Bankruptcy FAQs

What disclosures must a collection agency provide to a debtor?

Typically, a collection agency begins its efforts with an introductory letter. This letter usually contains the required legal disclosures, which include:

In the original correspondence, the collection agency must also inform the debtor that it is attempting to collect a debt and that any information it gathers from the debtor or other sources will be used for that purpose. If this information is not included in the initial contact letter, the collection agency must provide it within five days.

Most lawyers recommend that debtors request verification of the debt because, in that case, a collection agency may not resume collection efforts until the information is confirmed with the original creditor. The collection agency may not, whether by threatening to destroy the debtor's credit rating or by threatening to sue if payment is not received immediately, make a statement in the initial correspondence that overshadows the debtor's right to dispute the debt for thirty days.

What actions must a collection agency avoid?

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a collection agency may not act in the following ways:

Third-party communications. The collection agency cannot contact third parties other than the debtor's attorney or a credit bureau for any reason other than to locate the debtor. Collection agents who contact third parties must state their names, and may only add that they are confirming or correcting information about the debtor. They cannot give the collection agency's name unless asked directly. They cannot state that they are calling about a debt. Collection agents may not contact a third party repeatedly unless they believe an earlier response was wrong or incomplete and that the third party has revised information. Further, collection agents cannot communicate with third parties by postcard or by correspondence that uses words or symbols that betray their collection motive.

Attorney-represented debtor. A collection agency cannot contact the debtor directly if counsel represents him or her unless the debtor gives the collection agency specific permission to do so.

Debtor communications. Collection agents may not contact debtors before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., or at another inconvenient time or place. Collection agents also may not contact a debtor at work if he or she knows that the employer bans receipt of collection calls while on the job.

Harassment or abuse. Agents cannot threaten or use violence against the debtor or another person. They cannot use obscene or profane language. They cannot publish a debtor's name on a blacklist or other public posting. Agents cannot call repeatedly or contact the debtor without identifying themselves as bill collectors.

False or misleading statements. Agents may not lie about the debt, their identity, the amount owed, or the consequences for the debtor. They cannot send documents that resemble legal filings or court papers. Agents cannot offer incentives to disclose information.

Unfair practices. Agents may not engage in unfair or shocking methods to collect, including adding interest or fees to the debt, soliciting post-dated checks by threatening criminal prosecution, calling the debtor collect, or threatening to seize property to which the agency has no right.

Are there any alternatives to filing bankruptcy?

Debtors who have faced obstacles to paying off their debts when due have no doubt received more than their fair share of demanding letters and phone calls, and the thought of getting rid of their debts, and thus the constant demands, through bankruptcy can be quite appealing. Before making a decision to pursue that route, which can have long-term effects on credit rating and the ability to make large purchases, like a home, debtors should consider other, less drastic alternatives.

If the debtor's financial problems are only temporary, he or she may want to ask creditors to accept lower payments or that payments are scheduled over a longer period of time. Creditors may be receptive to these ideas if the debtor has been a prompt payer in the past, or if the specter of bankruptcy is raised, since creditors know that once a bankruptcy proceeding is initiated they will probably collect only a portion of what is owed. In addition, creditors may wish to avoid the difficulties of a court proceeding to collect on the debt, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

Consumer credit counselors can also help creditors work out a repayment plan. Some of these advisors work for non-profit agencies, so they charge no fees. Many credit-counseling services charge a fee for their guidance, however, and it may not appeal to an already over-stressed debtor to add another debt to the stockpile.

If the debtor's financial troubles are long-term or if the creditors will not agree to an alternative payment plan informally, bankruptcy may be the best way for the debtor to get out from under an insurmountable debt load. Although it is not without its adverse consequences, bankruptcy can be the right option to enable debtors to make a fresh start.

Are student loans discharged in a bankruptcy proceeding?

Educational loans guaranteed by the United States government are generally not discharged by a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. They may be dischargeable; however, if the court finds that paying off the loan will impose an undue hardship on the debtor and his or her dependents.

In order to qualify for a hardship discharge, the debtor must demonstrate that he or she cannot make payments at the time the bankruptcy is filed and will not be able to make payments in the future. The debtor must apply before the discharge of the debtor's other debts is granted. Application for a hardship discharge is not included in the standard bankruptcy fees, and must be paid for after the case is filed.

The Bankruptcy Code does not specifically define the requirements for granting a hardship discharge of a student loan. Courts have applied different standards, but they often apply a three-part test to determine eligibility: (1) income-if the debtor is forced to pay off the student loan, the debtor will not be able to maintain a minimum standard of living for himself or herself and his or her dependents; (2) duration-the financial circumstances that satisfy the income test in (1) will continue for a significant portion of the repayment period; and (3) good faith-the debtor must have made a good-faith effort to repay the loan prior to the bankruptcy.

What effect does a bankruptcy filing have on the collection of alimony and child support?

A Chapter 7 filing should have no effect on such collections.

Although filing bankruptcy stops, or stays, all efforts to collect debts, the Bankruptcy Code excludes actions to collect child support or spousal maintenance from the stay unless the creditor attempts to collect from the property of the estate. In a Chapter 7 proceeding, property of the estate includes all possessions, money, and interests the debtor owns at the time he or she files. Money earned after the bankruptcy is filed, however, is not property of the estate. Since most child and spousal support is paid out of the debtor's current income, the bankruptcy should have little impact.

A debtor under Chapter 13 must pay all domestic support obligations that fall due after the petition is filed. Failure to do so could result in dismissal of the case.

Neither a Chapter 7 nor a Chapter 13 discharge affects future child or spousal support obligations. In other words, even at the conclusion of the bankruptcy proceeding, these on-going obligations remain.

Does a bankruptcy discharge eliminate all debts?

The rules on which debts are discharged, or eliminated, are different depending on which type of bankruptcy is filed. A Chapter 13 discharge affects only those debts provided for by the plan. Additional exceptions to a Chapter 13 discharge include claims for spousal and child support; educational loans; drunk driving liabilities; criminal fines and restitution obligations; and certain long-term obligations, such as home mortgages, that extend beyond the term of the plan.

In a Chapter 7 proceeding, the following debts are not discharged:

In addition, the following debts are not discharged if the creditor objects during the case and proves that the debt fits one of these categories:

How much property does the debtor have to give up in a bankruptcy proceeding?

Items that the debtor usually has to give up include:

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