Uninsured medical bills resulting in lawsuits and threats of legal action or garnishment are common reasons for bankruptcy these days. Divorce is also a reason for many bankruptcies—a high percentage of the people who file for bankruptcy protection are single mothers. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, a conduit case refers to making mortgage payments through the trustee.
We recently discussed several aspects of bankruptcy with Christopher Holmes and Jess M. Smith, III, partners at Tom Scott & Associates, P.C. The discussion covered several topics, including being "judgment proof," protecting your house from liquidation in a bankruptcy, home equity exemptions, some benefits of filing a Chapter 13 “100% plan,” common reasons people file for bankruptcy, a deficiency balance on a debt, an example of how an ex-spouse can impact a bankruptcy, and conduit mortgage payments. Below is Part 2 of 2 of the transcript of that conversation.
Q: With the economy turning around and the rate of bankruptcies dropping, what are the most common reasons people file for bankruptcy these days? Why are people getting into financial trouble?
Chris Holmes: It’s still uninsured medical bills resulting in lawsuits and threats of legal action or garnishment. The biggest percentage of people I see these days are single mothers on a limited income with children to support. They’re on a razor-thin budget and threatened with garnishment, while they’re barely getting by on 100% of their take-home pay, They can’t afford to lose 25% of their take-home pay through a garnishment, so they come in and seek protection from creditors through the bankruptcy court.
Q: Is credit card debt what’s causing their problems?
CH: I would say uninsured medical issues or an old cell phone bill or maybe a car got repossessed and there is a deficiency balance that the creditor is suing them for. Maybe the economy is better in the sense that the unemployment rate is relatively low, but all the jobs people are getting are such low-paying jobs that they aren’t being paid a living wage to really make ends meet. Then they’re on that razor-thin line with a budget that is just barely enough to survive on. If something unexpected happens there’s a threat of garnishment. If they let the garnishment happen, maybe they’ll be evicted or lose their car and can’t get to work. They’re just desperate to file bankruptcy.
Q: So it’s mostly people in a single-income-with-kids situation?
CH: It seems that way in many cases. Of course, divorce is always a big reason that people file for bankruptcy. People go their separate ways and somebody has been ordered to pay certain marital debt, but they can’t afford to do that, so they have to seek refuge in the bankruptcy court. Job loss is still a big cause of financial problems. I’m sure there are going to be some bankruptcies on the horizon when all of those Carrier employees get laid off.
Q: Have you seen any unusual circumstances in recent cases?
Jess Smith, III: I have a nasty hearing coming up soon. A woman received an offer to sell real estate. She had a divorce decree in which she owned the real estate only in her name and only her name was on the mortgage. But the divorce decree stated that if she were to sell the house, she would keep the first $60,000 and anything over and above that first $60,000 would be split between her and the ex-husband. In the interim, she filed for bankruptcy because she had other debt. He hasn’t paid child support to her in months. The house goes into foreclosure. I hire a Realtor and get permission to sell it—and we get an offer. By the way, we listed the ex-husband as a creditor in the bankruptcy, which basically states, “Speak up or forever hold your peace.” He never filed a claim. Instead, he hired a couple of lawyers and eventually his objection to the bankruptcy plan is overruled. He said, “If we get anything over and above $60,000, you can have that,” knowing that we’re not going to get there. So we had an offer to buy the house. The debtor would get to keep her exemption of $17,600 and as things stand there is presently around $15,000 that would go to the creditors who filed a claim. We had a motion out to approve the sale, but the ex-husband has objected to the sale—even though his name is not on the mortgage and he didn’t file a claim. I have to go before the judge next week.
CH: And the sale will not bear proceeds big enough for him to even get a half.
JS: Right. His objection is, “You should list the house for more money," even though there is a foreclosure pending and he is not current with his child support. I don’t know what kind of patience the judge will have for this gentleman, but I’ve got to bring the debtor into court and also have the Realtor state there will need to be $10,000 thrown into the house, to deal with radon and other things, and that this is the best offer we’re going to get. In the meantime, the foreclosure is actively proceeding to Sheriff’s sale.
CH: So, the payoff on the mortgage is constantly getting bigger.
JS: If we wait, it’s going to take money out of the hands of the other creditors who filed claims.
Q: Have you thought about throwing some his way to make his objection go away?
JS: Our client is an attorney, so when the case originally started we contemplated amending the divorce decree to bump up his position; to give him $5000 or $10,000, but her ex-husband wanted nothing of it. So, he started first with attorney John W. I call John, whom he never paid to file an appearance, but we had discussions and I said, “We’ll move you up the ladder and give you a secured position and give you some money. It wouldn’t be a lot, but it would be something as opposed to nothing.” He never paid John W. a retainer. Then, after we filed our second plan, the ex-husband hired attorney Jim Y. and after a couple of hearings I amended the plan and said, “We’ll give you one-half of anything over $60,000.” He didn’t pay Jim Y., but now on the day of the objection on the motion to sell, he paid attorney Eric R. some money and Eric filed an objection and handed off the files to attorney Keith G. So now I’m dealing with Keith. Then, my client, who is mad as heck, sent me an email saying that her ex-husband was at the house having someone service the air conditioner—and he doesn’t even own the house or have his name on the mortgage or deed. And she still lives there.
Q: He’s paying someone to service the air conditioner at her house?
JS: Yes. And then he asked, through Keith G., for permission to show the house to other people—despite the fact that I have a Realtor with an exclusive listing and a sale pending.
CH: So, he seems to think that she accepted a low-ball offer to move the property and deny him his fair share of the net proceeds.
JS: Yet, he hasn’t paid child support for seven months.
Q: What is the assessed value of the property compared to the sale price? Is it in the ballpark?
JS: The price offered is about $30,000 less than the assessed value, but here’s where it starts to get tricky: When the case started, they had a rental property. In addition, she fell behind in the mortgage payments on their house, because the husband moved out. I explained to her that if she didn’t get current on the mortgage payments for the house, it would have to be a conduit case. In the interim, the rental property went into foreclosure and a judgment lien was placed on that. So, we had to value the rental property low to get the lien avoided—and we got that lien avoided. But now the sale price is higher than what I initially scheduled the value of the property for, which is neither here nor there because the judgment lien holder from the rental property had their opportunity to object and they disclaimed any interest in the real estate and the foreclosure.
Q: You used the phrase “conduit.” Can you explain what that is in relation to a mortgage and bankruptcy?
JS: Conduit means if you file a Chapter 13 and you want to keep your house, and you’re behind on the mortgage payments when you file the case, the ongoing future mortgage payments get made through the trustee, who then disperses it to the mortgage company. Not only the ongoing payments, but the pre-filing arrearage also goes through the trustee.
CH: In the past, you would just cure the arrearage on the mortgage in the plan, then people would resume their regular mortgage payments outside of the plan, directly to the creditor, starting the month after the date of filing. But now the judges have decided that if the debtor is more than one month behind, then they have to make those regular monthly mortgage payments through the Chapter 13 trustee, which debtors and debtors’ counsel don’t really like.
JS: The reason for that is because for years we used to have arguments with the mortgage company about ongoing mortgage payments and whether they were made on time or not. Huge amounts of time were spent accounting and keeping track of payments. I guess the theory is that if the debtor is more than one month behind then they were going to miss some payments along the way.
CH: At the end of the old plan, invariably the mortgage companies would say, “You didn’t pay every single penny and you’re not current on the mortgage.” Now there is either a hearing or the trustee files a notice stating that a debtor is current, which gives the mortgage company an opportunity to say, “Yes, they’re current,” or “No, they’re not current.” The judge would then decide whether or not they really are behind, based on all of those payments that should have been made through the plan.
JS: Typically, the trustee, as the neutral party, has a record of dispersing three to five years of payments to the mortgage company.
CH: With variable interest rates, or the changes in taxes and escrow, those mortgage payments are fluctuating. Every six months, or 12 months, debtors receive an escrow analysis stating that the property owner’s taxes went up, so the mortgage company would have to bump up the mortgage payments a little bit to make up for that additional that would have to be paid in taxes. Or the homeowner’s insurance rate goes up and the mortgage company would have to escrow a little bit more for that increased insurance premium. We don’t see variable or adjustable interest rates much anymore.
Part 1 of Conversation: Protecting Your House From Liquidation in a Bankruptcy