Discharge of Your Debts: THE Goal of Bankruptcy

Law Office of Robert L. Firth Feb. 17, 2014

Most debts are “discharged”—written off—in bankruptcy. But some may not be. Can we know in advance which will and will not be discharged?

Bankruptcy is about Discharge

The point of bankruptcy is to get you a fresh financial start through the legal discharge of your debts.

Both kinds of consumer bankruptcy—Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” and Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts”—can discharge debts. But most Chapter 13s tend to have other purposes as well, and the discharge usually occurs only 3 to 5 years after the case is filed.

In contrast, most Chapter 7 cases are filed for the single, or at least primary, purpose of discharging debts. Furthermore, in most Chapter 7 cases all debts that the debtors want to discharge are in fact discharged, and this happens within just three months or so after the case is filed.

This blog post focuses on Chapter 7 discharge of debts.

What Debts Get Discharged?

Is there a simple way of knowing what debts will and will not be discharged in a Chapter 7 case?

Yes and no.

We CAN give you a list of the categories of debts that can’t, or might not, be discharged (see below). But some of those categories are not always clear which situations they include and which they don’t. Sometimes whether a debt is discharged or not depends on whether the creditor challenges the discharge of the debt, on how hard it fights for this, and then on how a judge might rule.

Why Can’t It Be Simpler?

Laws in general are often not straightforward, both because life can get complicated and because laws are usually compromises between competing interests. Bankruptcy laws, and those about which debts can be discharged, are the result of a constant political tug of war between creditors and debtors over the last few centuries. There have been lots of compromises, which has resulted in a bunch of hair-splitting laws.

To give some perspective, believe it or not the original bankruptcy laws in England—from which our bankruptcy laws came—did not include ANY discharge of debts. Bankruptcy was originally designed as a procedure to help creditors collect from debtors, not at all as a legal means of protecting debtors from creditors. So there was no perceived need for a discharge of debts—the creditors could just continue chasing their debtors after the bankruptcy procedure was done!

But Let’s Get Practical

The present reality is much more positive, and usually pretty straightforward:

#1: All debts are discharged, EXCEPT those that fit within a specified exception.

#2: There are quite a few of exceptions, and they may sound like they exclude many kinds of debts from being discharged. It may also seem like it’s hard to know if you will be able to discharge all your debts. But it’s almost always much easier than all that. As long as you are thorough and candid with your attorney, he or she will almost always be able to tell you whether you have any debts that will not, or may not, be discharged. Most of the time there are no surprises.

#3: Some types of debts are never discharged. Examples are child or spousal support, criminal fines and fees, and withholding (payroll) taxes.

#4: Some other types of debts are never discharged, but only if the debt at issue fits certain conditions. An example is income tax, with the discharge of a particular tax debt depending on conditions like how long ago those taxes were due and when its tax return was received by the taxing authority.

#5: Some debts are discharged, unless timely challenged by the creditor, followed by a judge’s ruling that the debt met certain conditions involving fraud, misrepresentation, larceny, embezzlement, or intentional injury to person or property.

#6: A few debts can’t be discharged in Chapter 7, BUT can be in Chapter 13. An example is an obligation arising out of a divorce other than support (which can never be discharged).

The Bottom Line

#1: For most people the debts they want to discharge WILL be discharged. #2: An experienced bankruptcy attorney will usually be able to predict whether all of your debts will be discharged. #3: If you have debts that can’t be discharged, Chapter 13 is often a decent way to keep those under control. More about that in my next blog post about Chapter 13.