You may be able to write off more debts if you hold off on filing bankruptcy when you’re expecting to incur new medical debts.
Our last blog post was about the importance of timing your bankruptcy filing to include more of your debts.
One example we used was of a person with unresolved medical issues requiring ongoing medical care. That person could be overwhelmed by medical and other debts already owed. But he or she may wonder whether it would be wise to hold off on filing bankruptcy until the anticipated medical debts were incurred and so could be included.
We’ll now present two examples of this situation, each with different facts. We’ll show how these different facts resulted in these two people getting quite different legal advice.
Jeremy is 30 years old, and single. He was in a car accident a year ago, resulting in serious injuries and huge medical bills. He’s not yet medically stable. He was underinsured, so that a big chunk of his medical expenses were covered but a lot were not. Because he’s maxed out his vehicle insurance coverage he’ll be liable for most of his future medical expenses.
Jeremy currently owes $50,000 in medical debts, plus another $60,000 in credit cards and various other unsecured debts. In the next year or so he expects to add on another $30,000 to $40,000 in medical bills.
Jeremy does not have much in assets. His current income is low, as are his immediate prospects. That’s largely because he’s working a limited schedule as a result of his injuries, medical appointments and surgeries. He was in the military and so didn’t finish college until a couple of years ago. His future income prospects are quite good.
Should Jeremy File Bankruptcy Now or Wait?
If Jeremy would file bankruptcy now, it wouldn’t write off (“discharge”) his upcoming $30-40,000 in medical bills. A year from now he’ll be back in the hole that much.
He could then try to negotiate his way to paying reduced amounts. And if his income increases he may end up being able to pay off his debts, eventually. But that is not a satisfactory solution.
Jeremy has limited exposure to harm by his creditors in the meantime. All of his assets are “exempt”—worth little enough to be fully protected from his creditors, even outside bankruptcy. His income is sporadic and low enough that he’d lose little if his wages were garnished. Jeremy hasn’t been sued yet. That may be in part because his creditors don’t see him as a good prospect for forced collection.
So Jeremy does wait, finishes his surgeries and other medical procedures, racking up another $35,000 in medical bills, and then files a Chapter 7 case to discharge all of his debts.
Mary is 65 years old, also single. She had a heart attack two years ago. Like Jeremy she owes $50,000 in medical debts, plus another $60,000 in credit cards and various other unsecured debts. Her heart ailment is a chronic condition which will definitely require medical attention the rest of Mary’s life.
She works full time in the same job she’s had for a decade. Her income is modest but high enough so that if her wages were garnished she would lose a significant amount.
Indeed she just got served with a lawsuit by her largest medical creditor for $10,000. This creditor likely sued knowing that it could likely get paid through wage garnishments.
Should Mary File Bankruptcy Now or Wait?
Because Mary just turned 65 years old she now qualifies for Medicare. She expects to have both Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (medical insurance). She understands that these will pay for most of her anticipated medical costs.
So with her future medical expenses largely taken care of, there is no reason for Mary to wait to file bankruptcy. The just-filed lawsuit for $10,000 is good reason not to wait. If she files a Chapter 7 case through her bankruptcy lawyer before her deadline to respond to the lawsuit, she will prevent it from turning into a judgment and then a garnishment.
So Mary does just that. She files the Chapter 7 case, stops the lawsuit in its tracks, and within about 100 days discharges that $10,000 and all the rest of her debts. She gets a fresh financial start heading into her retirement years.
A Moral and Legal Note
Note that incurring a debt, medical or otherwise, when you intend not to pay it is questionable, legally and morally.
The moral question is a personal one. If it’s a matter of your life and death, or even just of your health more broadly, it’s likely defensible to have a surgery or other medical procedure done even if you knew you couldn’t pay for it and intended to discharge the resulting debt in bankruptcy.
The legal question is clearer but still murky. The law does not approve of incurring a debt when you don’t intend to pay it. That can be considered fraud on the creditor. It may turn on the facts of the case. If you’re in the midst of a medical emergency you may not be conscious and able to give your consent for medical services. Also, most medical creditors don’t raise objections base on issues of fraud in bankruptcy. And when they don’t raise this issue by a quick deadline, they lose the opportunity to do so in the future. So this legal problem usually resolves itself in this practical way.
Talk with your bankruptcy lawyer about these moral and legal issues if you are considering delaying your bankruptcy filing in order to include future debts.