Chapter 7 Timing to Discharge Student Loans

Law Office of Robert L. Firth Oct. 26, 2020

Discharging a student loan requires showing undue hardship. The timing of your Chapter 7 filing can determine whether you succeed in this.

We’re in a series on the smart timing of your bankruptcy case. Last week we introduced the special condition you must meet to discharge (write off) student loans: “undue hardship.”

Bankruptcy discharges other special forms of debt—such as income taxes—after the passage of a certain amount of time. But student loans are different in that there is no explicit time period laid out in bankruptcy law. Rather “undue hardship,” the condition you must meet to discharge a student loan, often has timing considerations within it. That is, qualifying for “undue hardship” may require timing your bankruptcy case right. You may not be in “undue hardship” at one point but could be earlier or later.

Today we show that can play out under Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy.”(Next week we’ll do the same under Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”)

Undue Hardship Requirements

The U.S. Bankruptcy Code says you can discharge a student loan if it “would impose an undue hardship on the debtor [you] and the debtor’s dependents.” Section 523(a)(8). Generally bankruptcy courts have interpreted “undue hardship” to require meeting the following three conditions. Each has a timing consideration. We’ll look at each of these three, showing how they can affect the timing of your Chapter 7 case.

1. Presently Inability to Pay

You first need to show that if you had to repay the student loan under your current income and expenses, you would be unable to maintain even a minimal standard of living.

This focuses on the present. It asks whether, as of the time you are asking for the “undue hardship” discharge, you meet this condition.

The timing issue here should be obvious. You might be able to meet a minimal standard of living while paying your student loans at one point. But then you can’t after your life circumstances change. Or maybe it’s the other way around. You can’t meet that condition now but you may be able to do so in a few months after your circumstances improve.

For example, a person may have a chronically worsening medical condition. For the moment he or she may be able to work and pay the student loan. (This may be after discharging all of his or her other debts through a Chapter 7 case.) But the person may be able to realistically anticipate being unable to work in the future.

Here it likely makes sense to wait to file a Chapter 7 case until her or she can no longer work. That’s especially true if that transition is happening reasonably soon.

2. Extended Inability to Pay

Then you need to show that you expect that your present inability to pay is going to last for an extended period.

This second condition focuses on the future. It asks whether any present “undue hardship” is expected to last through a significant part of the loan repayment period.

This is a more challenging condition because it involves predicting the future and convincing a bankruptcy judge about it.

Here’s an example. Imagine if someone was in an extremely serious vehicle accident a couple of months ago. He or she is presently medically incapacitated and unable to work. Assume that for now the person absolutely can’t afford to pay anything towards his or her student loan(s). But it’ll take a while until the doctors can reliably predict the person’s long-term health prospects. Also, if another driver allegedly caused the accident there may be litigation to determine fault and the amount of damages. So currently this person’s future financial prospects are very unsettled. It’s an open question how long he or she will continue to be unable to pay the student loan(s). In particular it’s unknown whether this inability will persist for much of the remaining term of the student loan(s).

Here it could make sense to wait to file a Chapter 7 case until knowing better whether the physical disability and financial incapacity are expected to continue for that length of time.

3. Prior Effort to Pay or Make Arrangements

And third, you need to show that you previously made a meaningful effort to repay the loan. Some other available arrangements may also qualify.

This last condition focuses on the past. It asks whether you’ve reasonably addressed your student loan debt(s), by making payments when you could and/or trying to get some kind of administrative relief before asking for the “undue hardship” discharge.

Here we’re looking backwards instead of forward. You can’t change the past. But you may be able to take appropriate steps now so that in the future the past will be different. Then you could more likely meet this condition when filing a Chapter 7 case in the future.

For example, consider a person who has recently started being obligated to pay a student loan and can’t do so. He or she likely needs to first try to defer and/or reduce payments before qualifying for “undue hardship.” Or, consider another person who’s been in repayment mode but has not looked into the administrative possibilities lately. It will likely be necessary to do so to show this effort and then file a Chapter 7 case afterwards.

Timing Choices Can Be Tough

Almost always the timing of a bankruptcy case involves the weighing of different pressures. Does it make sense to delay filing to improve your likelihood of qualifying for “undue hardship”? Or are there other immediate and looming creditor problems that press for an earlier bankruptcy filing?

This is one of the most important benefits of having a bankruptcy lawyer. He or she will enable you to understand the timing options, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. The options will likely be impossible to weigh realistically otherwise.