Our last blog post was about a Chapter 7 bankruptcy stopping a tax garnishment only temporarily. In that situation this was OK because it gave time to set up a payment program with the IRS/state. With the bankruptcy discharging (writing off) all or most other debts, the taxpayer could afford a reasonable monthly payment to pay off the tax debt over time.
Today we deal with a somewhat similar situation. Assume you owe a student loan that you don’t have the cash flow to make payments on. Here’s how this situation can be greatly helped through a Chapter 7 filing.
Student Loan Collection and the Chapter 7 Filing
Similar to the tax authorities, student loan creditors and collectors have extraordinary collection powers. In most situations they don’t need to sue and get a legal judgment against you to begin aggressive collection procedures. These can include wage garnishment, tax refund setoff, and Social Security benefit capture. (This is true of federal student loans; private student loan lenders must first sue you and get a judgment.)
Also like income tax debts, student loan collection is immediately stopped by the “automatic stay” imposed by your bankruptcy filing. It doesn’t matter if the student loan would not be discharged in the Chapter 7 case. During the 3-4 months that most consumer Chapter 7 cases last, you get a break from student loan collections.
The automatic stay statute stops “any act to collect, assess, or recover a claim against the debtor.” (See Section 362(a)(6) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.) More specifically it stops “the commencement or continuation . . . of a[n] . . . administrative . . . proceeding against the debtor. (Section 362(a)(1).) This covers the non-judicial collection actions mentioned above that are administrative in nature. The Chapter 7 filing also specifically stops “the setoff of any debt,” such as a tax refund or Social Security setoff. (Section 362(a)(7).)
Dischargeability of Student Loans
Somewhat similar to income tax debts, student loans can be permanently discharged under certain circumstances. An income tax is almost always discharged as long as it meets certain timing conditions. (These are based on how long ago the pertinent tax return was due and was actually submitted.)
In contrast, the condition that almost all student loans must meet for discharge is much more ambiguous. And the condition, called “undue hardship,” is often quite difficult to meet. You can’t discharge most student loans unless that loan “would impose an undue hardship on the debtor and the debtor’s dependents.” (Section 523(a)(8) of the Bankruptcy Code.)
While it may very much feel like your student loan(s) is (are) causing you a huge financial hardship, the federal courts have interpreted this phrase very narrowly. So “undue hardship” is, as we said, a difficult condition to meet to discharge your student loan(s).
What You Can Accomplish During the Chapter 7 Pause in Collection
The goal during the 3-4 months of no collection is to make that pause permanent. This can happen three ways.
First, IF you believe you do meet the “undue hardship” condition, your bankruptcy lawyer would file an “adversary proceeding” soon after filing the Chapter 7 case in order to persuade your bankruptcy judge that you qualify for “undue hardship.” If you’d be completely successful then the pause in collection would become permanent because you’d no longer owe the debt(s).
Second, sometimes in this situation the judge gives only a partial discharge of your student loan(s). In effect the judge decides that repaying all of the loan(s) would be an “undue hardship” but paying back a portion would not be. In this situation you’d make arrangements to pay the student loans at a reduced monthly payment. Your student loan creditor(s) would agree to no further collection action against you as long as you made those payments.
Third, if you don’t qualify for “undue hardship” your Chapter 7 case would discharge your other debts. That should leave you better able to pay the remaining student loans. You’d make arrangements to make payments, maybe through one of the various payment-reduction programs potentially available to you. Assuming you’d do so, they by the end of your Chapter 7 case when the automatic stay would expire your situation would be resolved and you wouldn’t be facing student loan collection actions.
Avoiding Default and Preserving Options
Even if you don’t qualify for “undue hardship,” the bankruptcy pause in collections can be extremely important for student loans. Again, there are various programs that help you deal with student loans, depending on exactly what type(s) you have. Some of these programs can be extremely helpful.
However, most of these programs require you to apply for them before you are too far behind on payments. So filing a Chapter 7 case sooner could enable you to take advantage of these programs. Whereas if you waited and filed later you may very well miss out because you’d no longer qualify.
Talk with an experienced Louisville bankruptcy lawyer about all this. Candidly, student loans are challenging to deal with, both outside and inside bankruptcy. You need a seasoned lawyer who understands the interplay between bankruptcy law and student loans, in detail.