditions are usually met relatively easily. As a result most of the time within about three months you receive the court order discharging your debts.
In contrast, completing a Chapter 13 case requires you to meet many more conditions, and to do so consistently over the course of years. This includes making monthly “plan payments” to your Chapter 13 trustee for distribution to your creditors, and sometimes also sending payments directly to some creditors (usually vehicle and mortgage lenders). But you also must stay current on spousal and child support obligations, file income tax returns on time, and often meet other special requirements laid out in your plan. Your Chapter 13 case will be designed so that you should be able to meet all the conditions, but sometime circumstances change so that you can’t.
If your circumstances do change, you may well still be able to get a discharge of your debts. Your attorney may be able to adjust your budget and amend your plan to deal with the changes, allowing you to complete the Chapter 13 case and discharge the debts. You may qualify for a “hardship discharge.” Or it may be best to “convert” your Chapter 13 case into a Chapter 7 one, and receive a Chapter 7 discharge.
At the beginning of your Chapter 13 case discuss with your attorney possible future changes in your circumstances, and what options you would have if these happened. And then if any significant changes do happen, inform your attorney right away so that you can get advice about your options. In most cases you can get a discharge of your debts even when your circumstances change if you deal with the situation proactively.