Facing Foreclosure? How Bankruptcy Can Help
Many Americans fall behind on their mortgage payments. Some lenders and mortgage companies may be willing to work out deals with the homeowners, such as a short sale or loan modification. Most lenders are not. In that case, the lender will most likely begin the foreclosure process, as set out in the mortgage contract. The foreclosure process involves the creditor repossessing and usually selling the house at a public auction. The proceeds from that auction are used to repay the mortgage and any legal costs.
The foreclosure process takes time. Most creditors do not begin foreclosing until the homeowner is two to three months behind on their mortgage payments. This gives the homeowner some time to consider alternatives to foreclosure, such as a loan forbearance, short sale, or deed in lieu of foreclosure. Should all of these alternatives fail, bankruptcy may help in several different ways. So would contacting a qualified foreclosure attorney for a consultation.
For more information, see Bankruptcy Tools Available to You; The Automatic Stay: Stopping Creditors with Bankruptcy; and Is Bankruptcy a Good Idea for You?
How to Delay Foreclosure with an Automatic Stay
Bankruptcy and foreclosure are both words that the average person dreads hearing. If you are facing foreclosure, however, bankruptcy can become a tool to help you keep your house.
Once you file bankruptcy, either Chapter 13 or Chapter 7, the court automatically issues an Order for Relief. This order grants you an "automatic stay", that directs your creditors to immediately cease their collection attempts, no matter what. So, if a foreclosure sale has been scheduled for your home, it will be postponed, by law, until the bankruptcy is finalized. This usually takes about three to four months.
There are two exceptions to this buying time rule:
If the Lender Files a Motion to Lift the Stay: Unfortunately, the lender can file a motion to lift the stay, which asks permission from the bankruptcy court to continue with the foreclosure sale. If this is granted, you may not receive the extra three to four months of time. However, bankruptcy normally still postpones the sale by about two months or more, or even longer if the lender does not act fast in filing the motion to lift the stay.
If the Foreclosure Notice has Already Been Filed: Most states have laws that require lenders to give homeowners a certain amount of notice before selling their property. A bankruptcy's automatic stay will NOT stop the clock on this advance notice. For instance, California law requires a lender to give the homeowner at least three months notice before selling the home. If a California resident receives this three month notice, and then files for bankruptcy two months later, the three month period would have passed after being in bankruptcy for only one month. As a result, the lender could file a motion to lift the stay and ask the court's permission to schedule the foreclosure.
How to Use Chapter 13 Bankruptcy to Help You
What Chapter 13 Means for Bankruptcy and Foreclosure: Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows you to set up a repayment plan to pay off the past due payments, or "arrearage". You can propose the length of time for repayment, but keep in mind that you'll need sufficient income to pay BOTH your past due payments AND your current mortgage payments at the same time. So long as you make all of the required payments for the length of the repayment plan, you will avoid foreclosure and be able to stay in your home.
2nd and 3rd Mortgage Payments: Chapter 13 can also help eliminate payments on second or third mortgages. Typically, Chapter 13 entitles bankruptcy courts to recategorize second and third mortgages as unsecured debt. Under Chapter 13, unsecured debt takes last priority and usually does not have to be paid back. This recategorizing process is possible if your first mortgage is secured by the entire value of your home since this means that there is no remaining equity in your home to secure the second and third mortgages.
How to Use Chapter 7 Bankruptcy to Help You:
Chapter 7 bankruptcy also cancels all the debt secured by the home, including mortgages and home equity loans. Furthermore, Chapter 7 goes a step further. Thanks to a new law, Chapter 7 also forgives the homeowner for tax liability for losses the mortgage or home-improvement lender incurs as a result of the homeowner's default. This tax law applies to the 2007, 2008, and 2009 tax years. However, the new tax law does NOT cancel the homeowner's tax liability for the lender's losses at foreclosure if:
- The loan is not a mortgage or was not used for home improvements (like a loan used to pay for a vacation or automobile). The mortgage or home equity loan is secured by property other than your principal residence (like a vacation home or rental property).
Cautionary Notes about Chapter 7
You Could Still Lose Your Home: All of this debt and tax liability forgiveness is great, but note that Chapter 7 will not keep you from losing your home. Chapter 7 forgives your debt, and that is all it does. When you enter into a mortgage, you are agreeing to use your home as a type of collateral in case you default on your payments. Chapter 13 enables you to pause action on that lien, while you catch up on your payments; hence, you may save your home. Chapter 7 forgives your debt, but it will not lift the lien, and hence will not lift the foreclosure on your home. Therefore, you will probably still lose your home.
You Could Lose Other Valuables: Because the courts typically want to make the creditors whole again from their loss, the bankruptcy trustee may award money from the sale of certain other valuables of yours to the creditors. For example, if you have a valuable wedding ring that's value exceeds the dollar amount you are allowed to keep during bankruptcy, under the "jewelry exemption", you could lose your wedding ring.
You May Not Be Eligible: The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 provides that anyone whose average gross income for the six-month period before the bankruptcy filing exceeds the state median income for the same sized household is ineligible for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Additionally, if your income is sufficient enough for you to pay your living expenses AND fund a reasonable Chapter 13 repayment plan, you are also ineligible for Chapter 7.
How Bankruptcy Will Affect Your Credit
Although bankruptcy and foreclosure are both extremely damaging to your credit, sometimes filing bankruptcy can be a wise choice when trying to rebuild credit. A foreclosure not only damages your credit score for years, but you are still left with the mortgage debt. Most mortgage creditors will not consider you for future mortgages if you have a foreclosure on your credit history. In contrast, bankruptcy lets you start fresh. It still is damages to your credit, but because you are debt free, you immediately begin rebuilding good credit sooner.
Although bankruptcy has a few negative consequences, and may not save you from losing your home, it can be the best option in starting fresh with no debt, getting back on your feet, and saving money.
Worst Case Scenario: Losing the House, but Also the Debt
Sometimes bankruptcy can't prevent the loss of your home, so you may start to think that a bankruptcy filing is pointless. There are other benefits to filing for bankruptcy besides the interplay between bankruptcy and foreclosure, however.
Even if you can't keep your home, bankruptcy can help to shovel out from under mortgage debts and tax liability. This is an important first step towards getting back on your feet. Bankruptcy can also help you to put away money for the tough times ahead.