Bankruptcy – what it is and how it works

When people are being sued for debts, they often panic and look for the quickest, easiest, or least scary way out. Bankruptcy sometimes seems to be that way. What is bankruptcy? and how does it work? How does it affect some of your other rights?

What Bankruptcy is

Most people have an intuitive idea of what bankruptcy is – legal protection for people who are broke, right?

Sort of.

Bankruptcy is at least equally a protection for creditors. You see, when people are financially troubled, this doesn’t mean that they literally have NOTHING. Rather, they will spend or distribute an inadequate number of resourses in a way to relieve them of the most pressure, or to favor people they want to favor. Bankruptcy exists to help prioritize and organize the ways debtors distribute their money so as to protect the creditors from favoritism or sneaky behavior. It does protect the debtor (person declaring bankruptcy) from all lawsuits or judgments, and this in turn spares the creditors from having to “race to the courthouse” to file suits against the financially weakened.

That makes good sense, right? So shouldn’t anybody with debt troubles dive into bankruptcy?

Price of Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is not a “free lunch” to debtors. It can be expensive to do, and over the past decade or two has been made much trickier to get in and finish. It is also extremely intrusive and occasionally time-consuming. It also does not protect you from all claims, notably those associated with “secured” debts – debts like home and auto loans.

In my opinion, bankruptcy is RARELY a good first option for people being sued for debts, especially if they’re being sued by debt collectors. On the other hand, if you expect to negotiate with a debt collector or creditor in any way, our position is that you should consult a bankruptcy lawyer. You should know what it costs and requires, and letting a debt collector know you’ve actually talked to a bankruptcy lawyer can have a wonderful effect on their willingness to accept lower amounts of money.

Issues in Bankruptcy

Perhaps surprisingly, bankruptcy and debt law are not closely related, and lawyers who practice one kind of law rarely know much about the other. Unless your lawyer (if you have one) actually practices both types of law, he or she is probably not qualified to give you advice about the area in which he does NOT regularly practice.

Bankruptcy and FDCPA

Another issue comes from the interaction of bankruptcy and debt laws. This isn’t uniform, consistent, or particularly fair. In some jurisdictions, for example, if you declare bankruptcy, creditors will come out of the woodwork to file “claims” against the bankruptcy estate. It would be illegal for them to sue you, but in SOME courts it’s fine for them to litigate against you in bankruptcy. This is plan stupid and bad, but some federal appeals courts allow it while others make it a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The Supreme Court has not addressed the issue yet.

Bankruptcy and Student Debt

The courts are even less consistent or fair when it comes to student debt. If most of your debt problem comes from heavy student loans, bankruptcy may not offer you much help. They are treated differently from almost all other debts, and in many courts they are almost impossible to shake off. Strangely, perhaps, this issue has not been organized or even considered very much by bankruptcy or debt lawyers. I have addressed the issue in Getting Out of the Trap of Student Loans. That book discusses the way bankruptcy law and student loans collide and, on a federal circuit by circuit basis, what your chances of escaping the trap might be.

Against Debt Collectors

Our view on suits brought by debt collectors is that bankruptcy is rarely a good first option – and only sometimes a good last option. However, you should know that, if bankruptcy will work for you at all, it will work for you just about as well even if the debt collector has obtained a judgment. That is, bankruptcy protection applies to state court judgments as much as any other kind of debt, alleged or proven. Thus you could defend yourself pro se and, if you lost (as very few of our members do), you would still be able to declare bankruptcy if it would help.

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